All Tomorrow’s Parties

By William Gibson

It’s not often that science-fiction novels get a major hardcover release. Like most other genre fiction, SF has paperback blood running in its veins. So even if you don’t follow SF all that closely, you might still suspect that this new book by Vancouver’s William Gibson is a big event.

Gibson, who first attracted a lot of notice with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, is already something of an SF legend. As the man who coined the phrase “cyberspace,” he is seen as the guru of a whole sub-genre of SF dealing with digital cowboys surfing visionary landscapes of data. And although cyberpunk itself may have run its course, Gibson’s fan base has remained secure.

While it can be read and enjoyed on its own, All Tomorrow’s Parties is meant to be the third part of a trilogy (or what Gibson has misleadingly called a “triptych”). Its cast will be familiar to those who have read the earlier novels Virtual Light and Idoru. The main characters are Colin Laney, the cyber-stalker living in a cardboard box in Tokyo; Rydell, the taciturn hero; and Chevette, Rydell’s feisty ex-girlfriend.

The time is the future, but one so close to our own as to be immediately recognizable. Most of the action takes place on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which is now home to a Bohemian community of squatters. The bridge itself is a metaphor for the great shift in history that is about to take place and that only a select few are able to sense coming. Colin Laney and his nemesis Cody Harwood, a super-media magnate, are two such readers of the radiant gist. The stakes they are playing for are more than a little vague, but whatever is going on is big.

Overlaying all of this is a kind of techno-New Age spiritualism, the main ideas of which are common to a lot of contemporary SF. There is, for example, the notion that we are evolving into a potentially immortal human-technology hybrid form, and the presentation of cyberspace as a code for the mystical order behind the chaos of modern reality.

That may sound heavy, but it’s really just a backdrop for Gibson’s uncanny knack for projecting trends in consumer culture. It is in his preoccupation with the strange domestic details of the wired global mall that we find what is essentially Gibson. Rydell’s “absolutely authentic fake” jeans read like a signature: “the denim woven in Japan on ancient, lovingly maintained American looms and then finished in Tunisia to the specifications of a team of Dutch designers and garment historians.”

It’s clever stuff, but All Tomorrow’s Parties doesn’t measure up to Gibson’s earlier work. What made Neuromancer a great book was its adaptation of popular story-telling forms, especially classic American detective fiction, into an exciting, freshly imagined context. Unfortunately, this work has a far less compelling story to tell. The great node of history, which has something to do with a courier service between 7-11s, is anticlimactic to say the least. In addition there are a number of missteps in tone, including an unfortunate scene near the end that plays the villain for comic relief.

There are a lot of great SF novels that deserve the prestige that comes with a hardcover release and some of them have been written by William Gibson. But in the case of All Tomorrow’s Parties you might want to wait for the paperback.

Review first published December 4, 1999.


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