Berry Rydell is the most likable character in Gibson’s oeuvre. He’s not an innocent (he’s a cop who used lethal force without authorization, though he had good reason), but he’s somehow avoided becoming rough, or crude, or cynical. He’s Southern without being a Good Ol’ Boy, reminding me a bit of Timothy Olyphant in Justified or Deadwood, or of Ray Tatum in T.R. Pearson’s novels. Simple, even noble, somehow, without trying, without being ridiculous. Doing the right thing, mainly because in the long run it’s less complicated. This, of course, gets him into monumental amounts of trouble, just as it would in our world. He gets let go from the Knoxville police force almost as soon as he’s hired, loses his job as a rent-a-cop with IntenSecure because a hacker prank (which may have been orchestrated by a husband trying to catch his wife with the pool boy) manipulates him into doing the morally correct, but pragmatically wrong, thing. The job his old boss lines up for him with Lucius Warbaby looks like it may work out for him, because he seems to be good at it, but given its dubious legal status, we know right away that Rydell’s instincts will make him fuck it up somehow.
Chevette Washington is how he fucks it up. She’s a kid from Oregon who walked out of a bad life and into an uncertain one, nearly dying of exposure until Skinner (a short story about Skinner was the inspiration for the entire Bridge Trilogy, of which Virtual Light is the first volume) took her in and got her healthy again. She lives with him on the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge and works as a bike messenger in the city (San Francisco, not Oakland), and taking care of Skinner as he ages, at least until she finds herself at a party she really shouldn’t be attending, and steals some guy’s sunglasses because he was being a dick. All hell rains down on her after that. Lucius Warbaby, who is clearly bad news, is hired to find her after the guy she stole the glasses from winds up dead, and the two Russian cops (pretty much all the cops in this particular dystopic future—or past, since I think Virtual Light is supposed to take place somewhere around 2005—are Russian expatriates) he’s working with look like they’re even worse news. Chevette’s fellow bike messenger sums up the nature of Chevette’s problem quite nicely:
There’s only but two kinds of people. People can afford hotels like that, they’re one kind. We’re the other. Used to be, like, a middle class, people in between. But not anymore, we proj their messages on. We get paid for it. We try not to drip on the carpet. And we get by, okay? But what happens on the interface? What happens when we touch?
Well, what happens on the interface is fairly simple. The poor do what they’re told, or the rich gut them like fish, literally or figuratively. Much like today, actually. In this particular instance, it turns out that the sunglasses Chevette stole were not sunglasses, but a Virtual Light unit (they transmit visual images directly to the brain, without photons—vision without light, so “virtual light”) that costs about as much as a small car, and is being used as part of a sneakernet to transport information vital to the future of San Francisco. Rydell is sent onto the Bridge (more on the Bridge shortly, but yes, it gets a capital letter) to find Chevette, and he succeeds, at a grimy little bar called Cognitive Dissidents. But when he hands her over to the cops, and realizes that they aren’t looking to arrest her, his sense of right and wrong kicks in, and suddenly it’s the two of them on the run instead of just Chevette.
So the Bridge. A few years before Virtual Light opens, a series of earthquakes hit Tokyo and San Francisco, destroying a good deal of the infrastructure of both cities. The Japanese rebuild by dumping all the rubble into the ocean and letting nano-machines loose, not rebuilding so much as growing a new city. The resulting buildings somehow feel both organic and artificial at the same time. In San Francisco, things are different. That community prefers to rebuild the old-fashioned way, but the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge is beyond repair and subsequently abandoned. One night the city’s underclass storms the barbed-wire fencing that isolates the Bridge, and take up residence. The Bridge becomes a makeshift, almost lawless shanty town, inspired by Kowloon Walled City. The Bridge is like Tokyo, in that it’s a city of new technologies built on top of the ruins of an old city, but instead of being cutting-edge, expensive, centrally managed technology, it’s improvised, decentralized, a blend of the old and new. It may be the most amazing place in all of Gibson’s work. The Bridge is a character as much as a setting, or a metaphor, or the embodiment of a theme. There is even a Japanese sociology student (an “existential sociologist”), Shinya Yamazaki, who has come to San Francisco to study the Bridge. He takes over Chevette’s role as Skinner’s helpmeet when Chevette flees with Rydell.
Unlike with a great many of Gibson’s novels, the central conflict of Virtual Light is between ideologies rather than organizations or individuals. The data that Chevette has stolen details a plan to rebuild San Francisco the way Tokyo has been rebuilt. While this would be amazing for the wealthy property developers, it would be an absolute disaster for the majority of the city’s population, the denizens of the Bridge in particular (it just occurred to me: there’s a version of the Bridge in the disastrous 1995 film adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic). Rydell (and later, Rydell and Chevette) attract the attention of a reality television show called Cops in Trouble, and it’s in his exploitation by the producers (and Gibson’s over the top satire of television production) where the struggle for the individual to live a fundamentally moral (or ethical) life in a society that is slipping—or being driven, by folks like the Cops in Trouble producers—from amorality into immorality stands out most clearly. On the Bridge, folks look out for themselves, but they also look out for each other. In the outside world, there are only predators and prey.
Virtual Light was my nineteenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Idoru, by William Gibson.