atch 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.