When I opened Virtual Light and, within the first five pages, read references to no less than five types of guns and two non-fatal weapons, I groaned. Will this be another Neuromancer? Heavy on weaponry and jargon, light on character development, circuitous on plot, but brimming with a striking narrative style that leaves me conflicted and incapable of rendering an articulate opinion?
Fortunately, Gibson improved in the decade after his seminal piece.
In Virtual Light, Gibson keeps his flair for flowy prose, but adds depth to his characters, reigns in the plot, and tones down the jargony pretense I remember from Neuromancer. Virtual Light is an apt name, as there is little of anything “virtual” or “cyber” going on here. It’s a straightforward tale of two underdogs whose paths cross in near-future California during a crime investigation. The near-future is near enough to be recognizable, so Gibson’s trademarked style of withholding information until it’s absolutely necessary does not hinder the reader’s ability to imagine the setting.
But the best part of the tale is the style, which is colloquial in nature, and juxtaposed with Gibson’s own florid interjections, can be a dangerous combination for most writers, but Gibson hits more than he misses. Rather than sum up the plot with my own synopsis, here is a brief taste, as Gibson describes a stream-of-consciousness conversation between his two antiheroes, Berry Rydell and Chevette Washington:
He told her how he was from Knoxville and about getting into the Academy, about how he’d always watched Cops in Trouble and then when he’d been a cop and gotten in trouble, it had looked like he was going to be on the show. How they’d brought him out to Los Angeles because they didn’t want Adult Survivors of Satanism stealing their momentum, but then the Pooky Bear murders had come along and they’d sort of lost interest, and he’d had to get on with IntenSecure and drive Gunhead. He told her about Sublett and living with Keven Tarkovsky in the house in Mar Vista, and sort of skipped over the Republic of Desire and the night he’d driven Gunhead into the Schonbrunn’s place in Benedict Canyon. About how Hernandez had come over, just the other morning but it seemed like years, to tell him he could come up here and drive for this Mr. Warbaby. Then she wanted to know what it was that skip tracers did, so he explained what it was they were supposed to do, and what it was he figured they probably did do, and she said they sounded like bad news (p. 245).
That picaresque character style, paired with Gibson’s own picturesque narrative style (“The air beyond, the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence.” [p. 1]) brings to Virtual Light a dimension of realism that I rarely get to enjoy in science fiction. As contrary as the two styles appear to be, they complement one another by giving credibility to the characters and structure to the world.
The story is simple. Chevette, a punky bicycle messenger, steals a pair of expensive virtual glasses from some creep’s pocket, and Rydell becomes the hired driver for the detective investigating the crime and subsequent murder of said creep. The two protagonists’ storylines corkscrew around each other, until their actions collide in the latter half of the book, and they realize they are both in deep shit. Beneath the primary plot, Gibson spins a modern day myth about an AIDS vaccination messiah.
And the dialogue is delicious, with minimal words, and maximum tone and characterization:
“How did you feel?” Yamazaki said.
Skinner blinked. “Feel?”
“What did you do then?”
“I saw the city” (p. 105).
This. This is dialogue done right.
But the humor in this novel steals the show, dry as unwashed omelet pan, as sampled above in the references to the Cops in Trouble TV show, Adult Survivors of Satanism, and the Pooky Bear murders, all of which parody the media saturated world in which we currently live. Gibson seems to excel at forecasting the trends that will eventually inundate and encapsulate our future, from his 1984 prophecies of “jacking in” and this 1994 prediction of our reality TV swamped popular culture. Separated at Birth, another oft-referenced TV show, uses a celebrity lookalike software to help the viewing audience remember the faces of missing persons “because it tapped into the part of the brain that kept track of celebrities. Rydell had imagined that as some kind of movie-star lobe. Did people really have those? Maybe Sublett had a great big one” (p. 94).
This is a story where beauty and banality collide. The beauty is in Gibson’s narration, while his lowlife characters maintain their naïve charisma and unsophisticated worldview, as demonstrated by their nonlinear dialogue and scattered thoughts. Near-future California is ugly, pocked with obnoxious architectural phenomena, but described in a way that adorns the greasy, superficial landscape with plausibility.
But he doesn’t always get it right. At times, the dialogue stumbles into cliché, particularly when dealing with non-white characters for whom Gibson regularly drops suffixes due to an exaggerated dialect. In addition, although the landscape of Virtual Light is far less clumsy than the landscape (spacescape? cyberscape?) of Neuromancer, Gibson still fails at conveying the more complex areas of his futuristic San Francisco, particularly the bridge which becomes a haphazard housing project for lefties and loonies. (Although, this may really be due to the limited imagination of this reader.)
Bottom line: I devoured this book, and my pulse still quickens when I think about it. It contains the ideal novel bait to trap a reader like me: a simple story with florid descriptions, short wisps of loaded dialogue, and dry, dry wit. And some funky scifi inventions that support the plot without overwhelming it.
Like these glasses that see things that aren’t really there. And jellyfish-like birth control.
This is a must read.