Review: “Virtual Light” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for a cyberpunk novel. And, although I’d originally planned to re-read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, I happened to spot my copies of Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” that I’d been meaning to read for about a decade or so.

So, wanting to try something slightly different, I thought that I’d take a look at the first novel in the trilogy, “Virtual Light” (1993), today šŸ™‚

Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1994 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Virtual Light” that I read.

Set in in the high-tech near-future year of 2005, the novel begins with a mysterious description of a man watching several video feeds from a hotel room in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, ex-cop and private security officer Berry Rydell is driving around with his allergy-ridden partner Sublett. Their night is filled with a series of bizarre events that lead to Rydell crashing the van into a house. Although Rydell isn’t fired over the mistake, he ends up resigning from the security company when faced with the prospect of being relegated to uneventful guard duty.

In San Francisco, a bicycle courier called Chevette is delivering a package to a posh hotel. After dropping off the package, she is about to go back to her bike when she meets a drunken woman in a lift who invites her to a party in one of the hotel rooms. During the party, a sleazy guy starts hassling Chevette and, out of spite, she steals a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses from his jacket before leaving the party.

Back in Los Angeles, Rydell’s flatmate Hernandez eventually gets him a job as a freelance driver for a skip tracer in San Francisco called Warbaby. When Rydell arrives, Warbaby tells him that a man has been murdered and a very important pair of sunglasses have been stolen…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it’ll take you a while to get used to Gibson’s trademark writing style, this story is a really compelling cyberpunk/post-cyberpunk thriller. In addition to making me feel nostalgic about the first time I read Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, it also reminded me a bit of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and M. John Harrison’s “Nova Swing” too. Which is never a bad thing šŸ™‚

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel mostly takes the post-cyberpunk approach of focusing on ordinary people’s lives in a futuristic tech-filled dystopia. Yes, there are a few hints of the virtual reality hacking of “Neuromancer” here and loads of subtly futuristic and/or “edgy” background details, but this is more of a story about people trying to make a living in a moderately dystopian future. In essence, this is a drama set in a somewhat cyberpunk world rather than a traditional cyberpunk story.

But, what a world it is šŸ™‚ Although this novel contains quite a few “realistic” urban settings, they are filled with enough futuristic tech and/or bizarre backstory to make them absolutely fascinating. Even so, the best location in the novel is the Golden Gate bridge, which has been turned into this wonderfully atmospheric rusting, neon-lit, rainy, ramshackle anarchist encampment. And, yes, like in the modern computer game “Shadowrun: Dragonfall“, this novel actually contains a fairly nuanced depiction of what an anarchist society would look like.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, although this story is a bit of a slow burn at times, it gets more suspenseful and action-packed as it progresses. Even so, the novel uses a few classic thriller techniques like mini-cliffhangers and alternating plot threads throughout the novel. It’s also the kind of story which starts out fairly randomly and then gradually becomes more and more focused too.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting too. In addition to being a novel about authority, it’s also a story about things like gentrification, the unreliability of history, religion, the media, income inequality etc… too. Cyberpunk fiction is, after all, one of the most thematically complex genres of science fiction out there. Even so, most of this stuff feels slightly more like a background detail than you might expect.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good. Although all of the characters in this novel are slightly stylised, they really feel like part of the story’s world. Many of them also get a reasonable amount of backstory and characterisation too. Not to mention that, if you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, then the fact that one of the main characters in “Virtual Light” (Chevette) is also a punk-like courier is pretty cool too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really good when you get used to Gibson’s writing style. The novel’s third-person narration has a really distinctive voice that is both very “matter of fact”/hardboiled and very detailed at the time. It’s fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time. It has some really interesting experimental flourishes (eg: mixing past and present events and tenses etc..) and it’s also kind of a more subtle and realistic version of the intentionally confusing “bombard the reader with futuristic details” technique that Gibson uses to great effect in “Neuromancer”.

If you’ve read and enjoyed slightly more obscure genres of fiction (eg: cyberpunk fiction, hardboiled detective fiction, beat literature, gonzo journalism etc..) in the past, then you’ll “get” the writing style of this novel and really enjoy it šŸ™‚ But, if you’ve only read more “traditional” fiction, then you might find the writing style in this novel mildly confusing.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really interesting. At 294 pages in length, this novel feels both shorter and longer than this. In short, whilst it only has a fraction of the epic scale of – say – Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” or “The Diamond Age”, the novel still somehow feels longer than a typical 200-300 page novel.

A lot of this probably has to do with the pacing. In short, this is the most fast-paced slow-paced novel you’ll ever read. Whilst each sentence flows breathlessly into the next, there is so much detail to keep track of that each page will take longer to read than you expect. But, on the whole, the novel’s pacing is fairly good – with the story gradually becoming more focused and suspenseful as it progresses.

As for how this twenty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged interestingly. Leaving aside a few “edgy” and/or “politically incorrect” moments, it’s intriguing to see what this novel predicted correctly (eg: augmented reality glasses, flat-screen TVs, the disturbing trend of “Swatting“, an Anonymous-like group of hackers etc…) and what it got wrong (eg: people still using fax machines, various medical advances, a lot of the novel’s history etc..). Still, if you ignore the fact that this novel is supposed to be set in 2005, then it’s a really interesting and atmospheric cyberpunk story that is still enjoyable to read.

All in all, whilst this novel probably isn’t for everyone, it is a really interesting and atmospheric cyberpunk thriller. Although it isn’t quite as good as “Neuromancer” and it lacks some of the depth and scale that you might expect, it’s still really cool to read a 20th century William Gibson novel šŸ™‚ Likewise, if you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, it’s really interesting to see what Gibson can do with some of the themes/ideas from that novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

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