All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson

Putnam, 1999, 277 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14579-6

Few first novels have been as successful as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which hit the science-fiction scene twenty years ago already. It wasn’t just a dynamite book; it coalesced the then-nascent cyberpunk movement and was later co-opted by the mainstream (from Billy Idol to the Wachowski Brothers) as the new face of futurism. Gibson’s subsequent career couldn’t be anything but a let-down. While avoiding spectacular failure, his latter works have been steadily less ambitious from a strictly-extrapolative standpoint. Subsequent novels, while exceedingly well-written, elicited as many shrugs than bravos.

With All Tomorrow’s Parties, Gibson concludes the “Bridge” trilogy launched by Virtual Light in 1994 and loosely continued in 1996’s Idoru. Characters from both books are back, and so is their universe, with a special place for a Golden Gate Bridge converted in a bohemian paradise. Fans of Gibson’s elliptic storytelling know better than to expect a tidy conclusion. But for all of its flaws, All Tomorrow’s Parties does contain a plot of sorts, and Gibson’s strongest narrative thread since Mona Lisa Overdrive, the resolution of his first trilogy.

(There are in fact many similitudes between both All Tomorrow’s Parties and my memories of Mona Lisa Overdrive, from the Really Important Object carried by the protagonists, to similar “siege” situations to Gibson’s usual shtick of describing important scenes from a drug-afflicted viewpoint. Remember kids: it ain’t plagiarism if you’re stealing from yourself!)

It’s not a particularly strong plot, but at least it gives the impression of forward movement. All is set in motion when Idoru‘s data wizard Laney contacts Virtual Light‘s Ryder to be his hands on the ground at what he thinks will be ground zero for a new revolution in human affairs: San Francisco. Before long, old characters meet again, killers are on the loose, human destiny is subtly altered and the street once again demonstrates new uses for high technology.

It’s all handled competently. I’m not sure if it’s me mellowing since I read Idoru back in 1997, but All Tomorrow’s Parties seemed more accessible, more interesting and more enjoyable than its prequel. Here, we’re back at the guns-and-perils roots of cyberpunk: if all else fails, constant danger to the protagonists can at least sustain basic readability.

But plotting and intrigue are the wrong reasons to read a William Gibson novel. As usual, his writing is a cut above the rest of what’s to be found elsewhere in the genre: He has an uncanny knack at finding the first description, at seamlessly integrating future artifacts in normal situation and in depicting the banal ways new technologies can be used and abused.

Sadly, elements of his usual vision are starting to be tiresome. The whole cyber-grunge aesthetic movement has played itself out since Neuromancer and there’s scarcely anything interesting any more in following the homeless set as they set out to confront the next step in human history. Gibson’s novel have seldom featured normal character with whom to sympathize, and All Tomorrow’s Parties is no exception. It often hovers around deja-vu, or even quasi-parody. If it had featured another author’s name on the cover, I’m not sure I’d be so kind.

Still, it’s a step up from Idoru and a better science-fiction novel than most of what was published in 1999. As millennial SF, it may even be emblematic. But now that we’re in the century described by Gibson, maybe it’s time to start thinking about something else. Gibson may be able to coast forever on Neuromancer‘s reputation… but that’s no reason for him to do so.

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