Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review of All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson

All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson’s 1999 conclusion to the Bridge trilogy, plays out more lines into the river of Virtual Light and Idoru, then reels them in for a conclusion that, while abrupt, underscores the sociological, technological, and cultural agenda the author has been working toward.  What I’m about to write will probably get me shot, but this concluding volume cements the Bridge trilogy as being superior to the Sprawl series.  But before I get into the details of that discussion, a few particulars about the book.

Where Virtual Light and Idoru each featured two main characters with a handful of quickly but effectively drawn background roles, All Tomorrow’s Parties bears more in common with Mona Lisa OverdriveSeveral characters given equal time in the spotlight, the chapters of the novel are a turnstile of viewpoints, from characters already introduced to those new to the series.  Living in a corrugated box in a Tokyo train station with an aged painter of miniatures as his “doorman”, Laney opens the novel trying to come to terms with the stalker effect of the 5-SB trials he participated in as a youth.  Drowning himself in data in the stuffy box, his life slips away as he draws closer to the mother of all nodal points.  Rydell, now working security for the chain of convenience stores Lucky Dragon, quits his job one day when an offer he can’t refuse comes down the pipe.  Chevette, having ended her relationship with Rydell years prior, is having trouble with her current boyfriend.  Named Carson, his abusive nature has Chevette on the run to a place she remembers as home: the bridge.  Fontaine (the erstwhile lift repairman from Virtual Light) spends his days on the quake rattled structure guarding over his antique watch shop until a all-too-quiet young man knocks on his door one morning.  

And others are featured.  Maryalice is back in California with a new boyfriend, the boozed up singer Creedmore.  William Harwood, the object of Laney’s stalker obsession, is finally given page time, his gang of goons hovering on the margins interfering with affairs in dark, dangerous ways.  In Tokyo, Yamazaki still frets and scurries around the streets running errands for Lo/Rez, while the existence of Rei Toei, the AI star, remains as mysterious as ever.  All of these stories and others converge on the bridge—in reality as much as virtually—for a finale that spells major change to the community and world at large.

Though only a living, breathing entity in an abstract sense, the Bay Bridge also returns as a “character” in All Tomorrow’s Parties.  With its over- rather than underworld of bars, restaurants, shops, clubs, and “patchwork superstructure” of residences clinging to the skeleton of the earthquake damaged bridge, Gibson brings the counter-culture labyrinth to fuller life than in Virtual Light.  A more fleshed out version of the bridge from “Johnny Mnemonic”, readers get a strong feel for the life of the underprivileged, the hangers-on, the eccentric, and the futuristically unique who call the structure home.  

If Virtual Light can be considered the best written Bridge book from a style point of view and Idoru the most engaging plot-wise, then All Tomorrow’s Parties is the most thematically rich.   The writing the laxest of the trilogy and the individual stories too numerous to be developed in the same detail as the first two volumes, the novel consolidates the major ideas at play in affective and effective fashion.  Emergent technology, commercial exploitation of that tech, the strange devotion to specific consumer goods, and nanotech are the major themes.  In Mona Lisa Overdrive fashion, Gibson further explores social awareness (broken homes, self-destructing relationships, and cultural materialism), as well as devoting more attention to counter-culture values, particularly that which has evolved on the Bridge given its unique economic and social state.  

While many would consider the Sprawl series Gibson’s landmark achievement, the books were a stepping out.  Individual stories only loosely connected by time, place, and concept, the Bridge trilogy, by contrast, is more consistent throughout, thematically better linked, features plot threads more tightly interwoven, and perhaps most importantly, is obviously a three part product.  Though its stories also work independently, the movement between nevertheless seems more linear than lateral.  I recognize and fully appreciate the genius of the Sprawl series, I just think the Bridge books complement each other better from a holistic point of view.

In the end, All Tomorrow’s Parties is the sound conclusion to Gibson’s Bridge trilogy.  Drawing together and creating new storylines to illustrate the underlying concepts, a convergence occurs on the Bay Bridge that spells immense changes for not only its inhabitants, but the people of Earth.  Gibson’s style more relaxed and themes more social in nature, those who enjoyed the versatility of Mona Lisa Overdrive will enjoy ATP.  While the prophetic nature of the technology may be more subtle than Neuromancer et al, the author’s precise touch remains in place, the details sublime.  Those who have enjoyed the series thus far, will not be disappointed.

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