Virtual Light is, in many ways, the first really singular work of William Gibson, having broken with the romantic futurist stylings of his earlier novels while introducing recognizably modern weirdnesses into his fiction. Instead of the vast cityscapes of Neuromancer, we have a slum built atop an unstable Bay Bridge. We have out-of-work rentacops and bicycle messengers instead of hackers and street mercenaries. Gibson has stated that his move away from the high-tech “cyberpunk” motifs of his earlier novels was necessary in order to examine the pervasive weirdness already happening outside his window. Virtual Light, as such, is set in a then-slightly-in-the-future California, which has bifurcated into two very different states. The glimpses we have of America reveal a society fracturing into creative weirdnesses: a religious cult that studies television, immigrant homicide detectives hired to counter their own national mafias, high-end retail shops that sell antique Southern racist memorabilia to wealthy South Central minorities with a sense of irony. The dystopia of the novel is one of class and economics – the middle class has liquified and the street has since found its own use for an abandoned Bay Bridge as a shantytown for the city’s homeless. Virtual Light contains the familiar downtrodden bottom-class on the edge of dystopia but, instead of the high-tech nightlands of Neuromancer, the residents of The Bridge operate coffee shops and booksellers. They recycle water and trade goods and services. They get by, and there’s a sense – for once, amidst all of fiction’s dystopic predictions – that maybe this is not such a bad thing.
The Bridge is a patchwork of improvisation. It’s organic and unplanned, teeming with the warmth of human adaptation. Every addition and modification of the structure resounds with its creators’ personalities. It contrasts the rigid, grid-like world of San Francisco’s commercial sector. The plot of the novel concerns plans for a city-wide transformation into the sort of towering, sterile corporate arcology typical to something from Neuromancer. Gibson’s first three novels, the Sprawl trilogy, depicted enormous urbanized environments as large beyond reason, defined by their anonymous massiveness, but it does not seem to comment as to whether or not this is necessarily bad for the human condition (though we can infer, on our own, the significance of the Sprawl’s obsession with wealth, its teeming criminal underground, the high human price of technology). Yet in Virtual Light, Gibson clearly has affection for the underclass resisting that kind of assimilation and urbanization. The Bridge is the only community in the novel truly connected with itself, a self-sustained ecosystem in which services are traded and in which a police force does not exist. The horror of the novel’s re-development plan is that the new city, which will “just grow” via nanotechnology, is completely planned and compartmentalized, unfeeling and indifferent. It is data and corporate commerce and not a human city at all.
William Gibson has stated that Virtual Light is “an attempt at literary naturalism” and that the two protagonists are “more like most people than most people are like those console cowboys and razor girls in Neuromancer”. Appropriately, both Chevette and Rydell spend the novel worrying about their jobs. Chevette is a bicycle messenger who doesn’t live well, but the opportunity of the job itself is enough. Rydell has gone through stints as a police officer and with private security but, not being good at anything in particular, is now considering a position in retail. Tellingly, this is in contrast to Neuromancer‘s cyber-criminals and high-tech mercenaries. In a novel concerned with the organic warmth of human habitation, the characters here are sympathetic non-cartoons, and we feel through them the alien-ness of these information-dense, wealth-saturated and abstract ideals of high corporate commerce, worried as they are with getting by. They cannot afford ideology. The sentiment, here, is that actual human beings are too busy with day-to-day life to worry about artificial intelligences and information systems so prevalent to Gibson’s science fiction works.
Personally, I’ve been living on the move for the past year. I have no set residence, no long-term employment. Nothing is certain and, in a way, it’s liberating; I can discard all the superfluous economic dressing of the suburban past. But the romance of backpacking can never completely remove any worries I have about what will happen when I have to go back. What will happen when I have no choice but to return to a society that is rapidly destabilizing? I recently found Virtual Light to be newly relevant (I had always preferred the stylish Idoru), centered as it is on The Bridge as a self-sustaining near-utopia bereft of ideals but instead a place of practical, communal beauty. I think that The Bridge approaches the thematic core of Gibson’s work, which are the surprising intersections between ideal and reality. The Bridge is a place “around [which] had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal, to not set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic.” It’s fictional ancestor, after all, is the antique space station inhabited by Rastafarians, refitted with hydroponics and stereo speakers in Neuromancer. Gibson is something of a post-modern author because all of his works address the dissonance between an ideal as something abstract and distant, and reality, which appropriates meaning for functional practicality and, in doing so, creates new meanings. As much as he hates the “cyberpunk” label, the “-punk” suffix is appropriate, since his works actively resist the urbanization or plasticization of human experience and the gentrification of beautiful, human spontaneity. Science fiction may have been the most efficient vehicle for exploring these strange dichotomies, but there remains an underlying human tenderness in Gibson’s novels as they explore the unexpected ways that cultures develop and adapt around the material intrusions of modern life. “San Francisco has about much sense of where it wants to go, of where it should go, as you do. Which is to say, very little,” Virtual Light’s antagonist states; but this is fine. The idea of life is to end up in unexpected places.