Virtual Light by William Gibson (1993)

Yamazaki crossed to the smooth curve of cable that interrupted the room’s floor. Only an oval segment of it was visible, like some mathematical formula barely breaking a topological surface in a computer representation. He bent to touch it, the visible segment polished by other hands. Each of the thirty-seven cables, containing four hundred and seventy-two wires, had withstood, and withstood now, a force of some million pounds. Yamazaki felt something, some message of vast, obscure moment, shiver up through the relic-smooth dorsal hump. The storm, surely; the bridge itself was capable of considerable mobility; it expanded and contracted with heat and cold; the great steel teeth of the piers were sunk into bedrock beneath the Bay mud, bedrock that had scarcely moved even in the Little Grande. (Virtual Light, page 182)

The Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s prose

Gibson is a science fiction author but incorporates a good deal of noir, pulp, thriller and other genre tropes as well as, occasionally, rising to genuinely ‘literary’ complexity of psychological affect. I just read Michael Crichton’s debut novel, The Andromeda Strain, and that has a very straightforward plot, a thriller mapped out across five days, written in extremely clear and lucid prose, written so a 9-year-old could understand it. There are occasional demanding passages describing scientific theories around biology, extra-terrestrial life and so on, but these also are written with the clarity of a school textbook. Clarity is the aim.

Gibson by contrast, is noted for the cool, streetwise, technologically savvy and drug-wired prose style which he invented for his so-called Sprawl trilogy – being Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).

All three of those novels concern ‘street’ people, hustlers, living among the shanties and hi-tech canyons of a futuristic society, living lives full of violence and drugs, and in all three these hustlers are slowly introduced to the higher levels of society, to the professional middle classes, then to billionaires, and so take us on a journey of discovery to uncover the real workings of their post-war society (the Sprawl trilogy is set 50 or 60 years in the future, after World War III).

Another feature of all three Sprawl novels is you’re never really sure what is going on – even when I reached the semi-apocalyptic endings of all three novels, I wasn’t completely sure what had just happened. Since I felt the same about his collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, which also rises to a kind of visionary apocalyptic climax, I concluded that this is a consistent element of Gibson’s approach: that key aspects of the narrative are kept mysterious, giving you the feeling of something ungraspable, just out of reach.

This is one way in which his books might be said to be ‘literary’, in a way the utterly obvious and unmysterious Crichton never is. Everything is explained in Crichton; big important things are not explained, in Gibson.

The Bridge trilogy

Virtual Light is the first of what developed into a new set of three novels, the Bridge Trilogy. How are the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies different? Well, the Sprawl stories were set about fifty years in the future, in around 2035 (they were written in the 1980s), after World War III, when everyone has access to advanced digital technology, and hackers make a living ‘jacking into’ cyberspace in order to carry out hit and run raids against the vast data icebergs of the future corporations which run everything.

The Bridge Trilogy is set in the future, but not so far into the future nor in so different a society. To be precise, it is set only ten years or so after the first novel was published – in what was then the ‘future’ of 2006.

There have still been society-changing events: a mega earthquake (which seems to be named Little Grande) has divided California into NoCal and SoCal (first mentioned page 8) resulting in a steady stream of new volcanoes up in Washington state (p.32). The President is a black woman (p.9), the air is toxic from all the polluting vehicles, skin cancer is a problem, everyone wears a lot of suntan cream (p.14) (see a full list of characteristics of the Bridge world, below).

Why is it called the Bridge trilogy? Because a central feature is that San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge broke during the earthquake, and has been transformed by homeless survivors into a huge, futuristic shantytown. For some of the old-timers who ‘colonised’ it, like Skinner, it’s a place to end their days, but for others like the fresh young heroine of the book, Chevette, it’s all they’ve ever known.

She looked up, just as she whipped between the first of the [concrete] slabs, and the bridge seemed to look down at her, its eyes all torches and neon. She’d seen pictures of what it looked like, before, when they drove cars back and forth on it all day, but she’d never quite believed them. The bridge was what it was, and somehow always had been. Refuge, weirdness, where she slept, home to however many and all their dreams. (p.122)

Given that the trilogy is named after the bridge, it’s notable that the bridge, as such, doesn’t feature that much in the plot, although it is woven in as a key setting, being the temporary home of Chevette and featuring the scene where a bounty hunter comes looking for her there.

The word ‘bridge’ possibly also has a metaphorical sense in that the entire trilogy is a ‘bridge’ from the present (well, the 1990s when Gibson wrote them) to the hyper-digital future envisioned in the Sprawl trilogy of the 2030s and ’40s.

All manner of cool references are slipped into the text about this cool future, which combines a maximum of stoner, drug, derelict street savvy with the highly-armed, gun expertise of Judge Dredd. Thus there is a lot of talk about Glock machine guns, knives, flick-knives, stunguns, SWAT stun grenades and many more weapons. This is meant to be a semi-dystopian future but a) the fact that it is set in what is now our past and b) its obsession with guns, just reinforces my sense of what a screwed-up, hyper-violent society America is, now.

The cool gun expertise alternates with cool references to a new designer drug, ‘dancer’.

Seriously tooled-up intruders tended to be tightened on dancer, and therefore were both inhumanly fast and clinically psychotic. (p.9)

From the get-go Gibson is master of a street savvy, whip-smart, post-Beat prose. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. (page 1)

A lot is going on here, but to pick three obvious points:

  1. It’s poetic prose, designed to be savoured and reread for its sound alone.
  2. ‘The sewage flats’? This is the one and only time they’re mentioned in the book so they take their place alongside hundreds of other details which are thrown away, unexplained, and from which the reader uses their imagination to construct the functioning and appearance of this futureworld (see the list below).
  3. ‘lodged in the lens of night’ is a self-consciously poetic and imaginative image. The book is full of them. It is a self-consciously stylish book, on all levels (in its prose style and setting and characters and plot).

Cops

However, having said all this about Gibson’s zippy prose style and slick future-vision, the reader quite quickly realises the novel is about a cop, Berry Rydell, who’s become a kind of private security guard. An American novel about a cop-turned private detective? Actually this is a very old trope, going back to the noir novels of the 1930s and 40s, to Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler…

And then, as the novel progresses, we watch as this tough private eye rescues the attractive young woman from the bad guys and whisks her off to safety while he tries to figure out the Right Thing To Do.

Hmmm, in this elementary respect, the basic plot structure of Virtual Light seems far from experimental or new – it is, to some extent, a cyberspace update of film noir tropes and characters and plot.

So: we learn that Berry Rydell, born 1983 (p.14) is an ex-cop from Knoxville, Tennessee, who was cashiered out of the service after shooting to pieces a drug-addled maniac who was holding his wife and kids hostage and demanding to speak to the president. He’s managed to get a job with a private security firm named IntenSecure in Los Angeles, alongside a ripe collection of freaks and allergy monkeys… Here’s a plot summary:

Plot summary

Berry Rydell is fired from the Tennessee police force for shooting a hostage-taker, the demented Kenneth Turvey.

Rydell is in his twenties looks like Tommy Lee Jones (p.81) i.e. ruggedly handsome.

The notoriety Rydell wins from shooting Turvey and being sacked leads to him briefly being taken up by the sexy presenter of a TV show, Cops With Problems, Karen Mendelson (p.16) who flies Rydell out to LA and up to her swank penthouse apartment for a few weeks of expense account living and wild sex, before a new and better story comes along, she dumps him and has him escorted from the apartment by security guards who work for IntenSecurity Corporation, a ‘rentacop’ outfit.

That’s what gives Rydell the idea of applying for a job there. He gets one driving a vast 6-wheel ‘Hotspur Hussar’ around the houses of the rich up in Benedict Canyon who’ve paid for security checks (to be precise, he is employed in ‘the residential armed-response branch’ of the IntenSecurity Corporation p.48), alongside a skinny streak of piss named Sublett, who grew up in a trailer park dominated by his born-again Christian mother, watching old movies and harangued all day by TV evangelists.

One evening Rydell and Sublett follow instructions beamed from ‘the Death Star’, the nickname they give to the Southern Californian Geosynclinical Law Enforcement Satellite (p.11).

But it’s a hoax; someone has hacked into the system in order to make Rydell think a robbery and hostage situation is taking place at some luxury home. So Rydell rams the huge truck through the house’s security gate, across the Japanese garden and through the living room wall, and is staggering into the house with his machine gun when… an LAPD helicopter descends over the wreckage and arrests him; the children were off with their father somewhere; there was no hostage situation; the wife was having kinky sex (PVC and handcuffs) with the Polish gardener. As a result she sues IntenSecurity for physical and emotional damages, and they suspend Rydell from all duties: it’s another screw-up.

Cut to San Francisco. Here Chevette-Marie Washington (p.120), who long ago escaped from a juvenile detention centre outside Beaverton (p.125), is a bicycle courier. After making a drop (or ‘pull a tag’ as they seem to call it) at the Hotel Morrisey, she bumps into a drunk in the elevator who takes her up to a party hosted by someone called Cody Harwood, where she spends 15 minutes feeling seriously out of place, gets hit on a by a slimeball with a wet cigar then, on the way out, pushed up against the slimeball by the dense crowd while his attention is distracted talking to a hooker, something is sticking out his pocket and so, on impulse, Chevette nicks it, and is out the apartment door and over to a service elevator, down to the car park, unlocks her bike and is off into the city within minutes…

This turns out to be the core of the plot. Without realising it, Chevette has stolen a very expensive pair of sunglasses. Why? Because they are Virtual Light shades, see below.

Chevette lives high up on the Golden Gate Bridge with a broken-down old man named Skinner in a shack he’s built high up amid the cabling. In the years since the earthquake, thousands of homeless people have constructed a shanty town in the sky, building home-made apartments which have slowly crept up the struts and along the cables of the old bridge till it looks like a giant crustacean, covered with Gothic excrescences.

Skinner is regularly visited by Yamazaki, a Japanese sociologist who is writing a study of how the bridge was colonised and so interviews Skinner because he was one of the ‘pioneers’ of its settlement. T, this being a handy prompt for a series of flashbacks or retellings from Skinner of how it all happened. Yamazaki is not, however, an impressive or powerful figure;  when we see Yamazaki from Chevette’s viewpoint, he is ‘the Japanese nerd… the college boy or social worker’ who always looks lost.

LA Back in Los Angeles, Rydell – having been suspended from work by IntenSecurity – is told by his immediate boss Juanito Hernandez about a job opportunity, working for a freelance security operative, Lucius Warbaby, up in San Francisco. Rydell needs a job so he flies economy up to Frisco sitting next to a sweet old lady who goes on about having to arrange for her husband’s brain, which is in cryogenic storage, to be moved to a better facility. The wacky old future, eh.

Rydell is met at the airport by huge black Lucius Warbaby and his gofer, Freddie (both described on page 80). Freddie’s loud shirt is covered with images of guns, Warbaby has a brace on one leg and walks with a cane. He is the size of a refrigerator but stylish and dignified.

San Francisco Chevette works for Allied Couriers. She’s called in for a grilling by her boss, Bunny Malatesta (p.94) who asks why she checked in to Hotel Morrissey security (on the job where she strayed into the party) but never checked out. The hotel is following it up because the heat is on about the missing shades. In fact, Bunny tells her, the heat is turned up because the owner of the shades has been murdered.

In the next scene Rydell is with Warbaby when he meets two SF homicide cops who are investigating the self-same murder, of Hans Rutger Blix (p.102). The cops are Russians, Svobodov and Orlonsky. Warbaby is a big man but precise and punctilious and polite; he has beautiful handwriting (p.163). He reminds me a bit of the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon.

Chevette’s courier colleague, a beautiful black man named Samuel Saladin DuPree (p.129), or Sammy Sal, gets her to admit to stealing the shades. She shows them to him and he explains that the shades are Virtual Light sunglasses (p.113). They interact directly with the optical nerve without needing actual light. Sammy explains they’re fairly common among professionals, like a hologram.

In fact Warbaby has a pair which he uses when he takes Freddie and Rydell to the crime scene – the hotel room where Blix was murdered – and further explains that the VL shades have ‘drivers’ in the lenses and frames which affect the optic nerves directly (p.120).

Freddie takes Rydell shopping to ‘Container City’, comprised of loads of derelict cargo ships and their containers with stairways strung up and between them, very trash futuristic, maybe like the final scene in the movie I, Robot.

A character named Loveless, a hired thug, arrives at Skinner’s shack on the Bridge with a gun. Chevette is up on the roof with Sammy. Loveless doesn’t see Sammy but orders Chevette to climb down and back into Skinner’s shack. He handcuffs Skinner and Yamazaki with funky futuristic handcuffs made of flexible plastic which tighten if you struggle against them.

Loveless has come looking for the stolen shades. Chevette lies and tells him they’re in the pannier of her bicycle so he forces her down ladders towards the rigged-up lift which takes them down to road level. Here Chevette cleverly arranges for the bike’s electric defence mechanism to give Loveless an electric.

Sammy has silently followed them both down to street level and now bops Loveless on the head but not hard enough. He just has time to hand Chevette back the shades (he’d been holding them up on the roof when Loveless appeared in Skinner’s apartment) before a dazed Loveless staggers back to his feet and pumps Sammy full of lead – Sammy simply disappearing backwards between the cables off the bridge and falling to his death. Shocked, Chevette just turns and runs.

Meanwhile, Warbaby and Freddie arrive with Rydell at the base of the bridge and send him onto it to find Chevette, they being scared by exaggerated stories of its voodoo, cannibalistic inhabitants.

To ensure drama, a heavy rainstorm comes on and in the thick of it Rydell stumbles across Chevette standing in the rain. He tails her as she staggers along the bridge in the rainstorm and comes across her one-time boyfriend, Lowell, and his ghoulish sidekick Cody, sitting atop a container.

Rydell tails the three as they head off to a bar, humorously named Cognitive Dissidence. Rydell goes into the warm fug of the bar after them, taking a place at the bar and ordering a beer while he ponders what to do next. But into this bar suddenly arrives one of the two Russian homicide cops Warbaby had introduced him to soon after he arrived in SF, coming in huge and silent and with a drawn gun. He orders Chevette to come with him but then…all the lights go out.

In the darkness the fat lady who operates a dancing hologram which is a feature of the bar, makes it dance all round the Russian’s head, giving Rydell long enough to make it across the bar, scoop up Chevette and carry her kicking and screaming to the stairs out of the place. Unfortunately, he runs straight into the other Russian waiting at the top of the stairs who stops them. Rydell and Chevette are both disarmed and handcuffed and forced to trudge under the watchful guns of the Russians to the San Francisco end of the bridge.

Here Warbaby and Freddie, who commissioned the Russian heavies, are waiting for them. They unhandcuff Rydell and are beginning to explain what’s going on when there is another dramatic surprise: one of Chevette’s friends who we’d been very briefly introduced to a bit earlier, a big bear of a man incongruously named Nigel, seeing Chevette taken away at gunpoint, now attacks everyone on a heavyweight bike, ramming the Russian with the gun, grabbing him and banging his head against the hood of Rydell’s car.

As the others set about dealing with this Nigel, Rydell drags Chevette into his Patriot 4 x 4, kick starts it and they skid off, Warbaby raising his cane which turns out to be a concealed gun and shooting out the Patriot’s rear window, but then they’ve turned a corner and are escaping!

Chevette directs Rydell to Haight Street, where they drop the Patriot (which is promptly stolen) and hide out in a tattoo parlour, pretending to take their time in the waiting room deciding on a joint tattoo, while they calm down.

When they eventually leave the tattoo parlour, in a striking coincidence, who should stop and ask the way but the nice old lady Rydell had chatted to on the plane up here, Mrs Danica Elliott, who has hired a big white camper van to drive back to LA in. She asks Rydell if he can drive since she is completely lost. So he and Chevette get in and drive nice and slow out of town. Eventually they’re so tired they hand the driving back to Mrs Elliott and go to sleep in the bed in the back of the camper.

BUT – when they wake up the camper is stationary and Mrs Elliott is gone and who else but Loveless, the hired killer, is waiting for them! I had a sinking feeling that he might have murdered the old lady (one gets sick of all the murder and carnage in American novels) and so was relieved to discover she was herself an IntenSecurity operative put in place to tail and watch Rydell.

Loveless now proceeds to explain The PLOT. The Virtual Light shades Chevette stole contain the blueprint for the comprehensive rebuilding of shattered San Francisco by foreign investors. These are based in Costa Rica (which has been mentioned a number of times as the location for stored data in the same way Switzerland is for huge foreign bank accounts in our day).

The rebuilding project has to be handled carefully because the local Americans might object, but the core issue is that big corporations want to buy up the land the new city is going to be built on. So if the plans get out, all sorts of other actors (for example, the state) might buy it up instead. Thus the precise plans must be kept secret because inconceivably vast fortunes stand to be made or lost.

And it all comes down to possession of the shades. Blix was a courier tasked with delivering them to the right person in San Francisco, but instead let himself be distracted, getting drunk at that party and then stupidly losing them (when Chevette picked his pocket). Loveless had been tasked with shadowing Blix and when the latter lost the shades was only too happy to murder him, not just killing him but slitting his throat and pulling his tongue out to make it look like some South American drug killing.

While Loveless is talking he gets thirsty and orders Chevette to get him a drink from the camper’s fridge, nice and slow. Out of his sight, Chevette slips into Loveless’s drink an entire stash of the designer drug dancer, and hands it to him. Thus, as Loveless carries on explaining The Plot to Rydell and Chevette, he starts to sweat and hallucinate, and ends up firing his pistol manically. Rydell and Chevette throw themselves out the doors, and hide while Loveless runs off shooting wildly. Then they jump back into the camper and make off at speed.

Rydell and Chevette stop to get directions from an old-timer at a derelict Shell gas station. Rydell had used a phone they picked up in their adventures to ring the only person he trusts, Sublett, who we met back at the start of the story – only to discover Sublett has quit his job at IntenSecurity and gone home to his mother’s trailer on a wacky Christian base camp. Looking at the map Rydell realises it’s fairly close by, so Rydell and Chevette drive there and bluff their way in by pretending to be extreme born-again Christians.

There follows extended satire about TV evangelists, in this instance a fictional one named the Reverend Fallon. This actually feels quite old now, very 1980s. No-one cares about TV evangelists any more, compared to the power of the internet, social media, Facebook, the Russians and President Trump.

Rydell devises A Cunning Plan. First he calls Chevette’s ex, Lowell, and puts the frighteners on him to get him to give them access to the digital online place known as ‘the Republic of Desire’. Then he ascertains that one of Sublett’s nerdy friends in the born-again caravan park, Buddy, has a set of eyephones. He pays Buddy to use them, then Chevette watches as Rydell puts them on and dials into early cyberspace.

Rydell has got details of how to dial into the Republic of Desire and here, in cyberspace, sees three weird figures, a woman made of TV shows, a man mountain and a kind of Tyrannosaurus Rex with human hands. These three entities instantly access Rydell’s records and read everything about his life and history, are bored and are leaving the call when Rydell asks them whether any of them lives in San Francisco and likes it the way it is. This gets their attention and Rydell goes on to explain how the plans stored on the Virtual Light sunglasses reveal how San Francisco is going to be handed over to foreign developers and changed out of all recognition. That gets the three digital warriors’ attention.

Together they cook up a plan which dominates the last thirty pages of the novel, which feels like a scam or heist in the style of Ocean’s 11.

Chevette dresses as a courier and enters Century City II, the luxury condo where Rydell had briefly lived with top lawyer Karen Mendelson when they had their brief affair. Soon as Karen Mendelson opens her apartment door, Sublett pushes her and Chevette back into her apartment.

Meanwhile Rydell has recruited the three hackers in the Republic of Desire to help him. The man mountain figure refers to himself as the God-Eater, but they could be anyone, anywhere, Rydell reflects ruefully. Rydell makes his way to Century City II, where he’s arranged to meet Warbaby at 3pm. He watches Warbaby and Freddie and the two Russian hoods (the Bad Guys) arrive in two separate cars, then enter the mall. He follows them up inside, then phones the three hackers in the Republic of Desire again. The narrative explains that they decided to ‘help’ because they don’t want to see San Francisco over-developed and also it presented a new technical challenge, which amuses them.

What happens is: the hackers take control of SF police in order to fly armed drones into the mall which tell Warbaby, Freddie and the Russians to get on their faces. This is because the system has been hacked to identify them of being terrorists planning to blow up the entire mall.

But where’s their hired goon, Loveless? Seeing he hasn’t come along with Warbaby, Rydall guesses he must have gone straight to Karen’s apartment. Rydell dashes up there and arrives just in time, just at the split second Loveless emerges from hiding and raises his little gun to Chevette’s temple planning to take her hostage or just to shoot her. And that’s the moment Rydell hits him with the capsicum spray he carries round with him like mace gas only much worse.

Epilogue

Then – The Payoff. The cops arrest the five baddies, Warbaby, Freddie, the two Russian hoods and Loveless. Then a whole fleet of Karen Mendelson’s lawyer friends arrive, including the legendary lawyer Wellington Ma, and these media operators immediately see the TV potential of the story and so sign up Chevette and Sublett to tell their stories. While Chevette had been in the apartment with Karen she’d shown her how to play the Virtual Shades, so Karen has seen the development scams which were planned and is able to retell it to her lawyers and the cops. Rydell et al are in the clear, and a good TV show will be made about it all, and the baddies will be brought down. Rydell et al will be arrested but the head lawyer from Cops in Trouble tells him they’ll get bail within the hour and then they can start working on the documentary and then the made-for-TV movie.

In other words – despite the futuristic sci-fi trappings – this feels, in the end, like an American crime caper: the goody is a cop with a heart of the gold, the young girl assistant has nice ‘tits’ (as Rydell puts it, more than once) the baddies are crooked property developers, foreigners and blacks – and everything will be sorted out by shit-hot LA TV lawyers.

Ultimately, feels more like an episode of LA Law than genuine science fiction.

Features of Gibson’s futureworld of 2006

  • the President is a woman named Millband (p.17) and is black! (p.183)
  • there’s a vaccination against AIDS (p.18) seems you need certificates of vaccination to show partners before having sex (p.21), the origin of the vaccine is just one individual, J.D. Shapely, who was found to host a benign version of HIV which eradicated the malign version (see below)
  • cops wear air-conditioned helmets with plastic visors
  • ‘gyms’ offer injections of Brazilian fetal matter and having your skeleton ‘reinforced’
  • Italy is no longer a unified state, people come from parts of ‘what used to be Italy’ (p.40) (cf Canada, below)
  • Chevette’s motorbike has a recognition loop you slip your hand into to unlock it (p.44)
  • swimwear is designed to keep off dangerous UV rays and to keep out the dangerous poisons in the sea
  • the ozone hole is a problem (p.46)
  • a virus has destroyed palm trees (maybe all trees) (p.50), later identified as ‘some Mexican virus’ (p.273)
  • five dollar coins, suggesting inflation (p.58)
  • Thomasson is a generic name Gibson’s invented for pointless yet curiously art-like features of the urban landscape (p.61)
  • the big nations of the world (Russia, Canada, Brazil) have fragmented into numerous mini-states (p.71), Canada has broken up into five states (p.242)
  • the Cease Upon The Midnight movement and other self-help euthanasia groups prefer peaceful suicide to having your brain put in a cryogenic store (p.79)
  • it’s been illegal to manufacture cigarettes in the US since 2000 (p.101)
  • the Sword of the Pig movement (p.108)
  • after the earthquake there seem to have been waves of disease or ‘plagues’, which Gibson lists on page 117
  • New Zealand appears to have been occupied by Japanese armed forces who have to suppress resistance movements (p.190)
  • much is made throughout the book of posters and image of AIDS survivor J.D. Shapely dotted around San Francisco and, at one point, Yamazaki channel surfs to a BBC documentary which gives an extremely thorough biography of Shapely (pages 190 to 192). Shapely was a gay prostitute who ended up in prison where they discovered he had AIDS but it didn’t kill him; in him HIV had mutated to a strain which was a) benign b) ate the original virulent strain. Thus a vaccine was made from his version and was administered to everyone in the world.

Funky phrases

So rich in slang and neologisms, American writers.

  • inner trivia banks (p.14)
  • telepresence rig (p.15)
  • Thiobuscaline (3,5-dimethoxy-4-butylthiophenethylamine) – a lesser-known psychedelic drug (p.16)
  • bunny down (p.75)

Conclusion

My opening comments reflected my memories of the Sprawl trilogy and Gibson’s place in science fiction. As I read on into this novel I came to realise it is far less a science fiction book than a techno update of the long lineage of noir cop crime thrillers; that Gibson’s hard-nosed cop with a heart of gold has more in common with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow, or Deckard in the movie Blade Runner or John McClane in the Die Hard franchise than with more standard science fiction; i.e. that Rydell is an avatar of a very familiar type, the tall, handsome, strong cop or ex-cop, rough around the edges, prepared to bend the rules, but basically a good guy.

Similarly, although Chevette is a ballsy, street girl, an urchin, a reform school runaway, she, also, has a heart of gold and has to be rescued by Sir Galahad, thus fulfilling a thousand-year old stereotype. And – sigh – she, of course, starts to fall for him.

  • She wondered if maybe she wasn’t starting to fall for Rydell… she had to admit he had a cute butt in those jeans. (p.261)
  • She was starting to really like him… (p.276)

Rydell reminds me most of Lee Child’s creation, Jack Reacher, another knight errant who combines physical prowess with basic moral rectitude (although, admittedly, Reacher didn’t make his debut till 1997, four years after this novel was published).

They all supply the reader with the same basic pleasure, which is they’re rule-breakers and naughty boys who are, at heart, good boys really. No matter how much they bend or break the law, it’s always in a good cause. And they all combine a bunch of characteristics most men wish they had – size and strength and physical prowess, expertise with guns, all kinds of practical know-how with cars and gadgets – and their basic decency wins over even the most initially independent or resistant of women.

To quote a seventy-year-old tagline, ‘Men want to be him; women want to be with him’ (James Bond memes)

In other words, the setting of the Bridge trilogy is novel and creative, and the hundreds of details Gibson works into the novel certainly convey a great fullness and plausibility to his fictional world. But the basic narrative structure is very, very old.

Nothing dates as fast as the future

One last thought: setting the novel closer to the present day, paradoxically makes it more dated. In the far future (well, the 2030s when Neuromancer is set) anything goes. But if you set something in the near future, you have to be more measured and realistic with your predictions and chances increase that whatever you predict will be wrong.

Thus some of the baddies in the book, like Warbaby, get their information via faxes; computers are used a bit but nowhere near as much as they turned out to; there are one or two remote phones but not many – in other words Gibson did not accurately predict the full impact of the great transformative agents of our time, the internet, increasingly lightweight personal computers, and mobile phones.

And his cultural references feel dated, as well. As in the Sprawl novels, many things have a strong Japanese flavour i.e. the inclusion of the Japanese character Yamazaki and repeated references to a catastrophic earthquake that’s taken place in Tokyo. But in the years since 1993, Japan has slipped out of the cool cultural and economic position Gibson gives it:

Japan’s economy has struggled with deflation since its bubble economy peaked in 1989. (Investopedia)

Japan has, since the turn of the century, in terms of culture and economy and products and even art, increasingly been replaced by China.

Also Gibson’s pop culture references have aged. The entire concept of rock music, which is referenced throughout the novel, seems old now. The character Sublett has an obsession with the movies of David Cronenberg, which might have marked him off as at the cutting edge of pop avant-garde in 1993, but not now, in 2020.


Credit

Virtual Light by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1993. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


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