January 2000

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All Tomorrow's Parties:
Counting Down
to the Real End Times

by Daphne Frostchild

All Tomorrow's Parties
William Gibson
278 pp.
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Let's get the obligatory appositive out of the way, shall we? William Gibson, the science fiction writer credited with coining the phrase 'cyberspace'...

There. It'll probably go on his tombstone, poor guy, but we book reviewers are bound by a secretive Masonic / Trilateral Commission type of agreement that states that we must all keep repeating it. (And don't even think about asking me to confirm the rumor that John Grisham and David Baldacci are actually one and the same--mum's the word.)

Of course, cyberspace looks a lot different now than it did way back in 1984, when Gibson published his debut novel, Neuromancer, and jumpstarted a radical cyberpunk movement driven by a swaggering prose style and a hip, insider's vocabulary. Back then, console cowboys jacked into the Net. Nowadays, suburbanites sign onto AOL ("Welcome! You've Got Mail!") to order opera tickets, check their stock portfolios and do research on which SUV offers the best torque. From an edgy frontier of the future, it's evolved into a promisingly sedate extension of traditional capitalist enterprise.

Fate leads or drags men, willy-nilly on, as Seneca says--but he never mentioned the inevitable price tag.

But don't bother giving the bad news to William Gibson, the science fiction writer credited with coining the--oh. Already did that. Anyway, Gibson writes with the same hepped-up rebel's fervor today as he did sixteen years ago. But he's toned down the vocabulary a bit, and he's largely moved away from his early habit of making faceless, multinational corporations the bad guys in his novels. (Why bother, right?) This time out, with All Tomorrow's Parties, he picks up some characters from his last two novels, Idoru (1996) and the shockingly good Virtual Light (1993), and brings them together in San Francisco for what his prescient character Colin Laney promises to be the real cataclysm, post-Millennium:


Laney reaches up and removes the bulky, old-fashioned eyephones. Yamazaki cannot see what outputs to them, but the shifting light from the display reveals Laney's hollowed eyes. "It's all going to change, Yamazaki. We're coming up on the mother of all nodal points. I can see it, now. It's all going to change."

"I don't understand."

"Know what the joke is? It didn't change when they thought it would. Millennium was a Christian holiday. I've been looking at history, Yamazaki. I can see the nodal points in history. Last time we had one like this was 1911."


1911? I know--it didn't exactly jump at me as an obvious date, either. 1918, 1929, 1945...sure. But 1911? Anyway, according to Laney (and he should know, since a childhood exposure to an experimental drug makes him especially sensitive to these sorts of things), something big is going to happen on San Francisco's Bay Bridge, and whatever it is, it's going to change the world for real, this time--unless Laney can stop it ("The future is inherently plural").

Of course, Laney's not sure what it is, exactly, that he's supposed to stop. But it seems to involve a man with the unnerving ability to kill people ruthlessly without leaving a trace of himself on the Net (yep: there's that word--cyberpunks of the world, unite!). That's why Laney's brought Berry Rydell, the rent-a-cop from Virtual Light, to the Bay Bridge: he needs someone with a cop's instincts to track down the killer--and survive the encounter so he can face whatever comes next.

Unfortunately, Laney isn't telling Rydell as much as he'd like to know, and he's ready to walk off the job, out of sheer frustration. But Laney's not up to facing the nodal point on his own (a combination of "a blue hypnotic cough syrup" and a Japanese cocktail of "alcohol, caffeine, aspirin, and liquid nicotine is keeping him going). So it's all up to Rydell no matter how he feels about being jerked around--or so it seems. Without giving away too much, let's just say that Rydell's old girlfriend, Chevette Washington, keeps crossing his path on the Bridge without quite meeting him, and a wholly digital Japanese singer who would like to become wholly human ends up finding him before Chevette does. In the meantime, a diabolically powerful man who feels the nodal point coming makes a call to the Net-less killer, to ensure that he's got as much power post-node as he does now.

Confused? Trust me: it's not just us. All Tomorrow's Parties can be difficult to decipher at times, and part of the reason lies in Gibson's unique writing style. Jean-Luc Godard's films might be the closest another artist's work comes to Gibson's technique: they both use abbreviated scenes, confusing close shots and jump cuts to disorient their audience. Gibson's writing is wonderful when he pares it down, as it is here in this noirish exchange:


"We have profiles," the man with the scarf says, off-camera, the face of the corpse thrown across Laney's cardboard wall, the melon blanket. "We have a full forensic psych run-up. But you ignore them."

"Of course I do."

"You're in denial." Two pairs of hands, in latex gloves, grasp the dead man, flip him over. There is a second, smaller wound visible, beneath one shoulder blade; blood has pooled within the body, darkened. "He poses as real a danger to you as to anyone else."

"But he's interesting, isn't he?"

The wound, in close-up, is a small unsmiling mouth. The blood reads black. "Not to me."

"But you aren't interesting, are you?"

"No," and the camera pans up, light catching a sharp cheekbone above the black scarf, "and you don't want me to be, do you?"


But Gibson's prose suffers when he overworks it. In the more portentous sections of All Tomorrow's Parties, Gibson's sentences become so entangled that it's tough, at first glance, to untangle them. But that's part of the price Gibson's willing to pay, I suppose, in order to build up the momentum he needs to make his impressionistic prose take on an unworldly, eerily disorienting quality.

All Tomorrow's Parties isn't as good as Virtual Light (a Pynchonesque masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned), but it still makes for fun, heady reading--particularly if you like your sci-fi mysteries shrouded in a form-concealing gothic fog.


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