Review: “All Tomorrow’s Parties” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, after enjoying the first two novels in William Gibson’s “Bridge” trilogy (Virtual Light” and “Idoru) several months ago, I’ve been meaning to read the third one – “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (1999) for a while.

After all, I ended up finding the entire trilogy in various second-hand bookshops in Brighton and Aberystwyth during the late 2000s and didn’t get round to reading them back then (despite enjoying Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy at the time). So, this review has been a long time coming.

Although “All Tomorrow’s Parties” can theoretically be read as a stand-alone novel (thanks to several recaps), I wouldn’t recommend starting with it. Some parts of this novel won’t fully make sense and you’ll miss out on some of the story’s depth unless you’ve read both “Virtual Light” and “Idoru” beforehand. So, unlike those two books (which can be read as stand-alones), this one should be read in the correct order.

So, let’s take a look at “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2000 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” that I read.

Set in the near future, the novel begins with a sociologist called Yamazaki descending into an underground train station and finding an elaborate homeless encampment made from cardboard boxes. He is there to meet a chemically-enhanced data analyst called Laney, who lives in the backroom of a model-painter’s studio and is suffering both a respiratory infection and the obsessive side-effects of the experimental drugs he was dosed with during his childhood. Laney has called for Yamazaki because he needs to get in touch with their mutual friend Rydell and send him to San Francisco because something important is going to happen.

Rydell is now working as a security guard for a convenience store called the Lucky Dragon when he gets the call. And, after getting fired, he takes a car-share to San Francisco with an alcoholic country musician called Buell Creedmore. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a heavily-armed and nameless man decides to take a cab towards the autonomous city-state that lives on the city’s bridge.

A mute boy called Silencio lives on the bridge with his two older criminal friends, Raton and Playboy. When they go out for the evening, both of Silencio’s friends make the foolish mistake of trying to rob the nameless man. It does not end well for either of them.

Meanwhile, Chevette is now house-sitting in a beach-side villa with her documentary-maker friend Tessa and several media students. However, after one of Tessa’s cameras spots a car belonging to Chevette’s violent ex-boyfriend Carson, both of them decide to sneak away to San Francisco before he can find them. Needless to say, they find their way to the bridge too…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it takes a while to really get started, it is a really good conclusion to the trilogy. In a lot of ways, this novel is more like a mixture of “Virtual Light” and “Idoru” than it’s own unique thing in the way that those novels were.

This novel is probably closer in atmosphere and tone to “Virtual Light” – with a bit more grittiness, lots of scenes set on the bridge and a more thriller-style plot. But, several familiar characters from “Idoru” show up here and there are also a few cool cyberpunk moments too (including another glimpse or two of the Walled City). But, although it is really awesome to see more “Virtual Light”, I was a little surprised that this novel didn’t really have it’s own different personality in the way the previous two books did.

As for the novel’s sci-fi elements, they carry over from the previous two books too – with the novel being set in a gritty, cyberpunk-influenced near future version of America. Since the novel is focused on the ramshackle free city on the bridge, there is slightly more of a focus on interesting antiques and makeshift stuff than on science fiction. Even so, the novel still includes it’s fair share of futuristic gadgets/weapons, holograms, nanotech, a few cyberspace-based scenes and a few parts that are just as surprisingly ahead of their time as “Idoru” is.

In the scenes set in Chevette and Tessa’s house, the media students are obsessed with recording their lives in a surprisingly similar way to modern social media, selfies etc… Not to mention that there’s also a segment about online privacy, where Chevette realises that her evil ex-boyfriend tracked her down because she appeared in a party photo that was posted online. Plus, Tessa also uses something very similar to a modern camera drone during several parts of the story too.

Although “life logging” was a niche tech pursuit in 1999, the fact that this novel shows such things in pretty much the same mundane, ordinary way that they exist in 2020 is truly mind-blowing! Even so, this novel has less of these “Wow! Is this really from the 1990s?” moments than “Idoru” does. Even so, it’s still amazing to see them here πŸ™‚

Thematically, this is a novel about history and anarchy. Not only is there a lot of focus on antiques and on how the past affects the present, but the central conflict of the story revolves around the status of the bridge itself. Like the virtual recreation of Kowloon Walled City that appears in this series, the bridge is a free anarchist mini-state that actually functions reasonably well as a society – however, outside forces want to commercialise, standardise etc… for their own ends. When read today, it is almost impossible not to see this as a metaphor for the internet and how it went from a free, utopian, home-made thing to being the tightly-regulated commercial and social thing it is today. And, again, this novel was published in 1999!

It’s also a bit of a novel about gentrification, hipsterism etc.. too, with a sub-plot about Tessa wanting to make a documentary about the bridge because she considers it to be an “interstitial society” or something like that. Her distanced academic curiosity about this “edgy” place is expertly contrasted with lots of scenes showing people who actually live on the bridge and just see it as ordinary.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good too. Although you should expect more of a traditional-style thriller than an ultra-fast paced one, this novel does a really good job of gradually building suspense and adding intriguingly mysterious things to it’s intricately-planned plot.

Plus, although it’s slightly less of an action-thriller story than “Virtual Light”, there are certainly a few dramatic fight scenes here – that manage to blend futuristic tech/weapons with gritty realism (eg: every injury, death etc.. has lingering consequences) in a way that really helps to add extra suspense and intensity to these moments. Still, this novel’s thriller elements are probably slightly more focused on mysterious large-scale drama and conflict than on smaller-scale fight scenes.

As for the characters, they’re as good as ever. If you’ve read the previous two books, then there will be a lot of familiar faces here πŸ™‚ Still, the novel manages to introduce a few interesting new characters who have their own story arcs, backstories, flaws, quirks personalities etc.. Whether it is Silencio, Tessa, an antique dealer called Fontaine, Buell Creedmore, a businessman called Harwood or the mysterious armed man, all of the new characters feel like reasonably realistic people.

In terms of the writing, it is a William Gibson novel πŸ™‚ In other words, the novel’s third-person narration is written in a way that manages to be simultaneously “matter of fact” and filled with atmospheric and poetic descriptions. It is hardboiled literary fiction or literary hardboiled fiction. It is simultaneously fast-paced and slow-paced, both complex and simple at the same time. It is atmospheric and unique. Yes, Gibson’s writing style will probably take you a while to get used to if you haven’t read any of his books before, but it is well worth doing so πŸ™‚

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 277 pages in length, it never really feels like there is a wasted page here πŸ™‚ Likewise, although this novel is probably fairly slow-paced by modern standards and the early parts feel a little unfocused, everything comes together in a really brilliant way as the story progresses. Not only does the novel’s suspense and drama gradually ramp up as the story progresses, but the “slow paced” aspects of the novel are mitigated with several mini-cliffhangers, mysterious events, shorter chapters, atmospheric moments and Gibson’s distinctive writing style πŸ™‚

As for how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Yes, there are a few slightly dated and/or “politically incorrect” moments, but the story’s atmospheric near-future setting still feels reasonably convincing, the plot is still compelling and the characters are still interesting. Likewise, although this novel isn’t quite as ahead of it’s time as “Idoru” was, there are at least a couple of “modern” moments that will make you wonder how the hell someone thought of them in 1999.

All in all, this is a really good conclusion to the “Bridge” trilogy πŸ™‚ Yes, the story takes a while to get started and it is more like a mixture of the previous two novels than it’s own unique thing but, given how good those two books were, this is hardly a bad thing πŸ™‚ So, if you enjoyed “Virtual Light” and/or “Idoru”, then this novel is well worth reading.

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

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