I have somewhat ambivalent feelings towards the work of William Gibson, for reasons which are likely not the fault of his novels or stories at all. I read Neuromancer when it was first released in German translation; by then, the novel had accumulated quite a bit of hype from all kinds of sources and I was young and naive and still prone to give credence to cover blurbs from famous people. In consequence, I was very disappointed to find that Neuromancer wasn’t what I thought it was, rather unfairly blamed the novel for it, and did not read anything else by William Gibson for quite a while.
Being somewhat older now, generally mellower but rather cynical about anything that gets put on book covers, I gave the novel another shot, and this time round enjoyed it for what it is, namely a well-written sci-fi thriller with a ton of cool ideas. After reading the rest of the trilogy, I moved on to Virtual Light, which looked like more of the same. As it turned out, however, appearances can be deceptive.
On the surface, Virtual Light does indeed appear rather similar to the Sprawl trilogy – set closer to the present than the earlier novels, but still Science Fiction, and another fast-moving thriller. Which I suppose is almost true. Except for the “fast-moving” bit. And if you think about it, the novel is not really a thriller either (or a novel, for that matter, but I will return to that farther down). It does use some traditional plot trappings of that genre, but does so in a way that makes it clear that in reality it is not interested in those at all. The action, such as it is, kicks off with an utterly implausible coincidence (even with an intersection of several of them), and the ensuing plot coughs and stutters into life like the ancient motor of an ancient car and moves ahead with about just as much speed.
There is not much in the way of an unfolding narrative, instead there are some people looking for some McGuffin that the female protagonist accidentally acquired (is there a more tired plot device?), they show up and shoot people, female and male protagonist flee together, bad guy turns up and more shooting ensues, male protagonist pulls off clever trick with the help of a convenient deus ex machina (a bunch of them, in fact), the end.
It’s all beyond ridiculous and the only purpose this sad excuse for a plot seems to serve is to show Gibson’s deep disdain for such silly things as a story. I’m not sure why Gibson decided to write this as a thriller, as it is quite obvious that (at least at this point in his career) he had no interest in the form whatsover. In fact, I can’t help the impression that he didn’t even really want to write a novel, but would likely have been much more happy with an extended essay or even better, a piece of fictional journalism describing what his idea of the near future would look like. And it is as this that Virtual Light has some value and is not a complete waste of time – the world building here is brilliant and by far more interesting than the trite plot and its cardboard characters; lots and lots of cool and colourful ideas get juggled by Gibson, forming a dazzling display of fascinating concepts, eliciting frequent Ahhhs and Ooohs from the reader.
Even so, this remains a strange book – overall Virtual Light does not seem so much an intentional structure but something that has grown and agglomerated, much like the Bridge that Yamizaki waxes enthusiastic about (a character, by the way, whose only purpose seems to be to provide the novel with that meta-level, or rather to make it so blatantly obvious that nobody could possibly miss it). It is like had Gibson had started with some small kernel, a basic idea and then kept adding things to it as they occurred to him, maybe some things he read, heard, or picked up in some other way, and ended up with a piece of art trouvé rather than a work of literature, something very uneven but also quite fascinating.