The contents of William Gibson's next novel was the subject of much discussion in the months prior to its publication. While both Gibson and Bruce Sterling had publicly declared cyberpunk dead (though many sf authors are still picking over the corpse) the novel would be set in the near future and be 'darker, more realistic than Neuromancer'. Indeed Virtual Light is not a cyberpunk novel, instead a post-cyberpunk vision of a plastic future tapping a rich vein of black humour rarely seen in Gibson's earlier books.
At first as I read, I felt disappointed: the text was dense and barely comprehensible. I wonder how many readers will try those first dozen pages, give in and miss the great novel Gibson has written. Admittedly Virtual Light is not an easy book: the plot, though linear, is complicated and the written style is intense, yet Gibson enlivens it with interesting, engaging characters, black humour and a setting that complements and frames the story perfectly.
The bare bones of the plot are simple ‹ girl steals object, boy is hired to find object and instead falls for girl and both flee from the object's ruthless owners ‹ but complicated by myriad subplots right up to the last pages. I am the first to admit that Gibson is not a master of plotting and Virtual Light, though better than any of his previous books is still not perfect, but with Gibson the plot must be of secondary importance to the characters and the background and here I get the impression that the characters guide the plot rather than plot ruling the characters, and that is a welcome change from much other sf.
Rydell, the male protagonist, is an archetypal Gibson 'hero': flawed, but at heart one of the good guys. He reminds me most of Case (from Neuromancer) but his downfall is not his greed (as with Case), but naivete, a reckless lack of thought ‹ a certain foolish gallantry ‹ in stress situations. He is a character readers will either love or despise, but as he slips on his black jeans and gets ready to get on with a life that has dealt him a rough hand, I cannot help but care. Chevette, our heroine, is less immediately likable (though easier to admire) as her shell is so tough, but as the story progresses we see her become vulnerable and more sympathetic ‹ though never a weak woman ‹ as she copes with change. As well as Rydell and Chevette, there is a large cast of supporting characters: none stereotyped and all colourful (and often bizarre) and yet Gibson makes them believable.
Gibson has always been known for his background: in Neuromancer he introduced us to the Sprawl, a huge mega-city, full of corruption, drugs and violence. In Virtual Light he shifts from East to West coast and from cyberpunk to post cyberpunk: Gibson's California is the 90s vision in the same way that the Sprawl belonged to the 80s. SoCal, based around Los Angeles is a ghettoised city of plastic and hardened glass, where the super rich hide out in bunker houses and the poor get by. There is less obvious violence here in SoCal than in the Sprawl or than in NoCal, based around San Francisco, yet it is a more chilling vision of the future than any hyper-violent setting could ever convey. NoCal is more human, and the most important feature of San Francisco remains intact if not unchanged: Gibson's depiction of the Oakland Bridge -- supposing that when the bridge is closed to traffic the homeless of the city commandeer it as their own and build themselves a ramshackle city -- is a phantasmagoric place, a wonderful shifting creation, of dim lights and shadows.
With Virtual Light, Gibson has written an adult book for the nineties, complex and dark, full of character and in a setting more realistic and chilling than any cyberpunk novel. Cyberpunk is dead but I'll still be wearing my black jeans.