William Gibson and SF

Gibson Becomes an Old Romancer

(Reviewed some years ago when the novel first came out. I reproduce the review because it contains, I believe, some still relevant material).

William Gibson All Tomorrow’s Parties. G.P. Putnam’s, 1999, 278 pages. $34.99.

William Gibson’s new novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, is the latest in a celebrated output that, according to legend, began in Professor Susan Wood’s 1977 class in science fiction at the University of British Columbia. Gibson asked Susan’s permission to write a story instead of a research assignment and got it: that piece was published, his next one appeared in Omni, and Gibson, Master of Cyberpunk, was off and running.

But there’s more. Susan Wood, long before she became a professor, was a student of mine at Carleton. In those days she was a great fan of the works of Dr. Isaac Asimov, a writer I’ve always rated as unshakably mediocre. Susan didn’t see this, and turned in what I thought was a pretty superficial research paper on her favourite, for which I gave her a B+. That was the end of a budding professional relationship, but, as Alanis might put it: isn’t it ironical? For in a certain way — through Susan — Asimov begat Gibson. Now if I had only told her to write a story instead of letting her do that analysis of the good doctor’s oeuvre!

From Asimov to William Gibson — from old-fashioned hard science fiction to cyberpunk — it’s an interesting trail, one inextricably bound up with that odd SF movement of the 1960s and 1970s known as new wave. New wave borrowed from Virginia Woolf, the French nouveau roman, the 1960s drug culture and other sources to create a special kind of science fiction. In Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds and elsewhere stories appeared that ignored science in general and outer space and the future in particular and made inner space the centre of focus. In retrospect, much new wave fiction does seem pretentious and unreadable but it marked the coming of age of SF and the beginning of the genre’s link to “serious” postmodernism.

Gibson’s work would be impossible without new wave, but a reader of All Tomorrow’s Parties who’d never heard of some of that movement’s noted practitioners — J.G. Ballard, Thomas Disch, or Samuel Delaney, for example — wouldn’t miss a lot because Gibson’s novel has much more immediate, far more hip sources, namely, the hardboiled novels of Raymond Chandler and all the takeoffs derived from them, the novels of Thomas Pynchon, especially The Crying of Lot 49, and the whole oeuvre of the greatest postwar American SF writer, Philip K. Dick, but more especially the cult movie Blade Runner, based on one of Dick’s lesser novels.

If you read All Tomorrow’s Parties with these sources in mind you will probably do what I did: stop a few times to scratch your head and wonder how Gibson can get away with it. Because everything here derives from the models and virtually nothing is original. It’s pastiche overlaid by more pastiche and topped up with one or two updated Hollywood stereotypes. Gibson’s scenario in fact is set up so that some casting company is going to have a whale of an easy time putting Hollywood faces to it.

I’ll tell you enough about the plot to clue you in, but don’t blame me if it sounds familiar. It all takes place in the future – just think of the Blade Runner ambiance and you’ve got it. Pollution, social decay, an orientalized California, lots of shady doing by the big corporations—a world dominated by what Gibson fans know as the Sprawl. At the centre is a freaked-out druggie, an American who inhabits a subway shack in the Tokyo underground. At an early age this guy has imbibed the super psychotropic 5-SB, a substance that clues him in to an imminent change in the world’s reality. Technology is fast spinning over into nanotechnology and Cody Harwood, the biggest corporate fish, described as a combination of Bill Gates and Woody Allen — although in all his scenes he’s a humourless cipher – has also imbibed 5-SB. The mind freak in Japan hires our private-eye look-alike hero Rydell (Harrison Ford?) to help deal with things and the resulting cops and robbers ( little guys against big corp) is played out in California, mostly on a Golden Gate Bridge that has become the bohemian hangout in the west coast Sprawl. The other characters are a goodhearted woman abused by her ex and reunited with the Ford character at a critical moment, a lovable Afro-American souvenir shop owner with two wives, a drunken country and western singer from New Jersey, an idiot savant child, a spooky martial arts killer from another dimension (don’t worry, he’s a good guy), and Rei Toei, “the idoru, an emergent system, a self being continually iterated from experiential input” (she also happens to be a gorgeous and irresistible Japanese hologram dream girl). The novel’s climax involves the firing of the Golden Gate, a spectacular rescue of some of the above and not much of a resolution of a Gibson plot that was never very well-designed in the first place.

All Tomorrow’s Parties creaks along pleasantly enough in the usual Gibson style, but this is a much lesser fiction than, say, Neuromancer. Conjuring up the world of Philip K. Dick was probably not a good idea, since Dick is one of the greatest plot-makers who ever lived and what is lacking in Gibson is one of the things that carries Dick pretty close to greatness: an ability to make us care deeply about his good characters, who — no matter what corrupted smog-ridden drugged-out hells they inhabit — manage to radiate a resilient humanity.

If you read All Tomorrow’s Parties as a lark, if you see it as a soon-to-be movie scenario, well, no harm done. But please don’t talk about it as a serious novel. For Gibson has fashioned nothing new, but a rather Tarantino-like takeoff on older forms and styles. Just as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction would have been impossible without the hardboiled school of detective writers and film noir, this novel could hardly exist without its progenitors, its cultural reference points. In Pulp Fiction, however, Tarantino is a much more edgy and dangerous auteur than Gibson manages to be here. Pulp Fiction raises, even if inadvertently, some serious questions about art and morality, about the aesthetics of violence. All Tomorrow’s Parties is by comparison a comic strip, an illustrated novel waiting for the pictures, a nice bit of tongue-in-cheek hokum.

This novel should probably lay to rest the notion that William Gibson is a serious postmodern writer. For one thing he is more postindustrial than postmodern. Postmodern writers are connoisseurs of absurdity who construct fictional worlds in which we recognize our realities, so that when those worlds are unsettled — as they always are– our conventional sense of things founders and we come face to face with both the power of language and the fictionality of experience.

Although Gibson has a sure grasp of the marvels and absurdities generated by the close interweaving of human beings and technology, computers above all, none of his books — and this one least of all– are explorations of language. They are more like scenarios for computer games with weak plots and strong atmospheres. Gibson is the master of the murky mise-en-scène, the half-serious poet of simulated experience, the arch referencer of hip artifacts.

Gibson’s books are themselves something of a cultural indicator. They show how the decline of literacy has meant a violation of context in every sphere. We suffer from a confusion of boundaries, blurring images and ideas instead of synthesizing them. In Gibson’s fiction mystical and religious notions leach from one system to another, like rusty water leaking from faulty conduits. Although the “cool” media (The Village Voice, Omni) dote on his hip style, the New Age cyberfreaks also embrace Gibson. Like them he makes a shotgun marriage between William Blake’s notion of the “human form divine” and McLuhan’s bafflegab about the media. The result is an ersatz voodoo lingo that passes for tribal wisdom in the global village.

Some would go further and claim that Gibson writes for a generation that enjoys sex without passion, drugs without ecstasy and music without melody. His audience (apart from culture analysts) is computer nerds, rock fans and over-stimulated teens. Neuromancer, the title of Gibson’s most famous and best book gives it away: it contains an oxymoron, since neurons are about as unromantic as it gets. His characters would rather make love with machines than with each other.

William Gibson’s novels, when all is said and done, don’t really constitute a very important fictional oeuvre, but they are really one hell of a cultural nexus. All Tomorrow’s Parties is superficial and maybe a bit opportunistic. It’s anything but original, but it’s quite fun and in the end blessedly removed from Isaac Asimov’s deadfall prose and often blinkered ideas. Maybe Susan Wood did the right thing after all.

(This review appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, November 14, 1999. For a slightly different perspective, see Douglas Barbour’s review.)

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