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 🙂

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 🙂

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 🙂 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 🙂 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 🙂 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.

Review: “The Diamond Age” By Neal Stephenson (Novel)

Whilst waiting for several books to arrive, I suddenly realised that I needed to find something to read in the meantime. Luckily, having read a lot in the past, I’m not exactly short of books. But, although I tried to read “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, I just couldn’t get along with the narration. Even so, I wanted to read something vaguely cyberpunk and/or steampunk.

Then I remembered that there was an old cyberpunk novel in the far corner of my room, wedged behind a stack of old DVDs. So, I decided to fish it out and take a look. It was none other than a second-hand copy of Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age”, which my younger self seemed to have bought for just 80p. After finishing it about two or three nights later, I realised that not only had I found buried treasure but that it was also the best 80p that I’d ever spent.

So, let’s take a look at “The Diamond Age”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Roc (UK) paperback edition of “The Diamond Age” that I read.

“The Diamond Age” is set in a futuristic version of China, and revolves around an interactive book called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. Although this book was commissioned by a wealthy neo-Victorian gentleman in order to teach his granddaughter to think more subversively, an illicit copy of the book (that the book’s designer made for his daughter) is stolen and ends up in the hands of a young girl called Nell from the poorer part of town….

One of the first things that I will say about “The Diamond Age” is that it is one of the most intelligent and profound novels that I’ve ever read. I almost feel guilty about writing a mere review of this book, since some kind of dissertation would probably be more appropriate. Seriously, not only does it tell a complex multi-layered story (my short summary of part of the main plot really doesn’t do this book justice), but it also includes philosophical complexity, thematic complexity, narrative complexity and emotional complexity. Seriously, this book is a work of art.

When I started reading it, I worried that I was out of my depth. Like I’d tried to install a modern “AAA” computer game on the classic mid-2000s machine I typed this review on. But, as I kept reading it and got used to the narrative style, I began to realise what a treasure this book is.

Seriously, it’s the kind of book that makes films like “Blade Runner 2049” and the original “Ghost In The Shell” look like simple, shallow, superficial things by comparison. Not only that, it is the kind of book that holds all sorts of deeper meanings and profound moments that will make you think. In other words, if you put the effort into reading this book, then you will be rewarded for it!

I should probably start by talking about the book’s narration. For the most part, the novel uses a rich, dense, highly-descriptive narrative style that is heavily inspired by 19th century writing (but with some modern elements). Although this narrative style can be a bit of a challenge to get used to at first, you’re in for a treat when you’ve had a bit of practice at reading it.

This dense, formal and descriptive narrative style allows Stephenson to render every scene of the story with a level of high-definition comic book vividness that is really astonishing 🙂 This novel takes the “information overload” narrative technique of a novel like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and turns it into something even more sophisticated and refined. Basically, imagine the ultra-detailed artwork of Warren Ellis’s “Transmetropolitan” comics but in prose form…

The novel’s formal narration is also counterpointed with a couple of other narrative styles too. Whether it’s the traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk narration that appears earlier in the story (during scenes that are a brilliantly cynical parody of “Neuromancer” etc..), or the story within the “Primer” – which starts out as a simple children’s fairytale and gradually becomes more complex as the story progresses (and Nell gets older), the novel’s narration is more flexible than you might expect.

The characters and “world” of this novel are also more complex and realistic than you would expect. Unlike the classic cyberpunk novels of the 1980s, the main characters aren’t anti-heroes. The one character (Bud) who initially seems like a typical cyberpunk protagonist is, after a few pages, realistically shown to be a dangerous violent criminal (who is quickly arrested and sentenced to death). Seriously, this segment of the story is one of the most cynical parodies of 1980s-style cyberpunk I’ve ever seen.

By contrast, the main characters in “The Diamond Age” are people from different walks of life who live in a complex and dangerous world. The novel’s characters really come across as realistic people with emotions, motivations and personalities. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this story highly enough! Whether it is Nell’s journey through life, or the travails of poor Mr. Hackworth, or Miranda’s story arc, or Judge Fang’s Confucian beliefs leading him in unexpected directions etc.. the characters in this story are unique, interesting people.

In emotional terms, this story contains pretty much every emotion under the sun. There are descriptive segments where you will be in awe, there are scenes that will feel warmly reassuring, there are surprisingly harsh moments that will make you recoil with shock/horror/disgust, there are parts that will be really depressing, there are parts that will be really uplifting, there are moments that will make you laugh out loud, there are parts that will make you feel nervous, there are scenes that will make you cry (in a good way) and there are scenes that will fill you with righteous fury. Emotionally, this novel is a truly mature and complex thing.

But, the main attraction of this story is the sheer number of themes that it explores and deals with. This is one of those books that probably requires multiple readings and lots of background reading in order to really get the most of out of it, but here are some of the themes I found when I read it.

One of the major themes in this story is people attempting to make sense of new things using old ideas. Within the world of the story, there are groups of people who try to follow old ways of living in the belief that they are better. Whether it is the neo-Victorians (who try to emulate their 19th century namesakes) or the Chinese traditionalists who follow the teachings of Confucius, a lot of this story is about people apply trying to apply older standards to a futuristic world with varying degrees of success.

Another theme in this story is the power and value of stories. This novel is one of the best works of metafiction that I’ve ever seen. Not only does it contain a story-within-a-story, but the entire novel is about the impact that one person reading one book can have on the world. In addition to this, it is also a novel about how stories can teach and shape us. “The Diamond Age” is a beautiful celebration of the magic of reading and telling stories.

The novel also explores the tension between individuality and conformity. Whilst a lot of the novel focuses on Nell learning to stand up for herself and think for herself, the story takes place in a world that has been fragmented into numerous micro-states that are run by different ideological “tribes”. This novel takes a fairly deep look at the benefits and downsides of both individuality and conformity, with the reader often left to come to their own conclusions. Still, it is important to be aware of this theme, since the story’s ending won’t completely make sense unless you think of it in these terms (eg: is it better to be a unique individual in a dangerous situation or to find safety in extreme conformity?).

These are just a few of the themes explored in this novel (other themes include poverty, ethics, cultural capital, nature vs. nurture, gender politics, technology etc..). But, if you like things that make you think, then you’ll absolutely love this novel 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of novel that is probably a set text for a university course somewhere. If not, it really should be. Seriously, I wish I’d read this when I was at university.

In terms of how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Not only does all of the futuristic stuff still seem very futuristic, but the narration still feels both timelessly old and timelessly modern too. Aside from maybe one or two brief sentences, references and/or descriptions, this novel could easily be published today and it would still seem very modern.

All in all, this review really hasn’t done this book justice. “The Diamond Age” is a bit of a challenging read, but it is well worth putting the effort into it! Seriously, this is one of the most intelligent, profound, unique and complex books that I’ve ever read. “The Diamond Age” is to books what “Blade Runner” is to film and what Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” is to comics. In other words, it is a profound, unique and thought-provoking work of art that will linger in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading it.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a solid five. Read it!

Three Tips For Writing 1990s-Style Cyberpunk Fiction

Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about 1990s-style cyberpunk science fiction. This is mostly because I’m reading a cyberpunk (or, technically, post-cyberpunk) novel from 1995 called “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson at the time of writing.

This novel is surprisingly different from traditional 1980s-style cyberpunk (Neuromancer“, “Blade Runner” etc..) and it also reminded me a bit of other 1990s cyberpunk works like Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics and the original 1995 “Ghost In The Shell” anime film.

So, since 1990s cyberpunk is kind of it’s own distinctive “thing”, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about writing this style of cyberpunk.

1) The technology isn’t everything: If 1980s cyberpunk focused on amazing the audience with what the internet, virtual reality etc… could be like in the future, 1990s cyberpunk takes a step back from this. Although futuristic technology is obviously still a major part of 1990s cyberpunk, it’s a little bit more of a background element. In short, there’s more of a focus on “functional” everyday technology than on things like virtual reality etc…

In 1990s-style cyberpunk, the technology tends to be a lot more subtle and insidious. For example, nanotechnology features heavily in “The Diamond Age” and “Transmetropolitan” – where it is used for purposes like surveillance, weather control, weapons, motion tracking, compact computing etc.. But, in both stories, it is just shown to be an “ordinary” thing to the characters.

Likewise, whilst 1995’s “Ghost In The Shell” focuses on robotics and cybernetics (like 1982’s “Blade Runner”), these mostly aren’t presented with quite the same level of emphasis and fascination as they are in “Blade Runner”. They’re just an ordinary, mundane part of everyday life. The main character has a cybernetic body, ordinary people sometimes have them and sometimes the antagonists do too. They’re just ordinary. However, this is a lot more obvious in the spin-off “Stand Alone Complex” TV series made during the 2000s.

In other words, in 1990s cyberpunk, the futuristic technology usually isn’t everything. It’s an important part of the story, but it’s also – realistically – just a mundane background element, rather than the central focus of the story.

2) Protagonists: There’s a brilliant scene in the earlier parts of Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” (spoilers ahoy!) which shows the difference between 1980s and 1990s-style cyberpunk protagonists absolutely perfectly.

Basically, the story starts with a typical 1980s-style cyberpunk character called Bud, who is getting a powerful weapons system implanted in his skull. He wears very cyberpunk-like leather clothes and he’s a freelance street criminal too. These scenes are also narrated in a typical 1980s cyberpunk style too. Initially, Bud seems like he’s going to be the main character.

But, he is then shown to be more of an unsympathetic character (eg: he’s shown to hold racist attitudes, he shoots defenceless people etc..). Almost as if he’s a…scary violent criminal (who would have thought it?). Then, before we even reach page fifty, he has been arrested and sentenced to death. This is both a perfect parody of 1980s cyberpunk and a great example of how 1990s cyberpunk differs from 1980s cyberpunk.

By contrast, the rest of “The Diamond Age” focuses on ordinary people within the story’s futuristic world. The main characters include people like a judge, an actress, two impoverished children and a prestigious engineer. In short, not the typical “anti-hero” characters of the 1980s. In fact, one of the story’s philosophical discussions briefly features a character mentioning how computer hackers were used as “trickster” archetypes in late 20th century stories.

You can see the same things in other 1990s cyberpunk works too. In Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan”, the main character is a drug-addled journalist (inspired by the one and only Hunter S. Thompson). In “Ghost In The Shell”, the main character is a member of a military police unit (who are shown to be the good guys, rather than the dystopian villains they would be if it was 1980s cyberpunk).

In other words, 1990s-style cyberpunk is more about ordinary people living in futuristic cyberpunk worlds than about “cool” anti-hero computer hackers or anything like that.

3) Narration and tone: Simply put, 1990s-style cyberpunk fiction will often ditch the traditional “Neuromancer”-like narration and do something a bit different.

For example, although the scenes involving Bud in “The Diamond Age” do use 1980s-style cyberpunk narration, this quickly gives way to a highly-descriptive and slightly formal narrative style that is more like something from a 19th century novel (Dickens, Conan Doyle etc..) than a 1980s cyberpunk novel.

Likewise, the general tone of the stories tends to be a lot more varied too. For example, whilst “Transmetropolitan”, “Ghost In The Shell” and “The Diamond Age” might have a few scenes set at night in the dystopian, rainy, neon-lit streets of a mega-city, they also feature much brighter scenes set during the day too. Kind of like pretty much every other story, comic or film would probably do.

In short, like with the other examples, 1990s cyberpunk (or “post-cyberpunk”) focuses more on what ordinary life in a futuristic cyberpunk world would be like. It focuses less on dazzling the audience with a unique version of the future, but uses it as a backdrop for a much wider variety of drama, science fiction etc… instead.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂