William Gibson’s Sprawl, as seminal a trilogy of books if ever there were in modern sci-fi, is a tough act to follow, let alone by the man who wrote the books. But if the series can be considered raw steel, then the follow up has to be considered the bare blade. Honing in on the present, Gibson shows no shortage of the futurological imagination and wordsmithing that made him famous. 1993’s Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge series, is every bit as genius.
Virtual Light, and the Bridge series as a whole, have a lot in common with the Sprawl series. Gibson continues to paint vignettes of the future and examine the intersection of technology and culture, society, religion, and politics. And the writing, as always, is kept drum tight. But the Bridge series is also a departure. Set merely years in the future rather than decades, the world presented in Virtual Light will feel extremely familiar to readers of today. The technology Gibson features is more subtle and connected to contemporary development—the beginnings of the cyberworld presented in Neuromancer, for example, cell phones, communications infrastructure, lo-res holograms, data manipulation, and others. There is a small contingent of people who feel nothing compares to Neuromancer. Ignore them. Gibson, though more subtle this time around, keeps the momentum going.
At heart a thriller colored detective noir, Virtual Light is the story of two people: Berry Rydell and Chevette Washington. Chevette is a bicycle messenger proj-ing the pavement of post-quake San Francisco. The Bay Bridge now an unused entity, a whole sub-society of the poor and under-privileged have attached wood, corrugated metal, and cardboard domiciles onto the massive steel structure. Chevette calls the top of one of the massive pylons home. Running into a jerk delivering a message one evening, Chevette makes a split second decision that entirely alters the course of her life. Rydell is an ex-cop moved to Southern California after being expelled from the Tennessee police force for a scene not entirely his fault. Employed by a security agency, he works the beat of gated communities with his hyper-allergenic partner, Sublett. Responding to a call one night, the drama that unfolds will send him indirectly careening into San Francisco, crooked police, international corporations, and the mafia.
Gibson’s style perfectly suited for the noir genre, perhaps thriller is too strong a word; the pacing is too relaxed. But action, mystery, and drama seem far less suitable descriptors. Truly a sci-fi poet, half the joy of reading Gibson is the verbiage. Able to say more in three sentences than the average writer can in three paragraphs, the clipped, edged, and definitive style of the Sprawl is even further refined in Virtual Light. Forever with an eye to materials, details, and mood, the book is written in a paucity of words yet possesses a powerful impact. A master conjurer of images, a few deft lines and a whole picture is painted. What more could such a reader ask for than both classic and unique?
From a thematic point of view, Virtual Light was perhaps the most overt of Gibson’s oeuvre at the time it was written. Leaving little doubt as to his aims, fundamentalist religions, the rudiments of cyberspace, economics’ nexus with society, and the influence of entertainment are all presented in one form or another. The climax of the story, while perhaps confusing for some given the oblique commentary, is nevertheless a punch square in the nose of media sensationalism and its effects on modern humanity.
Another element examined, as might be hinted at in the symbolism of the bridge filled with the lower reaches of society, is the distance between the haves and have-nots of technology in a capitalist system. The middle class wiped out by ongoing political battles in the aftermath of the Little Big One quake which destroyed California and turned it into two states, Chevette and Rydell’s existences are not to be envied. Coming from broken homes to begin with, it’s far easier for them to get left behind than succeed.
In the end, Virtual Light shows William Gibson was not just a one-hit wonder with the Sprawl series. The first book in the Bridge series introduces readers to ideas and themes that will continue to play out in the next two books, as well as some of the recurring characters. Style perfectly complementing the noir/thriller story, the novel is a wonder to read for the use of language alone. Rich, deft descriptions are used to characterize the people and places of futuristic California—a California all too easily visualized given the current state of affairs. Gibson is back.