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Gibson's sci-fi critiques contemporary culture

Well-known to science fiction fans, William Gibson's name has become familiar to a more general readership. Maybe they remember his groundbreaking trilogy written in the early '90s. Maybe they remember him for the term "cyberspace," which Gibson coined in his first novel, "Neuromancer." Then again, maybe they remember he wrote the short story "Johnny Mnemonic," which spawned a shockingly atrocious film version of the tale.

But few writers have had a greater impact on science fiction - and popular fiction in general - than Gibson. Mixing a hard-boiled prose style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler detective novels with highly advanced, futuristic settings, Gibson found a winning recipe. And in "All Tomorrow's Parties," the conclusion of his second loosely associated trilogy, Gibson takes his work one step further, painting a vivid picture of a soulless postmodern landscape that both destroys and lampoons the building blocks of contemporary culture.

Though the novel is set well after the turn of the century, it plays upon the anxieties surrounding the coming millennium. The main character, a drug-enhanced human data receptacle and occasional prophet named Colin Laney, fears what he calls a "nodal event" that will cause the end of the world. Although Laney is unable to comprehend exactly what will happen, he knows enough to put a plan into action. To work out the details, he hires Berry Rydell, the intelligent yet comically inept hero of Gibson's previous work, "Virtual Light." From here, however, the action splits off.

In some vignettes, Gibson follows Chevette Washington, the female lead from "Virtual Light," as she flees from her abusive boyfriend. In others, the handyman and antique salesman Fontaine takes center stage. Meanwhile, an unnamed, well-dressed man stalks the scene, perforating various minor characters with a large black knife. Juggling these various plot lines simultaneously is an ambitious task, but Gibson succeeds, slowly drawing everything together.

This is not to say, however, that "All Tomorrow's Parties" is without flaws. Gibson will never be the most poetic of writers, and on occasion he stumbles through his attempts at figurative language with the clumsiness of a student in an introductory fiction writing class:

"Rydell had started to see that as emblematic of broader things, how he was like those rocks, in his passage through the world, and how the polymer was like life, sealing over behind him, never leaving any trace at all that he'd been there."

Gibson also tends to lapse into cliched characterizations. He introduces a developmentally hindered boy named Silencio who appears to be completely withdrawn but (surprise!) shows an inexplicable ability to hack into files and records encrypted by the government.

Yet the larger setting Gibson presents overcomes these minor shortcomings. A central tenet of science fiction is speculation on the what-if notion of The Future, and what it holds for our modern society. But Gibson avoids lengthy descriptions and expositions, along with the potential to bludgeon the reader with preachy messages about the follies and foibles of contemporary society - traps that many a fine sci-fi writer has fallen into.

Instead, Gibson presents his imagined universe in snapshots, hinting at the changes that have taken place while leaving the actual sequence of events ambiguous. The result is a vivid depiction of the downfall of American society. In the process, many of the important icons or notions of current society are eradicated.

Much of the novel's action occurs on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which has been transformed from a major thoroughfare to a large shantytown that remains virtually autonomous from the authorities. Yet with the alteration of one of the prominent physical landmarks of America, Gibson's process of deconstruction is only getting started.

Detroit, the geographical symbol of American capitalism and enterprise, is a ghost town. Wildlife has overrun the former Motor City, which is now the setting of nature documentaries, not the bastion of the automobile industry. A former corporate executive resides in a cardboard box in a subway tunnel, but alters his appearance to maintain the illusion of a three-piece suit, clinging desperately to the notion of better times.

In the book, today's computer technology becomes the stuff of nostalgia, sold by a sumo wrestler on the bridge for raw parts and ridiculed for the fact all hardware is colored "that institutional shade of beige." And religion is not just an afterthought, but an irritant. When Rydell checks into a bed-and-breakfast, the landlady questions him about a variety of vices including smoking (illegal in this society), drug abuse and violence before finally asking, "Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" "No, I haven't," Rydell replies, to the landlady's intense relief.

Such broad statements about the reconfiguration of human identity elevate "All Tomorrow's Parties" above Gibson's previous work. And those elements of society that are not eradicated become exaggerated to ridiculous proportions.

In Gibson's world, the media is omniscient to an absurd degree. Chevette's companion Tessa, an aspiring filmmaker, goes everywhere with a floating video camera referred to affectionately as "God's Little Toy." Video screens in the ubiquitous Lucky Dragon convenience stores show live feeds from other locations, creating a real-time pseudo-documentary as well as fodder for juvenile exhibitionists. And Rydell's lifelong aspiration is to be a featured player on the reality-based show "Cops in Trouble."

The media becomes so powerful that it begins to create its own celebrities, most notably in Rei Toei. The most famous and desired star of the time, Rei is nothing more than a computerized creation. "She's the real deal," Tessa says, "hundred-percent unreal."

While the individual details in Gibson's world are amusing, the overall picture is a disturbing one. All the necessities of life can be found through the Internet, which has grown to engulf every form of communication. Culture is noticeably absent: Only once does music make an appearance, in the form of a band with the unfortunate title of Buell Creedmore and his Lower Companions. The society has advanced technologically, but lacks a soul. This leads many of the characters to seek methods of escape, whether trying to make it into TV like Rydell, migrating from place to place like Chevette or becoming a drug addict like Creedmore, who is hooked on both alcohol and a mysterious, virulent narcotic known only as dancer.

For all the time Laney, Rydell and the rest spend trying to discover the nature of the "nodal event" that will change the world as they know it, they miss out on the broader message that the world has already changed, and that those alterations are irrevocable. Will the world be saved? Will Gibson's beloved yet flawed characters survive to appear in another bestseller? Does it even matter? Not really.

In "All Tomorrow's Parties," Gibson elevates his prose to incorporate social commentary and critique along with his compelling narrative style. While this makes it his best novel yet, it also raises the bar, forcing Gibson to produce similar brilliance the next time out. If he succeeds, all readers, not just science fiction fans, should take note.


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