VIRTUAL LIGHT By William Gibson. Bantam Books, 325 pp., $21.95. WILLIAM GIBSON is our Jules Verne. Since the early 1980s, Gibson has offered a vision of the future that seemed both exotic and prophetically plausible. By creating worlds in which computers pressed at the boundaries of reality, Gibson made hackers into heroes and technicians into the next aristocrats. At the same time, his focus on the computer-crime subculture helped launch the cyberpunk movement, a silicon underground of software, anar chy, and urban grit.
While Gibson's fans love his street-wise plots and his over-heated prose style, critics have admired his message of human adaptability to technical change. It now appears that Gibson wants to present his pop-sociology in a more relevant setting. His new novel is set 25 years in the future and is filled with characters you might find in any big city's racier neighborhoods. Unlike the surreal landscapes of his earlier stories, the world of "Virtual Light" is just one generation removed from our own.
Gibson's urban panorama is both spectacular and bleak. Skyscrapers are "grown" rather than built, using microbe-sized robots created by "nanotechnology." People entertain themselves with virtual-reality simulators, while the barriers between television and real life continue to erode. And more familiar forms of social decay have also accelerated: Drug abuse is out of control, and homeless mobs and mysterious cults have taken over any public space that hasn't been privatized.
The novel centers on the adventures of Berry Rydell, a Knoxville, Tenn., cop who loses his job and winds up in Los Angeles after a shootout with a drug-crazed kidnapper briefly turns Rydell into a TV star. Rydell goes to work for a private security agency that seems to be more powerful than the actual police (one of Gibson's favorite themes is how multinational corporations will absorb traditional government functions). More misadventures ensue: Like all of Gibson's heros, Rydell is comfortable only when
he's in trouble.
Rydell winds up in San Francisco as the driver for a private detective tracking down a missing pair of "sun glasses." The purloined shades turn out to have a unique feature: Thanks to "virtual light" technology, the wearer is able to look at the Golden Gate skyline and see a secret plan for rebuilding the city, a plan worth billions to shady real-estate developers.
The stolen glasses belong to Colombian cocaine barons who have abandoned the drug trade for more lucrative markets in bootlegged data. Like the Maltese Falcon, the glasses become the object of everyone's desire. They have fallen into the hands of Chevette Washington, a teenage runaway who works as a bike messenger and lives in a anarchist village built among the girders of the old Bay Bridge. Rydell and Chevette team up, and soon both legal and illegal furies are on their trail. Perhaps the only force po werful enough to save them is the Republic of Desire, a mysterious league of all-powerful hackers.
"Virtual Light" is sleek and compact, like a new notebook computer; unfortunately, it does not burn with the same incandescence that made Gibson's "Neuromancer" and "Count Zero" so riveting. Rydell and Chevette are sympathetic without being as well-drawn as one would like.
On the other hand, besides being a fun read, "Virtual Light" performs the valuable service of bringing Gibson's social concepts into higher resolution: The novel is a real-time simulation of the cyberpunk ethos. Perhaps on his next outing Gibson will ease up on the adrenaline and work on a canvas wide enough to develop his big ideas properly.