Deconstructing the Starships: Science, Fiction, and Reality

By Gwyneth Jones | Go to book overview

14
Virtual Light: A Shocking Dose of Comfort
and Joy from William Gibson

The time is 2005. A personable young woman, a San Francisco bike-courier called Chevette Washington, steals—by pure fluke—a pair of VR spectacles. Unluckily for her what she takes for a pair of sunglasses is actually a neat piece of data-display tech holding some valuable and contraband commercial information. Meanwhile a similarly personable young man, an aspiring private-sector law officer called Berry Rydell, suffers a career setback, is almost but not quite featured on a popular tv show called Cops in Trouble; and ends up employed by the suspect enforcement officers who have gathered to hunt Chevette down. A thriller develops, involving hacker-action, a nasty murder, drug-induced paranoia, much chasing about and much local colour. Particularly colourful is the Bay Bridge— which has been ruined in an earthquake and has rapidly metamorphosed into a funky squatters' quartier. Commentary of one kind or another is provided by ageing-hipster Skinner, a Bay Bridge sacred elder and Chevette's protector; and by Yamakazi, an earnestly intellectual young Japanese tourist.

Some of this is standard Neuromancing: the chase-and-recovery plot, simple and robust enough to carry any amount of rococo flourishes; the densely depicted near future; the smugly lawless hackers, the two young no-hopes being thrown about (and into each other's arms) by the same old Invisible Hand—here represented by fiendish Singaporean urban developers. But even allowing for the fact that 2005 is barely a decade away, there is remarkably little cyberdelia in the wealth of meticulous nearmarket research; and remarkably little hysteria in the thriller plot. The dense invention favours culture—tv shows, folk-art, instant religion— above gadgets; and the gadgets are given no fantastic glamour. From the way the virtual light specs are described here they could be on the real life market before the paperback of the novel: and the threat invoked by the contraband information is quite unnervingly low key. A Lee Kuan Yew style town-planning facelift for San Francisco may be a scary prospect. But however allergic you are to the electronic island, it's hardly the end of the universe.

William Gibson had never been much of a genre apologist. Since Neuromancer took the sf world by storm ten years ago, ‘cyberpunk’ has become (among other things) a form of science fiction which is instantly

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