Excessive Candour


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A portrait of the burn of the world


By John Clute

Watch this book. Listen to it tick. It is a sequel and a climax to William Gibson's last two novels, and it swallows their triumphs and ills like fodder for its mill, like the fine piece of workmanship it is. It puts some spine into the reality relaxants that dosed Virtual Light (1993) into amiable torpor, and ironizes the lovesong to the insides of the world we are about to enter that made Idoru (1996) into a claustrophile's epithalamium; and rebuilds them into something new, like a time bomb.

All Tomorrow's Parties does of course repeat some of the flaws of its two predecessors. Gibson cannot mention the 21st century transformation of the San Francisco-Oakland bridge into a Rube Goldberg banyan barrio without the collapse of his fine sharp pen into Steinbeck/Ward Bond teary tough-guy riffs (incidentally, though the image is foggy in my proof copy, surely the fractalized photo on the title page is of the Golden Gate bridge). This whimsifying of focus thinned Virtual Light, and hints of it blur, for a page or two, the sharper lines of the new book.

And just as Idoru sashayed out of darkness in its closing plot turns, so All Tomorrow's Parties loses a modicum of gravitas as the end nears. Everything ties together--but tying knots is not necessarily the same as making sense, and, as in all Gibson's novels, there is some sense that profound novelistic apercus, bleaknesses of a saving precision of focus, are diddled into genre outcomes. There are chase sequences. Villains are defeated. The cavalry arrives. Marriages of some sort or other are predicted. Mr. Bogart and Mr. Rains link arms.

But we expected this. What comes as something of a shock in the new novel is the sustained urgency of the telling, the unerring rightness of what it actually says about the new world. It is as though William Gibson had attained, without the terminal cost more normally charged, the clean-burn ferocity of the writer who has grown old and knows he must say something more, very fast. Insofar as it has been stripped, for most of its length, of most of the gestures of youth, All Tomorrow's Parties is an old man's book.

What has come before

The story is something of a continuation of what has gone before. Laney (from Idoru) has become a box man (Kobo Abe's term), living in a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway, where his drug-induced sensitivity to patterns of information has dramatically increased: he now senses the nodal bruise of a new shaping of the history of the world, a point when (as in Hindu cosmology) a new Age might be beginning. He senses that this node may be or is being triggered by a conjunction of individual characters in the bridge barrio. There are several occupants of the previous books: Rydell, a man so incapable of protagonist moves of a generic sort he might as well be Canadian; Rei Toei, the Idoru herself, the hologrammatic artifact composed of information, growing denser by the second; Chevette and Fontaine from the first book; and others. Solo or led by the nose, they all converge on the bridge.

At least one additional character, an assassin new to the sequence and who remains anonymous for most of the book--but who resembles James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven all the way through--feeds into the mix . It is he who has the closest and most gnomic relationship to Cody, a manipulator of information who has become the richest man in the world and who wishes to surf the change into the new Age without losing a penny; and it is Cody upon whom Laney--who ultimately deals with him at a point when the novel deeply resembles Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956)--focuses his terrifying data-addict mind (his box man life perfectly replicates the inside of the mind of a man caught in clinical depression, or at the nadir of some lifelong jag).

Surfing the ruins

The rest is story, good stuff but not of the essence. What cuts so deep in this book is not so much what its exemplary characters do from short chapter to short chapter, but how this ensemble of actions and responses, on the part of characters nudged from half a dozen ecological niches of the new century, provides us with a portrait of the burn of the world, the bit rot and the surfing in the ruins just a little ways up the line. Governments are hardly mentioned (except at the end, when a magically present government saves the bridge from arson); cartels, under one or another name, uneasy confluences of privatized power, coalesce and shake down; commodification is fractal. It is all a familiar picture, perhaps; but the detail and the polished smiling despair of the telling hone the messages into a gift of prose too dense to paraphrase.

There is another new character, Silencio, a young boy who refuses to talk, who is adopted by Fontaine on his discovery that the child is obsessed by watches, whose first words (repeating a watch description Fontaine reads to him) are "case back," is perhaps the most important figure in the book. For him the world, which has utterly traumatized him, can only be tolerated and understood through the intricate marking of the arrow of time of mechanical watches from the mid 20th century; the only way to escape the fractality of the experience of data, data glut, data death, is to construct an Ariadne's raft, and to surf it.

In the end, All Tomorrow's Parties, like so much of Gibson's work, reads as a kind of prayer. All his protagonists long to be saved. Few are. Silencio's salvation, which is to fix on eidolons of the measuring of reality, may be a breakthrough. Maybe in the end, for all of us as we fall off the edge into the outdoors of tomorrow, our salvation will be an arrow of time to watch over us...


John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and other places too numerous to list; much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986 and Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays.




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