#23 – All Tomorrow’s Parties, by William Gibson

There is a concept called “the Singularity” that is of special concern to science fiction authors. It is the moment when an artificial intelligence becomes so intelligent, so self-aware, that it no longer needs us to create more and better intelligences. When it begins to evolve independently, like a biological organism (I’m sure there is a more technical definition, but this is close enough for most science fiction, and close enough for William Gibson). That’s what Gibson was writing about in the Sprawl Trilogy. Wintermute and Neuromancer connecting to become this other thing; that moment is a Singularity. It sounds like it could all be good fun, but it can be unsettling. You’ve seen the unsettling version on television and in the movies. Think SkyNet, think The Matrix. That’s ultimately what was behind the whole of the Sprawl Trilogy. Recently I’ve been seeing the word used to describe something more broad. It’s not just related to artificial intelligence, but to any technology that changes things to the point where it is difficult for folks to make direct, logical connections between the world that was before that change, and the world that came after. Neal Stephenson wrote an excellent novel called The Diamond Age, which took place in a society that had been entirely reshaped by a nanotech Singularity. The ability to quickly and cheaply build more or less anything molecule by molecule alters how people live in the world in ways that simply can’t be comprehended. The Diamond Age is a thing apart. I’m not entirely sure how you could describe it, except in terms of itself. Both the Sprawl Trilogy and the Bridge Trilogy, up until certain key moments in Mona Lisa Overdrive and All Tomorrow’s Parties, were about a whole society organized to prevent the Singularity from coming.

Berry Rydell, much to my great pleasure, is back as a major player in All Tomorrow’s Parties, and so are Chevette and the Bridge. Rydell works as security for a globally franchised convenience store called Lucky Dragon, which is as brilliant a thing as any I’ve seen in a cyberpunk novel. It’s tremendous satire, made all the better because it could be played straight even if it appeared in some other novel in almost identical detail. It’s a fixture running through the background of the whole novel, a clear sign of import in any William Gibson book, but no matter how many times I read All Tomorrow’s Parties it never twigs for me until the last minute. But I was talking about Rydell. This time he’s going fishing on behalf of Laney, who is both disintegrating as a human being, living out of a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway station, and playing an elaborate chess game with Cody Harwood, the ostensible villain of the novel. Somewhere out there is a man who doesn’t show up on the board, who Laney can’t see in the flow of data, except as a conspicuous absence. It is Rydell’s job to go to the Bridge, collect a very special package, and draw the man out.

In the meantime, there’s Chevette Washington. She’d left Rydell after the thing with Cops in Trouble fell apart yet again, deciding that she wanted someone more together, which almost inevitably means a wealthier man with an almost pathologically robust self image. “Almost pathologically” was probably the wrong phrase to use, because it turns out the guy is an actual psychopath, his obsession with clothes and personal appearance making him a subtle echo of Christian Bale’s business-card fixated character in American Psycho. She eventually pierces through the veneer, leaves him, and he pursues. What’s great is that Gibson somehow makes this triangle seem like something other than the the most stale plot on Earth. It feels like the natural progression of these characters’ lives, the thing that would have happened to these particular people if they existed in the real world. (And besides, bitter experience has taught me that clichés don’t become clichés for no reason.) Chevette moves in with a commune of media student house-sitters, but when her predatory ex shows up at the door, her friend Tessa convinces Chevette to flee with her, since she (Tessa) would have been leaving the following morning to film a documentary anyway. Rydell collects his package at a Lucky Dragon, and surprise surprise, the whole lot of them find their way to the Bridge, narrowly missing serendipitous reunions in a way that might have been comical in the hands of a lesser author.

The package is Rei Toei, the idoru. Whatever was meant to happen on the island at the end of Idoru failed to happen, or happened in a way that nobody expected, and she has abandoned Rez, and to a lesser extent her teacher Laney (although this is a vague point; Laney seems to know what happened to her, but at other times not know—I’m not sure if this is a property of Laney’s diminished capacity, or a strategy to keep Rydell from behaving rashly; it seems too smooth to be a mistake on Gibson’s part). Her trip to the Bridge is the next stage of her becoming, and nobody, not even Laney understands what that means (and only Hardwood believes he knows, but he does not).

There are a handful of subplots going on. Fontaine figures much more heavily than he did in Virtual Light, taking in a stray who thinks of himself as Silencio, and who is a kind of distillation of Colin Laney’s gift, his special sense for patterns made flesh. There are the mercenaries, and there is Konrad (like Hideo from Neuromancer, but more autonomous, and far, far scarier), whose attention Rydell has been trying to attract, and there is Boomzilla and some others.

Starting with Mona Lisa Overdrive, but not being fully realized until Pattern Recognition, Gibson has been subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, undermining the conventions of the techno-thriller that have provided the structure for his plots. There is violence at the end of All Tomorrow’s Parties, but not the neat, definitive violence that readers would expect from how the various threads of the plot have woven together. It is not Rydell who rescues Chevette from her psycho ex (though he tries), but rather the mysterious Konrad. Nor is there ever a confrontation between Konrad and Rydell, an event that was foreshadowed countless times on the path to their meeting. There is a messy battle with the mercenaries, but it happens mostly off-stage (or, this being a William Gibson novel, off-screen), and it fails utterly to be the point where the novel reaches critical mass. Instead, there is a watch, a hard drive on a satellite, and a new kiosk at Lucky Dragon. The true point where All Tomorrow’s Parties reaches critical mass is when the Bridge begins to burn. It’s not just the last, desperate hope of the mercenaries to claim their prize, but the clearing of underbrush and the tilling of soil. In the Bridge Trilogy Gibson built for us a new world on the ruined ground of what we, as readers, already knew, but it was makeshift, temporary, contingent. When the Bridge goes up in flames and Rei Toei steps out of Lucky Dragon—every Lucky Dragon, everywhere—as flesh and blood, a nanotech Singularity, a new world rises with her, one that simply cannot be fathomed. We are too busy on the Bridge, trying to put out the flames, to notice, or to comprehend, or even to care, really. But it happens all the same.

There are lessons here still, from the old world, from even before the Bridge. It is the careful, compassionate, and (fundamentally) formally-organized government of Northern California that saves the Bridge, diverting aerial fresh-water tankers bound for Los Angeles or some other city, using them as emergency water-bombers. It was a plan put in place long before the fire, because everyone, even those who exist only in the interstitial spaces—and perhaps especially them—is dependent on the outside in some way, whether they know it or not, and whether they like it or not.

It’s worth noting too, that while it is often praised for more economical use of language than the previous two Bridge novels, the prose of All Tomorrow’s Parties can be startlingly poetic at times. It contains my favourite passage in all of Gibson’s novels, in fact:

He feels it as a single indescribable shape, something brailled out for him against a ground or backdrop of he knows not what, and it hurts him, in the poet’s phrase, like the world hurts God. Within this, he palps nodes of potentiality, strung along lines that are histories of the happened becoming the not-yet. He is very near, he thinks, to a vision in which past and future are one and the same; his present, when he is forced to reinhabit it, seems increasingly arbitrary, its placement upon the time line that is Colin Laney more a matter of convenience than of any absolute now.

The poet, of course, is Sylvia Plath, though I haven’t read the whole poem, and couldn’t begin to tell you what the line means in that context. I can’t remember exactly the reasons why, but this paragraph always struck me as inhabiting my own sense of how I lived within a particular romantic relationship, not being able to look at it directly, knowing its effects as much from the space they left behind as from their direct action, feeling both wounded and empowered at the same time. Heady stuff, and not at all an easy mix of emotions to explain. There is even a story I wrote, languishing five years now in its first draft, still burning too intense for me to look at, called “Like the World Hurts God,” named for this passage rather than for Plath’s lines, a tale of glory and betrayal and delusion. But anyway.

All Tomorrow’s Parties was my twenty-first selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Concrete Island, by J.G. Ballard.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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