Review of All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson

G. P. Putnam's Sons 1999 288 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford

"Rydell was midway back, through that lower-level crunch, when his sunglasses rang." People wearing ringing eyeglasses that interface with the internet, we know we can only be in one place: Gibsonland. In All Tomorrow's Parties , William Gibson has completed his second trilogy, begun with Virtual Light and Idoru . Unfortunately, ATP is Gibson's most disappointing effort to date, showing the frayed edges of his noir science fiction, better known as cyberpunk.

They're all back from the previous two books, Chevette, Laney, Rydell, Yamazaki, and, of course, Rei Toei, the Idoru (a digitally existing "entertainment idol"). And they all eventually find themselves chasing each other around San Francisco's Bay Bridge, a post-earthquake environment for "hardened survivors used to living on their own in a community of similar people." But there isn't much for any of them to do except wait around for what Laney promises to be a "nodal moment," presumably a millennial transformation in how we will exist.

"Laney is a sport, a mutant, the accidental product of covert clinical trials of a drug that induced something oddly akin to psychic abilities in a small percentage of test subjects. But Laney isn't psychic in any nonrational sense; rather he is able, through the organic changes wrought long ago by 5-SB, this drug, to somehow perceive change emerging from vast flows of data." The problem is, the reader isn't really clear on what this monumental change is, or when it occurs.

In any event, Gibson's thinly plotted books are largely about the cultivation of a certain oblique stylishness, both in language and in the lives of the characters. What plots there are have to be assiduously extracted, like a small, particularly elusive skein of data from the Internet. In ATP, the story concerns a device capable of digitally replicating physical objects at a distance, and those who will try to control it. This device heralds the change Laney perceives, which is, I think, a convergence between the material and the digital, in which digital creatures can become human and vice versa.

Along the way, Gibson has time for some fun observations, such as why computers are all so blandly colored. Among the theories, "one is that [making them beige] was to help people in the workplace be more comfortable with radically new technologies that would eventually result in the mutation or extinction of the workplace. Hence the almost universal choice, by the manufacturers, of a shade of plastic most often encountered in downscale condoms."

Gibson also sees the impact of digital storage technology on history: "History in the older sense was an historical concept. History in the older sense was narrative, stories we told ourselves about where we've come from and what it had been like, and those narratives were revised by each new generation, and indeed always had been. History was plastic, was a matter of interpretation. The digital had not so much changed that as made it too obvious to ignore. History was stored data, subject to manipulation and interpretation."

Like Candidate Gore's and his prescient invention of the Internet, Gibson will forever be known as the inventor of the term "cyberspace," as well as its literary version 1.0, Neuromancer . Along with Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling, he continues to provide the imaginative groundwork for the technological deployment of this new space in which we and our children will find ourselves interacting, an area nominally visual, but more encompassingly digital, a digital compaction and conflation of the telephone, television, and computer, a place with no there there, but there nevertheless.

In ATP, however, we find far too much of the 13-year-old-boy fascination with "serious ordinance" and knife-wielding men who seem to have stepped out of a perilously thin episode of Kung Fu .

As an enormously imaginative theorist of the future, Gibson deserves our respect and attention. We should skip his latest effort, though, perhaps just take some 5-SB, crawl into an empty cardboard box, and wait.