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 🙂

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 🙂 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 🙂 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 🙂

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 🙂 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 🙂

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 🙂 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 🙂 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.

Review: “Rosewater” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for some hardboiled fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Tade Thompson’s 2016 cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi thriller novel “Rosewater” that I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of weeks.

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

This is the 2018 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Rosewater” that I read.

The novel is set in the Nigerian city of Rosewater in 2066. This city is only about ten years old, having been built around a mysterious alien bio-dome that fell to Earth. These alien visitations to Earth have not only had a major effect on geopolitics (with Russia, China and Africa becoming more powerful) but have also had a biological effect on the planet too. In addition to occasionally healing the sick, reanimating the dead, introducing new lifeforms and providing free electricity, the alien bio-dome has also caused some humans to become “sensitives”, or psychics.

Kaaro is a cynical, world-weary sensitive who works as part of a human firewall for a bank in Rosewater. Every day, he reads vintage novels to create interference to prevent rogue psychics from hacking into the bank. His co-worker Bola insists on setting him up on a date with her friend Aminat during a visit to one of the dome’s healing sessions. But, during the date, he receives a text from Section 45 – a mysterious branch of the country’s security services that Kaaro secretly works for. So, reluctantly, he goes over to their offices and extracts information from the mind of a tortured prisoner.

But, soon, strange things start happening. Kaaro gets psychic visits from a mysterious woman called Molara, his boss warns him about Aminat, some criminals are after him and, even worse, several of the other psychics start dying from a mysterious disease….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Imagine a combination of a spy/action/detective thriller novel, Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, a William Gibson novel, Greg Bear’s “Blood Music“, Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy, the irreverent time-jumping weirdness of something like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” and maybe the “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” TV series and this might give you some vague clue of what to expect 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are really awesome 🙂 Not only is there a lot of good worldbuilding, showing all of the effects that alien contact has had on Earth, but it is also one of those interesting cyberpunk-style novels which doesn’t actually involve the internet.

Like with the hallucinogenic feathers in Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, this is a novel that features cyberspace-like scenes that take place within a psychic space called the “Xenosphere” (a traditional VR internet called “Nimbus” exists too, but it is just a background detail).

Not only does this lend the novel a slightly fantastical quality, but it is kept firmly in the sci-fi genre thanks to the inclusion of an actual scientific explanation for it and – by extension – a series of rules surrounding it. And, since this novel relies on the mind (rather than machines) for it’s virtual worlds, it can be a lot more surreal, interesting and just generally creative with these scenes.

Not only is this novel’s worldbuilding absolutely excellent but, like the best sci-fi, it is also completely original too. The aliens are quite literally alien, with the characters knowing enough about them to live near them but not knowing enough for them to be intriguingly mysterious at the same time. Likewise, I cannot praise the atmosphere and descriptions of the city of Rosewater itself highly enough. It’s a really interesting place 🙂

In keeping with the cyberpunk genre, the setting also contains some dystopian elements – however, in an interesting twist, they don’t come from the usual mega-corporations but from more realistic things like government, outdated legislation, mob justice, crime etc… instead. In other words, this novel feels really original 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also brilliant too. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way, but it also makes excellent use of things like suspense, intrigue, secrets, mini-cliffhangers, mystery and a few action sequences to keep everything compelling.

Another awesome thing about this novel is how it mixes the immediacy of first-person narration with the traditional thriller technique of multiple plot threads. Most first-person thrillers that attempt this use the awkward device of multiple first-person narrators – but this novel instead uses a series of flashback chapters set a decade or two earlier to provide a second plot thread without breaking the immersion by switching the narrator. These time jumps are also very clearly signposted (not only do they tell you the date and location, but they are also marked as “Then” or “Now”) which prevents them from being confusing or breaking the flow of the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also contains horror elements too 🙂 Seriously, these were a really brilliant surprise. In addition to some chilling moments of dystopian horror, there’s also a good amount of psychological horror, a few moments of gory horror, some surreal body horror, a brilliantly intense scene of monster horror and – even better – zombie horror too 🙂 Even though the zombies don’t show up that often, the fact that this novel blends the cyberpunk and zombie genres is really awesome 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. The narrator, Kaaro, gets the most characterisation and he’s a classic cyberpunk protagonist of the morally-ambiguous, world-weary and cynical type (who, like Deckard from “Blade Runner”, also works for an evil police force). But, thanks to his narration and intriguing backstory (and a few well-placed moments of humour), he comes across as a really interesting, realistic and surprisingly sympathetic character. Although the novel’s other characters get slightly less characterisation, they seem reasonably realistic and there’s enough characterisation for you to care about what happens to them.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 This novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled way that you’d expect from a good sci-fi or horror thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the narration also reads like a more understated and streamlined version of the kind of classic hardboiled cyberpunk narration that you’d expect from a writer like William Gibson 🙂 Plus, the narration still manages to remain descriptive enough to add atmosphere and bring the story’s settings to life too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 390 pages, it’s a little on the longer side of things – but is written in the kind of fast-paced way that won’t make this too much of an issue. The novel is paced like a thriller – with multiple plot threads, compelling suspense, lots of dramatic moments etc..- which also helps to avoid some of the slowness that is typically associated with science fiction. Plus, although this novel is very clearly the first novel in a series (there’s even a note about the sequel at the end), the main plot has enough resolution for the sequel hook/background cliffhanger at the end not to feel frustrating or unsatisfying.

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a more innovative and imaginative version of the the cyberpunk genre that moves at twice the usual pace, includes lots of atmosphere, some well-placed horror elements and an interesting premise, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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