Book review: Virtual Light

Virtual Light.Virtual Light by William Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I’m continuing the Gibson jag I’m on. This one’s the first in the Bridge trilogy, another set of novels set in a future dystopia. This time, though, he’s more tuned into portraiture than hardware.

What’s interesting is that the tech which is so much a part of the fabric of the earlier Sprawl trilogy is here relegated to the background. The virtual light of the title ends up playing a role similar to that of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the statue in The Maltese Falcon. They’re technical and advanced, yes, but they really exist to provide a motivation for the book’s events. It’s pretty refreshing to see something so fetishistic used for so base a narrative purpose.

There’s definite film noir influence at work through the book, probably fitting for something set in California. I found plenty of throwbacks to Chinatown, for example – land grabs and backroom shonks abound. It’s kind of reassuring, actually – Gibson seems to have moved away from the shiny appeal of tech and its futurist promise to use the future to illustrate that no matter the advances, there’s always going to be shitbags around.

Whether he’s depicting shitbags or “better” people, Gibson’s eye for detail is great. Chevette is another well-drawn character, a kind of refinement (sans razor-nails) of Molly Millions, and the descriptions of her paper-sculpted pedalling along the hills of San Francisco inspire the reader to grab a bike. It feels like aching quads and wind burn. I’m a bit unsatisfied with how she sometimes appears more hapless than she deserves, but overall she’s great. Ditto Rydell, who appears to have wandered in, kinda cluelessly, from a Carl Hiaasen joint. These are well-drawn characters who you like, goddamnit.

What’s creepy about this novel is how prescient it is. Stuff like Google Glass, private police forces, the rise in both militant movements, maker culture and off-grid living might have seemed improbable when Gibson wrote this, in 1993. But they’re all things which are pretty much taken for granted these days. Given the setting is 2006 (and we’re now several years past that date) it’s perhaps unsurprising. The only thing missing is the earthquake – and you know that’s coming someday.

My Goodreads profile is here.


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