Following a six year hiatus, Gibson rejuvenated himself in the early nineties with the release of his fourth novel Virtual Light. Unlike Gibson’s previous works which were set in The Sprawl (a polluted dystopian version of the Northeast Megalopolis), Virtual Light is set in California. The novels Idoru & All Tomorrow’s Parties, both of which followed Virtual Light are also set in the same universe with the same characters playing major roles. Similar to its East-Coast analogue – the Sprawl – the fictional California in which Virtual Light is set in is bleak, dreary & polluted. A closer, more scrupulous examination of this not-so-sunny California reveals other jarring inversions as well. For example rather than being part of a union of states, California is its own political entity. Furthermore, in the time period that the novel is set California’s own rather shaky government is on the cusp of being destabilized by frequent insurrections that are themselves a result of numerous societal issues like class conflict and inequality.
Virtual Light’s plot is conveyed through multiple POVs, a strategy that Gibson first developed in Count Zero, perfected in Mona Lisa Overdrive and then used consistently thereafter. Rydell, the main protagonist of the story is a down-and-out former cop, who’s just scraping by in Los Angeles on a dead-end job as a private security officer. As Rydell’s story slowly gets fleshed out it’s revealed that he was not always ‘down-and-out’. Rather, he was a victim of a mix-up that under the auspices of malevolent hackers led to him accidentally murdering an innocent civilian in cold blood. Even though Rydell’s crime could be reasonably construed as being noble in principle, it’s not so cut and dry in practice and the resulting fallout is quite severe.
In a larger sense, Rydell’s meek character is what prevents him from being subsumed by the legacy of past Gibson protagonists. Relative to what we’ve come to expect from Gibson it’s evident that Rydell’s actions are not merely pretensions to unattainable ideals. Rather, they speak to a higher, purer sense of morality – certainly higher than you’d expect to find in Gibson’s particular brand of anti-hero (i.e. Case, Robert ‘Bobby’ Newmark). Chevette, the main supporting character is a courier living in ‘The Bridge’, a self-sustaining, self-governing community residing in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. As is generally the case with Gibson’s storylines, Chevette’s and Rydell’s individual plots criss-cross and then eventually fuse into a single, explosive denouement.
Other examples of memorable supporting characters include Freddy, Warbaby & the two partners Svobodov & Orlovsky. Similar to Rydell, Freddy represents a breath of fresh air. He is a chill, slightly priviledged San-Francisco pretty boy with a penchant for flashy clothing and a knack for programming. Freddy’s programming abilities come in handy for Warbaby, Freddy’s employer. Warbaby is as dour as Freddy is cheerful. Gibson points this out every chance he gets, to hilarious effect too, as the metaphors he uses to describe Warbaby’s bleak demeanor get more creative as the novel progresses. Svobodov and Orlovsky are two San-Francisco cops. Their activities in the novel are manifestly opposed to what one would consider to be proper for badge wearers, & Gibson deftly ties this in to the rapidly escalating story.
Since Virtual Light is set in a familiar setting, the prose is vastly easier to parse & much less ornate. This adds a new layer of dynamism to the story. The plot surges forward at a breakneck speed, events happen fast, even the characters are very economical in their speech. Virtual Light is not the tour de force, creative-leap-forward that Neuromancer was. However, it’s an interesting little novel that allows readers to peek into a cyberpunk world that is quite compelling. For the more erudite readers with vivid imaginations, the world described in Virtual Light may perhaps prove familiar enough to invoke alarm.
8 Virtual Light Glasses Out Of 10