Virtual Light [Viking Press, 1994]
By William Gibson
By Rachel Kahn
I’m that reader who, upon starting a gripping novel, can hardly maintain a conversation in the real world on any topic but said book, until I’ve finished it. It’s the perfect hibernation activity, because I don’t hear the hail hitting the window, or notice that the pizza delivery man is an hour late due to the weather. That’s why winter is my catch-up season: I can put a dent in my reading list.
While in San Diego (I think I was at Ocean Beach?) last fall, I bought myself a fanned-out paperback of Virtual Light by William Gibson. [Aside: In a related unfortunate turn of events, I also bought All Tomorrow's Parties, and not having internet access to clarify for myself, and with neither book stating anything on the subject, read that one first, unaware that it was the third in the Bridge trilogy that Virtual Light begins, and, I have to say, the weakest link.]
Virtual Light tells the stories of Berry Rydell, ex-cop, and Chevette Washington, bike courier, when her petty theft of a pair of dark glasses and his sketchy new employers bring them to the centre of a power struggle over the future shape of San Francisco. The city, at this point in Gibson’s near future, is split in two by a collapsed Golden Gate Bridge; on the bridge is a vibrant, autonomous community of squatters, and that community becomes a character in its own right. If it’s starting to sound like a pulp paperback, that’s because it is. Gibson’s an expert at throwing together things that are awesome, badass, and thought-provoking. Though this book isn’t heavy on the thought-provoking, it’s there if you want it.
Virtual Light was an incredibly fun read, and I was completely immersed in the world of the bridge. The romanticism of a bike-courier-loft-nesting-bar-hopping lifestyle did a number on my brain. Even now, I find myself pondering what it would take to get my poor bike up and running for spring. (Let it be known I am a terrible biker.) I’m saddened by the fact that Gibson’s bridge is not a real place, and that San Francisco will never have anything like his pseudo-utopic shantytown, no matter how long I wait to visit.
Gibson’s books always impart upon me an incredible sense of place. Reading this novel shortly after riding the train from San Diego to Seattle gave me a wealth of personal images of California to flesh out Gibson’s evocative but concise descriptions. There’s a kind of pathos to California, a sense of loss or rubbed-off glamour that pervades most of the contemporary fiction I’ve read about it (thanks, Coupland); and Gibson uses it consciously to add a sheen of romance. It stayed with me in the form of visual vignettes: the road at night where Berry sees the holographic girl; the foggy ocean view from the top of Skinner’s place on the bridge; the dark, chaotic, glowing hotel room where Chevette steals the glasses; the crowded body mod shop where she meets Sammy Sal. And of course, the bridge. The bridge feels to me like an infusion of a non-North American manifestation of shantytowns and markets into the foggy, crowded, bohemian world that I imagine San Francisco to be.
Gibson does write a lot of throwaway villains, though — while I was happy to keep things mysterious for most of the book, the ending would have made more sense if I’d had a better understanding of the power structures of the upper-class bad guys: instead, like Berry and Chevette, I was mostly mystified at how it all worked out. Key figures that required more information: Chevette’s ex-boyfriend and the hacker crew; Warbaby’s secretive employers and their plans; and of course the glasses — their contents, their makers, anything.
The narrative format is one of the subtlest and smartest things Gibson does. He jumps from past to present, anecdote to flashback to dreamy memory, person to person to person’s point of view, without a single jarring transition. Gibson’s themes continue to cast technology as a misused tool of the upper class, and the lower class as a group of people with an almost instinctual ability to warp it to their needs when given the opportunity. But these themes work for and against him. On one hand, it is at once sensible and awesome to have an underground hacker secret society. On other hand, Berry’s understanding of the netherworld of techno-manipulators is pretty advanced for a character who has been unable to keep a job for the entire book.
In summary, this is a fun book. It’s a fairy tale, where the underdogs win out once again, through luck, a good eye for the right button to push, and, on the bridge, mob rule. It’s a sci-fi novel — there’s exciting technology and significant social change between reality and Gibson’s world, but the focus isn’t really on the toys as it is on the characters and their situations. It’s a damn fun read, is my point, and it’ll make you want to move to San Francisco and join the squatters.