PRINT December 1993


Virtual Light

Virtual Light, by William Gibson. New York: Bantam Books. 325 pp. $22.95.

As Bertolt Brecht once pointed out, Hell looks suspiciously like Heaven, and both look like Los Angeles. This is a maxim worth remembering as we are sucked screaming into the dark vortex of the 21st century.

Only a few years ago, of course, pundits were romantically hallucinating the “end of history” as crowds danced on the ruins of the Berlin Wall. McDonalds, not the Internationale, seemed to be uniting the human race. Since then, however, utopian capitalism has sunk up to its metaphysical axles, from Sarajevo to South Central L.A., in historical shit of its own making.

As a result, our perceptions of the future now wrench back and forth between two, seemingly polar visions. On the one hand, techno-hucksters seduce us with hyperboles about data superhighways, global networks, expert systems, and virtual realities. They assure us that we are on the threshold of an Information Millennium that will guarantee even the humblest optically-wired hut access to an infinite “digital sea” of imagineered pleasures.

On the other hand, we are confronted daily with the four horsemen of an incipient global apocalypse. The first is called Unemployment, as third world megacities (which now plausibly include Los Angeles and Moscow as well as Jakarta and Mexico D.F.) overflow with bitter postindustrial underclasses, nearly half a billion strong, who have become redundant, as either consumers or producers, to the world market. The second is Plague, as the world AIDS epidemic reveals biological pathways open for the invasion of other nightmare ailments, from penicillin-resistant TB to Ebola fever. The third is Tribalism, as multiethnic states, undermined by multinational capital, shatter into deadly shards of ethnic and religious hatred. The fourth horseman, of course, is Ecocide, as the exploitation of nature is accelerated to keep pace with falling terms of trade and rising international debt.

Virtual Light, William Gibson’s new novel, is the presentiment of a world—little more than a decade hence—in which Millennium and Apocalypse have evolved into a single system, like binary stars circling a common axis. Echoing Brecht, moreover, Gibson has had the wit to locate his heaven-as-hell in the Land of Sunshine, now sensibly split into the two states of SoCal and NoCal.

Console cowboys and Mondo 2000 fans may despair the absence of a full-fledged parallel cyberuniverse in Virtual Reality, but Gibson is reconnoitering, with ingenuity and humor, a future no farther away than Madonna’s 50th birthday. (At any event, the opening section of Neuromancer, with its introduction of cyberspace, is the kind of revelation—of a possible but previously unimagined future—that occurs perhaps once a generation. Charles Babbage’s and Ada Lovelace’s anticipation of a programmable computer in the 1820s, Friedrich Engels’ 1880s prophecy of a mechanized world war, and H. G. Wells’ prevision of the atomic bomb in 1900 are comparable examples.) Gibson’s near future is governed by an eerie synergy between corporate technology and world disorder. Predictable disasters (mega-earthquakes in Tokyo and San Francisco) have accelerated the emergence of nanotechnology: trillions of tiny, hardworking buckyballs that, like the crazed brooms in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Fantasia, produce surplus value for their masters without need of workers.

Similarly, thanks to a martyred male prostitute named J. D. Shapely (the new Christ), an unscrupulous Brazilian biotech conglomerate has found a vaccine for AIDS, but unknown hantoviruses are decimating the third world anyway. Meanwhile, back in deindustrialized California, a sinister leviathan, DatAmerica (which I suspect is the postmillennial version of either the phone company or Disney), has hatched a vast conspiracy to tear down and rebuild, nanomechanically, the city of San Francisco.

In Gibson’s highly amusing plot, Chinatown intersects The Maltese Falcon in the form of a murderously coveted black object: in this case not a bird but a purloined pair of black sunglasses that are actually “virtual light” gear for reading DatAmerica’s secret blueprint. Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are reincarnated as the pompous and obese Lucius Warbaby and his hacker-lackey Freddie (who wears his hair sculpted in a tell-tale fez). Insidiously, they launch the novel’s hero, excop and country bumpkin Berry Rydell (sure to be played by Kevin Costner in the movie version), in hot pursuit of the heroine, Chevette Washington, a cute, spiked-hair bike messenger who has unwittingly stolen the glasses from a DatAmerica courier.

Cameo roles are played by a pair of corrupt Russian-immigrant San Francisco cops (Svobodov and Orlovsky), a psycho gunman with spectacular gold teeth, and the Little Old Lady from Pasadena, who turns out to be another DatAmerica agent. The long-dead philosopher-king Jean Baudrillard even reappears as the idiot sociologist Yamazaki, looking for rare “Thomassons” (useless Americanisms) and other “signs of closure” in the ruins of Modernism.

Although the novel begins menacingly enough (as the courier looks out his Mexico City hotel window, through falling fecal snow, at a helicopter gunship hovering “like a hunting wasp” over the colonias), the effect is disarmed by subsequent mirth. If the third world languishes in interminable holocaust, Berry and Chevette inhabit a better sort of dystopia.

To be sure, the American middle class is long extinct, and the superrich decorate their fortified pleasure-domes with “Nightmare Folk Art—Southern Gothic” or “Aggressive Retro Seventies,” while the likes of Berry and Chevette, downwardly mobile members of the service proletariat, can only dream of a weekend in a cheap motel or a visit to a VR theme-park. But Gibson’s twin Californias have not yet arrived at Bladerunner or, for that matter, the Iron Heel. Corporate control is mined with contradictions, at precisely the point that the foolish Yamazaki characterizes as the “archaic intersection of information and geography.” To protect its private ownership of the Information Millennium, for example, ultracapitalism must still resort to old-fashioned hard-copy media (bike messengers like Chevette) and legal subterfuges (Costa Rica has become the Switzerland of illicit data). Moreover, piratical hackers, like the “Republic of Desire” (who ultimately provide the VR hallucination that rescues Berry and Chevette from the clutches of DatAmerica), are able blatantly to hijack private data cargoes on the digital seas.

And despite the apparently panoptical surveillance represented by the LAPD’s geosynchronous “Death Star,” the tribal fragmentation of political geography, together with the very excessiveness of corporate autonomy, has weakened the state. Private security cannot fill all the resulting gaps, and residual topography has become available for other purposes. Power, in a word, leaks space.

This is a fascinating argument, and Gibson makes it explicit in his stunning image of the Bridge. Following San Francisco’s “Little Grande” earthquake, the damaged Bay Bridge is abandoned in favor of a new auto tunnel dug by German nanorobots. In an uprising undoubtedly stirred by the legend of Peoples Park, the derelict Bridge is taken over by a rainbow coalition of the homeless, including the remains of the Bay Area’s skilled working class as well as its bohemians and street people. Ignored by the authorities, who accept it as an ad hoc poorhouse, the Bridge grows—by bricolage, scavenging, and manic communal energy—into a Rabelaisian sky-city: a barrio suspended from girders, illuminated by Christmas tree lights and neon. Captained by the crusty old Wobbly Skinner and powered by salvaged dead tech, it is an anarchist ark (or, in Yamazaki’s terms, “the ultimate Thomasson”).

The Bridge’s social relations, like its architecture, are also entirely jury-rigged and free-spirited, down to the improvised father-daughter relationship—gruff but affectionate—that Skinner and Chevette contrive. Within the larger ecology of tolerance and mutual survival there are networks of every affinity, including some twilight zones like Treasure Island where feral Mansonoids roam. In the context of the current fad for “complexity theory,” the Bridge is a brilliant example of “a self-organized system, optimizing itself at the edge of chaos.” At any event, it is such a compelling fantasy that it hegemonizes the novel, overshadowing both the energetic plot and the noirish postcards from L.A. (The Bridge’s architectural and social antipode—the immense green-copper “teat” of Century City II—is a halfhearted image.)

In the end, Virtual Light shares much of the generous spirit and slapstick humor of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990). The Bridge is recognizably Vineland’s intergenerational counterculture regrouped against the silicon fascism of the year 2005. Chevette is not unlike Prairie Wheeler, Pynchon’s daughter of the Revolution, while Skinner could be a later version of her hippie dad, good ole Zoyd Wheeler.

From similar perches on the seacoast of Ectopia (respectively the Redwoods and British Columbia), Pynchon and Gibson have written comic utopian novels that unabashedly defend the dream of the Commune. Given the cargo cults built around their names, these expressions of sentimentality and radical hope are also acts of considerable personal modesty. For Gibson, in particular, Virtual Light is a revealing move. No longer just the Seer of Cyberpunk, he may be becoming the Jack London of the wild youth of the ’90s.