Review: Some Gibson reflections

Recently I have re-read some of William Gibson’s books. I have mixed feelings about his stories. He is great at creating unsettling futures and populating them with common people who do what they can to survive while “swimming among sharks”. I am particularly fond of the Krushkova subplot in Count Zero, Yamazaki’s academic work in Virtual Light, and Chia’s journey to Tokyo in Idoru. These people get entangled in schemes that stretch far beyond their horizons.

The description of the bridge society that plays such an important role in Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties is also great sociological science fiction. Gibson lets its peculiar culture, such as the veneration of Shapely, and vertical geography appear every now and then to underline other plot elements.

But the plots are Gibson’s major problem, at least for me. It seems that the characters get so entangled in hazards that only a deus ex machina will be able to save them. And such ones appear in the form of vastly powerful virtual characters. The protagonists too often “invoke” such beings electronically (e.g. the God-Mountain in Virtual Light, the Etruscan in Idoru, the loa in Count Zero) and let them solve the final plot problems.

Pattern Recognition turned out to be a major disappointment. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gibson had had a compact style, letting the plots move forward rapidly. But when he left the field of science fiction and moved into writing thrillers taking place in the contemporary world, he started spending too much space on describing places and clothing, on long journeys hither and thither. Halfway into the story, I lost interest in the riddle of the poetic film clips. Krushkova’s quest for the “magic” boxes in Count Zero was exciting (something major being implicitly at stake), whereas Cayce’s similar plotline was bland.

I am curious about another Gibson foible: his fondness for Tokyo and London. Tokyo serves as the stage for Idoru and London for much of Mona Lisa Overdrive and Pattern Recognition. But how does a reader from one of those cities react to Gibson’s descriptions? Does he successfully evoke the genuine moods of those places? (When I read Cryptonomicom by Neal Stephenson — a novel with roots in Gibson’s stories — I was put off when two protagonists visited Sweden during World War Two. A descriptive failure. The author had simply not done his homework, creating a dissonance in my mind. But an American reader would probably not be bothered by it.)

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