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: “Idoru” By William Gibson (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was still in the mood for some 1990s sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru”. This novel is the second novel in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” (you can see my review of the first one here) and, like the rest of the trilogy, it is a book that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I found it in a second-hand bookshop at least a decade ago.

Interestingly, although this novel is the second novel in a trilogy, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone story. Yes, a few familiar faces from “Virtual Light” appear as background characters and there are a few brief references to stuff from that novel but, for the most part, this is a self-contained cyberpunk novel that can probably be enjoyed without reading “Virtual Light”.

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

This is the 1997 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Idoru” that I read.

Set in the near-future, the novel begins with ex-security guard Rydell passing on a job offer from a company called Paragon-Asia Dataflow to a talented data analyst called Colin Laney who is staying at the same hotel as him. When Laney flies out to Tokyo for the interview, he ends up meeting a sociologist called Yamazaki and a burly, scarred Australian man called Blackwell. Moving between various bars and restaurants, Laney tells the two men the story of how he came to be fired from his previous job at an unscrupulous gossip site called Slitscan.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, several teenage members of the American fan club for ageing rock band Lo/Rez are meeting up to discuss rumours that one member, Rez, has decided to marry a famous A.I. construct called Rei Toei. After some discussion, one of the members steals some of her father’s frequent flier miles and hands them to another member called Chia, who is dispatched to Tokyo to find out more….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric story that is also ridiculously ahead of it’s time too. Plus, it is also more of a cyberpunk novel than “Virtual Light” was, albeit with a slightly more understated and realistic atmosphere than in any of Gibson’s classic 1980s cyberpunk novels (like “Neuromancer”). Seriously, this novel is really cool 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s sci-fi elements. Although there’s all the classic cyberpunk stuff like virtual reality, nanotechnology, A.I. etc.. the most interesting “futuristic” part of this novel is how accurately Gibson predicted a lot of stuff about the modern internet.

Whether it is the novel’s cynical depiction of internet journalism, how the internet has affected fame, the way old music still seems “current” thanks to the internet, scenes involving something similar to the dark web, lots of stuff about privacy and big data or even a scene where a character is blackmailed with something very similar to a modern “deepfake” video, this novel often reads like a brilliantly cynical satire of the modern internet… that was first published in 1996. Just let that sink in for a minute. 1996.

Like with “Virtual Light”, this novel is also something of a thriller too. But, unlike the slightly more action-packed storyline of “Virtual Light”, this is much more of a tense suspenseful thriller that gradually builds up an atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and unease. There are lots of mini-cliffhangers, scenes where characters find themselves “out of their depth” and scenes where characters are followed by ruthless villains. In a lot of ways, this focus on suspense reminded me a little bit of 1990s horror novels by Ryu Murakami like “Piercing” and “In The Miso Soup”.

I cannot praise the atmosphere and locations in this novel highly enough 🙂 If you enjoyed the atmospheric settings of either of the 1990s Ryu Murakami novels I mentioned earlier, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. Although Gibson’s fictional version of Tokyo contains some futuristic elements and is presented from more of a tourist’s perspective, it is a really fascinating and vividly-described location that really helps the novel to come alive.

Literally my only criticism of the settings is that the novel’s most intriguing location, a hidden virtual reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City, only appears during a few brief scenes and isn’t really described in the level of detail that I’d expected (and it’s probably more there as a metaphor for the benefits and drawbacks of online anarchy). Given how fascinating photos, videos etc… of this demolished city are, it is a bit of a shame that such an intriguing location doesn’t get more time in this story. Still, the very fact that it is there is incredibly cool.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is – like in “Virtual Light” – written in a slightly more understated version of Gibson’s classic writing style. In other words, the narration in this novel is a brilliant mixture of more hardboiled, flowing, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and lots of vivid, detailed, slow-paced and atmospheric descriptions 🙂 Seriously, I love how Gibson is able to write in a style that is both fast and slow-paced at the same time and which is also both pulpy and intellectual at the same time.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. They all seem like fairly realistic people and the novel also handles characterisation in different ways for several characters too. With Laney, the bulk of his characterisation focuses on his backstory. With Chia, the bulk of her characterisation focuses on her music fandom, her friendships, her impressions of Tokyo and how she handles various dangerous situations. With Blackwell, we get a few tantalising pieces of backstory but most of his characterisation is done via actions, descriptions and dialogue. I could go on for a while, but this variety of characterisation types really helps to add a lot more intrigue to the characters.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At a fairly efficient 292 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted here. As I hinted at earlier, this novel is both fast and slow-paced at the same time, with the suspense, multiple plot threads, writing style and premise keeping this novel gripping, but with lots of slower descriptive moments that really help the story to come alive. On the whole, this novel’s pacing is really good – with the story gradually building in suspense and scale as it progresses.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel’s internet-related satire is ridiculously ahead of it’s time and the story also still remains very compelling when read today. Yes, there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments and some elements of the story do seem a bit ’90s – such as a possible ’90s computer game reference (eg: a rock band called “The Dukes Of Nuke ‘Em”) but, on the whole, this novel is very much ahead of it’s time.

All in all, this is a really cool novel 🙂 It’s an atmospheric, compelling and intelligent cyberpunk thriller that is also very far ahead of it’s time too.

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

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.