Friday, 3 August 2012

Virtual Light

William Gibson Virtual Light (1993)
I'm beginning to get an impression of William Gibson as a writer who grew into his reputation over a number of years. Whilst his prose has remained consistently erudite and dazzling, I've tended to find his earlier writing somewhat irritating - all style and little substance - in contrast to more recently meatier efforts. I've yet to familiarise myself with the allegedly amazing Neuromancer so clearly this may be something of a generalisation, but what pleasure I've thus far derived from each Gibson novel has corresponded directly to its age. The short stories collected in 1986 as Burning Chrome were mostly piffle, 2003's Pattern Recognition was a thing of great beauty, and that seems to be how it works. By this equation Virtual Light should therefore represent an improvement on Mona Lisa Overdrive without being quite so good as Idoru, and weirdly this turns out to be roughly true.

The detail is as usual delicious and sort of crunchy, all manner of technical gizmos and doodads smeared in jam and described with the sort of photorealist immediacy you get with a Chuck Close painting; and although it holds the attention better than predecessors, he still wasn't quite there. Detail crowds out the sense of what is actually happening, so characters turn up somewhere unexpected because you missed the half sentence describing their getting off the bus and walking into the store, suffocated as it was between big observational titties about a Cornflakes logo and substances expelled onto the seating of public transportation. I'm paraphrasing, but the point is that it's disorientating and becomes annoying after a while, particularly as more and more characters are introduced like an attempt to see how many people will fit into a telephone booth, and you still haven't quite got a handle on some bloke who showed up fifty pages earlier. I suppose one advantage of this narrative snowstorm is that it tends to conceal the fact of there not actually being much of a story, or at least not much of a new story.

Some woman nicks a pair of magic spectacles at a party, special magic computer spectacles containing important plans, and some people chase after her for a bit because they want them back: I have a sinking feeling that this may be the same plot as every other William Gibson novel I've read, even the good ones. Whilst I suppose there's nothing wrong with recycling, Virtual Light doesn't really do enough interesting stuff to justify the repetition. It's not a bad book by any means, but there was definitely better to come.

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