William Gibson kicked off his Bridge Trilogy with this 1993 book, set in the future year of… 2005!
Title: Virtual Light
Original Publication Date: 1993
A bicycle courier impulsively crashes a party and steals a pair of sunglasses from a drunken boor, setting off a chain of events that involves rent-a-cops, hackers, gangsters, and the people who live on the ruins of the Bay Bridge, “illuminated by Christmas bulbs, by recycled neon, by torchlight” (69).
1. The party Chevette crashes seems entirely believable, and Gibson sets the stage for everything that follows.
2. The middle of the story takes place in a community that has developed on the Bay Bridge, which was damaged many years earlier by a major earthquake. We get pure Gibson here, suspenseful sequences set in a world of jerry-rigged technology, recycled material, and reconstructed societies.
A motel once stood in Sarnia, Ontario, a postwar relic. By the early 90s it had become a flea market, where vendors sold the butt-ends of our culture from damaged rooms. Someone had knocked through a wall and set up a tattoo parlor, a literal hole-in-the-wall establishment. A musician played the main room on Sunday, an eclectic selection of tunes on a low-budget keyboard. When I visited my friends in Sarnia, we would make our pilgrimage. It has since been demolished. Gibson’s Bridge is such a place, but larger and more exotic, and he makes it the stage for some gripping events.
1. Gibson rushes the ending, though he wins some points for including, and then neatly undercutting, some clichés of the thriller genre.
2. I address the issue of when the novel takes place elsewhere, but it strikes me that the story’s recent past doesn’t quite work. Rydell says he was born in the early 80s, Gibson wrote the novel in the early 90s, and the story takes place in the early 2000s. The social changes that have occurred and become the norm—- indeed, become old— seem too many to have happened in a decade. Even the current rate of social/technological change doesn’t allow for it.
Originality: 3/6 We have a thriller here, with less of the technology that made Neuromancer so groundbreaking. Virtual Light bears a striking resemblance to Stephenson’s superior Snow Crash, published a year earlier. Both involve a somewhat reluctant hero who teams up with a young female courier in a thriller involving cyberspace-related technology and corporate criminals in a fragmented, privatized America. Even if the similarities between the two books are accidental, this remains a typical cyberpunk thriller. Gibson’s ability to show us his imaginary world makes it work.
Story: 3/6. Gibson often develops intriguing plots which remain, at heart, hardboiled thrillers involving hypothetical technology. They often build in intensity before ending in slightly disappointing ways. This book follows that pattern.
Characterization: 4/6. The two central characters here have been developed better than in the sequels. Others receive very little development. I recommend reading this novel before Idoru or All Tomorrow’s Parties, though the plots of those books hold up without knowing the events of Virtual Light. I want to say that Gibson’s satiric handling of fringe religions stretch believablity but, no and sadly, these sects and their followers really could exist.
Imagery: 6/6. Gibson excels in creating believable fictional societies filled with interesting imagery and plausible history.
Emotional Response: 4/6. The book often engaged me; the ending seemed rushed and a little too easy.
Overall Score: 5/6 This is a fair read, but not as strong as some of Gibson’s other novels. If you haven’t read Gibson, I would recommend you read the original Cyberpunk Trilogy or his 2003 techno-thriller Pattern Recognition before the Bridge Trilogy.
In total, Virtual Light receives 30/42
Gibson never mentions the year this book takes place in the text itself, but he provides enough clues to indicate we’re in the very early twenty-first century. He has stated in interviews that he wishes he hadn’t mentioned a specific year to the publishers, who slapped “2005” on the back cover. When the future catches up with SF, it rarely makes a good match, and Gibson knew he was describing a time the novel’s original readers would live to see. Our 2005 doesn’t much resemble this one, but many of the novel’s predictions about technology and society strike me as plausible. I suspect a few will come to pass in the next twenty years.
Excellent information on the Bridge Trilogy may be found here.
Stephen Beck coined the term “virtual light.” It refers to any instrument which creates optical sensations without the use of photons.
The Timeshredder’s reviews may be found here.