The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton (1969)

The human body is one of the dirtiest things in the known universe (p.116)

Michael Crichton

I’ve no idea what Crichton was like as a man but I admire his phenomenal success as a writer of popular techno-thrillers. If you’re going to entertain, then you might as well do it as effectively as possible. Ever since I learned about it years ago, I’ve been impressed by what will probably be a unique feat that no-one will ever match, namely that in 1994 Crichton was, simultaneously, the writer of America’s number one movie, Jurassic Park, was the creator and producer of America’s number one TV show, ER, and had a book at number one in the bestseller list, Disclosure.

What an amazing achievement and indicator of the practical skills of a man who was not only an author and scriptwriter, but who produced and directed movies himself, as well as creating and exec producing hit TV series.

The Andromeda Strain

Right back at the start of his career, young Michael (born 1942), was 26 when he published this, the first novel to appear under his own name (a few had appeared under pseudonyms). It announces a major talent, not so much in the plot – space probe returns to earth carrying a deadly virus is the same as, say, The Quatermass Experiment – but in the thoroughness and the verisimilitude of the scientific and administrative framework he presents the story in.

The story begins by describing the arrival of a two-man recovery team (Lieutenant Shawn and Private Lewis Crane) to retrieve a space probe which has crash landed on the small town of Piedmont in Arizona (population 48). They’re in the middle of doing so when their radio message back to base is dramatically cut short. Alerts are transmitted up the chain of command until five scientists who have been kept on standby for just such an emergency are each visited at home in the middle of the night by dark-suited security officials, asked to accompany them immediately in unmarked cars to military airports and flown to the top secret biohazard unit in the Nevada desert which has been painstakingly constructed for just such an emergency, under the codename Project Wildfire.

The scientists are:

  • Dr. Jeremy Stone: Professor and chair of the bacteriology department at Stanford University, fictitiously the winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • Dr. Charles Burton, 54 (p.61) Professor of Pathology at the Baylor College of Medicine, ‘nervous, jumpy, petulant’, nicknamed the Stumbler (p.54)
  • Dr. Peter Leavitt ‘superb clinical bacteriologist’ (p.59) who suffers from epilepsy, ‘an irritating, grumbling, heavyset man’ (p.54)
  • Dr. Mark Hall, surgeon
  • Professor Christian Kirke, who never makes an appearance because he’s in hospital for appendicitis

The plot then follows the scientists’ race against time to identify the weird extra-terrestrial virus and try to find a cure. The breakneck plot builds up to a climax when there’s a breach in biosecurity at the Wildfire centre with the result so that the virus gets loose among our heroes, and there’s a race against time to prevent its spread… with a novel twist at the very end.

So much for the thrilling plot, but what really distinguishes the text, and makes Crichton’s debut stand out, is the enormous amount of scientific, technical and administrative content.

Organisations

For example, the book is packed with dense and authoritative-sounding explanations of the umpteen different branches of the US military, space agency and security services which were involved in the research, commissioning, financing and building of the biohazard centre, including:

  • Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • the Wildfire facility is built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics
  • the Army Medical Corps, Chemical and Biological Warfare Division
  • the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee
  • the Goddard Spaceflight Centre
  • the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee

Official documentation

Lots of pages of the text consist of ‘copies’ or apparent photostats of official documents, procedures, maps, computer projections and so on, for example a photocopy of the original letter written by concerned scientists to the President of the United States suggesting the creation of a quarantined biohazard centre. It was here, right back at the start of the project, that the scientists included the controversial suggestion of having a small thermonuclear device onsite, which could be detonated if the infection gets out of control (under Directive 7-12, codename Cautery).

In fact soon after Stone and Burton have investigated the town (wearing tip-top latest biohazard suits) and discover an old man still alive and a screaming baby and retrieve them into a helicopter and take them back to the Wildfire centre, Piedmont is itself destroyed by a small nuclear weapon (p.114).

Scientific references

Then, complementing the detailed descriptions of security organisations there is the science itself. It includes references to:

  • a fictional study by J.J. Merrick an English biophysicist on the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life and the probability of it being single-cell life
  • a study by the Hudson Institute on the likely outcome of various scenarios around an alien infection outbreak and the impact of detonating a nuclear weapon to obliterate it (p.87)
  • a two-page study complete with statistical analysis, of the Odd Man Out Hypothesis
  • a study by Rudolph Karp who established there are life forms on meteors and asteroids (p.130)
  • the Vector Three report which identified three possible sources for extra-terrestrial bacteria
  • the Messenger Theory of John R. Samuels i.e. that an intelligent civilisation on another planet might choose to communicate not by sending radio or TV signals but sending out tough microforms of life which can recombine if they ever arrive somewhere inhabitable (p.228)
  • a 274-page report on Project Wildfire, highlights of which Dr Hall has to read;  through to detailed descriptions of American military research into chemical and biological weaponry, with lists of the major research universities involved and some of the papers produced on the subject:

Few Americans, Stone knew, were aware of the magnitude of the US research into chemical and biological warfare.

History of the science into the 1960s

Crichton spends time giving us some background on the development of science up till the 1960s: in particular how before, during and after the war, most expensive research focused on physics, in particular nuclear physics. But how, with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, biology had exploded as a field of interest.

He gives us digressions on the nature of biology itself – ‘the only science which cannot define its subject matter’ because there is no agreed definition of LIFE. On the types of animals used in bio experiments – rats, monkeys, pigs – (p.146) or the large range of growth media used in laboratories (p.163). And an explanation for laymen of the symbiotic relationship between humans and the billions of bacteria we host, which leads on to a detailed explanation of the drawbacks which would occur if a wonderdrug were discovered which killed off all bacteria and viruses. In fact Crichton goes to the trouble of inventing a wonderdrug, Kalocin, for the purpose of the book which does just that – kills off all bacteria, viruses, fungi etc which inhabit the human body with the result that… all the human patients died (p.266). We need the bacteria which infest our bodies.

Man lives in a sea of bacteria (p.167)

Hard technology

And then there is the technology, which includes (obviously) the rocket technology used to launch the ill-fated space probe; NASA’s network of monitoring stations around the earth; and the technology used within the Wildfire biohazard installation, including state of the art sterilisation processes, spectrometers, amino-acid analysers, the microtome, the X-ray crystallographer, the electron microscope (a BVJ model JJ-42), Fourier electron-density scans and so on. He gives an explanation of why an electron microscope is better than a light one, as explained by one of its inventors (p.255).

Computers

Then there are computer diagnostics and computers in general. Crichton patiently explains to the 1969 reader that computers are capable of doing many tasks much faster than people! I’m always struck to be reminded just how long computers have been around and enthusiasts have been promising that they will change the world.

Commission of enquiry

All of this heavily factual material is organised as if in a report written up after the crisis was over and as the result of an inquiry into how it was handled. Thus the narrative itself contains mention of where the team made crucial mistakes.

  • It is a peculiarity of the Wildfire team that, despite the individual brilliance of the team members, the group grossly misjudged their information at several points. (p.243)
  • This was a most unfortunate decision, for had they examined the [growth] media, they would have seen that their thinking had already gone astray, and that they were on the wrong track. (p.250)

Scientific results

And the text includes numerous scientific illustrations, for example computer readouts of autopsies, chemical analyses of blood, a scanner printout from a ‘photoelectric eye’ that examined the growth media, an early sketch of the hexagonal structure of the Andromeda Strain, electron-density mapping of a sample of the strain – all carefully credited to Project Wildfire, as in a scientific paper.

The text is followed by four pages of finely printed references, mixing up genuine studies of extra-terrestrial life and biology with papers by the fictional characters in the novel.

Bureaucratic tone set in the preface

This approach, the pose that the entire text is an after-the-fact report, starts in the author’s preface, usually a place where the author is candid with the reader, but in this case Crichton presents himself as an investigator into the events surrounding the breakout, and gives copious thanks to numerous military officials who are entirely fictitious and are clearly part of the fictional cast, as if they were real figures.

The effect is partly to give the text verisimilitude but also allows him to do the standard thriller strategy of anticipating mistakes and accidents and disasters to come without going into detail and so making you impatient to read the full story itself.

Same happens when he describes the experiments the scientists carry out in the Wildfire lab and highlights their mistakes with phrases like ‘Only later would it become clear that…’ or ‘That was his first mistake…’, ‘It would be forty eight hours until he realised his error…’ (p.173)

Taken together, it’s all these tactics which give the novel its authoritative air and which, in turn makes the biological crisis all the more scary, and then the security breach at the centre all the more nailbiting.

Plot summary

By the end you realise that without all the images and diagrams and facts and figures in report format, and without the digressions about biology and computers, the book would have been significantly shorter, and the simpleness of the story much more apparent. Here is a barebones plot summary:

  • a space probe infected with alien life form crash lands near small town in Arizona, Piedmont
  • almost everyone in town dies almost immediately with weird symptoms, namely their blood congeals to powder
  • except two survivors, an old man and a screaming baby
  • they’re brought to a brand new hi-tech biohazard facility named after the project Wildfire where – after a thorough history of the thinking behind the centre, how it was researched, signed off, designed and built – the four scientists central to the story run a series of tests whose results are discussed at length, and engage in high-level speculations about the origin and form of the entity
  • there are several apparently unrelated incidents, mainly the crash of an air force jet which was flying high through airspace over Piedmont; crash investigators confirm the pilot’s last message which claimed that all the plane’s rubber hosing and casing was turning to powder
  • meanwhile the scientists have established that the Andromeda Strain, as it’s been named, consists of perfectly hexagonal crystals which replicate with amazing speed, and feed off pure energy, leaving no waste products
  • one of the scientists, the doctor, finally puts all the pieces of the jigsaw together and realises that the baby and the old man didn’t die because their blood PHs were abnormal, the old man because he was a diabetic, the baby because its continual crying acidated its blood – the Andromeda Strain only replicates within a narrow PH band
  • at just this moment the alarm goes off inside the bio centre indicating a seal has been broken sealing off the containment area, triggering the alarm and the countdown
  • countdown? yes, because throughout the novel we’ve been told that the Wildfire station has at its heart a thermonuclear device which will automatically detonate if there is a security leak – now the alarm bells go off, the red lights start flashing, all the big metal security doors slam shut and a nice lady’s voice starts counting down; they have three minutes before the bomb detonates!!
  • the thing is, it’s only been in the last hour or so that the scientists have realised that the strain feeds off pure light or energy – in other words, a nuclear explosion, far from wiping the virus out, will cause it to replicate a trillion-fold and spread all over America!!!
  • now, there is a failsafe, the nuclear countdown can be halted: the biohazard centre is dotted with light switch-sized sockets into which a metal key must be inserted to countermand the nuclear countdown, BUT the security doors clanging shut have sealed Dr Stone and Dr Hall off from any of these units – oops
  • which leads to the most famous passage in the book, and the movie based on it, when Dr Hall has to make his way through air ducts into the central circular core of the installation and climb up it to the next level, despite the fact that, given the security breach a) the central core is flooding with poison gas and b) remote control darts fire poisoned arrows at anything moving i.e. him
  • these last few pages are grippingly described as Hall tries to climb the ladder up inside the central shaft, despite becoming woozier and woozier, poisoned by the gas and hit by the poisoned darts, till he crashes through the door into the level above and staggers, almost unconscious to the nearest security point, inserts the key and turns it, then blacks out!!

Payoff

The virus mutates into a harmless form. Wind carries air from the now-leaking bio-hazard lab over Los Angeles but nothing at all happens. Lead scientist Stone speculates that a) it has mutated to a non-fatal form, as indicated by the way it had started eating rubber and plastic instead of human blood, and b) disliking oxygen rich environments (which earlier tests had established), it is likely to migrate upwards out of the atmosphere.

And that is the explanation for the brief two-page epilogue in which we learn that a recent manned space flight (Andros V) crash-lands killing all the crew. In an interview with journalists, the head of the program reveals the crash had something do with the failure of plastic safety shields. The journalists don’t know it, but we the readers know that this is proof that the Andromeda Strain has indeed gravitated away from the unfriendly oxygen-rich atmosphere of earth up to the troposphere – and the book ends with the threat that it might, possibly, remain there for ever, preventing the passage through it of any machines which contain rubber or plastic…

The IPCRESS connection

It’s fascinating to learn from Wikipedia that Crichton was heavily indebted to Len Deighton’s debut novel The IPCRESS File which was published in 1962 and which Crichton read on a visit to Britain.

The Deighton novel is also written in the style of an official report and recreates the often dull bureaucratic paperwork surrounding spying; the title itself indicates that the entire thing should be read as an official report.

Same with Andromeda which, on the pre-text pages, carries instructions as for an official file, which state: ‘THIS FILE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET and that the ‘receiver’ of the file must first show his identity card to the courier.

All great boyish fun. I wonder if Crichton ever told Deighton about his indebtedness to him. I wonder what Deighton made of it.

Crystals

It’s interesting that the Andromeda Strain of virus turns out to be a perfect crystal and that one of the scientists is known for printing papers speculating that life on earth began as crystals (p.226). Because this is a genuine theory and is well expressed in the 1985 book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985), which I read and reviewed not too long ago.

The movie

In 1971 The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie directed by Robert Wise and starring Arthur Hill as Stone, James Olson as Hall, Kate Reid as Leavitt (changed to a female character, Ruth Leavitt), and David Wayne as Dutton (Burton in the novel). A lot of its appeal is due to the fact it was low budget and not dominated by well-known Hollywood names, lending it an extra soupcon of credibility. I saw it as a kid and loved it.


Credit

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was published Knopf in American in 1969. All references are to the 1993 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Zero History by William Gibson (2010)

Zero History is a 400-page novel about has-been rock stars and pretentious advertising executives in search of a reclusive designer of ‘really cool’ jeans and jackets. It is mind-bogglingly shallow, pretentious and boring.

Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant trilogy’, itself the third of Gibson’s three trilogies of novels. It’s even more disappointing than Spook Country and rotates round the same kind of lame ideas: the central figure is ex-rock singer Hollis Henry who’s continually interacting with her super ‘cool’ former bandmates. She gets paired up with Milgrim, the reformed drug addict who we met in the previous novel, both being sent on a wild goose chase to track down the creator of the mysterious ‘Gabriel Hounds’ brand of jeans by the ‘genius’ advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

We know Bigend is a genius because all the characters tell us so.

  • ‘His grasp of contradiction is brilliantly subversive.’ (p.269)
  • ‘He has a kind of dire gravity. You need to get further away.’ (p.337)
  • ‘He’s like some peculiar force of nature. Not a safe one to be around.’ (p.346)

Thus the text, despite its often zingy and effective prose style in details, overall consists of lots of lame references to the ‘cool’ rock world and the ‘cool’ world of fashion and stale clichés about advertising, all struggling to support a plot which goes beyond the disappointing denouements of the previous two novels into new realms of the genuinely asinine.

Half way through, Zero History gets bored of its own fatuous storyline and switches from being a ‘quest’ for the jeans designer to a hostage thriller. By the time the legendary jeans designer is, in fact, tracked down, in the final passages of the book, nobody cares because the novel has unexpectedly morphed into a Die Hard movie.

Advertising

The owner of the Blue Ant advertising agency, the preposterously named Hubertus Bigend, is treated as some kind of advertising / communications / sociology guru, despite the fact that, whenever we actually get to hear any of the Great Man’s thoughts, they amount to recycling tiresome ad-man bullshit. As he explains to ex-rock singer Hollis Henry, who he is giving another ‘mission’:

We aren’t just an advertising agency. I’m sure you know that. We do brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.’ (p.21)

Hmm. Just like every other modern advertising agency, then. He goes on to tell Hollis that he is always looking for the next big thing, that he is in quest of ‘the edge’, always trying to catch the next big wave (p.24). Well, no shit Sherlock; what corporation, bank, company, fashion house, publishing company, art gallery or music label in our rabidly consumerist society isn’t trying to do exactly the same thing? That’s not a bold vision, it’s the default setting of the entire world we live in.

This is all dressed up on page 177 as Bigend’s quest for the mysterious ‘order flow’, the flow of all the world’s information about everything, something which Bigend (megalomaniacally) wants to possess. In the end he’s just a reincarnation of Dr No or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only not actually evil, barely even amoral. A neutered baddie. A tamed megalomaniac.

Rock band chic

As to rock band chic, it plays a central role in this novel, not because anyone makes any actual music, but because Gibson thinks it’s ‘cool’ to write about people who were in rock bands. He seems to be aiming the book at the kind of middle-aged dads who read Rolling Stone magazine or watch BBC4 documentaries about Classic Rock Albums. Ageing, would-be hipsters who still wear jeans and black leather jackets as they approach pension age. In their heads they’re still their speed-snorting, dope-smoking crazy selves from the 1970s and 80s but to everyone else they’re Derek the head of IT who really shouldn’t be wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt at his age. Or Jeremy Clarkson.

Thus the lead character is a young woman (as in so many of Gibson’s novels), Hollis Henry, who was lead singer in the now defunct rock band The Curfew. She’s turning 30 (i.e. half Gibson’s age when this book was published) and is now trying to make her way as a freelance journalist.

In the previous novel, Spook Country, Hollis was commissioned to write a piece about ‘locative art’ (3D holograms of dead rock stars which are located at strategic places around Los Angeles and can only be seen if you use a set of video headgear) for a magazine which turned out to be a front for Hubertus Bigend’s endless curiosity, a way for him to employ pretty young women to investigate subjects which take his fancy (bit creepy, eh?).

‘I’m a curious person,’ said Bigend, ‘and can afford to satisfy my curiosity.’ (p.67)

(Bigend’s super-PA and fixer is Pamela Mainwaring who is, according to the narrator, ‘a very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature”‘, p.40. That’s a bit creepy. And see the throwaway reveal at the very end of the story, below.)

The novel opens with Hollis staying in a fabulously retro hotel in London, but the point of the ‘rock’ connection is that almost immediately she is interacting with her old bandmates, short balding English guitarist Reg Inchmale, who is in Soho producing a new album by another fictional band, The Bollards, and the Curfew’s feisty, not to say pain-in-the-ass, former drummer, Heidi Hyde, ‘her hair dyed goth black’ (p.49), who swears all the time (‘You said he was bugfuck,’ p.136).

Not only this but Hollis hooks up with members of other rock bands she knew when she was part of the rock scene and they have conversations about being in a rock band and the rigours of touring, staying in a new hotel every night, the drugs, the band tensions, oh man, it’s so tough being a rock star. We hear about an Icelandic duo Eydis and Frederika Brandsdottir who make up the band The Dottirs. About another band named The Stokers (p.156).

The rock world ambience is enhanced by a steady drip of casual references which seem to go out of their way to refer to really ancient rock acts and the long-ago world of the late 1960s or 70s. Thus Heidi Hyde describes the wallpaper at her fancy London boutique hotel as like a pair of ‘Hendrix’s pants’. Later Fiona the motorbike courier defines a piece of music by explaining that its maker listened to Jimi as a boy (pages 305, 349). Now Jimi Hendrix, flourished 1967 to 1970. This book was published in 2010, 40 years later. Then we have the fact that one of the first pieces of ‘locative art’ was a 3D hologram of Jim Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, died in 1971. 50 years ago. Phil Spector is referred to (p.307), career peak 1960s and early 70s. On page 321 Voytek quotes Bob Dylan, but not 1990s Bob Dylan, instead the 1967  song ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’.

It’s this kind of thing which makes me think Gibson is aiming his novels at what you might call the American mainstream rock tradition, at ageing ‘hipsters’ who carry on writing and reading magazines like Rolling Stone, and who think writing or reading articles about Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and the Who is still ‘cool’.

What I don’t understand is that critics queue up on the covers of this book to describe Gibson as the master novelist we need now, describing him as a ‘prophet’, as capturing ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ (Cory Doctorow), as an ‘astounding architect of cool’ (The Spectator) and yet it is a plain fact that Gibson spends less time thinking about 9/11, Iraq or the Financial Crash, or anticipating the seismic changes which will be brought about by social media, than he does retailing crappy, second-hand ideas about advertising and making tiresome references to long-dead 1960s rock gods.

The Spectator thinks Gibson is the  ‘astounding architect of cool’. Think about that. The Spectator, the solidly right-wing mouthpiece of the Brexit-leading Conservative Party. The Spectator, whose editor was Boris Johnson from 1999 to 2005. Boris Johnson. Maybe the fact that Gibson is so gushingly praised by The Spectator crystallises all my misgivings about him and his later novels: William Gibson is Boris Johnson’s idea of ‘cool’, a 60-something white man in a black leather jacket making references to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.

Fashion

The fatuousness of Gibson’s attempts to make Hubertus Bigend some kind of communications guru, and the lameness of his dad rock references (Heidi Hyde wears an old Ramones t-shirt, p.59 – how cool!) are exacerbated by Gibson’s ongoing obsession with namechecking the brand names and designers of every conceivable product the characters come into contact with.

Thus we are told the precise brand of their cars and handbags and clothes, and my God, of their clothes, yes their clothes, every item of clothing that they wear, or look at, or think about.

We get itemised lists of their shoes and socks and jeans and shirts and t-shirts and jackets and shades. Roberto Cavalli, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, Jun Marukawa, Hackett – for all I care this might be a list of the administrative regions of Kazakhstan, but I appreciate that for tens of millions of people being able to distinguish Lauren from Lacoste is a matter of life or death, and these seem to be the people Gibson is catering to in this novel. Or satirising. Or both.

In the earlier novels this was merely an irritating symptom of the triumph of style over substance, but in Zero History the plot itself dives head-first into the empty-headed stupidity of the fashion world, as parodied in the movie Zoolander among many others. Once you enter this world of style and fashion, you check in your brain and never see it again.

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The plot

Hollis Henry

We first met Zero History‘s lead character, Hollis Henry, in the previous novel in the trilogy, Spook Country. She’s the former singer with rock band The Curfew who’s forging a new career as a journalist and writer. Her intellectual level can be measured by the fact that:

Hollis was a firm believer in the therapeutic power of the right haircut. (p.69)

In Spook Country Hollis had been researching ‘locative art’ for a magazine which turned out to be a thinly disguised front for advertising guru Hubertus Bigend. Well, she’s done a lot more work on ‘locative art’ since and has now turned it into a big coffee-table book, complete with images of what the art looks like. The book is titled Presences: Locative Art in America (p.97). The main example the book uses to explain locative art is a 3D hologram of soft porn female nudes done by Helmut Newton (1920 to 2004) which are now visible to anyone who can afford the headset required to see this ‘art’ at some French chateau.

Is this capturing ‘the futurist nature of the present day’? No, it isn’t. Referencing the soft porn, pervey nudes of a dead German photographer whose heyday was the 1980s does not feel like anybody’s future.

Hollis’s coffee table book is just being published when she is summoned to London to meet her sugar-daddy, er, I mean ‘Machiavellian advertising guru’ Hubertus Bigend, who has a new assignment for her.

The novel opens with Hollis having just flown in from New York and staying in a quaint London boutique hotel (‘Cabinet’) stuffed with dinky period pieces, not least a stuffed ferret and the steampunk elevator. She meets, has coffee and chats with Reg Inchmale, former guitarist with The Curfew who’s now producing another band, The Bollards, in a studio in Soho. Also putting in an appearance is Heidi Hyde, the tough, foul-mouthed drummer with The Curfew, who refers to her former boyfriend, at length and repeatedly, as ‘fuckstick’. So the band’s all here, trailing dated 1980s drug slang and rock clichés.

Milgrim

Bigend introduces Hollis to Milgrim, who’s just flown in from his clinic in Basel. Clinic? Yes. Like Hollis, Milgrim also first appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Spook Country. He is an educated young man with a college degree in Russian and was working as a translator when he slowly got hooked on prescription tranquilisers, eventually ending up an almost gibbering wreck, which is how he was found in the street by a shady, renegade intelligence operative named Brown, who ‘sort of’ abducted him, probably saving his life but keeping him under lock and key and feeding him pills in order to use Milgrim’s top translating skills in monitoring a family of what Brown takes to be Russian-backed spies. This is a key storyline in Spook Country.

Brown turned out to be completely wrong and Milgrim managed, at the end of Spook Country, to escape from his clutches. In the final pages he stumbles across Hollis’s handbag which she accidentally left in a deserted loft space and this, though the reader doesn’t know it at the time, is a crucial link, because it allows none other than Hubertus Bigend to phone Milgrim, using the phone he’d given Hollis and which was in her lost handbag. Being Bigend, he doesn’t get cross that someone’s stolen Hollis’s handbag and phone, but is intrigued by the sound of Milgrim, quizzes him, finds out about his background and…

Pays for him to be sent to a world-class detox clinic in Basel, Switzerland for eight months (chapter 4). There, Milgrim tells us, he had his entire body’s blood replaced with clean blood and underwent an extensive course of cognitive therapy. This complex background means that throughout this book Milgrim can conjure up either drug-addled streams of consciousness, odd and unexpected insights,  or sober advice his therapist gave him to manage unexpected situations. He is the peg for the kind of sentences Gibson excels at, which gesture to something just beyond perception, or slightly wrong, out of kilter and unnerving:

  • He struck her as being unused to inhabiting his own face, somehow. (p.44)
  • He felt as though something new and entirely too large was trying to fit within him. (p.92)
  • He seemed peeled, somehow, transparent, strangely free of underlying motive. (p.180)
  • Milgrim was having one of those experiences of feeling, as he’d explained to his therapist, that he was emulating a kind of social being that he fundamentally wasn’t. (p.174)

All these qualities make Milgrim the most interesting character in the book and, maybe, just about enough reason to read it. Not to buy it, though.

However, Milgrim isn’t totally free. His stay at the rehab clinic was managed by Oliver Sleight, on the face of it an employee of Bigend’s (p.85), but Sleight wants to keep tabs on Milgrim in a way which goes beyond Bigend’s needs. Sleight has given Milgrim a phone, a ‘Neo’, which only takes calls from him and which has GPS tracking so he can follow Milgrim’s movements at all times (p.124).

Why? ‘Fuck if I know’ as Heidi puts it in her charming way (p.202). As with most content in Gibson novels, this kind of thing is thrown in early on and then referred to at regular intervals almost entirely to keep you guessing.

Early on an apparently trivial incident occurs, which will become central to the plot. At one point Milgrim gets fed up of being trailed by Sleight all the time and gets into an elevator in a department store and, purely because the other people in it are speaking in Russian (which always wakens memories of his pre-drug existence), on an impulse Milgrim slips the Neo into the pram of one of the Russian women then watches the lift stop at the next floor, the doors open and the woman and pram exit and wander off who knows where. She seemed to have a couple of tough-looking minders in tow. Maybe she’s the wife or daughter of an oligarch, who cares. But it will turn out to matter, later.

Gabriel Hounds

So what’s Zero History actually about? Bigend has come across a brand of jacket and jeans named Gabriel Hounds (‘It’s a secretive jeans line’, p.72). They’re made by a secretive designer. Bigend wants to find out who. As Hollis explains:

‘Bigend’s hired me to look into Gabriel Hounds. He wants to know who designs it, how their antimarketing scheme works.’ (p163)

That, as far as I can tell, is it, at least to begin with. So Bigend introduces Hollis and Milgrim, tells them he wants to track down the designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans and jackets and pays for them to take the Eurostar to Paris, stay in a swanky hotel and visit a Vintage Clothes Fair (the Salon du Vintage) where, inevitably, they meet lots of other designers and models plus some of Hollis’s friends or contacts from the rock world. The level of humour is indicated by the character with the oh-so-funny name of Olduvai George, the ‘brilliant’ keyboardist with the Bollards. He is named Olduvai George because there’s a place  in Africa called Olduvai Gorge and Gorge sounds like George! Hence Olduvai George. Geddit!? They also meet ‘Clammy’ who dresses all in black, because dressing all in black is ‘cool’ (p.33 ).

In other words, the novel is marinaded in references to the international rock-fashion world. If you think that world is ‘cool’, you’ll love it; if, like me, you think it is all weirdly lame and dated, you won’t. Everyone wears black. Everyone is thin. Everyone is a design genius. Everyone has an ‘uncanny sense’ for the next best thing, everyone has a special feel for the Zeitgeist bah blah blah yaddah yaddah yaddah.

Anyway, Hollis talks to Clammy who knows Olduvai George who knows some clothes designer named Meredith Overton aka ‘Mere’ (p.115). (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and indicate just how much you grasp ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’.)

They all go out for a simply wonderful dinner at a restaurant where they bump into Bram, reluctant singer with the Stokers (geddit!?) who is having a meal the other side of the restaurant with one of the Icelandic pop duo, the Dottirs. Half way through the meal they have a big row and Bram storms out, only to be trapped by the legions of paparazzi waiting outside. It is so tiresome being a rock star, darling.

Anyway, that’s by way of being a distraction. The real outcome of the dinner is that Mere thinks she knew someone in fashion school who knew someone else in Chicago, who might be the designer of the Gabriel Hounds!!

Foley

Milgrim spots they’re being followed. To be precise, he had noticed a guy popping up several times in South Carolina where he had been hanging out after leaving the Basel clinic. Then Milgrim thinks he sees the same guy a few times in London. Now he’s certain he’s seen the same guy following him at the vintage clothes fair in Paris. He’s wearing foliage-green ‘pants’ so Milgrim quickly nicknames him ‘Foliage’ and then ‘Foley’. (Everyone has nicknames because nicknames are ‘cool’ and also indicate just how much you grasp the blah blah.)

Milgrim is approached out of the blue in a cafe in London by a woman who flashes a badge and identifies herself as Winnie Tung Whitaker, Special Agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (p.108). I suppose we’re meant to take this seriously but it all reminded me a bit of Secret Squirrel.

(Actually, to my delight and coincidence, Secret Squirrel is actually namechecked later on in the text, page 309. Gibson feeling the anxiety of influence from the classics of the thriller genre, there.)

So Hollis is introduced to Mere at the vintage clothes fair in Paris who spouts a lot of garbage about the secretive designers of Gabriel Hound jeans. This personage is revered because he or she shuns the usual industry calendar of releasing new lines with each new ‘season’. This is because:

‘It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It’s about deeper code.’ (p.116)

If you think this twaddle is profound, this is the book for you.

Mere was a model before she became a designer, which allows her to reel off a description of the boring existence of a poverty-stricken model, rather as Hollis being an ex-rock singer allows Gibson to refer throughout to the sleazy-glamorous life of rock and roll stars. Mere escaped modelling to set up a business designing a new style of shoes, trying to sidestep fashion (there are some pages about the design and fabric of her shoes and she explains how so few people really got what she was trying to do with them (p.228); as if shoes are very puzzling and complex intellectual constructs). But Mere’s business flopped. Now all the stock is locked up in some warehouse in Tacoma, Seattle (p.164) and she’s back working in fashion retail.

Lots more labels

There are a lot more sentences in this 400-page novel but for quite a long time not a lot happens. The characters travel from London to Paris and back again, there are hyper-detailed descriptions of hotel foyers and receptionists and lifts and corridors and rooms and showers and beds, lots and lots of phone calls on nifty cell phones, a lot of messing about with AirMacs and passwords and dongles, a great deal of meetings in restaurants and cafes with a minute itemisation of what everybody ate (Milgrim has a salmon starter followed by pork tenderloin, chapter 32; the salmon is everso good. Bigend, counter-intuitively, or maybe inevitably, likes crude full English breakfasts, namely two fried eggs, black pudding, two slices of bacon, two slices of bread and a mug of tea. Of his favourite café he opines: ‘They get the black pudding right here.’ p.196.)

Maybe this is what the Spectator means by ‘the futuristic nature of the present day’ – advertising execs, writers and rock musicians jet-setting between fashionable capitals, staying in swank hotels and eating out on bottomless expense accounts. Or maybe they’re referring to the future for the cosmopolitan urban elite like themselves, anyway.

I read this and think – this self-congratulatory cosmopolitan elite, sooo concerned with acquiring just the right patina on their jackets, desperately seeking the mysterious jeans designer – this entitled elite deserved their comeuppance in the form of moron Trump and dumb-bell Brexit. In their ways, both those votes were crude gestures of protest against the arrogance of the international art and fashion and media and style elite with its ill-concealed contempt for the chavs and proles who populate the countries they flit between, and who they sell their shitty films and TV and clothes and art to and patronise and lecture and exploit.

It’s about gear queer

What else happens? Well, Bigend explains they’re seeking the Gabriel Hounds designer because the latest thing is Gear Queer. According to Bigend, army veterans returning from Iraq have sparked a fashion among young men for an army surplus look (explained in chapter 41).

This just seemed patronising rubbish to me. If there’s been any fashion of the past few years it’s been the rise of the hipster – metrosexual, casual styling associated with full but coiffured beards. According to Wikipedia:

The term ‘hipster’ in its present usage first appeared in the 1990s and became particularly prominent in the late 2000s and early 2010s

I.e. just as this book was being published.

It’s another indication of the way that, in fashion, in music, in sociology and in politics, Gibson strikes me as being plain wrong. Even in his specialist subject area of digital tech he completely failed to anticipate the revolutionary impact of smart phones and social media which began to take off just after this novel was published. And his books are utterly bereft of any real thinking about the important events of the day: 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism, or the impact of the great financial crash of 2008. Rather than being some kind of ‘prophet’ Gibson is in every way a highly misleading guide to his times.

OIiver Sleight defects to the enemy

Anyway, back to Bigend’s stupid name and ridiculous quest for ‘Gabriel Hounds’. Oliver Sleight was supervising Milgrim in South Carolina because that’s where a lot of the supply to the US military comes from and that’s where they found the pair of rogue Gabriel Hound jeans which confirmed ‘the Hound look’ as being possibly the next big thing which Bigend can a) sell to the military b) promote to young men round the world concerned with replicating the look and ‘semiotics’ of elite military forces. (At least in this utterly rubbish plot.)

As the story progresses Winnie Tung Whitaker meets Milgrim a couple of times (they’ve been staying in touch via a Twitter account she showed him how to set up). At their final meeting in a restaurant she explains who she’s after. It is one Michael Preston Gracie, 45 with a long career in the US military but then stepped sideways into private security work, and then military contracting, and then something to do with supplying uniforms to East Asian countries. Why is Winnie Ting Whitaker after this man? Because (exactly like ‘the old guy’ in Spook Country) it’s a gesture, nothing serious or significant is at stake: it’s just ‘a gesture in the face of the shitbird universe’ (p.225).

To be honest, everything this fiction Michael Gracie is doing sounds perfectly legal and enterprising. As this plot about a renegade military supplier emerged to become the focus of the novel, at every sentence I thought Gibson was utterly missing the real story here, which was the huge expansion in private contractors supplying military and security services in Afghanistan and Iraq – Blackwater, Dyncorp and so on – about the huge amounts of money which went from the American taxpayer straight into these organisations which, more often than not, had top US politicians on their payroll.

(Actually, the really big story which emerged from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was how astonishingly shit America turned out to be at understanding or managing the countries they’d conquered. How many American historians, commentators and novelists have I read casually castigating the mismanagement of the British Empire? So how did you do in Iraq, boys? Or Afghanistan? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Ritual humiliation of prisoners. Over $6.4 trillion spent on the ‘War on Terror’. It’s a proud record.)

To recap:

‘Gracie’s an arms dealer. Bigend was spying on some business of his, in South Carolina.’ (p.295)

Remember Oliver Sleight who had been minding Milgrim? In the middle of the book, Bigend reveals that Sleight – who was in fact Bigend’s IT chief – has gone rogue, has been recruited by ‘the other side’, meaning the people round Gracie.

Why? If you think about it rationally, it’s not at all clear why Gracie and the tail who Milgrim calls Foley would give a stuff about Bigend poking about in the same market. It’s a very big market, and Gracie has a huge head-start, being ex-US Army with all kinds of contacts. Why should they care?

The enemy attack

Still, this idea of people within Blue Ant itself going over to ‘the enemy’ is whipped up into the pretext for a kind of gang war which breaks out.

Milgrim, Hollis and Heidi are being driven back to their hotel after meeting Bigend (a meeting at which he shows them his latest toy, the next generation of drones, which can be controlled from your phone which were, I guess, a whole new idea in 2010) when the vehicle they’re in is nearly rammed and forced into an alleyway somewhere in the City.

Once rammed into this alley, another car comes hurtling towards it to ram it, and Milgrim sees Foley in the front seat gesticulating at him. But the point is that the vehicle they’re in is a ‘cartel-grade’ Jankel-armoured, four-doored, short-bedded Toyota Hilux truck (p.36), driven by a no-nonsense Jamaican security guy named Aldous, and he himself rams the oncoming car and pushes it backwards all the way to the end of the alley, before reversing a bit and then further ramming into its bonnet, crushing the engine.

Aldous Calls up Fiona, the helmeted biker babe we’ve met a couple of times throughout the story, who turns up pronto, grabs Hollis onto her pillion and roars off, while Heidi drags meek Milgrim on foot along to the nearest Tube (Bank) and so back West towards their hotel, while Aldous waits in the Jankel for the cops to arrive and give his side of the story.

Now, as the second of the cars had hurtled towards them down the alleyway, Milgrim had seen Foley bright and clear, and seen that he had a bandage over his face and that he was brandishing the phone, the Neo which Sleight had given him. This a) confirms that Foley, Milgrim’s ‘tail, was indeed working with Sleight, and b) implies that Foley went to track down the phone and had an unfortunate encounter with some Russian mafia bodyguards.

In other words the entire incident of the car ram seems to stem from Milgrim’s momentary act of rebellion against being tracked in the department store, when he slipped the Neo into the pram of some random strangers. Seems that Foley was despatched to track down the phone and encountered the Russian oligarch’s security people who beat him up.

After the ramming, Bigend convenes yet another meeting with Hollis and Milgrim and explains the current situation. Sleight, his lead IT guy, has ‘gone over’ to ‘the enemy’ (remember, this is all about contracts for military uniforms). Sleight was monitoring Milgrim so closely because he was relaying Milgrim and Hollis’s discoveries back to his new boss, the renegade military contractor, Michael Gracie. Now Bigend tells them that other senior personnel within Blue Ant are also defecting. To some extent Bigend always expected this: he employs people on the ‘edge’, renegades and free thinkers, and always enjoys watching them mature and rebel – but this time there’s a bit more of a rebellion going on than he’s used to.

Thus Bigend has been forced to retreat from his London headquarters (probably bugged by Sleight) to the back room of a Japanese tailor down the road. This explains why a number of these meetings involve passing through the shop front of ‘Tanky and Tojo’, the name of the Japanese tailor, into the surprisingly spacious back room.

(I wonder about Gibson and his fetish for Japan. In the 1980s and 1990s Japanese imagery, style, design and steel-and-glass cityscapes seemed to be the future. But my understanding is that around 2000 Japan entered into a prolonged period of stagflation and in any case was being overtaken by China as the new military and cultural power in the East, a rise which continues to this day. Yet Gibson seems to be sticking with his dated Japan obsession. True, some Chinese crop up in his novels, but not as many as Japanese. Two of the three novels in the Bridge trilogy take place almost entirely in Japan, in Tokyo. It seems to me another token, along with the dated rock music and the lack of grasp of key geopolitical events of the early 2000s, of the way Gibson’s worldview seems dusty and dated.)

Voytek and Chombo

Remember Voytek? He’s the Polish immigrant who keeps a computer repair store in Camden, north London, and pops up throughout Pattern Recognition, the first novel in the trilogy. And remember Bobby Chombo, the tech genius who actually makes locative artists’ projects for 3D holographic art become a reality in Spook Country. Well, now we learn that Bigend had brought a reluctant and paranoid Chombo back from Vancouver (setting of the previous novel) and parked him with a reluctant Voytek to look after, who resentfully pronounces his name ‘Shombo’.

But we’ve barely learned all this (Milgrim sees Chombo in the backroom when he visits Voytek’s computer repair shop to get Hollis’s AirMac checked out for bugs) before Bigend tells the team that The Enemy have forced their way into Voytek’s place and kidnapped Chombo. Bigend has received a simple ultimatum: The Enemy want to make ‘a prisoner exchange’, return Chombo in exchange for Milgrim, with the implication that they will do very bad things to Milgrim for his various ‘betrayals’.

None of this is really intrinsic to the idea of a commercial rivalry between Gracie and Bigend, which itself isn’t really implicit in the situation. Why shouldn’t two (or three or four) companies operate in the market selling clothes to the US military? Likewise, the bad guys wanting to get their hands on Milgrim isn’t intrinsic to the situation, it just seems to derive from Milgrim’s arbitrary decision to drop his phone in a stranger’s pram. That one moment is the basis for the entire second half of the plot, and it is a slender and silly basis.

The return of Garreth

Now you need to know about an added complication. The first two-thirds of the narrative have been peppered with Hollis’s memories of her affair with Garreth. Garreth was the supremely competent handyman and security operative key to the plot of the previous novel, Spook Country. He was the right-hand man of ‘the old man’ who was running the scam at the centre of that story. Garreth is handy with guns and weapons and cars and planes. He is your basic, omni-competent thriller hero, good-looking and chivalrous into the bargain.

Doing very dangerous things was his avocation. (p.153)

(It’s interesting to consider how, despite Gibson’s best woke efforts to centre his narratives around female protagonists, the fact that he is writing thrillers means that a tough, strong, competent handsome man keeps ending up taking centre stage in the stories. Tough-but-sensitive security guard Berry Rydell in the Bridge trilogy, and tough-but-sensitive secret operative Garreth in this trilogy. The scenery may be modern but the fundamental mindset is deeply traditional. This helps to explain Gibson’s nervously jokey references to James Bond in both this and the previous novel. Gibson’s acolytes proclaim him the prophet of the future but he is, in essence, simply writing flashy gadget thrillers and he is uneasily aware that this entire genre can’t escape the shadow of 007, simply because Ian Fleming brought the formula to such a peak of perfection. In fact the comical similarity to Bond is explicitly acknowledged right at the end of the novel: ‘Fiona said that Bigend, with the Hermès ekranoplan, had gone totally Bond villain’, p.399)

Anyway, in this novel we learn that after she met him towards the end of the previous novel, Hollis is so dazzlingly original and independent that she fell in love with the tall, dark, handsome, supremely confident, tough but sensitive security dude, Garreth. (So much for futurity; feels very 1960s to me.) But that their affair only flourished because it fell in a lull between Garreth’s missions, and that when he was assigned a new one by the mysterious old man, Garreth melted out of her life and that they then definitely split up.

Until… Hollis is delivered the shock news that Garreth has been involved in an accident!! Among his many other heroic action-man attributes was that Garreth was a free jumper, one of the group of people who illegally scale enormous buildings and jump off them wearing mini-parachutes. Well, Garreth illegally made it to the top of the world’s tallest building in Dubai, jumped off, but his chute got snagged in unexpected construction cranes and/or he landed on what should have been a deserted freeways but was instead run over by a super-rich Arab in a sports car.

Hollis is distraught, realises that she loved him after all (how very Mills & Boon), phones him, gets no reply, is given emotional support by her band-mate Heidi etc, all this going on while the situation with Milgrim and Gracie and the Opposition is getting more and more intense.

And then, the evening after the traumatic car attack on our heroes in the City, there’s a knock on Hollis’s hotel room door and it is none other than Garreth! Admittedly, he’s been badly knocked about and is in a wheelchair. The doctors had to reconstruct his hip and most of his right leg. He can just about limp using a walking stick but the wheelchair is easier. Cue a tearful reunion, ‘I never stopped loving you,’ ‘Oh why did you do it?’ ‘Is it serious?’ etc etc. They embrace, they kiss, he spends the night on her bed. They nickname his partly reconstructed right leg Frank.

However, characteristically for Gibson, there is no hint of any sexual activity whatsoever. His characters are strictly neuter, with no sexual attributes or thoughts.

(Same happens in chapter 60 when foxy Fiona, a strong, independent motorbike courier, is stuck in the lockup with Milgrim, completes the assembly of a bit of kit, strips off her overclothes and gets into the one sleeping bag, then invites Milgrim to join her. He takes his trousers and socks off. This will be a first, the reader thinks. But Milgrim slips into the sleeping bag beside her, lies perfectly straight and still and… soon hears her snoring, p.299.)

The puzzling absence of sex as an activity or a motive or even a footnote to the relationships is one of the big limitations of Gibson’s novels and something which prevents them being any kind of serious investigation of human nature. Instead they feel more like the adventures of chrome-plated, cartoon cutouts.

Garreth’s plan

Anyway, Garreth’s appearance is very convenient for the plot for, the next morning, when Bigend invites himself to breakfast with Hollis at her boutique hotel, and is explaining that he’s made the decision to hand Milgrim over to the bad guys, Garreth, who was hiding behind a screen and overheard everything (like a character in an Elizabethan play) steps (well trundles in his wheelchair) forward and backs Hollis up in saying this unacceptable. They cannot possibly consider handing over poor Milgrim to the bad guys. No, instead he, Garreth, will use his super secret agent powers to devise a cunning plan.

And so it is that in the final quarter of the novel Garreth calls in lots of favours, assembles kit from all over, and puts together his plan, while the extended team of Good Guys assemble, as in every heist movie ever made. The good guys are: Hollis and crippled scam supremo Garreth, timid Milgrim and the biker babe Fiona, Benny the bike mechanic who makes important adjustments to Fiona’s bike and keeps the lockup mentioned above, and tough Polish immigrant and computer repairman, Voytek.

I forgot to mention that Heidi, a tall no-nonsense woman, had joined a gym in Hackney, where she’d discovered a cohort of blokes who like boxing, including an Asian guy named Ajay, who she brings back to Hollis’s hotel, and who is thrilled to meet the legendary singer of The Curfew. Well, Garreth ropes this Ajay into his quickly whipped-up scam, and he comes accompanied by his cousin, Asian beauty Chandra.

It’s a kind of multi-ethnic Ocean’s Eleven, or like the elaborate set-up scenes in The Italian Job (1969).

The mystery designer is Cayce Pollard

Remember how the whole narrative got rolling with Bigend apparently interested in finding the designer of a particularly funky pair of jeans and denim jacket. Well, Mere reappears at this juncture (from a narrative structure point of view, to take pressure off the buildup to Garreth’s Masterplan) and reveals to Hollis that the mystery designer is in London, and takes Hollis to see her. In a secret denim shop in Soho.

And, with a terrible sense that Gibson’s world is contracting and contracting until it’s the size of a microchip, the mystery designer who we all spent the first half of the novel obsessing about, turns out to be… none other than Cayce Pollard, the magically gifted ‘coolhunter’ who is the lead protagonist of Pattern Recognition!

Cayce explains that a) she became a designer because old clothes she bought in vintage fairs were just so much better made than even designer modern clothes, and b) that she shunned all logos because, as we know from Pattern Recognition, although it was her job to search out new patterns in the flow of design and clothing, actual logos gave her panic attacks. So, no logos. (Writing that reminds me of Naomi Klein’s 1999 book No Logos with its wholesale attack on the insanity of the fashion and branding industry, and makes me think, once again a) how very much behind the curve Gibson is and b) how shallow and superficial his ‘satire’ is next to a solid polemical book like Klein’s.)

So Cayce the designer insisted on no logos, absolutely no logos right up to the moment when her husband suggested they use a logo and… she agreed. There. That’s how brainless this book and its characters are. Cayce tells Hollis that she occasionally doodled dogs with human heads while designing and her husband spotted these and told her about the ‘legend’ of Gabriel Hounds. And thus this mysterious anti-brand was born. A logo which isn’t a logo. A brand which isn’t a brand.

The two women proceed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about Bigend. Yes, why are their lives both dominated by a big overbearing corporate capitalist, the reader asks himself? Sisters are doing it for themselves, or not, as the case may be. Cayce explains to Hollis that she doesn’t have fashion launches, doesn’t conform to usual fashion rhythms. She has special ‘drops’. So successful is her anti-fashion stance that Hollis sees the editor of French Vogue entering Cayce’s building as she leaves. She is so hot this season!!

I was left speechless by the illogical, inconsistent shallowness of this storyline.

Meanwhile, the Chinese agent Winnie Tung Whitaker contacts Milgrim again. He goes see her at Smithfield. She’s still after Gracie. Hollis wonders out loud to Garreth whether Bigend has for the first time lost it. Inchmale tells her that his wife (very well connected in the world of London PR and comms, darling) says the buzz is that something big is on.

You know the book is reaching its climax because everyone starts talking in italics because there is going to be some serious shit going down! Don’t let him fuck with you! I did not come to this country for motherfucker! How scary is that? Shit just got weirdLateral fucking move! Totally fucking next level! —

As if Americans can’t talk in a calm tone of voice. Or that the text itself is aware that the story is rather boring, doesn’t really make much sense, and so tries to get the characters to jazz it up by inserting lots of swearwords and random emphases.

Bigend had earlier on shown Hollis and and Heidi Milgrim some prototype drones you can operate from your iPhone. These become part of Garreth’s Cunning Plan to manage the prisoner exchange.

The prisoner exchange

Then it’s zero hour. Garreth texts everyone on the team that it’s time to rumble. Pack what you can carry, he tells Hollis, there may be running, we may not be able to come back to the hotel. It’s like a Bourne movie but without any of the actual tension or logic.

The exchange has been arranged for waste land near Wormwood Scrubs. It is, basically, a prisoner exchange as out of thousands of Cold War novels and movies, except with drones. The plan is pretty simple. Garreth has gotten the Asian martial arts guy, Ajay, to use makeup to look like Milgrim, and arranged for him to be accompanied to the drop place by an ex-Gurkha (it’s handy to know this kind of people if you’re in special ops).

The two Bad Guys approach with Chombo. When they’re close enough, Ajay simply leaps forward and decks Foley, grabs Chombo and runs off, while Charlie the Gurkha drops the other bad guy.

Over on the edge of things of the meeting ground both Fiona and Milgrim have been operating drones with cameras attached which Garreth can see from the control van packed with TV screens and phones, parked half a mile away. Also in the van are Hollis and Heidi who, we now learn, has bad claustrophobia.

From one of these drone cameras they spot Michael Gracie over to one side of the exchange zone, unpacking a Kalshnikov rifle with night sights. Uh-oh. Without prompting, Milgrim fires the taser on his drone which hits Gracie, who lies convulsed on the floor. Taser? Yes, it turns out Heidi packed a taser into her luggage when she drunkenly packed to come to Britain from the States weeks ago. Handy, eh. Gibson is just adding bits of plot to try and jazz up this rather lame prisoner exchange plot device.

So while Ajay and the Gurkha run away safely, the two bad guys – Foley and some guy with a mullet haircut – are slow to get off the floor, while Gracie has been badly shocked and staggers to his feet and away without the Kalashnikov.

Chombo tries to get away from Ajay but, as luck would have it, Heidi had exited the van a few minutes earlier due to her claustrophobia, saw him running off and, being the tall Amazonian type, had rugby tackled him and brought him back to Garreth’s van. Our boys pack up and drive away, mission accomplished.

Epilogue

Cut to some weeks later. Heidi and Ajay are touring Cornwall. They seem to be an item. Hollis is in a Paris hotel bedroom with Garreth, fixing up his leg. We learn that an obscure character named Pep, the Catalan car thief (p.306), the world’s best at getting into and out of locked cars (in thrillers everyone is ‘the world’s best’) had, while the baddies were walking Chombo towards the handover zone, broken into Gracie’s car and left some semtex and photos of mosques around the UK in it. Before the mission began, Garreth had called in some heavy-duty UK anti-terrorist police on a number given him by Winnie Tung Whitaker. These police found the bomb making equipment and Gracie is now in a world of trouble. (To be honest, I never really understood what he was doing which was so wrong. Selling uniforms to the US Army, does it deserve the treatment he got?)

Hollis tells Garreth that Bigend has paid her a lot of money. No surprise, says Garreth. It was Hollis who introduced Garreth to Bigend and Garreth made all Bigend’s problems go away. At which point… Garreth proposes marriage to Hollis!

And what of Bigend, conspicuous by his absence from the hostage exchange? We catch up with him on a flight to Iceland with the Dottir twins and on no ordinary plane but a sort of zeppelin balloon, or plane with little or no wing, designed by the Russians. Milgrim is aboard it with Fiona, the biker babe. There’s a cocktail party (the plane is that big) where Milgrim is informed that:

  • Blue Ant is over: anyone who was anyone in it is on the plane and they’re all relocating to Iceland
  • Bigend helped the Dottirs’ father in shady internet deals which have ended up with the pair, between them, owning most of Iceland (the vast effort everyone put into understanding the US military’s uniform contracts has completely vanished, like the MacGuffin it always was)
  • and, in nearly the final joke, we learn that winsome Fiona with whom Milgrim is now definitely an item, is none other than Bigend’s daughter by his uber-secretary, Pamela Mainwaring

This is one massive thing in Gibson’s favour, I think, that his novels include almost no violence. This is supposedly a thriller but nobody actually gets killed – unlike the scads of traditional American thrillers in which so many people get horribly butchered. Instead this novel ends with three couples happily paired off and a nice romantic wedding on the cards.

I found Zero History a long, hard, gruelling, pretentious and irritating slog, but ended it with a smile on my face. The best bit is the ending.

Zero history

To summarise, Zero History consists of 400 pages describing rock musicians, magazine journalists and fashion aristocracy jetting from New York to London to Paris, staying in fancy hotels, taking cabs to fancy restaurants, wittering on some stupid quest to track down the designer of some slightly quirky jeans, all paid for by an absurdly rich sugar-daddy, until right at the day it turns into a briefly gripping hommage to Cold War-era hostage exchange narratives, before ending with three happy relationships and a marriage, rather like a Shakespeare comedy.

The title is explained, sort of, on page 84. All it indicates is that Milgrim was such a social dropout during his addiction phase, during his ‘decade-long low-grade brown-out’, p.141, that he never had a regular job, paid taxes, social security etc, didn’t even have a credit card. And therefore, as far as ‘the grid’ is concerned, had ‘zero history’. So no deep meaning at all.

Despite being an astonishing architect of cool, Gibson’s favourite word (apart from black, and apart from his occasional deployment of media studies buzzwords like ‘semiotics’, pp.213, and ‘liminal’, pp.4, 94, 369) Gibson’s favourite word appears to be ‘peculiar’, which cropped up frequently enough for me to  count its appearances on pages 4, 6, 8, 111, 113, 135, 180, 268, 279, 318, 326, 335 and 346.

It’s an oddly cosy and very English word for such a self-conscious American hipster.


Credit

Zero History by William Gibson was published in the UK by Viking in 2010. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon which was a bad mistake because, as with the previous 10 Amazon purchases, it arrived creased, scuffed, bent and smeared.

Other William Gibson reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003)

This is the first novel in what became known as the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy. I was wondering what Blue Ant would turn out to be, my mind alive with images of mutating insects, or maybe it was the nickname of some groovy digital weapon, or a piece of cyberspace code.

But no, my heart sank when I learned that Blue Ant just refers to a fictional advertising agency set in the contemporary world i.e. turn of the century New York and London and Tokyo. And that the lead figure in the book is a ‘brilliant’ young logo expert, 32-year-old (page 2) Cayce Pollard who is a freelance fashion spotter, ‘an actual on-the-street cool-hunter’ (page 32), ‘a very specialised piece of human litmus paper’ (page 13):

  • ‘What I do is pattern recognition. I try to recognise a pattern before anyone else does.’ (page 86)
  • All the time she’s spent on the world’s various streets, scouting cool for the commodifiers. (page 195)
  • ‘I find things, or styles, for other people, companies, to market. And I evaluate logos – trademark emblems.’ (page 231)

Just like the character Count Zero in the Neuromancer trilogy or Colin Laney in the Bridge trilogy had special, almost supernatural gifts for spotting trends, nodes and emerging meanings in the endless flow of data in cyberspace, so Cayce is credited with a special, almost supernatural gift to spot new fashion trends –

She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backwards, asking the next question. She’s that good! (page 32)

Except that Count Zero and Laney were dealing with the genuinely weird, visionary idea of dataflows, set in interesting futures, whereas Cayce has a special ability to spot… the latest trends in footwear. Or shirts. Or handbags. It feels like a crashing descent into the banal.

In the first 150 pages of this book the one piece of actual work which Cayce performs for the Blue Ant agency is they show her a new logo designed for a client which looks a bit like a sperm.

‘They wanted me here to tell them whether or not a new logo worked.’ (page 190)

She doesn’t like it so it’s sent back to the designer (Heinz) in Germany, who amends it to more of a squiggle – which she does like. That’s it. That’s how her supernatural abilities are put to use. Felt pathetic, to me.

The novel opens as Cayce arrives in London for a meeting with the Blue Ant advertising agency with a bad jet lag.

She’s here on Blue Ant’s ticket. Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering carnivores. (page 6)

The prose from the get-go is whip-smart and street savvy and cool and all those other adjectives, but cannot conceal what for me, as a person completely indifferent to fashion, is the crushingly dull and vapidly narcissistic world of fashion and marketing. And this is the first novel in which the real thinness of Gibson’s plots became clear.

Characters

The book is cleverly constructed and has a number of strands. Cayce is staying at the flat of a mate of hers, Damian, who is off shooting a documentary in Russia. The Blue Ant agency was founded and is run by the preposterous Hubertus Bigend, who drives a fast car, wears a stetson hat, looks like Tom Cruise with big teeth, and has advanced views about how advertising bypasses the rational mind and goes straight for the primitive hippocampus, the basic mammalian stem of the brain (page 69). Just, in fact, like all the pretentious, high-talking heads of all advertising agencies are ‘visionaries’, ‘gurus’, ‘geniuses’, prophets, intellectuals, blah blah blah.

Hubertus Bigend and contempt for the reader

Calling his central character Hubertus Bigend struck me as being a gesture of contempt by Gibson. In the third of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, Hannibal (1999), written some time after the smash hit success of the Anthony Hopkins movie version of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Harris has a scene where the psychopath moves amid the crowd in the London Dungeon and freely expresses his loathing and contempt for the shallow philistines who love being titillated by gruesome murders. Peasants! Plebs! It seemed to me that Harris was deliberately gobbing in the face of the people who bought his books and paid to see the movies.

Something comparable struck me as happening here. It seems to me Gibson that is taunting his readers, saying if you can believe in a character I’ve named Hubertus Bigend, you’ll believe anything; if you swallow this stupid, insulting name, it just goes to prove what gullible mugs you are, falling over yourselves to associate yourself with my shimmering street-savvy prose, to slip on a leather jacket and shades and a ripped t-shirt and pretend to be in on the latest thing, in a pathetic attempt to hide from yourself how middle-aged and white and boring you are.

In fact it’s not only Hubertus Bigend who has a stupid name, they all do:

  • Cayce Pollard
  • Hubertus Bigend
  • Damian Pease (page 104)
  • Boone Chu (page 100)

In the Neuromancer trilogy Gibson really did feel like he was writing about gutter punks strung out on future drugs as they hacked in and out of cyberspace in gorgeously whip-sharp prose. You are totally in that world.

The Bridge trilogy which followed felt to me more contrived: its focus is on solidly lowlife types, or people bumping along the bottom of society – a security guard and ex-bike courier and rasta shopkeeper and a damaged teenager – giving the impression of a world which is fly and sharp and cool and street and happening, man. It’s only when the story refers to the authorities who actually run all the amenities of post-earthquake California – for example when the fire brigade gets called in to put out the climactic blaze on the Golden Gate bridge – that you realise that beyond Gibson’s handful of street types and scandi noir assassins, there is actually a great big world of grown-ups, where taxes are gathered to pay for schools and hospitals and police and fire brigade, where bureaucrats and businessmen commute to work every day and get things done. Where people aren’t lowlife drifters, living in cardboard boxers, mixing with cool assassins in long black coats.

Suddenly, the story felt…well… juvenile, wilfully focusing on a handful of rather pathetic outsiders with no particular redeeming qualities or features, certainly in no way representative of the wider world.

The Blue Ant novels feel like they continue this downward arc – that what began as something genuinely subversive and new in Neuromancer has metamorphosed into something shiny and empty and corrupt. The triumph of style over soul. It feels like he’s sold out. The Clash lyric, ‘Huh, you think it’s funny – turning rebellion into money’ kept coming to mind (The Clash are actually quoted on page 130 and the novel features Gibson’s usual clutch of supposed rock stars and fake rock bands).

When you’re a kid you think the music and look of your time is the big deal which is going to overthrow the corrupt old order. Then you watch as the record labels and promoters and stadium bookers and the TV pundits and fashion journalists and style gurus turn it into just another brand, and next thing you know it’s being sold back to you at extortionate prices, marketed and advertised by would-be cool, creepy, slimey, 40-something sell-outs in designer leather jackets.

That’s what this book felt like to me: a creepy exercise in cynical box-ticking set among a jet-setting international advertising and media elite who know all the right people and who are all so fabulous – fabulously well dressed, fabulously well connected, fabulously stylish, and so fabulously interesting, dahhhling, Hubertus has just got the most fabulously interesting theory of why advertising works, dahling, you must hear it, the man is a complete genius!

Absolutely fabulous characters

Cayce, as is repeatedly pointed out, is supernaturally gifted at spotting fashion trends, and this is one of the obvious examples of pattern recognition which crop up throughout the book. Her father was Win Pollard, a leading security expert who made American embassies round the world secure. He had many wise words and sayings like a good father should, well, certainly in an airport thriller.

He advised her to always ‘secure the perimeter’. He warned her against apophenia which is the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things when there are none. It is a way of overdoing pattern recognition, a form of paranoia. (It crossed my mind, reading this, that creating patterns out of human activity is, in a broad sense, the core approach of all narratives.)

Cayce’s mother, Cynthia is equally as interesting and eccentric, a gen-you-ine Virginia eccentric (page 31) who lives in a nutty community who all believe in Electronic Voice Phenomena, a form of pattern recognition gone wrong (page 115).

Cayce had a therapist, Katherine McNally (page 253) (later this turns out to have been a string of therapists). She goes to a café in Camden and bumps into the famous Billy Prion, lead singer in the famous band, BSE. Her friend Damian is off in Russia making simply the most amazing documentaries ever.

In other words, her life is just so effortlessly glamorous, dahhling. It’s a Sunday Times Style supplement version of cool.

The shiny people in their black leather jackets, black Fruit of the Loom t-shirts, black skinny 501 jeans (page 2) and black shades, collars moodily turned up on their long black coats, or black leather and shiny nylon and squared-off shoes (page 153), smoking Gitanes like Albert Camus, drinking expensive Colombian coffee, hanging out in their cool redesigned interiors and stylish cars are like the pencil-thin, heroin-chic young things out of any number of indistinguishable fashion shoots from the last 30 years, or which populate hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cynical, smooth, stylish, utterly empty car ads.

An ex-boyfriend of Cayce’s (oh, dahhling, how many have there been?) once compared her to a Helmut Newton portrait of Jane Birkin. Well, of course he did. A character she knows looks like Michael Stipe on steroids – ‘Oh I simply love REM, don’t you!’ (page 21).

Later Boone’s luggage is described as ‘one of those Filson outfitter bags that look like L.L. Bean on steroids’, page 172. In other words Gibson is starting to write in clichés and to repeat those clichés.

Cayce’s New York apartment is painted a shade of blue she discovered in Northern Spain and had the paint people mix from a Polaroid she took of it, she’s that good!

The book keeps up a steady stream of name-dropping, trailing any number of undergraduate cultural references from Tarkovsky to Baudrillard (page 48) because the book has intellectual pretensions as well, in much the way that high-end fashion magazines and style outlets like to quote Deep Thinkers, or at least put their faces onto t-shirts, turning them into yet another kind of shiny surface reflecting the characters’ bottomless shallowness.

They’re just names on labels, like all the other brands the text carefully namechecks – Tommy Hilfiger, Levi 501, Volvo, Agnes B, Molton Brown, Burberry, Gucci (127), Prada (188), Gap, L.L. Bean, Louis Vuitton (188), suede boots from Parco, Armani, Versace (271), Cartier (309), Hermès (310).

Everyone is just so fabulously fabulous, thus:

  • Hubertus is a philosopher king who founded the coolest ad agency anywhere (‘He’s brilliant, isn’t he?’ gushes a member of his staff on page 87)
  • Cayce’s friend Margot is doing a course at NYU in disease-as-metaphor (‘Oh how wonderfully Susan Sontag of her!’), as it happens, she is a former girlfriend of Bigend’s – small world, when you’re this brilliant and that good !
  • the text drops key names from an undergraduate media studies course like car keys – Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Jameson, August Strindberg, Andrei Tarkovsky (at least three times pp.146), Truffault, Peckinpah, Apocalypse Now (180), William S. Burroughs (186), James Joyce and Tennessee Williams (286), it’s a shopping list of rather dated intellectual ‘cool’
  • characters wonder whether the director of the fragments is some kind of ‘Garage Kubrick’ (page 47)
  • film-makers are all auteurs
  • Cayce is stopped in the street by someone who thinks he saw her at a fabulous event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ (page 19)
  • not one but two of her former boyfriends were fans of Japanese actor Beat Takeshi, star of existential gangster films (page 167); of course they were, haven’t you heard of Beat Takeshi, oh dahling, where have you been hiding?
  • Cayce keeps bumping into rock singer Billy Prion, you all remember Billy Prion the famous rock singer, don’t you?

The text drops not only names but fashionable buzzwords, too, like a checklist from a student reading list of critical theory – liminal (54, 253), discourse, semiotics (‘semiotics of the marketplace’ 2, ‘a semiotic neutrality’ 89, ‘semiotic agoraphobia’ 264), hegemony, hermeneutics, God aren’t we clever and well-read.

As you can tell, I found Pattern Recognition unbearably pretentious, elitist and dull. It’s such a shame because in the Neuromancer novels Gibson seemed to have invented a dazzlingy jazzy, funky, street prose style to match the extraordinary goings-on in his digital future. But in a book like this, the style is broader, deeper and more accomplished, but now feels like it is dressing up distressingly lame, boring, fashion magazine material.

The McGuffin

All Gibson’s previous novels managed to cook up a sense of expectation and mild dread because they all contrived to have a Big Secret at their centre, a secret the characters slowly stumble across and which, in the case of the Neuromancer books, is genuinely mind-expanding (in the second novel a self-conscious, self-aware being emerges from the world’s data; in the third novel, it becomes aware that there are others like it out in space).

However, this entire Big Thing-at-the-heart-of-the-story strategy begins to run out of steam in the Bridge trilogy: in the last of those books we spend the entire narrative being promised that something big, really, really big is going to happen, something that is going to change the world forever, so we spend the entire novel on tenterhooks. And then… it doesn’t happen. Nothing happens at all. Well, the Golden Gate catches fire and then, er, is put out. That’s it.

The McGuffin in this novel is ‘the fragments’. Someone is releasing onto the internet brief fragments of what appear to be a movie. This cryptic procedure has spawned a community of obsessives around the world who have swiftly assigned themselves a ‘cool’ name, the ‘footageheads’, who have wasted vast amounts of time speculating what The Footage means, who took it and why and where it’s all going to end. Footageheads are obsessives and addicts. They think repeated watching of the various fragments, in various orders, gives them a sense of an opening into something, a universe, a narrative (page 109).

There are web communities devoted solely to analysing The Fragments, including one named F:F:F, which stands for Fetish: Footage: Forum, maintained by someone named Ivy, with about 20 regular posters including Parkaboy, La Anarchia, Maurice and Filmy, and where Cayce has been posting thoughts for some time.

As the novel begins and Cayce flies into London to undertake her brief job assessing the new logo for a Blue Ant client (why couldn’t the logo have been emailed or faxed or posted to her?) she is fussing and fretting over the release of the latest fragment, #135.

This silly idea really is the centre of this long novel, I kid you not. When, on the evening of her 1-minute logo-disapproving meeting, Cayce is invited out for dinner and then drinks with the swashbuckling Hubertus Bigend (‘Isn’t he brilliant?’), Hubertus takes Cayce to a cool designer bar in cool Clerkenwell (natch) where he springs on her the real reason he paid for her flight from New York — turns out Hubertus is a footagehead himself and is prepared to pay Cayce big bucks to find out who’s making The Fragments and why.

Before she knows what’s happening, Hubertus introduces her to a Chinese-American named Boone Chu. Cayce initially says no to the whole proposition, but, like Cayce herself, Boone is a genuine footagehead and his passion is contagious.

Tokyo

Cayce spends the first hundred and fifty pages mooching round the environs of her mate Damian’s flat in Camden i.e. up to the Lock, around the market, there are walks up Primrose Hill, she meets people in cafés, has a bizarre encounter in the street with three dudes who are buying and selling a suite of fake hand grenades which contain wind-up calculators (named Voytek and Ngemi), the nips over to Notting Hill and the Portobello Road. Then there’s all the taking of cabs to and from meetings at Blue Ant’s HQ in Soho. In other words, fashionable north and west London are given a good going over in Gibson’s slick stylish prose. Cool.

But via the community of footageheads Cayce has learned that there are various footage experts in Tokyo and so, once Boone Chu has helped persuade her to agree to Hubertus’s commission to track down the footage maker, she finds herself handed a Blue Ant Mac, ipad, mobile, credit card and plane tickets to Tokyo and whoosh! she’s aboard a British Airways flight to Japan. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

There’s quite a bit of reportage about what it’s like to arrive in Tokyo, deboard the plane, catch a cab into town, all the skyscrapers, the bombardment of foreign signs which every tourist since Roland Barthes has felt compelled to write a book about. The Blue Ant Tokyo office is terrifyingly prompt and efficient and, after she’s checked into a luxury hotel, arranges an hours-long pampering session with seaweed facials, wax and haircut. Then a new outfit, all in black, obvz.

Then, finally, we arrive at the point of the whole trip, which is some of her pals in F:F:F have identified a certain ‘Taki’, a Japanese footagehead, who claims to know of a ‘coven’ of other footageheads who have discovered a watermark on fragment #78.

Do you care? No, neither do I. Her friends then devise an elaborate scam which is to invent a horny, porny anime babe, call her Keiko, and persuade this Taki to a meeting on the promise that in exchange for his information, he’ll get a picture and contact details for this Keiko. I suppose they could have just rung him up and asked him or asked to meet for a coffee and asked him, But this way creates more cloak-and-dagger suspense.

So Cayce meets Taki in a seedy bar which he has chosen, he hands over the number he claims is in the watermark of fragment #78 and she hands over the bosomy photo of a made-up Japanese babe, goes for a pee and Taki is gone when she gets back.

Out in the dirty alley she is mugged by two guys dressed all in black (obvz) who seem to have Italian accents. But it turns out Cayce was trained in self-defence by her spy father (of course she was) and gives one of them a Glasgow Kiss before stamping on the other’s one’s shoe with her stilleto and running. At the end of the alleyway a lone figure on a moped is waiting, who lifts the visor of his helmet to reveal… it is Boone Chu! He flew out on the same plane as her and has been tailing her.

Long story short, he sweeps her off to a hotel, drinks and recovers and throws on new clothes (all black, natch), then a plane back to London.

Back in London

Boone and Cayce are collected by Hubertus in a cab, so he can debrief them about everything that happened. Boone does the talking and leaves out the mugging and his rescue of Cayce.

Back at Damian’s Cayce is disconcerted to discover Damian has returned to his flat from Russia, and brought along a moody sulky Russian girlfriend, Marina (dresses only in Prada, only in black, natch). Cayce crashes, the others go for meals, Camden is so cool.

Burglary I forgot to mention that after Cayce arrived in Damian’s flat she unpacked then went for a walk. When she came back she realised someone had been tampering with the laptop she uses i.e. had broken into the flat, but using the correct keys. This led to an outburst of paranoia which led her to barricade Damian’s door, then to get new locks.

Logophobia I also forgot to mention that Cayce has a severed phobia which is the other side of her having such a phenomenally good feel for fashion and logos, which is a phobia of logos. Thus a visit to Harvey Nichols upscale department store makes her nearly pass out, and conversation leads to the fact that the Michelin man, logo of Bibendum in Knightsbridge, gives her panic attacks. Thus it is no accident that when she gets back to Damian’s flat after some outing she finds a model of the Michelin man nailed to the door. She nearly throws up and has to detach it without looking directly at it.

Now, no sooner has she arrived back in London than she’s called to a meeting at Blue Ant with Hubertus. On the way in she almost collides with… the man who tried to mug her in Tokyo and is sporting a very broken nose. When she asks reception who he is, reception tells her that’s Dorotea’s driver, Franco (page 199).

Dorotea? Yes we met Dorotea Benedetti (page 9) in the early scenes. She is another freelance, this time an imposing executive, who had been liaising with the German designer about the sperm logo. Boone  explains that Dorotea was angling for a senior job at Big Ant and thought Hubertus had flown Cayce to London to consider her for the post i.e. to be a rival. And that’s why Dorotea commenced this barrage of psychological attacks against Cayce.

But in this new meeting at Blue Ant, also attended by Boone, Cayce now discovers that none of it was Dorotea’s idea, she was put up to it by a Russian who paid her, a tax lawyer based in Cyprus (described as being a centre of Russian money laundering, page 204). Not only did this Russian pay Dorotea to unsettle Cayce but someone passed on to her deeply personal information about Cayce’s logo phobia which she had only shared with her New York therapist. I.e. the Russians appear to have burgled Cayce’s therapist’s office.

So there’s some kind of deeper conspiracy against Cayce going on. When all this comes out in this boardroom meeting, Cayce is speechless with rage and calls Dorotea a ‘vicious lying cunt’ (page 203). But Hubertus stuns Cayce even more by announcing that he has hired Dorotea to Big Ant. Cayce reels out and goes to a Starbucks with Boone who explains that Hubertus doesn’t trust Dorotea but wants her on the inside of the tent pissing out.

Boone announces he’s flying to Columbus Ohio because that’s the location of a firm, Sigil, which specialises in watermarking movies. He thinks it might be them who placed the watermark on the fragment which they swindled out of Beat in Tokyo. So we’re back to The Footage, again, as providing the main narrative engine.

Bournemouth

Remember the oddballs Cayce walked past in Portobello Road, gathered round a car boot where she was astonished to see full of hand grenades till she went closer and discovered that they were only novelty calculators, one of the only hand-wound calculators in the world. To add a bit of grit, the story goes on to explain that they were designed by a Jewish designer Herzstark while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

Now we learn that the two guys gathered round that boot were collectors and aficionados, being Voytek the Slav, Ngemi the black guy. They were waiting for a potential purchaser, Hobbs Baranov to show up. But he didn’t, so they packed up and left, disgruntled.

Well, Voytek gets hooked up with Damian somehow I can’t quite remember, and is part of the ‘Camden set’. Cayce sees him a few times in Camden cafés, even round Damian’s place. Conversation reveals that Baranov is well connected as well as being a fanatical collector. He’s the son of a Soviet defector from the 1950s, possibly recruited to American intelligence (page 242).

We are told that a rare and valuable artifact, a prototype Curta calculator, went at auction to a Bond Street dealer, Lucian Greenaway. Cayce finds out the black guy Ngemi is catching a train down to Bournemouth to see Baranov the purchaser and asks Voytek to ask Ngemi if she can accompany him.

Yes. So Cayce catches a cab to Waterloo (with comic descriptions of British Rail announcements, sandwiches and English tabloid newspapers. Yuk.) Train to Bournemouth, borrows a car, drives out to derelict Ministry of Defence test centre, a handful of pitiful caravans, this is where Hobbs Baranov lives. He is very unpleasant but a fanatical collector of early computers and calculators.

The T diagram The F:F:F people continue to dangle the bait of a made-up hot Japanese footagehead babe in front of Taki i.e. continue sending fake emails from her to him and, having been given the photo Cayce gave him, he more than ever believes she is real and big-breasted and gagging to meet her if only he will hand over Footagehead facts. So Taki excitedly emails Cayce a diagram. It is an image which shows a sort of T-shaped piece of geography and written all over it are numbers. One of them is the same as the number watermarked into fragment #78 as revealed by Taki. So presumably they’re all watermarks to do with the Footage.

Now Cayce has come all the way down to this dingy caravan outside Bournemouth to show it to the collector and expert in the arcane, Hobb. She shows the image to Hobbs and he nods knowingly. Cayce makes Hobbs a deal. She’ll buy the Bond Street piece for him in exchange for information: she wants the email address to which the particular encrypted number Taki gave her was sent.

Back at Waterloo Ngemi tells Cayce that Hobbs, before he became a shambling alcoholic recluse, was something to do with setting up Echelon, an American system that monitors the entire traffic on the web. As so often with Gibson, this snippet is heavy with implied meaning, but light on actual content.

So Ngemi and Cayce go to this Bond Street dealer who is the epitome of superior snobbishness but sells them the Curta calculator, which they promptly hand to Baranov who was waiting outside with the email address Cayce wanted (stellanor@armaz.ru).

Cayce goes sits in Kensington Gardens where, on her iBook, she writes an email to the address asking who he or she is and what they’re aiming to achieve with the footage. (Email is written as e-mail throughout the book.)

Throughout the book she’s plugging her phone into her I-book in order to receive emails. Maybe this was cutting edge in 2002 or 3 but quite obviously it was to be completely superseded with the advent of smartphones by 2007 or 8.

Anyway, Cayce investigates the domain name @armaz.ru and discovers it’s owned by an Andreas Polakov based in Cyprus. She phones Bigend, asks the name of the Cyprus-based Russian lawyer who paid Dorotea to frighten off Cayce and it is… Andreas Polokov (page 259). One and the same man: so, Is the man who appears to be disseminating The Footage the same one who paid Dorotea to put the frighteners on Cayce? And if so, Why?

The guy at the other end of the email replies within half an hour saying he’s in Moscow. Cayce immediately gets Blue Ant’s people to buy her an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Moscow

There is the same kind of travelogue description of driving into the city from the airport which Gibson has already given us for London and Tokyo. ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich, everybody’s talking ’bout… pop music!’

The constant shifting of locale is like a James Bond movie and just like in the movies we get a lot of local colour and background information, almost like a tourist brochure.

We get descriptions of Moscow motorways, signage, the imposingly huge hotel (the President), the crappy hotel room, the poor cellphone reception, the rude staff, a couple of super-sexualised hookers hanging round in the lobby. It all sounds like notes Gibson has made on his travels promoting his earlier books.

Throughout the novel Cayce’s closest friend on the Fetish: Footage: Forum has been Parkaboy. He’s been avidly following her investigations into the source of the footage. Now in an email exchange he begs to be allowed to join her in Moscow.

Now, back when Hubertus originally hired Cayce to track down the Footage Maker, Hubertus said she could have anything she wanted, unlimited expenses, buy cars, take flights anywhere, stay in the best hotels etc. So Cayce now tells Parkaboy she’ll get him a plane ticket to Moscow, whereupon he tells her his name for the plane ticket, Peter Gilbert (page 278).

She gets another email from the footage guy telling her to meet him in a Moscow café. So she’s very surprised when the figure who weaves its way through the cafe to her turns out to be… a woman, introduces herself as Stella.

The big reveal

Stella explains everything, explaining the entire plot.

Stella was one of twin sisters, Stella and Nora born and bred in Russia. She and her sister were in a terrorist attack, a claymore mine stuck in a tree, which killed both their parents immediately, Nora was very badly injured with shrapnel lodged in her brain. She had been a film student in Paris. She had been working on several films which she cut shorter and shorter in line with her minimalist aesthetic.

After the injury she spoke only to Stella and only in the special private language which twins often develop. Stella and friends bring Nora her film equipment from Paris which is the only thing which perks her up. She resumes editing her film and paring it down till it ends up as just one shot.

Then they notice Nora staring at the monitor showing closed circuit TV footage of the reception area of the hotel. She is entranced by it. So, hoping to aid her cure, one of the doctors hooks Nora’s recording equipment to the CCTV camera, she begins recording it and editing it. And that, children, is the origin of The Footage which has been dazzling and puzzling the worldwide community of Footageheads. Bit disappointing, isn’t it.

They part, Cayce goes back to her hotel and sleeps, has calls with Boone, Hubertus, then receives a long email about his archaeology project from Damian. Then Stella’s car comes to collect Cayce and take her to an abandoned cinema, which became a squat in the chaotic 90s and is now where Nora sits in a shawl obsessively editing and re-editing fragments of her ‘film’. And where Stella sits for hours watching the genius of her sister, the Creator, the Maker.

Dorotea in Moscow

In the middle of all this, Cayce is astonished when Dorotea turns up in the Moscow hotel. Dorotea urgently takes Cayce for a drink, telling her that the twins (Stella and Nora’s) uncle, the one Stella says is rich and powerful and has been protecting them, well he’s not happy that Cayce has discovered who Nora is. She also casually reveals that she, Dorotea, knows all about The Footage, in fact is the most irritating member of the F:F:F, Madam Anarchia.

But even as she explains all this, Cayce realises Dorotea has drugged her Perrier water and she starts to pass out.

Cayce kidnapped

Cayce wakes up in what feels like a hospital ward, in a hospital ward, strapped to a bed. She dozes, wakes again, is no longer strapped down, climbs out of bed, finds her bag with her clothes stuffed in it underneath, gets into them, goes tentatively out into a corridor, walks towards a door showing daylight, out into the grounds and away from the nasty 1960s building before anyone notices, down rough paths, going down, then up and up and eventually coming to a wire fence topped with razor wire, which she gets over (at the price of ripping her precious Rickson’s leather jacket) and walks on across bare red soil till night begins to fall. She has no food, no water, no idea where she is and no idea where she’s headed.

Parkaboy

When out of nowhere a helicopter with a searchlight comes swooping overhead, lands, and a guy with night vision goggles walks up, oh my God is it Russian Security, the FSB, the Mafia? Is he going to shoot Cayce, take her back for torture and interrogation, is he…

No. As in any Hollywood action movie the dark, helmeted figure walks right up to her to create maximum threat and… introduces himself as Parkaboy! Her friend! From Chicago! Who she helped arrange the plan ticket for.

Parkaboy gives Cayce water then bundles her into the chopper taking them back to the facility while he explains everything (it’s lovely how people do that in thrillers, explain everything. I wish they’d do that in real life).

Back in the hotel bar Dorotea drugged Cayce with rohypnol. But as she went under, Cayce went postal and attacked Dorotea, giving her a bloody nose and black eye. Ambulance was called. All this just as Parkaboy walked into the hotel bar. In one of her last emails to him, Cayce had sent Parkaboy Stella’s contact details so Parkaboy rang rich, influential Stella and within minutes an expensive car with private goons turns up. Cayce was flown to the establishment where she woke up and which she’s just escaped from. Parkaboy explains it is an experimental private prison run by Stella and Nora’s super-rich uncle, really rich, maybe the richest man in Russia. Of course.

Prison? Yes and what are the inmates of this model prison being paid to do? To watermark every frame of the fragments of the movie which mad Nora is creating. Why?

Parkaboy now amazes Cayce by telling her that he was in the room when Volkov and Bigend first met. And talked. He says it was like watching spiders mate.

All this during the helicopter flight. Now the chopper lands. Cayce is cleaned and showered, her bleeding feet tended by a doctor, dressed and taken up to the tower overlooking the facility where she is dazed to meet Hubertus Bigend – he gets everywhere, but then he is a genius! – who suavely introduces her to the oligarch Andrei Volkov.

Over dinner everything is explained

Volkov looks like Adolf Eichman, a non-descript middle-aged man except with a chunk missing from his right ear (page 334). Through a translator he apologises to Cayce for the trouble she’s been through, shakes hands, says something in French to Bigend and departs with his three security guys, flying back to Moscow.

Cayce is introduced to Volkov’s Polish head of security, Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal and Sergei Magomedov, as he, Bigend, Parkaboy and Cayce sit down at a cloth-laid table as an expensive dinner is brought to them and served up.

Marchwynska-Wyrwal takes up the explanation. Volkov is now the richest man in Russia. The claymore mine attack was an assassination attempt on him which failed but killed his brother, Nora and Stella’s father. From that point onwards, out of guilt for his dead brother, nothing was too good for his nieces, Nora in particular, and Volkov paid for an editing suite to be installed in her Swiss clinic.

As Nora created footage, her sister Stella wanted it to be conveyed to the world, but it was Sergei who developed the methodology of releasing it in numbered fragments, each containing watermarks, with a view to creating a cult following.

They monitored the various forums and chatrooms and groups which set themselves up as footageheads but it was a casual remark of Cayce’s, in her early days of posting, a casual throwaway remark that maybe the entire thing was the whim of a Russian mafiosi, which made all their security operations sit up.

Turns out Volkov had two security operations, a traditional KGB one and a web-based one. The traditionalists broke into Cayce’s flat and bugged all her devices. The less conventional ones hired Dorotea to sabotage Cayce’s career. Now, Volkov’s security guys already knew that Bigend had been making strides in discovering the footage creator, so when they learned that Cayce was going to join Bigend’s company the team went into overdrive and Dorotea was ordered to bug Cayce’s London base (Damian’s flat), then to try and mug her in Tokyo to get the watermark number which Taki had just given her.

All this is explained over this formal meal in a Russian prison-turned-hospital. As if all this wasn’t enough, Cayce’s father comes up in the conversation. For a moment I thought he was going to actually walk through a door and turn out to be a key player in this bonkers conspiracy to get a psychologically damaged young woman’s movie fragments out to a waiting world. But no. Volkov’s security people think Cayce’s father is dead, as she does. Nonetheless there is what is presumably meant to be a deliciously ironic toast to Wingard Pollard and men like him in the security services of the West who kept capitalism alive, for without him where would the oligarchs to today be? Lol.

Possibly this was wicked satire in 2003 but now it just reads like factual description of Vladimir Putin’s oligarch capitalism.

This bizarrely tranquil climax to the story prompts the thought that thrillers are ultimately comforting because, although a bunch of people might get shot or tortured along the way, things always turn out to be entirely comprehensible and loose ends are always neatly tied up like the ribbons tying up a fancy birthday gift.

It’s this childlike explanatoriness of thrillers, the neat tying up of loose ends, the complete explanations of the world, which makes them, ultimately, genre fiction and not literature.

Trouble is the explanations always happen right at the end of the text and are often contorted as hell in order to explain away the exciting but contrived scenes from earlier in the book, when it was still in ‘thrill mode’. As here. All those thrills and spills, burglaries and muggings and high-speed escapes, boil down to very little in the end.

Bigend walks Cayce to her room and explains that Dorotea was playing both sides. Only when Cayce used the .ru email address did Volkov’s security operation really leap into action, and Dorotea’s position become exposed. She flew to Moscow and was quizzing Cayce about the source of the email trying to identify who Cayce got that email address from (we know it was Hobbs) because Dorotea thought it would be a bargaining chip with Volkov’s people. But instead Volkov’s people arrived at the bar of the Hotel President to discover Dorotea assaulting the new best friend of Volkov’s nieces, so it was all up for her.

The long and the short of it is that nobody knows her current whereabouts. Best not to ask, Hubert advises. The implication is that Dorotea has been liquidated. Bigend bids Cayce goodnight, leading her to the small motel room she’s been assigned within the facility.

Immediately after dinner Wiktor Marchwynska-Wyrwal had given Cayce an envelope. Opening it she sees it’s a summary of Volkov’s security people’s extended efforts to track down her father. But no joy. Missing presumed dead in south Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. So, once again, what has been  trailed throughout the novel as an exciting and mysterious disappearance of her father the senior American security official turns out to be… a damp squib.

And Cayce was given another envelope. It contains a stylish handbag containing lots of fresh cash. Parkaboy drops by with bottled water. She tells him everything and starts to cry about her father. He gives her a hug and says, Well, at least they found the Maker.

Epilogue

The short final chapter ties up loose ends.

Cayce sends the money she was given to Voytek so he can stage some mad art exhibition involving lots of scaffolding.

Billy Prion the former rock star she kept bumping into in Camden is chosen as the face of some new yoghurt drink.

And she sends some cash to her mum, which helps pay the lawyers who are establishing her father’s legal status as deceased so as to free up his pension and insurance.

Her friend Margot writes to say she just saw Bigend on telly with some oligarch.

Damien writes to say he’s finished shooting his archaeology documentary about digging up a Stuka on some Second World War battlefield. Cayce had gone to visit him and ended up down in the digging trench, shovelling mud and crying helplessly. For her buried past. For her dead father.

Cayce’s therapist is pleased to hear that her panic attacks, her logophobia, her abreaction against all kinds of branded consumer goods, seem to have disappeared, but offers her a few slots in the autumn. Somehow this whole crazy experience has been therapeutic. Cayce is cured!

The book ends with her lying in bed in Paris, spooned up next to Parkaboy aka Peter Gilbert, who, we learn, is now her boyfriend. She’s in no rush to go back to work. Which must be nice. Nice swanning round the world on other people’s expense accounts. But then that’s the life which, ultimately, this book portrays.

New York, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, expense accounts, upscale therapists and cabs everywhere, Cayce is a perfect epitome of the globalised, international, jetsetting advertising and media élite.

If you want a more realistic account of London advertising agencies try this.


9/11

Early on Cayce describes how her dad, Wingard Pollard, was in New York on the morning the twin towers were blown up. His family doesn’t know why, he didn’t live in New York. He left his hotel in lower Manhattan on the fateful morning and was never seen again (pages 185 to 187). Cayce’s dad was a security expert. Security. 9/11. Russians. The reader suspects there might be connections. The reader hopes there might be interesting and mind-stretching connections. But no.

Cayce herself was also in Manhattan that morning and saw the attacks from the room of a business contact she’d gone to see.

She looks up, then, and sees, borealis-faint but sharp-edged and tall as heaven, twin towers of light. As her head goes back to find their tops a vertigo seizes her: They narrow up into nothing at all, a vanishing point, like railway tracks up into the desert of the sky. (page 227)

Great writer, isn’t he, Gibson? Great creator of snappy, vivid sentences, acute imagery. Shame his plots can’t quite match his prose style.

Looking back to 2003, we can assess how 9/11 seemed so important for a long time. For quite a few years afterwards, it felt like it had ushered in an entirely new era, one of perma-fear and anxiety, periodically stoked up by further terrorist atrocities in England and across Europe. I suppose the book was written in the immediate backwash of 9/11 and that including it as a thread lent the book a kind of hyper-charged paranoia, giving a dark halo to the story about mysteries, espionage and paranoia.

But one of Donald Trump’s many achievements has been to bring America to such a verge of social upheaval that 9/11 seems like a tea party now. Al-Qaeda never got to storm the Capitol. Feels like the real terrorists are all-American patriots and the next bloodbath / atrocity might be carried out by guys wearing baseball caps or the American police mowing down an apparently endless list of unarmed black men. 9/11 was eclipsed by the war in Afghanistan and then by the massive fiasco in Iraq. And then the near collapse of the entire financial system in 2008, and… so on and so on.

Reading the 9/11 passages in this novel made me realise it will have been 20 years ago this September. 20 years. It feels well settled in the past, now, superseded by many more recent events.

9/11 references pages: 136 to 137, 185 to 187, 232, 348 to 349.

Black

Gibson has a really tedious obsession with black, the teenage colour of cool. Black jeans, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black sunglasses. He is, as my last review suggested, the Lou Reed of science fiction, the man in black wearing a black leather jacket, ripped t-shirt and black shades.

Except that, with this book, Gibson abandons science fiction altogether. But not the obsession with black as the colour of cool. On every page someone’s clothes or car or room is black, it is so oppressively ubiquitous that way before page 100 I began to wonder whether he was sending himself up, or maybe his readers; maybe he’s parodying himself.

The hotel room in Japan has all-black furniture. The replacement keys Cayce gets for his flat are black. Cayce has a black Rickson’s jacket, which comes folded in black tissue. Boone wears an old black horsehair coat. On the plane back to London she wears a black blindfold. Damian’s girlfriend Marina only wears black Prada. Damian wears a black hooded sweatshirt. Cayce wears black Levi 501s, black t-shirt, black shoes. Hubertus’s associated Bernard wears a permanently rumpled black suit. To dress for a meeting Cayce wears a black t-shirt, a black skirt, black leggings, black Harajuku Japanese schoolgirl shoes, a black leather jacket and a black East German handbag. Ngemi wears a black faux leather jacket. He wears black 4-eyelet Doc Marten boots. The make figure in the fragments wears a black leather coat. In dreams she sees her father holding a black Curta calculator. The cases passengers are wheeling towards the Eurostar terminal are black. Dorotea wears an entirely black Armani outfit. The German designer from whose apartment she watches the World Trade Centre burn wears black glasses (136). Cayce’s Pedipole at the Pilates gym includes black foam stirrups (247). Cayce wears a black nylon flight jacket (249). When Cayce first saw the Albert Memorial it had been black (253). Stella’s drivers wear black leather jackets. They drive black Mercedes (290). Cayce wears a black cardigan (297). When Dorotea turns up in Moscow she is dressed all in black (312). When Parkaboy turns up he is wearing a heavy black shirt (326). After the scene in the hotel bar three dudes with black leather coats turn up (327). Cayce’s blistered feet are put into black felt house slippers (332). Cayce has a shower and changes into her black cardigan (332). Parkaboy has a shower and changes into new black jeans (333).

Men in Black. Back in Black. Paint it black. Gibson’s obsession with black could be interpreted psychologically, as a form of displacement activity. As his plots became more complex but more contrived and, in the end, more trivial, so Gibson upped his concern with style and surface, and the growing obsession with black clothes and shirts and boots and shades is a kind of compulsive attempt to make the characters ‘cool’ even as the plots become more complex and inconsequential.


Credit

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 2003. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson (1999)

Nothing dates quicker than the future. All Tomorrow’s Parties is the title of a song by the Velvet Underground recorded in 1967. The choice of a Velvet Underground track as the title of a novel supposedly set in a hi-tech future confirms the sense that Gibson, born in 1948, despite being credited with the invention of futuristic visions of cyberspace and cyberpunk, in fact has a very 1960s/70s mentality, all dark glasses and leather jackets and ripped t-shirts.

Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

This is the third in Gibson’s ‘Bridge Trilogy’ and reunites us with key characters from the earlier two novels, notably:

  • Berry Rydell (security guard and protagonist of Virtual Light)
  • derelict computer hacker Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru)
  • Shinya Yamazaki, self-described ‘student of existential sociology’ who appears in both the previous books
  • former bicycle courier Chevette

It’s ten or 20 years in the future, after a big earthquake (nicknamed ‘the Little Big One’, page 160) hit California, resulting in the state officially dividing into two administrations, NoCal and SoCal.

The earthquake rendered the famous Golden Gate bridge so unstable that it was closed to traffic and very quickly became a shanty town, a favela, people building shacks and shops out of spare parts and random kit on the lower and main levels of the bridge, then slowly building above these, using the massive cables and struts as superstructure to create a slum stretching up into the sky.

It had all been open then, just girders and railing and deck: now it was this tunnel, everything patched together out of junk, used lumber, plastic, whatever people could find, all of it lashed up however anybody could get it to stay, it looked like… (page 185)

The Bridge is populated by all kinds of lowlife, criminals, popup shops, computer hackers, fast food joints, seedy micro-hotels, wasted dudes trying to sell you drugs and so on. It sounds a lot like the rundown parts of New York in the 1970s, because William Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction. Hey man, take a walk on the wild side.

The characters use a would-be street slang which sometimes feels curiously dated. When the character Tessa refers to nightclubs she knows, she includes one named ‘Cognitive Dissidence’, quite a heavy-handed play on the modish phrase, ‘cognitive dissonance’, like the comically themed nightclubs in Idoru.

But when her friend Chevette says, ‘Yeah, she knows ‘”Cog Diss”‘ – the books seems to assume that abbreviating Cognitive Dissidence to Cog Diss indicates how wildly street and hip and in the know and down with the kids Chevette is, but – it made me laugh at its crapness. Increasingly, I am associating Gibson not with some far-out digital future, but with Lou Reed and ageing Dad Rock (def: ‘music played by old white dudes’).

This impression is bolstered by the role played in all these novels by:

  1. the very old-tech format of TV shows (Rydell wanted to be on a cop TV show, Tessa makes TV documentaries)
  2. guitar music. In fact the novel includes an actual rock band, a collection of ageing white dudes led by one Buell Creedmore (see below) and includes other (fictional) rock bands with stupid names, which Gibson has referred to throughout the trilogy, such as ‘Chrome Koran’ and ‘Blue Ahmed’

This is the seventh Gibson novel I’ve read and certain elements are a fixture:

  1. Something is about to happen, something big, he can’t tell you what it is but it’s gonna be big. Thus Laney, the guy who was experimented on at his orphanage (page 71) and as a result has developed a supernatural ability to recognise patterns in the vast reams of data flowing through the net, he knows something is coming, something which will change everything.
  2. The basic mindset is 1940s film noir, hardboiled crime genre, Raymond Chandler for the internet age. Guys are tough, dames are tough as well, but generally need rescuing by tougher guys. Thus the two main male characters in this novel are Berry Rydell, the tough security guard we met in the previous novels of the trilogy, and an even harder tough guy, a silent assassin who thinks, speaks and moves with Zen detachment, a man with no name (lol, really, I’m not kidding) until we do, finally, get his name, towards the end of the book. But for most of the text we are kept wondering, ‘Who is he?’ ‘What is he seeking?’
  3. The novel is made up of four or five storylines, each focusing on a lead character, which run separately and distinctly throughout the book but with the strong suggestion that they’re all going to link up somehow, towards the end, which is also when the Big Thing which has been hinted at throughout will finally take place.

The first and third of these elements in particular, make for a very strong narrative grip or attraction. All through the book we’re kept on tenterhooks wondering what The Big Thing is going to turn out to be, although with the nagging suspicion that, as with a number of the previous novels, The Big Thing might actually turn out to be a disappointment (as, for example, the vague and underwhelming marriage of a pop singer and a virtual woman in Idoru).

The book is 277 pages long and divided into 73 chapters giving an average of 3.8 pages per chapter, although many of them only run to 1 or 2 pages. That’s to say, the narrative moves at pace, cleverly constructed to jump between the activities of the four or five leading characters. These are:

Berry Rydell

Rydell is a rough, tough, handsome man, ‘all muscle and long legs’ (page 181). He was a cop back in Knoxville, Tennessee, till he killed a drugged-up abuser who was firing randomly into a closet where he’d locked his girlfriend’s kids. Forced to quit the police, Rydell joined a security operation, IntenSecure. Then he was hired by a TV show which turned nobodies into celebrities in order to knock them down, but became increasingly unhappy with it, specially after he was unable to prevent a woman the show was persecuting from killing herself. So he quit TV and ended up working as security in a hotel. Here he was spotted and recommended for a job as security to a pop star in Japan, Rez, who was planning to ‘marry’ a totally digital woman, and this was the plot of the previous novel in the series, Idoru.

We learn that after the events described in Idoru Rydell made it back to America, to Los Angeles, where he was working as security, again, this time for a chain of convenience stores called Lucky Dragon, owned by a Korean. For a while he lived with Chevette who he hooked up with during the previous novel and thought he was going to feature in a documentary about hard-done-by cops, made by the Cops In Trouble series. But slowly all his hopes fizzled away, and Rydell became so sad Chevette that left him (page 182) and he got the convenience store job.

It is here that, one day, he takes a phone call from Colin Laney, who was the one who fixed him up with the job in Japan, and now tells him he’s got a job for him up in San Francisco.

So Rydell quits the Lucky Dragon job and drives up to Frisco. He does so in a carshare arranged by his fellow security cop, Durius. The guy sharing the car is an aggressive drunk named Buell Creedmore. He’s a pain in the butt and when Rydell arrives in SF and parks the car, we think he’s walking away from Creedmore, but Creedmore continues to turn up through the book and we discover he is quite a decent country and western singer who sings with ‘legendary’ guitarist Randall James Branch Shoats from Mobile, Alabama (page 100).

Colin Laney

Laney was one of a cohort of kids at an orphanage in Kentucky who were experimented on without their knowledge or consent. They were given an experimental drug, 5-SB.

‘5-SB allows the apprehension of nodal points, discontinuities in the texture of information. They indicate emergent change, but not what that change will be.’ (page 194)

Its effect was to make Laney supersensitive to the flow and shape of information flooding through the (still fairly primitive) internet (page 75).

At one point in his career Laney was a quantitative analyst for Slitscan, a tabloid TV show ‘of quite monumental viciousness’ (page 222). In Idoru he was hired as co-ordinator of internet data helping to create and curate the digital woman. Now we learn the idoru has left Rez who, in mourning has undertaken a rock tour of the Kombinat states (i.e. the old Soviet Union) and Laney, ill with probable tuberculosis, poor and decrepit, has gone into hiding in a large cardboard box hidden in the bowels of Shinjuku station, which he rents off a wordless Japanese man who spends all day silently making models.

This is where Shinya Yamazaki, an ‘existential sociologist’ who featured in both the previous novels, tracks him down and tries to bring him antibiotics and food. But Laney is too obsessed to eat. Right at the start of the book he tells Yamazaki that the datasets are building towards a seismic change. ‘What’s going to change?’ asks Yamazaki. Everything, replies Laney, thus creating the sense of suspense which keeps the reader turning the next 250 pages.

We also learn what happened to Rez and the idoru after the end of the previous novel. Basically, Laney was hired in the period covered by Idoru to facilitate the ‘marriage’ of the rock star Rez and the ’emergent digital being’, Rei Toei. That novel ended with the couple getting ‘married’ and going off to a newly-built circular island in Tokyo Bay. Now we learn that after that, Laney was kept on to educate this digital being, Rei Toei but that, as she grew and learned more about the world, she grew away from Rez. Laney realised he was falling in love with this being made entirely of data and so, one day, quit his job (pages 163 to 164). Soon afterwards he heard Rei had left the island, the marriage was over, and so Laney went into hiding, hiding out in the cardboard box buried deep in Shinjuku station.

Laney now devotes himself all day long to being the unfiltered ‘eye’ through which all the data in the world passes, via DatAmerica. And he sees a massive change coming. And the change is something to do with Cody Harwood, Machiavellian CEO of Harwood Levine, the most powerful PR company in the world.

The Man with no name

He wears a long coat, a loden coat. Round-lenses glasses which hide his eyes. He was in the military. He wastes no movement or word. He is ‘Lean and concise’ (page 220). He follows the Tao. He believes only in the moment.

We meet him in a chapter where he is tailed onto the Bridge by a couple of lowlife drug addicts. When they try to mug him he kills them both with silent movement of his hands, holding a super-sharp knife, too quick to see or defend from. He is watched by the muggers’ young mute hanger-on, known as Silencio because he doesn’t talk. No name takes Silencio to a diner and buys him fruit shakes and, when the boy is fascinated by the old wristwatch he’s wearing, gives it to him.

In the middle section of the book we see the man with no name in his spartan hotel room performing his secret assassin exercises, or sharpening his super-sharp assassin’s knife in ritualised movements. Despite the cheesiness of all this I couldn’t help finding it at the same time everso ‘cool’, as it is designed to be.

Fontaine

Fontaine is ‘an angular black man whose graying hair is twisted into irregular branches that hang like the arms of a dusty houseplant in need of water’ (page 159). He is harassed by his two wives Tourmaline and Clarisse. He keeps a popup second-hand shop on the Bridge, specialising in gadgets, wristwatches a speciality. It was Fontaine who cobbled together a home-made stairlift up to the shack belonging to a man named Skinner, up on a higher level of the favella, and whic Chevette, who lived with much older Skinner, used to use to take her bike down to ground level to carry out her job as a bicycle courier, all of this described in the first of the trilogy, Virtual Light.

One morning Fontaine notices Silencio’s nose pressed against the glass. He lets him in and, after some initial nervousness about whether he’s a burglar, lets him stay, starts buying him meals, lets him sleep out back – not least because Silencio lets Fontaine have the awesome watch which the Man with No Name gave him.

Soon Silencio gravitates from staring at Fontaine’s watch collection to being given a pair of eyephones and scanning at speed through all the watches available at all the auctions round the world. Silencio starts to talk but all he does is repeat the technical specifications of the watches he’s looking at.

Chevette

In the previous novels we met Chevette-Marie Washington in her capacity of bicycle courier and carer for the ageing Skinner, who had taken her in and fed her when she was young and homeless. Then she had an affair and lived with rough tough Berry Rydell for a while. As this novel opens she is living in a house rented out to students on the coast of Los Angeles. The house is fenced off from the beach where there has been some kind of disastrous unnamed chemical ‘spill’.

Chevette’s main housemate is Tessa who’s Australian and a media sciences student at USC (page 32). Tessa wants to make a documentary about the Bridge using Chevette as a way in to its closed and secretive society. She regards the Bridge as ‘interstitial’, an adjective Chevette takes the piss out of for the rest of the book.

Tessa’s recently been playing with a camera on a small drone. Chevette has barely woken up before she and housemate Tessa spot a man snooping round the house. It is Carson, Chevette’s ex-boyfriend, smooth, handsome, in the media working for a show called ‘Real One’ (everyone works in TV in these novels). He was Chevette’s boyfriend till the night he hit her. She moved out and went into hiding in this abandoned beachfront property. Now he’s found her.

So to avoid Carson, the women sneak out the back way and round to Tessa’s van. She’s already packed. Chevette never unpacked. They slip into the van, fire the ignition and spurt away. Whither? Well, Tessa wants to make a doc about the Bridge so they head north, to NoCal and San Francisco.

Plot developments

These days Laney phones his mate Rydell at regular intervals. He instructs Rydell to contact his attorney, F.X. Tong, which he does via videoglasses. Rydell has a knackered pair given to him by the cashier at the Lonely Dragon, Miss Praisegod Satansbane (page 11). The ‘shades’ are originally from Brazil so when Rydell touches the instruction panel in the wing of the shades he often gets a street map of Rio and everything in Portuguese, but nothing’s perfect.

Through a bad connection Tong gives him instructions to use the ATM in the branch of the Lucky Dragon near the start of the Bridge, then go to the GlobEx franchise at the back, use the identity code Tong gives him and collect a package. All of which he does. The package is a couple of feet long, six inches square and very heavy. Rydell carries it further onto the Bridge, finds an anonymous popup hotel and greasy spoon, the Ghetto Chef Beef Bowl, which rents him a tiny room, really only a horizontal pod.

There’s more. Laney calls Rydell and tells him to go to a particular computer accessory shop and pick up some cables. It’s called Bad Sector and staffed by an enormous Chinese youth with an irritating under-moustache. He devises little robots which toddle around the shop counter and hand out and receive goods to and from customers.

Back in the pod Rydell finally unwraps the package to discover it contains a metal object like a thermos flask, figures out how to attach the cables, powers it up and… out appears a hologram of the emergent digital being from the previous novel, Rei Toei, beautiful, immaculate, seductive, very intelligent, and Rydell is entranced.

Chevette and Tessa arrive in San Francisco and park the van by the Bridge. They stroll around and into a bar where, by quite a big coincidence, there’s Buell Creedmore who is about to perform with ‘legendary’ guitarist Shoats. Before the performance has even begun, Chevette sees, by an even bigger coincidence, her feared ex, Carson, walk in,

Laney phones Rydell again, tells him the world is going to end. Well, the world as we know it (page 166). Laney is convinced the crisis will crystallise around a dude named Cody Harwood, a lean, rich head of a major public relations firm.

Separately, Laney becomes uneasily aware that someone is watching him when, in the dataflow, he is watching Harwood. He is shocked when two fellow hackers from Mexico City tell him it is Harwood watching him watching Harwood, because Harwood has himself taken the experimental drug 5-SB and so gained heightened awareness of the flows of information through the world’s datasets.

Laney’s informants from Mexico (Rooster and Klaus) tell him that Harwood is rich and has interests in a range of mega corporations including Nanofax AG of Geneva:

‘Nanofax AG offers a technology that digitally reproduces objects, physically, at a distance.’ (page 195)

So we know that Harwood has taken 5-SB and so has advanced nodal apprehension, and is installing Nanofax modules in every Lucky Dragon store, because he has a controlling interest in that franchise as well (page 209). But what’s he ultimately up to?

We see Harwood ordering minions to keep monitoring Laney and to find whoever it was who collected the package Laney had FedExed from Japan i.e. the thermos device which contains Rei Toei. Remember the two street hoodlums who the Man with No Name silently knifed earlier on? Now Laney phones Rydell and tells him to go to the crime scene. Why? Because it will trigger the next stage, though Laney doesn’t know what.

Rydell is tailed So Rydell goes along and, sure enough, Harwood has minicams monitoring the scene so immediately uses facial recognition to identify Rydell and access his entire past history. Harwood dispatches some toughs to tail him. Cut to Rydell being tailed for a few blocks across the Bridge, particularly by some guy in black with a scarf. He thinks he’s cleverly evaded them when he turns a corner and is punched so hard in the side by an enormous dud that he feels some ribs break. The big guy is shaping up for another punch when he goes quite, blank-faced, falls to his knees. The Man with No Name is behind him, has stabbed and killed him.

The bar with no name The Man with No Name marches Rydell away but as they pass the nightclub (with no name) Rydell takes the opportunity to nip inside. He arrives just as Buell Creedmore is finishing his set with Tessa and Chevette (Rydell’s ex) also there. So at about this point the reader sees the plotlines led by the various characters finally coming together. Even more so when, to provoke no-name, Rydell activates the thermos (which he carries everywhere with him) and Rei Toei appears in the middle of the crowded bar to everyone’s astonishment.

Shootout But at that moment the band ends its performance, Chevette leaves the light and sound console where she’s been with Tessa, goes down to the main floor to capture the mini-drones Tessa’s been using to film the performance when, to her amazement, she is spun round and punched really hard in the face. It is her ex, Carson the woman beater. He advances on her to hit her again but is pulled round and punched hard by… by Rydell, her other lover!

Dazed Chevette is amazed. But Carson gets to his feet and punches Rydell hard in the ribs and we know they’re broken so Rydell squeals with pain. At which point he is pushed out the way and Chevette sees the guy with the scarf who had been tailing Rydell and has now arrived in the bar, step forward and shoot Carson with a silenced gun. Now she knows she’s in some kind of dream.

Tessa, from up in the lighting control booth, turns the lights out in the bar and there’s a stampede, people getting hurt. Rei Toei is like a genie, a stream of white light tormenting the shooter while Rydell in great pain lifts Chevette and helps her to a side door which they kick open and emerge into a street filling up with screaming punters. Chevette runs, Rydell limps after her, then both of them are stopped by the magical appearance of the Man with No Name carrying the thermos, which Rydell in the general panic had forgotten.

Fontaine’s Next thing we know they are beating on the locked door of Fontaine’s watch shop. Fontaine wakes (it’s the middle of the night) and reluctantly lets them in. In fact – we realise with a start – it is meant to be only 24 hours since the Man with No Name killed those two muggers on the bridge. Anyway, Fontaine recognises Chevette as the pretty young thing who lived in an apartment above his and who looked after Skinner before she left for LA. And the Man with No Name calmly recognises Silencio, who is also woken up by the noise, as the boy he took to the milk bar and gave his watch to.

So the gang’s all here. All the major characters have been brought together, with 40 pages or so of the novel left to go. So what is this Big Thing which we’ve been promised throughout the text?

The Man with No Name explains that Harwood has hired mercenaries to capture Rydell because he knows he has something important to Laney but isn’t sure what. Also, that the mercs will kill anyone who stands in their way. He asks for Fontaine’s gun and explains he’s going out to kill as many of the mercenaries as he can, that everyone else should remain holed up in Fontaine’s shop, and disappears through the door into the night.

There’s a shootout. The Man with No Name, inevitably, kills two of the mercs because that’s what Clint Eastwood types do. Rydell, crouching in Fontaine’s inner room, asks Fontaine if he has a weapon and the latter discloses a vicious chain-gun, owned by Fontaine’s lawyer (a paranoid refugee from the African Union) which he has hidden in a wall recess. They get it out, Rydell steps into the shop proper, someone fires off a bevy of automatic rifle, Ryfell aims in that direction and fires the chain gun which fires razor wire at high speed. It converts anyone in its way into hamburger. So that is the messy end of the third mercenary.

Cut to the head merc headphoning Harwood who instructs him to set the bridge on fire. Back in the shop the Man with No Name arrives and hands the gun back to Fontaine. Rydell takes a call from Laney on the Brazilian shades, Laney tells him the bridge is being torched but to leave the thermos / Rei Toei on the bridge. He plugs the thermo device into a power socket and Rei appears, a shimmering beautiful slender woman. She says hello to Rydell but then addresses the Man with No Name and tells him his name is Konrad. And that he still carries a torch for a slender blonde, Lise, who he lost back in the day. Aah. So the cold-hearted killer is a softie after all.

Out of nowhere Tessa arrives trailing drones with cameras, riding on a big three wheeler driven by Elmore, the skinny lighting guy from the club. Chevette and Rydell clamber onto it but can’t persuade Fontaine or the Silent kid to join them. Elmore turns the bike and roar off towards the San Francisco end of the bridge.

But they soon run into crowds fleeing the fire and get knocked off the bike. Tessa disappears, Rydell grabs for Chevette and loses the chain gun down a sewer pipe. Oops. Chevette leads Rydell to the steps up and to the little funicular train Fontaine made up to Skinner’s home-made apartment.

Meanwhile Laney has co-opted his friends in ‘the Walled City’. These are dissident Chinese hackers who were kicked out of the actual walled city when Hong Kong was handed back to China but created a digital alternative for nerds and hackers everywhere. Mustering their support, in cyberspace Laney suddenly finds himself face to face with Harwood. The latter is suave and debonair and insouciant like the baddies in all James Bond movies are. He is not sure what is going to happen and he disappears down into the flow of data.

Meanwhile Rydell and Chevette emerge onto the roof of Skinner’s pad only to be ambushed by the man with the black scarf, leader of the mercenaries. He pistol whips Rydell and then points the gun to kneecap him but Chevette begs him not to and he doesn’t. Instead he steps into the mini-glider he’s had stashed up here all the time. But as he steps over the edge of Skinner’s roof into the night sky, Chevette runs forward and with Skinner’s knife rips a long tear in the fabric, rendering the glider utterly useless and the mercenary plunges straight down, hitting pillars and stanchions like all the master baddy’s henchmen in every James Bond movie and cheap thriller movie ever made.

Chevette runs back to big strong Rydell (‘my man!’) and helps him sit up groggily. Now the smoke from the fire engulfs them and they start choking but at that very moment a helicopter bearing a vast load of ice cold water hoves into view just over them and dumps hundreds of tonnes of water onto the Bridge.

Meanwhile back at Fontaine’s shop, Rei Toei had told Konrad to plug the thermos into the eyephones Silencio uses. He enters cyberspace and Rei is with him. She tells him to follow the watch, the last watch he could see, and Silencio with his advanced obsessive feel for watches and nothing but watches follows it across the cyberverse and is suddenly in a small room in the bowels of a castle where he meets Harwood who is astonished to see him. Then some of the avatars from the Walled City appear and we know they have used Silencio’s skills to track down Harwood to his hiding place.

Meanwhile, back out in the real world, a black kid, Boomzilla, who we met much much earlier when Tessa and Chevette paid him to mind their van, he is in the Lucky Dragon branch nearest the Bridge, watching the crazy action, huge fire, fire engines everywhere, then choppers dropping vast amounts of water, anyway all this mayhem only slightly delays the first ever use of the Nanofax gadget.

Boomzilla watches a little speech being given saying the original Lucky Dragon statuette will be inserted in the Singapore headquarters and then rebuilt in every Lucky Dragon franchise around the world. Except that the light pings and out of the microwave-looking device unfolds a naked Japanese girl, slender and black-haired, smiles at everyone and runs out the front door.

Back on the Bridge it’s dawn. Rydell has spent the night with Chevette in the heavy duty sleeping bag the mercenary had used on Skinner’s roof. Very warm and cosy. He gets up, butt naked, pads to the edge to have a pee. There’s a hovering drone with Tessa’s voice blaring at a sleepy Chevette, that she, Tessa, got loads of footage during the fire, she’s got a contract to make her documentary (TV again).

Eventually the drone buzzes off. Rydell climbs down a layer and is surprised to find Buell Creedmore holed up there. He too climbed up to escape the flames. Well, the venue’s burned down, and Buell whines that his career is over. In what is probably meant to be a comical moment he reveals he ain’t a good ole boy country-and-western dude after all, he grew up in suburban New Jersey. And he starts crying.

Rydell climbs back to the roof and realises he is overwhelmingly in love with Chevette.

Cut to Konrad, the former Man with No Name, catching a cab to TransAmerica, the main mega corporation run by Harwood. Here he presents himself and is strip searched and handcuffed and accompanied to the lift by seven goons, as per Harwood’s instructions. But his weapon is in the belt buckle at front of his trousers. By the time the lift arrives he will have killed all of them. Because like the assassin / ninjas / superheroes of so many Yank movies, he is invulnerable.

Yamazaki has brought Keith Blackwell, the enormous Australian head of security of the pop singer Rez, who featured heavily in the previous novel, to rescue Laney. They go down to the cardboard city in the bowels of Shinjuku railway station and Blackwell razors open Laney’s carton. But he isn’t there.

Fontaine returns from the Red Cross stands at the end of the Bridge. Stuff is still being cleared up but there’s more media vans than emergency services. Silencio has been sweeping up the broken glass outside the shop and doing a good job. You get the sense Fontaine will adopt him. He reminds me of the mute boy sweeping up main street in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 coming-of-age movie, The Last Picture Show. This novel is written in Gibson’s cyberstyle, but it overflows with very traditional, down-home, American sentimentality.

And sure enough, in the final chapter, in the last scene, Silencio starts to talk!. He appears to be in charge of the shop now. And another boy brings in a ruined watch. And in a token of the future, the boy asks Silencio if he can watch the weird device fix his watch. They place the damaged watch onto ‘the bed’ and watch it sink into it as a coin into mud. Within its womb molecules work and within nine minutes the watch will emerge utterly restored good as new. The future is now.

Thoughts

Well, number one, it is a major achievement to think in these terms, to conceive of plots which revolve around dataflows and nodal points within cyberspace. Most people were struggling to adapt to the dial-up versions of the internet in 1999 while Gibson had already perfected a way of creating entrancing fictions out of it.

And Gibson’s highly engineered prose poetry is phenomenal. He has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve to keep it pumping – short phrases, omitting subjects of sentences, slang, streetwise allusions to keep you constantly on your toes. Modern thriller basic tricks.

  • Fontaine looked at Rydell. Pursed his lips. Nodded. (page 234)
  • Hole there the size of a saucer, and getting bigger. (page 261)

Short sentences. Leave out subject. Makes it hipper. Cool style.

But… but… although the book has countless clever angles and is written in a highly stylised, tech savvy, thriller style… key scenes include a fight in a bar and a shootout around a shop where the good guys have been pinned down by the bad guys. It feels like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) or the familiar rundown seedy future wreckage of a movie like Escape From New York (1981). In other words, at numerous places the actual storyline and events feel hackneyed, clichéd, and filled with the over-familiar tropes of ten thousand American action movies.

Paint it black

And black. Everyone wears black. Of course they do, because it’s cool. Rydell wears a black t-shirt. Chevette is wearing black jeans and a black sweatshirt. The lead mercenary wears a black leather coat and a black scarf. Two other mercs were a black leather jacket and a black armoured vest (page 241). The skinny drug addict who runs the lights at the club where Buell performs and then the fight breaks out, he wears a black meshbacked cap and a black t-shirt (page 246). Everyone wears black because black is cool and fashionable, what people wear in fashion shoots, in edgy ads, in movies like The Matrix. It’s the only colour Lou Reed wore and Gibson is the Lou Reed of science fiction.

World-shattering claims, tiny cast

Gibson’s novels use the rhetoric of world-changing worldshifts. But in the end the stories only involve about fifteen characters (the speaking parts in this one are Durius, Rydell, Buell, Shoat, their girlfriend Maryalice, Tessa, Chevette, Konrad, Fontain, Silencio, Elmore, Laney, Carson, Harwood, lead mercenary).

Not only that, but they are all sane. What I mean is they’re all cut from the same basic thriller cloth, they all think with the same rational clarity, they all act with that thriller directness and logic (with the possible exception of the Man with No Name who is, therefore, the most interesting character). When the fire starts Fontaine briefly alludes to the feral kids growing up on the Bridge but, when you stop and think about it, there is absolutely no reference to the psychological impact of growing up in the Bridge favelas. In fact when you stop and reflect, there is pretty much no psychology in any of these novels. All the characters are capable and competent, good at fighting, handy with guns, behave like cardboard characters from action movies. Nobody panics, goes to pieces or doesn’t know what to do.

Compare and contrast Gibson’s fiction with the stories of J.G. Ballard who specialises in characters who collapse into private psychoses, weird private visions, and whose stories create in the reader a sense of being seriously adrift, trapped in a world completely at odds with the usual one (The Drought, The Drowned World, High Rise, Concrete Island).

There’s never any sense of the genuinely strange in Gibson – with the one shining exception of the way he describes characters like Laney experiencing cyberspace, plugging in and suddenly being amid canyons of gleaming data, the ‘grey fields of light’ (page 254). Now that is new and vivid and wonderful.

But a lot of the rest of the action could come from a standard Jack Reacher novel, with rough, tough manly hero (Rydell) saving his girl (Chevette), forging a brief friendship with the black dude (Fontaine) helped by the mysterious stranger (Konrad) and in which the baddy is, as always, the unscrupulous rich (white) head of some mega-corporation.

Rei Toei may be a cool invention, an entirely digital being, but every time she appears she is, for the first second, butt naked and very beautiful (as Chevette notices with intense jealousy first time she appears to Rydell). Beautiful, naked young Japanese girls. Hardly subverting action movie clichés, is it, or the basic stereotypes of all action narratives, whether in thrillers, movies or graphic novels or comics.

In that respect, far from feeling out there and experimental, most of Gibson’s fiction feels fantastically familiar from any number of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise action adventure movies. Die Hard With A Laptop.

Also, Rei Toei may be a cool invention, the first entirely digital being and yet…what does she actually do? What does she change or make happen? It feels a lot like Gibson can come up with these great ideas, images, digital symbols but then… really struggles to make them relevant to the real world, to come up with a plot which justifies the hype.

Oh, and the Big Thing, When The World Changed, The Thing Which Was Going To Change Everything which was heavily trailed throughout the novel, designed to keep the reader on the edge of their seat?

As so often in a Gibson novel, it doesn’t, in fact, happen. Nothing changes. The world does not come to an end. Cody Harwood seems to be trying to pull off some scam but we never understand what it is. So now an American convenience store franchise is going to be able to do 3-D printing? Hmmm. Not world shattering is it?

Instead a young, thin, naked Japanese girl steps out of a microwave. Maybe we’re meant to interpret this as the advent of a New Era in Human History because we’ve invented teleporting. But, in fictional terms, it pales into insignificance next to the classic tough guy Rydell holding his babe Chevette round the shoulders as dawn broke over the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge, shucks.

A month or so after reading the book all I really remember about it is the Golden Gate Bridge being set on fire and the shootout at the shop, both of them hard-core 1970s action movie tropes.


Credit

All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1999. All references are to the 2000 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

Idoru by William Gibson (1996)

Arleigh’s van smelled of long-chain monomers and warm electronics.
(Idoru page 201)

Virtual Light, the first novel in William Gibson’s ‘Bridge trilogy’, made me fall out of love with Gibson. Once I’d realised the tough ex-cop hero of the book, Berry Rydell was, underneath all the sci-fi add-ons, basically an avatar of John McClane from the Die Hard movies or Jack Reacher, i.e. a rough, tough hero of the type found in all airport thrillers, I found myself noticing on every page, barely disguised by Gibson’s gee-whizz, cyberpunk style and settings, all the clichés of the American thriller genre.

However, I think Idoru is by way of being a return to form, combining Gibson’s street-smart, cyberpunk attitude and jive prose style, with passages of genuinely visionary writing about the experience of cyberspace and virtual reality, passages as strange and poetic and haunting as anything in Neuromancer. I liked it, though with a few reservations, which I’ll explain at the end.

Plot summary

It’s a few decades into what was then the future, maybe about 2010, after a fictional mega-earthquake has devastated Tokyo and San Francisco, leading to the abandonment of the Golden Gate Bridge to thousands of squatters who’ve built a shanty town on it (which is why these three books are known as the Bridge trilogy).

Colin Laney has a natural talent for spotting patterns and nodes in information. He gets a job at Slitscan, a downmarket scandal TV channel, ‘descended from reality programming’. His boss is an intense woman named Kathy Torrance, who has jaded views about celebrity, namely that celebrities deserve to be made famous then crushed by media outlets like hers. A typical Slitscan ‘story’ is the revelation that a popular band, the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, uses Iraqi fetal tissue to remain youthful looking, supposedly a shock-horror revelation although, in this cynical world, the story leads only to a surge in the band’s record sales and a bout of hangings and executions in Iraq among the officials responsible.

Laney is employed to scour DatAmerica (which appears to be the corporate version of the internet) for links, connections, ‘nodal points’, assembling clusters out of the vast oceans of data which hint towards news and gossip which the TV channel can use.

But Laney quits the job at Slitscan after a job wrecking someone’s reputation goes too far, and he finds himself staying in an expensive hotel, ‘the Chateau’. Here the security guard, Rydell (who we recognise as the hero of Idoru‘s predecessor, Virtual Light), recommends an opening he knows about out in Tokyo, which turns out to be a tip he heard from another character from Virtual Light, the Japanese sociologist Shinya Yamazaki (still making notes in his electronic notebook with a lightpen as he did in the earlier novel) who’s now working for a new employer.

So, on this recommendation, Laney the node detector flies out to Tokyo and is met by Keith Alan Blackwell, an enormous Australian with one ear missing and a body criss-crossed by scars. Laney is tired, jet-lagged and wants to know what the job is about.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, a teenage girl, Chia Mackenzie from Seattle (page 85) also flies out to Tokyo. She is an advanced user of plug-in digital reality programs, a favourite being ‘the sandbenders’ (the hand-made product of a commune she describes on page 138) which she plugs in, then puts on the eyephones and whoosh! she’s walking around Venice in the moments before dawn, accompanied by her ‘Music Master’, a thinly disguised digital David Bowie. So she’s a teenage pop music fan.

Mackenzie is a big fan of the band Lo/Rez which appears to consist of two people, Lo the Chinese guitarist and Rez, the half-Irish singer (page 94), famous for their album, Dog Soup. Lo/Rez have a worldwide fanclub among pubescent girls and Chia is a member of the Seattle fan club. In the opening chapter we find her and a couple of girlfriends all jacked into cyberspace and discussing the scandalous news that singer Rez has declared he wants to marry a virtual woman, nothing more than a system of programs. One of the girls, Kelsey, has access to her dad’s frequent flyer account and so she buys Chia a plane ticket to Tokyo so she can go over there and find out what is going on and report back to the rest of the teenage Lo/Rez fans.

On the plane to Tokyo Chia is befriended by a suspicious-looking woman, a fake blonde with hair implants, one of which she pulls out and inserts in the DNA control which is now common at these airports of the future.

The blonde calls herself Maryalice (page 47), hands Chia a suitcase to take through passport control for her, and then disappears: clearly there’s something dodgy in the case, clearly Chia is very naive. Without her realising it, Maryalice also slipped something into Chia’s hand luggage, a cigarette carton-sized metal object

The narrative is carefully structured. The Laney and Chia plotlines alternate neatly like a tennis rally throughout the book. But there’s also extensive use of flashback to fill in backstory. It is a nicely engineered text.

Laney has barely unpacked before he’s met and is taken out for drinks and sushi by the enormous Blackwell, with skinny little sociologist Yamazaki in attendance and so, in a series of flashbacks, Laney tells his backstory i.e. the job at Slitscan and why he quit.

We learn Laney quit because he was tasked with finding out about a young woman, Alison Shires, who was having an affair with a famous movie star, and so was a ripe target for a Slitscan scandal program. But Laney’s supernatural ability to scope data had made him increasingly fearful that Shires was going to kill herself, till one feverish night he went round to her apartment, let himself in (being a data hacker he knows all her security numbers) only to find her slitting her wrists. Laney stops her, patches the wrists up, but trips and bangs his head which stuns him long enough for her to get up, walk into the kitchen and shoot herself.

The cops come quickly, but more importantly so do representatives of a media outlet called ‘Out of Control’ which makes TV programmes about TV programmes and want to screw Laney’s employers, Slitscan.

Upset by how they set him onto Alison Shires but gave the poor woman no help, Laney agrees to stiff his old employers. So the Out of Control people put him on a contract, give him lawyers to help with the cops, and put him up at the luxury hotel, ‘the Chateau’, packed with their staffers and lawyers and producers. So this is how he comes to meet Rydell, the hero of Virtual LIght, now reduced to working as a security guard there (page 69) and who, when he learns Laney is a digital whizz, gives him the tipoff about the job in Japan.

On the plane flight Maryalice had told Chia about her boyfriend Eddie, and he meets them at the airport and they offer Chia a lift into town and then invite her up to their apartment. From the whole treatment, I’d be astonished if Chia doesn’t get caught up in some criminal scam… and indeed, it’s only at this point, about a quarter into the book, that we discover that Chia is, indeed, only 14-years-old, not a young woman at all, but genuinely a naive child (p.86).

Back in the bar, Blackwell finally explains who he is to Laney. Blackwell is chief of security for the world-famous band Lo/Rez which we’ve heard so much about (page 72). Somebody has ‘got at’ Rez (maybe the Russian ‘Kombinat’, which appears to be a name for Russian organised crime) and Blackwell wants Laney to use his node analysis skills to find out who (page 73).

Meanwhile, Eddie and Maryalice take Chia up to their apartment above a bar, which turns out to be more like a warehouse, stuffed with cartons and a bank of monitors managed by a Japanese named Calvin. When Eddie and Maryalice lock themselves into the office and start having a row, Calvin whispers to Chia asking if she’s ‘part of it’ and when she says, ‘No, part of what?’, he hustles her out of the apartment, into a talking elevator, tells her how to get to the nearest tube station and the hell away before it’s too late.

So off scoots Chia and uses a public digital docking port to contact a Tokyo member of the international fan club for Lo/Rez (like the Bay City Rollers of my youth, like the Take That fans of a few decades ago). She hooks up with a local member and goes to her house. This local fan is Mitsuko, aged 13. Hmmm. So this plotline is about teenyboppers, about gushy teenage girls. The two girls pop on earclips which translate from English to Japanese and the reverse so they can talk to each other.

We learn more about ‘the Sandbenders’, virtual tech built by a commune in Oregon: to use it, you slip silver thimbles over your finger and thumb tips and affix wrist straps, put on eyephones and then you are in the virtual reality program of your choice, in Chia’s case, a beautified version of Venice, empty of tourists, just before dawn (page 89).

Idoru On page 92 we discover what an idoru is. It means ‘idol-singer’ in Japanese. This particular idoru is a virtual woman. A digital creation. Unreal. She is named Rei Toei. She is a ‘personality construct’, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers (as Yamazaki explains it on page 92).

Chia is invited to a meeting of the Tokyo chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub, which confirms more than ever that it is a fanclub of teenage girls, linked in hyperspace, dedicated to revering Lo/Rez. There is some cultural relativity stuff comparing American and Japanese fans i.e. the Japanese, even though schoolgirls, are formal and considered and first of all give Chia a thorough history of the creation of their ‘chapter’, then politely turn to her to give a similar history of the Seattle ‘chapter’. However, being a crude Yank, Chia ignores all that and blurts out her question about Rez – ‘Is it true he wants to marry a virtual woman?’

By this stage it is crystal clear that the Chia storyline and the Laney storyline are both about Rez and the virtual woman, and the reader can see that they will, at some point, converge.

It’s worth noting that the characters jack into cyberspace more in the first fifty pages of this novel than in all of Virtual Light put together (one of the weaknesses of that book) and that when they do, the descriptions of their cyber-experiences are brilliant, in a way Gibson patented and excels at. The description of the haunting empty cyber-Venice; or the meeting place the Tokyo chapter have created (since none of them are physically in the same room), a pagoda created from digital data; and the way the half dozen teenage girls in it have created their digital avatars, all this is vividly and brilliantly done.

After Chia’s left the Tokyo fanclub meeting, she has has a separate online meeting with a friend from the Seattle chapter, Zona Rosa, who lives in Mexico City and is famous for her bad temper and for the vast private cyber-program she’s created, an Arizona desert-type environment complete with lizards and cacti.

Anyway, this Zona tells Chia that someone is snooping after her data and has contacted their mutual friend Kelsey, the girl who used her dad’s frequent flyer points to buy Chia’s plane ticket. I.e. the standard thriller trope ‘Someone’s after you!’.

But the cyber-environment is brilliantly described: it’s cool how Zona’s encryption program is represented by a lizard she at first is holding, then places on the lapel of her jacket to signify that she’s turning up the security settings. That’s the kind of vivid realisation of the codes and protocols people create in this cyberworld which Gibson really excels at, which he made his own.

Back to Laney who now understands who’s hired him and why. Blackwell takes him back to an office full of other digital techs and monitors etc, introduces him round, then asks him to jack into the system, being DatAmerica, the world’s largest set of cyberdata, and look for Rez’s personal data.

With his eyephones on, Laney sees random artefacts, binoculars, a palm tree by the sea, a link fence around a stone fort. He’s been sent in to find digital traces of Rez, but can see nothing. In fact it’s eerily void of digital traces…

Meanwhile, Chia meets Mitsuko’s 17-year-old brother Masahiko. He is a digital denizen, an otaku (‘a Japanese term for people with consuming interests, particularly in anime and manga’, in Masahiko’s case a consuming interest in virtual reality hacking) who spends most of his time curating ‘the Walled City‘ a secretive digital community.

Laney returns to his hotel to find a fax (a fax!) from Rydell telling Laney a bunch of techs and staff from Slitscan came to the Chateau searching for Laney, seem have discovered that Rydell has rung him a few times in Japan, so they left and told one of the garage attendants they were going to Tokyo, presumably after Laney, it’s not really clear why.

I.e. more or less the same thriller trope as we just saw applied to Chia, namely ‘They’re coming to get you!’

Meanwhile, Matsoku takes Chia on a subway ride, then through umpteen streets, past hi-tech Tokyo buildings and adverts to track down ‘the Monkey Boxing Club’. Why? because it was in this club that Rez grabbed the DJ’s mic and announced to the world that he intended to marry an idoru, a virtual reality woman. They interview the disgruntled wiry DJ (Jun) who tells them that Lo/Rez’s people promptly bought up the club and closed it down, making all employees sign non-disclosure agreements.

Remember the roomful of techs Blackwell introduced Laney to, before he put on the eyephones and entered the matrix and tried to find traces of Rez? Well, one of them now turns up at his hotel, a slender young woman named Arleigh McCrae (page 129).

In line with the book’s extensive use of flashbacks, Laney proceeds to tell her the story of why he was dropped like a hot potato by Out of Control. He was lazing by the pool at the Chateau when his minder, Rice Daniels, arrived with a wise old lawyer, Aaron Pursley, who gets Laney to confirm that when he was at a federal orphanage in Gainesville from age 12 to 17 the authorities experimented on him with an experimental new behaviour drug, 5-SB. Well, long-term studies of this drug now show it is connected to male patients becoming psychotic stalkers. I.e. if it comes to a lawsuit between Slitscreen and Out of Control, the latter’s lawyers will be able to assert that Laney didn’t go to see Alison Shires to protect her but because he is a fame-obsessed psychotic due to his early drug experience.

Laney has to admit that all these facts are correct, at which point the lawyer packs up his bag and leaves – and within hours Laney, his evidence now worthless for the TV show, finds his contract with Out Of Control has been terminated and the company ceases to pick up his hotel bills (pages 131 to 134). He’d been dumped. He’s on his own. It was at this point that Rydell, knowing the situation and having, in fact, experienced something similar himself, made the suggestion about the job in Tokyo…

Back in the present, Arleigh takes Laney out for a drink (to a downstairs bar themed after American chewing gum) and gives him the backstory of Blackwell. Turns out Blackwell rescued Rez when he gave a concert at a high-security Australian gaol and was kidnapped by Italian inmates. Blackwell, also an inmate, got into the cell where Rez was being held and killed three of the Italians with a tomahawk before the other two fled, Blackwell released Rez and handed him over to the authorities. Rez’s lawyers got Blackwell released from prison a few months later and he’s been Rez’s bodyguard ever since.

Remember how Maryalice, as well as making Chia take her bag through customs, slipped a hard rectangular object into her hand luggage? When she rediscovers this, Chia is in two minds about whether to dump it at the various locations she visits, but doesn’t… The reader rightly suspects a lot of the plot is going to be about this mystery object…

Now Chia and Masahiko are on a tube train going to meet someone at a restaurant when Masahiko receives a message on his tablet warning him that Russians are at the restaurant (above which he and his sister live) asking after them. Masahiko suspects it’s the Kombinat, the Russian criminal underworld who have been mentioned off and on throughout the novel.

In a gaming arcade they meet a mate of Masahiko’s, Gomi Boy. Gomi Boy explains that he and Masahiko have both got responsibilities to maintain ‘the Walled City’, and that, when they heard enquiries were being made about Chia’s cashcard, Gomi Boy went to Masahiko’s and removed his computer, for protection.

Gomi Boy says that a bit later Eddie and Maryalice’s car turned up at the restaurant where they were going to meet (Chia remembers the description of the car, it’s a Daihatsu Graceland). Gomi Boy asked some nearby skaterboys to report if anything else unusual happened and they phoned 20 minutes later to report a smaller car turning up and three bulky Russians getting out and going into the restaurant.

To summarise the story so far

We now know that Eddie and Maryalice are after Chia and the Russian mafia are also asking after her. By now Chia is really, really scared and wants to go home. But she can’t ‘port’ or call her friends from a public portal, she’ll be traced, similarly she cannot now buy anything with her cashcard, which has also been traced and tagged. She’s stuck.

Rock bands with teenybopper fan clubs, bars with silly themes (right at the start there’d been a Kafka-themed bar, then the one plastered with bubblegum brands), noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets and showing off smoking. Brilliant though the cyberspace descriptions are, many aspects of the plot strike me as not really being fiction for adults. Surely it’s teen fiction? Young adult fiction?

More plot developments

This dawning suspicion was reinforced by the next scene, in which Masahiko and Gomi Boy decide it’s a smart move to check into a Tokyo love (i.e. sex) hotel, because it’s a good place to port and or use cashcards anonymously.

(The hotel is humorously named the Hotel Di, presumably after Princess Diana, but with the same kind of tuppenny pun on the verb ‘die’ that you get in James Bond movie titles.) This prompts a passage about a 14-year-old girl (Chia) opening various cupboards and discovering various sex aids, dildos and rubber vaginas, sitting on the bed and it starts to move up and down etc. All this, I imagine, was intended to be comic, but in 2021’s neo-Victorian moral climate, came over as distinctly dubious.

Meanwhile, Blackwell takes Laney and Arleigh to a club which was created within days of the catastrophic Tokyo earthquake, atop a ruined building, with the lights turned out, and ironically titled ‘The Western World’. And it is here that Laney, Blackwell and Arleigh sit down with half a dozen Japanese minders and finally meet Rez himself and, even more impressively, his hologram girlfriend, THE idoru of the title.

The descriptions of virtual reality are more frequent and vivid in this than the previous novel and now we discover that a particularly disconcerting aspect of the idoru is that, when Laney looks at it, just looks, he feels like he’s falling into a vast bottomless pit of pure information: the idoru has a hypnotic, vertigo-inducing effect on the digitally sensitive like Laney. THis is weird and strange and imaginatively persuasive.

Back to Chia and Masahiko in the love hotel. Chia is plugged into the net and we get more super-vivid descriptions of Chia moving through a number of virtual realities, including Masahiko’s room, Zona Rosa’s huge desert landscape, then back to the Venice which is her own personal playground. But she senses something is wrong and when she takes off the eyephones, discovers Maryalice sitting on the bed pointing a gun at her. Oops. They’ve tracked her down.

Cut back to the party at the ‘Western World’ nightclub. Laney goes for a pee, sees a hulk he thinks must be Russian mafia combing his hair in the men’s loo, and has only just returned to the dining room when all the lights go out, there’s screaming, people are knocked over, Laney falls down, is picked up by a member of Lo/Rez – drummer Blind Willy Jude. Jude turns out to have a handy pair of infrared goggles which he pops on and guides Laney through the stampeding crowds and broken glass to the concrete steps, down the thirteen flights of stairs back down to ground level.

On the way they collect Arleigh and Yamazaki and, as they emerge into the street to find cops surrounding the building and phoning for helicopters, they are joined by Rez. So he’s alright, hasn’t been kidnapped or anything. Arleigh gets her hands on the TV crew van and they all jump in.

Cut back to Chia in the room at the love hotel, who has a perfectly civilised conversation with Maryalice who puts down the gun – and it turns out it was a joke cigarette lighter, anyway. Maryalice lights a cigarette, rustles around in the fridge looking for margarita and explains what she got Chia to smuggle through customs in her bag for Eddie.

It is a ‘nanotech assembler’, the thing they program to make all the nanotech skyscrapers sprouting up all over earthquake-damaged Tokyo. To be precise, it is a ‘Rodel-van Erp primary molecular programming module C/7a’ (page 211).

Usually, these things are tightly controlled, but Eddie bought this one and wanted it smuggled into Tokyo so he can sell it to the Russian Kombinat. Chia realises this is the thing in the carrybag she’s been toting all over Tokyo and begs Maryalice to take it please – but Maryalice says it’s too late, the Russians are coming for it and Eddie will stand back and let them kill everyone who knows about it. Sorry, babes.

Meanwhile, Arleigh is still driving the crew van with the guys who escaped from the fight at the Western World. She takes them back to the hotel where she and Laney are staying. Laney, Arleigh, Rez, Yamazaki go to her room and wait for Blackwell to arrive, which he soon does, telling Rez he’s dumb to marry a hologram, but Rez insists she is the future. Exhausted, Laney slips out their room and slopes off to his one, opens it only to discover… bloody Kathy Torrance from Slitscan TV sitting at the end of his bed watching a porno. What the devil is she doing in Tokyo?

Cut to Chia in the love hotel, where she and Masahiko jack into cyberspace and meet people from ‘the Walled City’ which turns out to be a community of very advanced hackers. One, ‘the Etruscan’, gets money for Chia from her father’s secret bank account.

Zona arrives (online). Chia reveals to all of them what she hadn’t so far mentioned, namely that she has this contraband in her bag. Masahiko whips out the nanotech assembler, scans it and confirms that it is the latest version of nanotech assembler, very illegal, automatic life sentence for all of them.

There follows a detailed explanation of the origin of ‘the Walled City’ as a place whose denizens wanted to preserve the freedom and anarchy of the original internet before governments started putting up restrictions, ‘an outlaw place’ (page 221). The descriptions of Chia floating through random surreal hyperspace, and investigating the canyons and rooftops of the Walled City are brilliantly evocative.

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room. Kathy Torrance explains that Slitscan TV have cut and spliced Laney’s face onto the body in the porno, which is of a man who appears to be raping a girl. She says they’ll make it public and also publicise the notion that the 5-SB drug made him a psychotic stalker i.e. destroy his reputation, unless he agrees to spy on Rez for Out of Control. He’s trapped.

Cut back to Chia in cyberspace. Zona, with typical aggression, tells Masahiko and Gomi Boy they must attack, also mentions she’s sensed some intruder in her desertworld. Chia says she also has glimpsed the same in Venice, and takes them all into her Venice recreation. She sees her Music Man walking towards them, but then the Venice scenery slowly gets blanked out with snow and they see that the figure walking towards them is… the idoru!

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room with blackmailer Kathy Torrance. Yamazaki phones him repeatedly from down in the car park, they’ve got things set up for him to go into cyberspace and explore Rez’s files with the addition of the fandom data, hundreds of thousands of teen girl thoughts, ideas, observations.

Laney tells Kathy he’ll think about her offer but she says there’s nothing to think about. So, deeply troubled, Laney catches the lift down to the car park, limps to the van where the techies are fixing things up, jacks into cyberspace and… encounters the idoru.

She was there before him. She shows him a small gig Lo/Rez did when Rez lectured the audience about ‘new modes of being‘. This phrase has been repeated several times throughout the novel, it is a leitmotif.

Cut back to Chia, as she talks to the idoru in Venice while Zona sulks. (It’s a joke among the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub that Zona Rosa, based in Mexico City, is wildly aggressive, but Chia has told her to shut up and so she shrinks to the size of a burping frog.) All this is weird and brilliantly described and jogging along nicely when someone takes Chia’s eyephones off and she discovers that Eddie the scary crim has got into the love hotel room. He stuns Masahiko with a stun gun, then turns and asks her, ‘Where is it?’

Cut back to Laney in the car in the underground car park. He has only just starting exploring cyberspace with the idoru when he is tapped on the shoulder by Yamazaki, removes his eyephones and is introduced to Michio Kuwayama, Chief Executive Officer of Famous Aspect corporation, who developed the idoru program.

Kuwayama invites Laney into his Land Rover in the car park, close the doors so the others can’t overhear and the idoru appears between them, a shimmering phantom. The idoru explains that she is already united with Rez, they are becoming a new mode of being. Kuwayama-san explains that this is about Futurity, they are creating futurity.

Cut back to Chia in the hotel bedroom with Eddie and an evil Russian named Yevgeny. From their conversation we learn that the Russian mafia guys knew that the teenage girl who Maryalice picked up on the plane and used as a mule (Chia) was involved with some rock band, so they’d only gone along to the party at the Western World to find out more. It certainly wasn’t some sinister kidnap plot, as Blackwell had feared, and they hadn’t expected it to turn into a huge fight and incident. As a result of all this confusion Yevgeny doesn’t trust Eddie at all.

In the middle of all this exposition, Maryalice (who had been passed out on the bed, having drunk the hotel fridge’s entire supply of miniatures) sways up off the bed gripping her little toy gun, pointing at Eddie who thinks it’s real and forcing him and the Russian back into the bathroom.

But Maryalice makes the mistake of firing it and, since it is a toy, all that happens is a little cigarette lighter flame comes out – at which point Eddie goes ballistic and grabs her and starts hitting her. So Chia grabs the stun gun Eddie had used on Masahiko and stuns him, with the result that both Eddie and Maryalice start shaking with electric shock.

Masahiko had slammed the bathroom door on the Russian, but the latter is very strong and starts to turn the metal doorhandle, so Masahiko lets go and Chia zaps the doorhandle with the stun gun, too. Very exciting fast action!

Masahiko and Chia are debating what to do when the doorknob turns again and the Russian emerges, having used one of the rubber vagina sex toys stored in the bathroom to insulate his hand (incongruous comedy). Just as he steps menacingly towards the two kids, the main door opens and Blackwell arrives, accompanied – to Chia’s delight – by Rez himself! Blackwell takes out his trademark tomahawk (the one he murdered the Italian kidnappers in prison with and has carried ever since) and we suspect the Russian is not long for this world.

But what follows is not the massacre gunfight you might have expected, but a civilised negotiation. All sides establish that the thing in Chia’s bag is the nanotech assembler. The Russian reluctantly admits his people were hoping to use it for expensive buildings and factory creation in Russia. Blackwell tells Rez not to believe it, that they only want to build drug factories.

But at this point there is a surreal development. The characters inside the room become aware that someone has announced on social media that Rez has died in the love hotel and has told all Tokyo’s teen nymphet Lo/Rez fans to go and pay tribute, light candles and hold a vigil. Looking out the window Blackwell et al see it’s true. There’s now a vast concourse of teenage girls outside the hotel and growing by the minute.

At the self-same moment, Laney, plugged into cyberspace from the car park of his hotel gets the same message. He tears off his eyephones and yells to Arleigh that they must drive to the Hotel Di as quickly as possible, so Arleigh yells at the other techs and team members to guard all the kit and she and Laney set off on an exciting high-speed drive across Tokyo.

What had happened is that Zona, back in Mexico but tuned into the cybercall with Chia, so that when Eddie tore off Chia’s eyephones the call continued and Zona saw everything that happened. Zona was previously legendary for her high cybersecurity and had kept her identity totally secret but, seeing her friends in big trouble, she had taken the risk of revealing her identity by contacting the Tokyo branch of the Lo/Rez fanclub and telling them (the fiction) that Rez had died, and to organise the vigil, and then broadcast it to as many people as she could reach.

Hence the crowds of pubescent girls assembling outside the hotel which are becoming such a public nuisance that everyone learns that police helicopters and cop cars are on the way.

At this point all parties in the hotel room realise there’s no way they can have any kind of fight and get away with it, so Blackwell and the Russian in a surly truce, Rez and Chia and Masahiko, take the elevator to the car park just as Arleigh arrives in the crew van. They all climb aboard and then drive carefully through the hordes of weeping Japanese teenage girls, get free of them and hack it back to the hotel.

Coda

And that is the end of the main plot. That’s the story. The last few chapters are brief and tie up loose ends:

Laney confesses to Blackwell that he’s being blackmailed by Kathy Torrance, so Blackwell says ‘Leave it to me, I will have a very personal conversation with her’. Among other things we have learned during the course of the book that two of Blackwell’s techniques involve a) nailing people’s hands to the bar or table b) chopping their toes off one by one. Seems probable he won’t actually have to do that to terrify Kathy so much that she drops the blackmail attempt.

So Laney is in the clear, he has fulfilled his job and a one-page chapter finds him in bed with Arleigh, they’ve clearly had sex, they’re an item and later that night he phones Rydell, who tipped him off about this whole job in the first place, to tell him everything turned out just fine.

Chia has the longest chapter. Rez pays for her to fly back to Seattle first class and we have a fairly lengthy look into her mind and feelings and see her maturing, growing up, realising the reality of her pop star crush is very different from her fantasy. On one level, the novel could almost be interpreted as a teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.

The most problematic thing about the ending is the marriage of Rez and the idoru. I haven’t managed to bring it out so far, but in the later phases of the book there were references to the way Rez believed the nanotech assembler could facilitate his marriage to the idoru. That this would happen somehow via the creation of shiny new high-rise buildings out in Tokyo Bay.

I’ve read this passage several times and I remain mystified what this actually means in practice. It feels very like a kind of imaginative sleight-of-hand whereby Gibson evades any sort of logical ending and gives us this semi-mystical one except that, unlike the conclusions of all three Sprawl trilogy novels, is not so much mind-blowing as just puzzling.

Worldview details

Gibson supplies hundreds of vividly imagined, incidental details which contribute to the sense of a totally convincing futureworld, including:

  • overnight there are rumours of rocket attacks and chemical weapons in the former Financial District, doesn’t bother any of the characters, suggesting they live in a semi warzone (page 51)
  • fridges talk, tell you what’s inside them and to close the damn door (page 53)
  • logging into the virtual world to contact friends or whoever is called ‘porting’ – ‘I have to port’ (page 75) because you plug into a ‘dataport’ (page 77)
  • a revolutionary new technology of nanobuildings which literally build themselves by tiny elements of the building intelligently replicating, like watching a candle burn but in reverse – ‘They are like Giger paintings of New York’ (page 81) watching them ripple and move makes Laney feel queasy
  • toilets flush then disinfect themselves with UV light (page 78)
  • elevators talk, well, you tell them where you want to go (page 78)
  • Chia’s phone uses GPS to locate people she’s calling (page 85)
  • Masahiko interacts with the Walled City program via a slender rectangle, much like a modern tablet
  • ‘meshbacks’ is a general term for what we call chavs
  • cigarettes are banned in America and the authorities have gone back through movies and digitally erased them (page 156)
  • the Kombinat seems to be the name of the government in Russia which is actually a mafia government (page 157)
  • cars drive on gasohol, leaving an oddly sweet polluting smell behind

Cyberpunk prose

Gibson writes highly finished, stylised, jazzy, jive prose, no doubt about that – he takes the hard-boiled prose style of the 1940s noir writers, Hammett and Chandler, itself subsequently pared down and refined by generations of American airport thriller writers, and then mixes it with his own highly distinctive combination of high tech jargon and low-life street life. Imagined tech is mashed up with multimedia imagery, skyscraper and 4-by-4 consumer products, neon signs, shiny chrome hotel rooms, black Range Rovers; the text keeps presenting vivid contrasts between the precise spec of high-end, shiny products and streets full of broken glass from the great earthquake, patrolled by hoods and skaterpunks.

It’s a dazzling mix which Gibson handles with extraordinary verve and confidence, creating hundreds of examples of vivid, chrome poetry.

The rain was running and pooling, tugging reflected neon out of the perpendicular and spreading it in wriggly lines across sidewalk and pavement. (page 161)

Blackwell thunked the door behind him, then opened the front, should’ve-been driver’s side door and seemed to pour himself into the car, a movement that simultaneously suggested the sliding of a ball of mercury and the settling of hundreds of pounds of liquid concrete. (page 161)

‘Who owns the building?’ Laney asked, watching Blackwell float up the stairs in front of them, his arms, in the matte black sleeves of the drover’s car, like sides of beef dressed for a funeral. (page 164)

Here is a description of Chia’s first shadowy encounter with ‘the Walled City’ in cyberspace, which brilliantly conveys Gibson’s vision of it as shifting shapes and images, more sensed than ‘seen’:

Something at the core of things moved simultaneously in mutually impossible directions. It wasn’t even like porting. Software conflict? Faint impressions of light through a fluttering of rags. And then the thing before her: building or biomass or cliff face looming there, in countless unplanned strata, nothing about it even or regular. Accreted patchwork of shallow random balconies, thousands of small windows throwing back blank silver rectangles of fog. Stretching either way to the periphery of vision, and on the high, uneven crest of that ragged facade, a black fur of twisted pipe, antennas sagging under vine growth of cable. And past this scribbled border a sky where colours crawled like gasoline on water. (page 182)

Gibson can write this kind of thing by the mile and I find it beguiling and entrancing – he creates real electronic dreams.

He uses another characteristic effect – the pregnant pause, the ominous intimation, the hint that something momentous is hovering just out of range of eye and mind which recurs again and again in Gibson’s novels, giving them a constant sense of mystery and threat:

Between stations there was a grey shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being. (page 137)

Reservations

Fiction about and for teens?

Although it’s about other things as well, the weight of the novel feels dominated by the story of a teenage fan of a famous rock band. The amount of time Gibson devotes to describing the Seattle club of teenage girl fans and the Japanese fan club, and then the way the novel climaxes with all those teenage girls crowding round the Hotel Di… it felt like they… It helped to make it feel like Idoru is, at bottom, a book for teenagers or young adults.

Embarrassed teenage attitude towards sex

This sense of it not quite being a book for adults crystallises in the couple of chapters featuring sex. When Chia and Masahiko explore the ‘love hotel’ room, her discovery of the various rubber sex aids is played for laughs. ‘Yuk,’ she says, wrinkling up her nose at the rubber vaginas or extra-large dildos. So the reader sees adult sex urges and aids through this young teenager’s basically virginal, innocent eyes.

This makes the short scene right at the end which finds Laney in bed with Arleigh feel strangely… out of place. Grown-up sex somehow doesn’t fit into this book. The narrative is much more at home with made-up rock bands and their teenybopper fan clubs, taking us to bars with silly theme bars (the Kafka-themed bar, the bar plastered with bubblegum brands, the ‘Western World’ bar, notable for having a large plastic replica tank in the middle of the dance floor, and so on).

Teenage environments

It’s a book of noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets, who show off by smoking (banned) cigarettes. Even the main adult character, Laney, is himself immature, naively impressed by swanky hotels and shiny cars, impressed in the way a gawky teenager would be.

Dated rock music

Another issue is Gibson’s taste in music. His novels feature rock bands with silly names like Chrome Koran (isn’t that a terrible name?) or Dukes of Nuke ‘Em (a ‘hideous ‘roidhead metal band’).

But it’s not that these are silly names, it’s that the entire idea of ‘rock’ music seems rather retro nowadays, in 2021, a time of female singers (Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele) and rap artists from Kanye West to Stormzy. Gibson’s obsession with rock bands feels a bit dated.

Digging deeper into this theme, there are references to:

  • Chia’s Music Master hologram being modelled on David Bowie (he’s not actually named but there’s a reference to his unmatching eyes, which is a famous Bowie factoid)
  • the way this hologram refers to the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
  • the way Rez is referred to in a BBC music documentary as ‘the next Hendrix’ (p.131)

All these old references remind the reader that the third novel in the Bridge trilogy is named All Tomorrow’s Parties after the Velvet Underground song sung by Nico and released way back in 1967.

Hendrix, Procol Harum, Nico. They’re all from over half a century ago. That’s old, in fact it’s Dad Rock. So it’s a paradox that Gibson, who made a reputation for inventing the cyberfuture before it happened is, in this central respect, a central theme to all his later novels, so deeply conservative.

The odd centrality of old-world television

The numerous descriptions of what Laney and Chia see when they jack into cyberspace are genuinely visionary, beautiful and compelling. But back out in the real world (when they’re not jacked in) it’s an oddity that a key element in the plot is, surprisingly, Television.

Some people might find the satire about TV programmes which make a living dishing the dirt on celebrities, and then another TV programme which makes a living dishing the dirt on programmes which dish the dirt on celebrities, amusing and witty satire. But taking the mickey out of TV for being mostly trash feels very dated to me, reminds me of those Clive James TV shows from the 1980s which took the mickey out of Japanese TV, and the scores of programmes which have copied this simple idea.

Nonetheless, television companies and programmes are a surprisingly big component of many of Gibson’s books.

Thus the previous novel, Virtual Light, opens with Rydell being taken up by a reality TV show and the climax of that book relies on the fact that Rydell is again taken up and his story told by the same TV show – Cops in Trouble – whose lawyers spring him and his beautiful assistant, Chevette, from gaol, make them sign exclusive contracts, and make them media stars for a few weeks.

Similarly, in this novel, the central theme of the opening hundred pages is Laney’s experience working for another reality TV show company, Slitscreen, complete with a supposed exposé of its trashy, exploitative values.

My point is that this is all very old media. Rock bands and television, Hollywood producers and lawyers. I know a whole load of futuristic details have been bolted onto it, and I know a key element in the novel is the repeated and brilliant evocations of cyberspace, and yet… somehow, the core vibe feels very nineteen seventies.

A teenage coming-of-age novel?

In the end, the marriage of idoru and Rez doesn’t really come off. I read the last passage a couple of times, but still didn’t understand how they were being united in what was basically a property development project. Here’s Chia reflecting on her experiences:

But mainly it was the City taking up her time, because Rez and [the idoru] were there, shadows among the other shadows but still you could tell. Working on their Project. Plenty there who didn’t like the idea, but plenty who did. The Etruscan did. He said it was the craziest thing since they’d turned the first killfile inside out. Sometimes Chia wondered if they all weren’t just joking, because it just seemed impossible that anyone could ever do that. Build that, on an island in Tokyo Bay. But the idoru said that that was where they wanted to live, now that they were married. So they were going to do it. (pages 291 to 292)

All the way through, characters including Rez refer optimistically to ‘new modes of being’ and Rez refers to his partnering the idoru as an ‘alchemical marriage’, but when it comes down to it, in these last pages, Gibson fails to give us any sense at all of what that actually means.

Whereas the absolute final chapter, an extended reflection on Chia’s feelings once she’s safely back home after her Big Adventure, is much more effective at somehow encapsulating the book’s essential adolescence.

It is fitting that the novel ends not with the evanescent idoru concept but with the much more solid and traditional trope of Chia, the adolescent girl, feeling she’s grown up a bit now and is no longer so in thrall to the Lo/Rez mystique, having seen the reality of his life, of adult life.

This final chapter helps crystallise your sense that the novel is less ‘a vision of a dystopian future’ (as the blurb on the back puts it) and far more a rather sweet, teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.


Credit

Idoru by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

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

The Guardians by John Christopher (1970)

In the mid-1960s John Christopher switched from writing science fiction for adults to writing science fiction for teens or young adults as they’re called nowadays. The Guardians is one of the more successful of these teen novels. It won prizes – the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for the German translation. I can see why. In clear, factual, no-nonsense prose Christopher vividly depicts the adventures of a fatherless young boy in a story which is both a scary adventure, but also strangely reassuring at the same time.

It uses familiar sci fi tropes: a) it is set in a future society which b) has been divided into castes or distinct groups c) is controlled by shadowy, all-powerful forces, but d) there is a cohort of keen young idealists setting out to overthrow it. If Christopher doesn’t investigate any of these themes in any depth a) this is maybe appropriate in a book aimed at 10 to 14 year-olds, and b) instead of depth what you do have is tremendous speed. It’s a short but fast-moving book, good to keep easily distracted teenagers’ attentions.

Lastly, unlike The White Mountains and some of his novels for adults which consist of long, gruelling journeys which end up wearing down the reader as well as the protagonists, The Guardians has a compelling symmetry and circularity to the storyline, and it ends on a pleasing note of excitement and expectation. It is a good novel for older children (11 to 14).

The Guardians

Future It is 70 or 80 years in the future. England is divided into the ‘County’, a rumoured land of leisure beyond the ‘Barrier’, and the ‘Conurbs’, the extensive urban areas in one of which lives Rob Randall. Rob’s been living in an apartment in a high rise with his dad since his mum died after a long illness.

Conurbs The Conurbs are packed. People live in high rise blocks and have access to futuristic gadgets. Monorails run at up to 200 kilometres an hour. Cars run on predetermined routes. There are portable lumoglobes.

Games The populace is kept entertained with bread in and circuses, in this instance the high-speed often violent Games held in massive Stadiums, including terraplaning where jet-propelled cars hurtle round a cambered track, occasionally crashing, to the cheers of the crowds. Crowds entering or exiting often turn into mobs, creating hysterical crushes.

China war The world is at peace as far as we know, except for a permanent war in faraway China, which people rarely talk about, and never seems to present any threat.

Library Rob gets caught in one of these sudden mob crushes on the way back from the library. The library is falling to bits, no-one goes there. A sign outside says it was opened as long ago as 1978 (thus setting the story in what was then the future). This is because in the Conurbs hardly anybody reads books or writes anything. Everybody watches holovision (HV) or dictates messages into handheld recorders.

An accident Rob pops by the Stadium to see his dad but is met by his friend Mr Kennealy who tells him his dad’s had an accident. He’s an electrician and touched a live wire. Mr Kennealy takes him back to his house for supper and to spend the night.

Conspiracy? That evening Rob hears Kennealy discussing his father in a conspiratorial way with some men who’ve come to visit, but can’t hear the details. ‘This is a dangerous business… We better all watch out.’ Was Rob’s dad’s death not an accident? Why? Was he part of some conspiracy? What?

Dad dead Next day Mr Kennealy takes Rob to the hospital where he is shocked to be told Rob’s dad has died. Kennealy takes Rob to his dad’s apartment to collect some things, including an old box Rob finds, containing his mum and dad’s letters and old b&w photos, and then back the Kennealy flat.

Leaving Mr Kennealy’s Mr and Mrs Kennealy discuss whether Rob could stay with them but the decision is taken out of their hands at his school next day when inspectors turn up and declare Rob must be sent to a state boarding school in Barnes. Rob goes back to the Kennealy’s to get his stuff. Keannealy tells him he’ll be ‘safer’ there. Safer? From what?

Barnes Boarding School It’s horrible. Extremely regimented, with fanatical rules about making your bed just so and presenting possessions for a weekly inspection. Rob, predictably, fails the inspection and is subject to a midnight bullying, ‘the Routine’ (hit on the forehead repeatedly by a rubber-tipped hammer) by the other boys. He is given an extended detention, extra work, and the precious books we saw him borrowing from the library at the start of the book, are taken away and burned.

Running away Early the next Sunday, Rob takes a small bag, makes his way between buildings to the school gates, out into the road beyond, catches a bus into central London (through Trafalgar Square with its glass column) and to a train terminus where he takes off his school blazer and bow tie (!) then spends almost all his money on a ticket to Reading.

Reading? Yes. When he read the dusty old love letters written by his mum to his dad, he learned that she originally came from The County, beyond the wall. Well, he’s got nothing to stay in the Conurbs for. Reading is only a few miles south of the border. He’ll go there and sneak across The Barrier and see if he can find a better life in the County.

Reading carnival When the monorail has whisked him to Reading in just 30 minutes (as if any train in England could ever run that fast!) Rob discovers there’s a Carnival going on, one of the many festivals which Conurbanites fill their time with in between watching violent competitions in stadiums or immersing themselves in twaddle on the holovision.

Rob is given a lift This is bad, though, because when he asks a guy for a lift to the north side of Reading, the guy helpfully starts asking around and someone volunteers to take Rob in a ten-seater ‘Electrocar’ and others offer to come along – with the result that he can’t just hope to be dropped and slip away. Damn! These volunteers ask him where he lives so he has to invents a street on the spur of the moment. After driving around north Reading in search of this non-existent address, the volunteers stop at a police station and most of them go inside to ask directions. Rob takes the opportunity to nip out the car but some of them see him running away, so there’s a chase through the Victorian terraces of north Reading.

Rabbit man Rob nips into someone’s back garden and into their garden shed. The mob arrive moments later and the owner gives them the wrong directions. Rob realises this is because he’s keeping rabbits in his shed, which is illegal. He’s a rough, working-class, ferret-faced man who, when Rob says he’s hungry, gives him some mildewy cheese in week-old bread, then tells him to hop it.

Through the Barrier Rob walks north as the buildings of Reading peter out into bare moorland and eventually stumbles on the legendary Barrier. Instead of being vast and electrified it’s only 12 feet or so high and, when he watches a squirrel scamper across it, he realises, not electrified at all. He walks along it, comes to a bit that’s come loose from the earth, digs for a while with his bare hands and wriggles underneath. He is in the County!

Horses He immediately notices the difference. Some men ride by on horses, wearing swords in scabbards and accompanied by hunting dogs while Rob hides. He walks on getting hungry and grubbing up some potatoes to eat raw. Oh dear, this recalls the protagonists of all the other Christopher novels I’ve read, who spend weeks on the run, hungry, cold and exposed to the elements

Mike Luckily this phase is relatively brief because after a night sleeping rough, he’s making his way through fields when a figure on horseback spots him and gives chase. Rob runs but (inevitably) stumbles and there’s an exciting moment when the horse rears above him, the sun behind the rider dazzling terrified Rob. Then it speaks and turns out not to be some vengeful Viking but a boy his own age named Michael, who is jolly decent.

Bunker Mike is astonished to learn Rob has crossed from the Conurbs and decides to help him. He takes him to an old disused concrete bunker (from back during the ‘Hitler war’, apparently) which is relatively dry and secure. Here Rob rests and over the next few days Mike brings him a huge amount of stuff, fresh food every day along with blankets and bedding, a torch and a little paraffin stove.

Mrs Gifford One day Rob is cooking up a nice little meal when someone stands in the doorway. It isn’t Mike and, once again, for a moment I thought it would be some horrible police / army / militia figure who would drag Mike off to prison, but it’s the opposite. It’s Mike’s mum, Mrs Gifford. She’s realised food and clothes have been going missing and watched Mike one morning. She briskly makes a decision to take Rob in.

Big house The Giffords are an old landed family, members of ‘the gentry’. They (Mr and Mrs Gifford, Mike and his younger sister Cecily) live in an enormous old mansion staffed by at least 20 servants. Mrs Gifford runs a tight ship, keeping the servants up to snuff, so that food is served on time, the horses are well looked after, everything runs like clockwork. Mr Gifford is a very passive, understanding man. After the initial introductions, he shows Rob his collection of miniature bonsai trees and there’s a couple of pages going into some detail about how to tend and nurture them.

County living The gentry live very well. There are regular luncheon parties, dinner parties, and bigger garden parties including one where Rob turns out to have a natural ability for archery. However, this big party is also risky. Having accepted him into their family, Mrs Gifford comes up with a cover story. Rob is renamed Rob Perrott and said to be the son of a cousin of Mrs G’s, raised by an old colonial family in faraway Nepal. After dinner party guests ask him about Nepal, Rob makes straight for the big Gifford library and reads all the books about Nepal that he can find in order to improve his cover story. The family stableman teaches Rob how to ride. Mrs Gifford teaches him how to dress, speak correctly and tip the servants. He is being turned into a gentleman.

Posh boarding school Eventually the time comes for school. Mike had been ill earlier in the year. Now he returns to school along with Rob. It is a very posh boarding school, a mirror image of the Barnes state school (just one of the many parallelisms between the two societies.

Conspiracy After various details of the school routine and settling in and lessons and so on, one night Mike introduces him to a bunch of older boys who, after cocoa and biscuits, fall to having a schoolboy-level debate about the rights and wrongs of the society they live in. The group is led by Daniel Penfold who takes the view that all the peace and plenty is the result of exploitation of the masses. Rob tends to the common sense point of view that most people appear to be pretty happy with the way things are. Rob notices that Mike takes Dan’s side. Later, Mike inducts Dan into a deeper secret, the fact that Penfold is the representative in the school of an organisation of revolutionaries actively dedicated to overthrowing this society.

Debates about revolution If this had been a John Wyndham novel, there would have been a long and penetrating discussion of the merits of revolution. Being John Christopher discussion and debate is much thinner: Mike says people need to be woken up and realise the system is rotten and based on exploitation of their apathy. Rob replies that most people are actually happy enough living as they do. You’ll have a hard job persuading people to throw away the comfort and security the currently enjoy, and for what? For a handful of high-sounding words bandied around by some disgruntled sixth formers.

Christmas at the end of the term the boys go home. Mrs Gifford has always shown a penchant for Rob. He now routinely refers to her as ‘Aunt Margaret’. Now she confides in him her concerns about her son: his school reports all say he’s falling short and not concentrating. Rob and Mike have been invited over to the Penfolds house for lunch and Mrs G expresses concern about the influence of Dan Penfold.

The Penfold household Christopher draws a sharp contrast between the two households and their inhabitants: where the Giffords are tall and handsome and Mrs Gifford is brisk and commanding, the Penfold parents are short and tubby and exercise no discipline over the servants, with the result that tea is served late and cold and, in a piquant detail, Rob’s shoes, which he leaves outside his door to be polished, are done so badly he has to do them again himself.

The revolution After Christmas, back to school and another term, but now with this added tension that Mrs G is unhappy about her son, Mike is distracted and aloof from Rob and Rob wonders what is going on. Back home after that term, Rob and Mike plan to go fishing for a morning before rising on to the Penfold place for lunch, but Mike makes excuses about having to go and see a man about a horse. When Rob eventually arrives at the Penfolds he discovers it in uproar. The Revolution has begun! That’s why Mike rode off that morning, to join it.

Protecting Mrs Gifford Rob rides straight to Mike’s house to discover all the menfolk have ridden off: the radio’s down, there are mad rumours of massacres in Oxford and Bristol, the Cherwell is said to be running with blood, mobs of Conurbanites are said to have stormed the Barrier. Rob saddles up to go and join the ‘vigilantes’ (probably better described as the militia) but all the men including Mr Gifford have left and Mrs Gifford begs him to stay and protect them, so he does.

The rebellion is suppressed The next morning Mr Gifford and the male servants return in a downpour. They tell Mrs G and Rob that the rebellion has been completely suppressed. None of those rumours were true, there was no massacre, no storming of the Barrier, nothing like that. Everyone is very relieved and life goes back to normal except that… Mike is missing! His parents are understandably concerned about what has happened to him.

Mike at midnight That night Mike slips into Rob’s room. He’s on the run. Sure, the rebellion was defeated and the servant class didn’t rise up as Penfold et al hoped they would, but he hasn’t given up. He describes how the rebels were outnumbered and outgunned. Theoretically guns are banned in the County, even in the Conurbs, but it turns out that, when they’re needed, the authorities had plenty to use. Plus helicopters flying overhead which released a fatal nerve gas onto the revolutionaries. Many died on the spot but Mike was out on the periphery and just felt very ill.

Escape In fact, far from deterring him, the brutality with which the revolt was put down has hardened Mike’s determination. He plans to go over the Barrier into the conurbs at Southampton. He makes Rob swear not to tell anyone, then they go down to the empty kitchen, steal some chicken and ham, then Rob sees Mike quietly mount his horse, Captain, and head off south, before going back to bed, his mind in turmoil.

Militia Next day a military patrol stops at the Gifford house led by a Mr Marshall and asks after Mike. He’s wanted. They must give up any information they have about him or face prosecution. Mr and Mrs Gifford say they know nothing and are sick with worry (worried parents; a very young adult fiction trope).

But the militiaman insists on arresting Rob. He is forced to come on horseback. At first he is terrified and the reader wonders what dungeon and tortures await. But then Rob is reassured when he discovers they’re going to the Old Manor, home of inoffensive old Sir Percy Gregory (page 141).

Sir Percy interrogates Bumbling old Sir Percy puts Rob completely at his ease, offers him coffee and cherry cake, asks a number of innocent sounding questions… and then springs a surprise. They know who he is. They know he is really Rob Randell who absconded from Barnes Boarding School made his way to Reading and crossed under the Barrier. They knew who he was within a day of Mrs Gifford finding him. Sir Percy gives a complete biographical sketch, including the dates and full names of both his parents (page 145). (This passage contains the kind of chronological information which gives all true science fiction fans a thrill, by specifying the dates of the action. We learn his father died in 2052, so if a Christmas has gone by the revolution and these scenes are set in 2053.)

The Guardians Who are ‘they’? They are The Guardians. English society was divided between the heavily populated Conurban areas full of proley families kept entertained by holovision, games and the occasional riot, and the sparsely populated County run by grand landed families with penumbras of servants, several generations ago. The division perfectly suits the majority of the population and has been preserved in a stable situation by the eternal watchfulness of the Guardians for 50 years or more.

An offer Throughout this piece of explication Rob has nervously been expecting to be told he will be sent back over the Barrier to Barnes. So he is thunderstruck when Sir Percy offers him the opportunity to become a Guardian himself. He is smart, he is resourceful, he has shown he can conceal his true identity and lie. He will be able to carry himself well either side of the Barrier. He is perfect for the role.

Gentleman’s agreement They shake hands on it. Sir Percy gives him a short-wave radio. All he has to do is report to them if Mike turns up. They don’t want him. They want the people he’ll lead them to, the ringleaders. ‘But what will happen to Mike?’ Rob asks. Oh, Sir Percy replies, he won’t be harmed. He will just have a small operation in the brain. It won’t change his memories or who he is. It will just stop him being rebellious. He will carry on living a privileged life, carry on fox hunting and archery and go to university. But with the rebel part of his brain snipped out. Sir Percy explains that this is a fundamental method which has been used to keep the populations in both societies cowed and quiescent. If by chance, young men continue rebellious despite the operation, then they are packed off to the war in distant China so they can exercise their testosterone in a safely distant arena.

Mrs Gifford reveals They let Rob go. He rides back to the Gifford House with the little radio. The Gifford family are relieved to see him. After dinner it dawns on him that he is safe, utterly safe. He has a home for the first time in his young life, a warm loving family, a life of luxury. But after Mr Gifford potters off to his greenhouse to grow Mrs Gifford surprises him with two revelations. First, she says she knows Mike was there the night before. When food goes missing from the kitchen it is reported to her. She accuses him of not telling her and her husband, but Rob says Mike pleaded with him not to.

Mr Gifford’s operation The second revelation is that Mike’s father has had that brain operation. He, in his youth, had the rebel part of his brain snipped out. At a stroke various facts fall into place. First, why Mr Gifford is so placid and content to potter among his bonsai trees. Second, that rebellion must be genetic: Mike has inherited his father’s restless streak.

A decision Reeling from this revelation, that night Rob comes to a decision. He decides he had been taken in, deluded, seduced by the comfort and luxury of this life. But it is not the real life, the whole thing is based on the neutering of the human brain to make people quiescent. He could acquiesce and lead a life of luxury, private school, university, then a life of fox hunting and harmless hobbies. Or he can make his way to the Conurbs, find Mike, and join the struggle to free humanity from its sedatives and delusions.

The novel ends with Rob leaving the Gifford house that night, heading south towards the Conurbs, with a backpack of supplies which includes a trowel for digging under the Barrier on his way to freedom.

Thoughts

The Guardians is a lot better than the first book in the Tripods series, The White Mountains. In both books 13-year-old boys are brought up in a future society which passively accepts philistinism and the submission to accepted conventions. So in both novels the boy protagonist ups stumps and goes on an arduous trek to freedom.

Christopher’s books suffer in comparison with his peer John Wyndham. They lack Wyndham’s psychological or intellectual depth. When the protagonist of The Chrysalids, David Strorm, rebels against his upbringing in a stiflingly conformist future society, it happens over a period of many years of thinking and learning, punctuated by key and highly dramatic episodes, and all accompanied by his slowly maturing conversations with Uncle Axel. You feel you have entered really deeply into David’s mind and experienced the difficulty of breaking away from family and convention.

Rob, on the other hand, goes to a rough school for a few weeks where he’s beaten up one night so he decides to run away. That’s it. It feels trivial and shallow, as if little effort went into imagining the psychological background and none at all went into really thinking about the issues involved.

Also, Christopher’s prose is pretty boring. It is plain and factual, unenlivened by metaphors or similes. Pages go by without any colour. Dull.

And, at least to begin with, I was dismayed when Rob sleeps in a ditch and is quickly reduced by hunger to eating raw potatoes plucked from a field, because that’s more or less what happens to the protagonists of the previous three Christopher novels I’ve read.

However, as you continue reading I think this book addresses and overcomes all these issues. Rob is quickly rescued from sleeping rough and quickly assimilated into a life of luxury (which is a blessed relief for the reader). And the lack of psychological or intellectual depth (for example, around the whole notion of rebelling against a conformist society) can perhaps be justified in at least two ways:

  1. Speed. What it lacks in depth, The Guardians makes up for in pace. At just 150 pages long, a lot of events and brief ideas are packed into a short exciting narrative.
  2. Target audience. Maybe it’s age-appropriate. Wyndham’s novels are all, ostensibly, for adults. In the foreword to The White Mountains Christopher dwells on the advice and guidance he was given by his American publisher which led him to comprehensively rewrite the middle of the novel. We know from his adult books that he’s not a great thinker, Maybe his publishers said, ‘Play to your strengths: put as little controversy or thought or ideas into the book as is necessary, at just the right level to get an intelligent 12-year-old thinking, and then get back to the action.’

And maybe the same thing applies to his bare prose. I went from reading this to reading a William Gibson novel and it was like going from a scratchy black and white silent movie to a modern CGI Marvel movie. Christopher’s prose is colourless. But, again, maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe the prose in a young adult novel should be as bare and functional as possible to let the story and the narrative take priority.

There is also the structure of the narrative. His previous novels were straightforward linear narratives describing gruelling journeys. However, The Guardians is notably more sophisticated than that in its symmetrical structure, in the way the hero introduces us to two very different societies, ending up alienated from both of them.

Not only that but it is aesthetically pleasing the way that privileged Mike is, of course, in many ways a mirror image of working class Rob. Mike has both his parents unlike Rob the orphan; he has been brought up in luxury and privilege, unlike Rob raised in a crappy council flat, and so on.

But the most obvious mirroring is that whereas Rob has escaped from the Conurbs into the Country, Mike wants to escape the other way. It isn’t particularly prominent, it feels a natural part of the plot, but the way the two boys echo and contrast with each other lifts the novel significantly above the level of a mere trek into something much more artful and satisfying.


Credit

The Guardians by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1970. All references are to the 2015 New Windmill Series hardback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1965)

Twelve years and 28 novels into his career as a prolific author of science fiction and miscellaneous adult novels, Christopher’s publisher suggested he try writing novels for teenagers. I wonder if it had anything to do with the way one of his most recent novels, A Wrinkle In The Skin, rather movingly captures the close relationship between a man and an orphaned 11-year-old boy.

Anyway, the first fruit of this new direction in Christopher’s writing was The White Mountain, the first novel in what turned into a science fiction trilogy for teenagers, titled The Tripods.

The future

It is some time in the future and the mysterious tripods, metal hubs standing on three 60-foot-high legs, have conquered the earth. Humans have been reduced to serfs in a recreation of the medieval feudal system. There is no technology beyond carthorses and horse-drawn agriculture. Some people have travelled a bit and seen the ruins of the big cities which ‘the ancients’ lived in in the Old Times, but everyone is taught they were the Dark Times, the world was overpopulated, people starved and dropped like flies due to diseases. People don’t talk about it, or the ruins, or anything else controversial.

Children run free till they turn 14 at which age they are ‘capped’ – they are scooped up by a tripod, their head shaved and a metal device implanted in their skulls which neutralises any attempts to rebel. The day of a child’s capping is a feast day in their village amid much celebration: it means they officially become a man or woman, can do an adult’s work and get an adult’s pay.

The novel is told in the first person by 13-year-old Will Parker who lives in the village of Wherton (page 22). There are other boys his own age, some of whom he fights with (such as his bully cousin, Henry), some of whom are his best mates. One is Jack, another cousin, who has made a secret den in one of the ruins of the Old People outside the village. Jack drops a couple of hints about the Old Days and the Old People. The official story is all was darkness and chaos till the Tripods came, but Jack asks how, if that is true, the Old People could have made complex and impressive devices like the pocket watch from the Old Times, which Will’s father is so proud of?

Capping and a vagrant

But then Jack turns 14 and is himself capped. Will witnesses the big village feast and the moment Jack is snatched up by the long looping tentacles of a tripod and taken up inside its hemispherical ‘head’, reappearing half an hour later with his head shaved and what looks like a web of wires (the ‘darker metal tracery of the cap…like a spider’s web’) embedded under his scalp. There’s a big feast to celebrate Jack’s capping, hosted by the lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey. Next time he gets Jack on his own, a few days later, Jack dismisses all his former talk about the Old Days as nonsense. The capping has eliminated his rebellious and sceptical spirit.

Sometimes the capping process goes wrong and the cappees become brain damaged, mentally unhinged. They are booted out of their own communities and wander the country and are called Vagrants. Each village has a Vagrant House where vagrants can stay for a while and be fed before moving on.

Around this time a vagrant appears bumbling round the village. Will gets into conversation with him. He quotes the Bible a lot and says his name is Ozymandias. Will finds him interesting and, even though his father tells him to stop hanging round the vagrant house, Will meets Ozymandias a few more times. At one of these meetings, Ozymandias reveals that he has not been capped at all. The vagrant tells him about free, uncapped men living in the White Mountains over the sea and far to the South (by which the reader imagines he must mean the Alps).

Ozymandias swears Will to secrecy then explains how he can make his way south to the port of Rumney (presumably a corruption of Romney, a former port on the Kent coast), find a ship across the sea captained by one Captain Curtis, and then head for the White Mountains. He takes out of a secret seam in his jacket a map which he gets Will to promise to hide.

Escape

All these revelations from Ozymandias have crystallised his sense of unease about his own future capping, especially when he saw what it did to his best friend, Jack i.e. stopped him from thinking.

So Will builds up a stash of food secreted a bit of a time, with a view to running away. But then disaster strikes. His cousin Henry’s mother dies. Henry comes to stay for a bit, which is OK, but then his mother announces it’s going to be permanent and the boys are going to share the same room.

Nonetheless, one dark night Will gets up, sneaks out of bed, puts his clothes on, slips out of the house and along to the den Jack used. He is getting his stash of food and equipment out when hears a voice behind him. Henry woke as he got up to leave and has followed him. They have a brief fight which Henry wins, ending up on top pinning Will down. But instead of turning him in… he wants to come too! Will can’t think of any alternative and so reluctantly agrees.

They set off and their journey south is described in detail. One night they hear someone riding towards them and run for it but Will falls twisting his ankle. They have to rest up in a ruined cottage. Waking to find his pack gone, Will thinks Henry has deserted him. But he soon turns up, with fresh food he’s pinched from a far, and it turns out he’d hidden the pack for safety. After three days hiding out, Will’s ankle has healed and they continue south.

Rumney

They come down into Rumney and find a likely sailors’ inn. But Will has barely bought a drink before he is seized by a yellow-bearded sailor who is about to press gang him, when (luckily) Captain Curtis arrives and takes Will and Henry off Yellowbeard’s hands.

The pair are quickly smuggled aboard Curtis’s ship, the Orion, where they have to hide as most of the crew are capped. Half way across the Channel there is an incident, where six tripods appear and careen and swish around the ship their long legs ending in floats, giving out long booming calls. They playfully raise big waves which threaten to overturn the ship. Captain Curtis explains they often do this, it appears to be for fun, some ships actually sink but that’s not the purpose.

They dock in a port in France and Captain Curtis rows them ashore in a dinghy then wishes them good luck. However they’ve hardly gone any distance down the road before doors open, men appear and they are seized. Turns out someone’s been vandalising local boats and the inhabitants think they’ve caught them red-handed.

Now Captain Curtis had emphasised that they were under no circumstances to talk, as this would instantly reveal them as foreigners. Refusing to talk, Will and Harry are thrown into the cellar of a tavern, not before they’ve glimpsed an odd-looking lanky boy with glass over his eyes. The reader realises that Will has never seen glasses before.

They make a few half-baked attempts to loosen the bars of the cellar but then the door is unlocked and opened. It is the lanky kid. He can speak English and offers to take them back to a boat. When they explain they are heading south, he says he can help with that, too. Why? It’s never really explained although he immediately warms to the idea of a place where there are no tripods and no capping.

He introduces himself as Zhan-pole which we realise is Will’s phonetic spelling of Zhan-pole. Henry immediately nicknames him Beanpole and it sticks. They set off south and Beanpole reveals that he also is fascinated by ‘the ancients’, reckons they were strong and powerful, reckons they had machines driven by power of steam. He reckons people could fly by building big balloons filled with steam not air. He read about sailors’ telescopes and found some discarded lenses from which he constructed his home-made spectacles. Henry ridicules these ideas but Will is fascinated.

Shmand-Fair

Beanpole says they can use the shmand-fair to travel south. Those of us with basic French realise he means the chemin de fer or railroad or railway. And sure enough he leads him to a place where long curving metal rails are supported on wooden sleeper, and box-like carriages are pulled by horses. They stow away on one of a set of carriages and are merrily pulled south by the horses for a full day, as the shmand-fair passes through villages and stops to have goods loaded or unloaded.

Towards evening they slip out unnoticed at a stop, then head steadily south-east towards what Will’s map indicates are the ruins of a great city.

Paris

They travel across Paris which is in ruins and utterly deserted. The main streets are pocked with trees and shrubs. There are cuboid rusting metal objects with metal wheels and white skeletons inside. Beanpole reckons they were vehicles which made their way under their own steam without horses.

They come across vast shops with mannekins in the windows. They find old, old tinned food. There’s steps going down underground beneath a rusted sign reading METRO. Down into dark tunnels which wind on and descend even further till they come to a Metro train, a row of carriages on the rails. Inside the carriage they find what are obviously old rifles and sacks of round things with corrugated surfaces. These are grenades. Beanpole pulls the pin out of one but the effort makes him drop it and it rolls under the carriage, which is just as well for all concerned – before it explodes. It dawns on all of them that this must have been a last hideout for men trying to resist the tripods. Everything Will sees reinforces his sense that his society is not natural; it is an imposition and a tyranny. They decide to put some of the ‘eggs’ in their packs.

They continue onto the Île de la Cité past Notre Dame de Paris, but the bridges on the other side are down so they have to retrace their steps till they find a damaged bridge which still has a full span. They trek across a massive Paris cemetery and finally emerge into country on the other side.

The Castle of the Red Tower

They head south for several days into what I suppose is the valley of the River Loire, famous for its castles. A fever has been creeping up on Will and he collapses into a feverish state. They hide him in a shed, but next thing he remembers is faces looking over him and then waking up…. in a wonderfully comfortable feather bed!

This is maybe the longest and central section of the book. They have been taken into The Castle of the Red Tower and its courteous aristocratic owners, Sir Geoffrey and Lady May and their daughter Eloise, along with umpteen knights and fine ladies and then a host of servants. It is part of their noblesse to help wayfarers, hence the hospitality they extend to these two foreigners and a gawky native.

The womenfolk take a shine to Will partly because their sons have been sent away on service. Lady May enjoys mothering him and Eloise likes talking to him in a sweet and soulful way. His two friends remain outside this magic circle. When they meet they discuss what to do and the idea recurs that the other two should go on ahead (they won’t be so missed) and Will catch them up.

Meanwhile the days turn into weeks, Will recovers and the family show him the full gamut of hospitality, favours and training. Will learns to speak French and to ride a horse well, well enough to go hunting. Will thinks he might be sort of falling in love with Eloise till one fateful incident. Eloise always wears a turban. One day, walking along the battlements of the castle, Will playfully pulls it off. This subtly wrecks their friendship for Will is shocked to see beneath her shorn skull, the tell-tale signs of a cap. He hadn’t realised she was that old. He hadn’t realised she was capped. He had been hoping somehow to take her along with them to freedom. Now that idea evaporates. For Eloise, Will pulling her turban off like that was rude, the act of a barbarian without manners. Ordinarily any man who did that to a recently capped young woman would be flogged.

Despite this Will is totally incorporated into the aristocratic lifestyle, visiting poor villagers to dispense charity, socialising with neighbouring wealthy families, and Lady May says she has influence with the king and can have Will formally granted the tank of gentleman. Of course, this would require being capped and giving up his ability to think freely. That is what this long central section dramatises: Will’s temptation to give in, to conform, to acquiesce in a life of ease and privilege – at the price of his mental freedom. Sure, all the people around him in the castle are capped, but they are happy.

Is it worth forfeiting the free life of the mind in exchange for security and happiness?

The castle is due to host a big tournament stretching over many days. It brings all these conflicts to a head. On the second day Henry and Beanpole come to see Will and announce they will be slipping away to continue their journey south under cover of the general confusion caused by the hundreds of knights and servants who have arrived for the tournament. Will promises he will follow them, in a day or two, a week at the latest. They look at him and imperceptibly shake their heads. Basically, they think he is lost to the cause and don’t expect to ever see him again. They walk away with their backpacks filled with food nicked from the castle kitchens, various tools and buried at the bottom, those hand grenades from Paris.

Back at the tournament, a young woman is always crowned Queen of the Tournament and to nobody’s surprise this year the Queen is young Eloise. Willis disconcerted when a huge tripod clumps up to the tournament grounds and parks itself, unmoving, monitoring everything. Will is convinced it is watching him.

That evening Eloise comes to see Will in his bedroom and is full of excitement. She says she’s come to say goodbye but Will doesn’t understand. Then she explains that whoever is crowned Queen of the Tournament is then sent away to serve the tripods. He is shocked not only at this news, but at the joyful look on her face. Any lingering fantasies he had about building some kind of future with her come tumbling down. That decides him.

In the middle of the night he gets up, dresses, takes a pillowslip down to the kitchen and fills it with cold food, slips over to the stables and saddles the chestnut gelding he’s been used to riding, named Aristide (page 134). He heads south on the horse with a view to catching up with Beanpole and Henry but then becomes aware of a powerful thumping sound. It is the tripod which had loomed over the tournament. Before he has time to bolt, the tripod’s long tentacle loops down and scoops him off the horse and up into the gaping hole which has appeared in its ‘head’.

He regains consciousness lying on the bank of the river with Aristide grazing quietly nearby. In a sudden panic Will reaches for his head and gasps with relief when he feels all his hair, still there, unshaven. He has not been capped. Dazed and confused he mounts up onto Aristide and hastens away: the castle will be waking up, they will come looking for him.

Three boys in flight

Later that day he sees two figures toiling up a field in the distance, canters over and it is Beanpole and Henry. He dismounts, spanks Aristide on the bottom so he’ll wander off to be found by locals. Now the three are reunited. The other two are surprised and Henry in particular drops barbed comments about Will abandoning his ‘life of luxury’ but Will makes it sound like all part of a carefully crafted plan instead of, what the reader has actually seen, a turmoil of confused impulses.

They have the map and head south aiming for a pass in the hills. There is a river and this is joined by another one which is dead straight and has locks when the level changes. None of them know about canals but, again Beanpole shows he is the intellectual by speculating that it was built to carry boats on and carry goods.

It is a long journey south. Days pass in endless tramping and detailed notes on the changing weather. They go hungry, eat what they can forage and occasionally burglarise a cottage pantry of some cooked food and have a feast.

Tailed by a tripod

However it soon becomes clear that they’re being trailed by a tripod. No matter where they go and whatever direction they take, after a while it (or one like it; they all look the same) hoves up behind them. The land slowly climbs, there are pastures of cows and goats and alpine valleys. Days pass. They become more and more tired and hungry. Soon they are tearing up roots, foraging for berries. Cold nights sleeping on the bare earth in pine forests. They discuss whether they could catch a snake and what it would taste like raw.

One morning Will is lying on his back with his torn shirt and Beanpole sees something. In his armpit is a circular shape. On closer examination they realise it is some kind of metal implant. Obviously a tracking device. Henry leaps to the conclusion that Will is a traitor who acquiesced in having the tracker implanted. They must knock him out and leave him. Beanpole points out that Will voluntarily told them about being scooped up by the tripod, but remembering nothing. As a solution Will says they must split up and he’ll make his own way to the mountain refuge. Yes, says Beanpole, but it will still track him there. OK, replies Will, he’ll head back north to decoy the tripods. But that way he will almost certainly end up being capped and the memory of being scooped up into the tripod’s innards makes him go pale with fear.

Beanpole says there’s only one way: to cut it out. And so Henry holds Will down, they give him a leather strap to bite on and Beanpole uses a knife they found in Paris to cut it out. It involves quite a bit of gouging and Will is in agony, but eventually it comes free, a coin-sized metal button. They throw it away and press on. But then they hear a terrible sound, a booming ululation across the hills – it is the hunting call of the tripods. They know what the boys have done, and they’re coming to get them.

Killing a tripod

The chase really is on now, as the three boys hurry up the exposed hillside hearing the thump of tripod feet behind them. There’s only one bit of cover, a copse of bushes so they head for those and throw themselves into the middle. Moments later the tripod is above them, ripping up bushes with its tentacles getting closer and closer. Suddenly they remember the ‘eggs’ (the grenades) they found in the Paris Metro.

As the tripod rips up the bushes Beanpole and Henry get to their feet, pull out pins and throw their grenades at the tripod’s leg. They both explode but leave the leg completely unharmed. Will gets ready to throw but next thing he knows is in mid-air as a tentacle has grabbed him and is lifting him towards the grim opening in the tripod hub. At the last minute he pulls the pin from his grenade and chucks it into the opening. A few seconds later there is a dull thump and the tentacle goes limp, relaxing back down to ground level, loose enough for Will to wriggle free. The three boys stare up at the tripod, leaning to one side and completely inanimate. They’ve killed it.

Hunted by tripods

They unleash a storm of angry tripods. As they run run run as quick as they can, uphill away from the dead one, they suddenly see a silhouette on a western hill, then another from another direction. They chop and change routes but realise more and more tripods are approaching. Where to hide, it’s all barren hillside, only heather. Eventually they spot a large rock by a stream. Periodic floods must have worn away a groove at its base. The three boys throw themselves down into this runnel, squeezing in, head to foot, hidden by the overhang of the rock. And there they lie hiding for all of one long night, all the next day and into dusk and the night of the next day, and then all of the next day after that till they are dizzy with dehydration and hunger.

When hours have passed without any tripod activity they eventually stumble out of the crevice, drink some water and head stumbling up the hillside. There follow more days and nights of complete exposure and hunger, struggling through wind and rain. Will’s wound festers and Beanpole has to cut out the infected part and then treat it with herbs he knows about.

We are nearly at the end of the story and this reader felt absolutely shattered. They come down out of the hills into a lovely plain with a vast lake. Maybe it’s meant to be Lake Geneva. They steal food from a farmhouse and sleep in the hay of a barn. Next day they’re making their way across open fields of crops when two tripods come up behind them at speed. At first they and the reader think it’s all over, but the tripods are playing some kind of elaborate game, tossing something gold and flashing between their intermingling tentacles and run straight over the three boys.

And beyond the lake, and beyond the hills on the other side, for the first time they see the outline of the mighty white mountains, the Alps, rising in the distance.

Sudden ending

And then the novel ends, very abruptly. There are no more gruelling descriptions of their endless starving trek, thank goodness. Instead the narrative jumps ahead to a point where their journey is complete. In barely a page and a half we learn that  to , with barely two pages the boys found their way unhindered up to the peaks of the Alps where they discovered that free men have carved a network of tunnels into the rock, where they live, and from which they are planning some day to re-emerge, to fight the tripods and take back the earth for a free humanity. THE END.

Christopher versus Wyndham

Comparisons are odious but it highlights their respective strengths and weaknesses to compare Christopher’s novels with John Wyndham’s. Basically, Wyndham’s are in a different league, for several reasons:

I think the most important is the lack of thinking in Christopher. Characters have a few thoughts and ideas, sort of. But Wyndham’s books are packed with ideas, with characters who spend most of their time pondering the situation, thinking things through, having long thoughtful conversations, arguing interpretations.

You can’t help thinking that the entire situation, the world conquered by aliens and humans effectively neutered, could have prompted a vastly more thought-provoking novel than Christopher’s. For example, Will’s conversion from being a totally obedient conformist to suddenly realising the tripods are evil and that he doesn’t want to be capped, happens very lightly and easily. I didn’t feel any dramatic tension or depth.

Similarly, there really was scope to have some very interesting thoughts in the Castle of the Red Tower section about whether human beings might not, in fact, be a lot better off being capped and obedient. The life the book describes actually seems a lot better than the life of the poor in our own day and age. What’s not to like? Will eventually rejects it with a few feeble sentences about wanting to be ‘free’. You know for a fact that John Wyndham would have spent pages working this through and presenting the choice in much more thought-provoking way.

And because Wyndham’s characters have much larger and more complex mental lives and psychological range, this means when they get scared you get scared too. His books are much more thrilling because you experience them in a much fuller, psychologically deeper way.

Instead what you get in Christopher is a relentless focus on physical slog. I say this because a lot of The White Mountains reads eerily similar to the majority of A Wrinkle In The Skin in that both are relentlessly detailed descriptions of long and gruelling journeys made on foot with not enough food and the characters sleeping in the open, battered by the elements of wind and rain and cold.

These journeys are told in an extremely simple, straightforward chronological order, one day following the next, followed by the next followed by the next, and after a while it feels like a series of weather forecasts, with characters endlessly noting the state of the sky, clouds or mist or rain or drizzle or fog and so on and so on.

Any kind of mental activity comes a very poor second to this exhausting focus on the physical. If you are in the target age range for this book, of maybe 11 or younger, and if you hadn’t read many science fiction stories, I think the book invokes powerful tropes, mixes up a number of interesting settings (abandoned Paris, a medieval castle complete with tournaments) and, in the final close pursuit by the tripods, probably conveys enough jeopardy to keep you gripped and thrilled.

But hopefully any teenager who read this good primer would then go on to read much better, deeper, more skilfully described and psychologically stretching science fiction novels, for example the stories of H.G. Wells, not least The War of The Worlds which the tripods so obviously rip off, or those of John Wyndham, which would represent an obvious step up in quality and depth.

Kindling wonder

I suppose one the major things to say in the book’s favour is that it ably creates a sense of wonder on all levels. Obviously all the details about the tripods and the capping and the hints about slave mines and the mysterious cities of the tripods are designed to spark your young teen awe. But there is another payoff from setting it in a future where people have been separated from the past and knowledge of the wider world which is that… the world seems a much larger, more mysterious and marvellous place than it in fact, shows itself to be to most adults. Vast storm-tossed oceans, enormous ruined cities, mysterious machines, puzzling lines of metal rails, eerily straight rivers… almost every element in the book is strange and mysterious, in a way that a novel dealing with the same topics set in the present would take for granted.

Setting the story in this imagined future where lots of human knowledge has been so completely lost has the effect of making the world appear strange and wonderful. Putting to one side the other two dominant themes – fear about the tripods and the sheer bone-aching exhaustion of the hungry trek – this sense of wonder and dazzlement at a world full of mysteries may be the lasting impression the book leaves on younger readers. Which would be a good thing.


Credit

The White Mountains by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1967. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher (1965)

Christopher Samuel Youd

John Christopher was just one of the half dozen noms de plume of Christopher Samuel Youd (1922 to 2012), who was a prolific English writer of science fiction novels for adults and children, as well as writing in other genres under his numerous other noms de plume, including several cricketing novels. In all Youd wrote a staggering 57 books. His breakthrough came with his second science fiction novel, The Death of Grass in 1956, after which he published two or three novels a year for decades.

Probably a) his sheer volume of output and b) the fact that he wrote under so many names and c) that he wrote both adult and teen fiction, explain why he never establishing a clear brand and became a ‘big name’, unlike his better-known drinking buddies at the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke.

A Wrinkle In The Skin

A Wrinkle In The Skin was Youd’s ninth novel writing as John Christopher and follows the same narrative pattern as two of his most popular previous novels, 1956’s Death of Grass and 1962’s The World In Winter, in that he imagines a massive worldwide disaster and then works through its impact on a small group of middle-class English people.

The disaster in this case is an epidemic of earthquakes which ripple right round the planet, from New Zealand to California, China, Russia and Europe.

As in the other novels, the opening scenes depict some characteristically nice, middle-class characters enjoying a fine dinner washed down with classic wine and discussing the latest quakes which have been reported in some remote part of the world. Just as in The Death Of Grass, they think it could never happen here. One character describes the catastrophic quakes which have hit the Far East as like the small wrinkles on the skin of an orange, to which another character replies:

‘Well, as long as our bit of orange doesn’t wrinkle. It would be awful if it did.’
(Sylvia Carwardine, page 11)

Matthew Cotter

Notable among the middle-class characters is Matthew Cotter who grows tomatoes under greenhouses on Guernsey. Matthew used to be a journalist which explains his middle-class education and inquisitive and factual frame of mind. He is divorced from his wife, Felicity (page 13) and his grown-up daughter Jane has gone to study at university on the mainland.

Matthew’s friends, the Carwardines, are always trying to fix him up with eligible widows or divorcees, as, indeed, they do on the evening of the pleasant dinner party which opens the novel. At the end of the evening Matthew drives home and goes to bed in his comfortable tomato-grower’s farmhouse. In the middle of the night he’s woken by squawking from his chicken run and goes outside armed with his shotgun to frighten off the dog or fox or whatever is worrying his chickens.

He’s half way down the garden path when a massive earthquake strikes. More than one quake, it is a series of vast convulsions and the earth doesn’t just shift, it rises, buckles, shakes and throws him into the air and across the garden. He manages to brace himself in the structure of canes which support his tomatoes and is flexible enough, now, in the chaos of the endless quaking, to act as a kind of shock absorber. In the middle of yet another huge shock he is aware of a vast roaring sound nearby and assumes it is the blood in his ears or impending death.

Survivor

When he regains consciousness, Matthew is greeted with a scene of utter devastation. His house is a pile of rubble from which it is difficult to extract any of his former belongings. He sets off to find other survivors but for quite a while it seems as if there are none. The earth has been lifted and reshaped, familiar landmarks no longer exist and every human dwelling has been razed to the ground. He sees plenty of dead people mashed to bits in heaps of masonry before he discovers a donkey up at the old donkey sanctuary kept by Miss Lucie (page 24) which is still alive by virtue of having been flung into the branches of a tree. Lonely and stricken by sympathy for another living being, Matthew labours hard to rescue the donkey, before continuing his trek across the ruined landscape.

These first chapters establish the sense of utter ruination and Matthew’s complete isolation and loneliness as the scale of the disaster starts to sink in, as he wanders across the ruined landscape in search of survivors and finds only dead bodies mangled in destroyed buildings.

The English Channel has become a drained dry stretch of land

He comes to a clifftop and experiences one of the great shocks of the book – the English Channel has disappeared. That roar he heard amid the huge earth-shaking? The entire land level has been lifted and the sound he heard was a vast tsunami as all the water in the entire English Channel poured westward, decanting off the raised land and leaving the seabed high and dry in the daylight, a vast expanse of seaweed, sand and shingle and deep dark slime.

Billy Tullis aged 11

Still processing this stunning revelation, Matthew eventually hears a voice coming from a wrecked house and digs a boy out of rubble, going on to establish that his parents and sister have all been crushed to death. The boy tells him his name is Billy Tullis (page 34) and he will become Matthew’s inseparable companion until the end of the novel.

Billy has broken his arm. Matthew remembers enough from the army to set it and make splints from sections of wood he cuts from a tree and then ties to Billy’s arm with ripped fabric. He feeds and waters Billy, they reclaim such tinned food as they can find in ruined shops and houses, then make their way into open country and make the best shelter they can against the elements. This is the first of many, many, many descriptions of what it is like to sleep rough, in the open, in England, where it rains and the cold wind blows and the temperature drops at night.

Living through these bleak, shelterless experiences with the book’s characters makes you appreciate why civilisation arose in hot climates around the Mediterranean and what a lot of energy – coal, gas and oil – it takes to make our rainy windswept islands inhabitable.

St Peter Port has been utterly swept away by the tsunami

Next day Matthew takes them to St Peter Port hoping to find rich pickings for the foragers they have become but is staggered to discover that the entire town was washed away by the Channel tsunami. The land has been swept clean leaving roads going down into an empty canyon. He looks over what was once the sea and is now drying seabed, gazing out across the rocky outcrops of what were once the islands of Herm and Sark, while he tries to get his head round the scale of the destruction.

They meet a survivor, a man who has been utterly traumatised and quotes bits of the Bible because he sees the entire thing as a result of God’s anger. Initially heartened at finding another survivor, Matthew and Billy quickly want to get rid of him.

Joe Miller’s gang

Then they meet a small gang of survivors who quickly become the focus of this first part of the novel. Three females (mad Mother Lutron in her 60s, 20-something blonde slattern Shirley, and an 11 or so year old girl) and four men (Harry, de Porthos, Andy with a broken leg and ‘simple’ Ashton). This little band is led by Joe Miller (page 52).

Miller is educated up to a point. He’s smart enough to grasp the new situation, to have established himself as leader, he can see the need for planning. But Christopher carefully distinguishes Miller from Matthew –a very decent middle-class chap – by his accent, his selfishness and, above all, by his attitude towards women. Miller makes it crystal clear that the slatternly blonde young woman, Shirley, is his. Matthew says, fine, fine and finds himself being assimilated into the gang. Makes sense to stick together.

Over the next few days there is a lot more foraging and we get to know the other characters in Miller’s gang and to explore his hold over them. He treats the shambling men in his gang harshly, punching and kicking them if they fall short, and slaps Shirley if she doesn’t do what he says. But he is practical and clear-headed, he has a plan and clear priorities – create a new community, find as much food and drink as possible, establish a base and assert his unquestioned authority.

The reader is invited to assess, along with Matthew, whether Miller is a brute or a shrewd man who has fully grasped the nature of the new situation they’re all going to have to survive in.

They find a youngish woman in a wrecked building, screaming and dying in agony. They find some aspirin to grind up and feed her mixed into gin until she dies. They find another middle-aged man named Mullivant standing stupidly outside the utter wreckage of his house which contains the bodies of his wife and two children (page 58). In other words we meet a selection of the types of survivor you might expect from a disaster like this.

The dynamic between Miller and Matthew is explored. Miller immediately knows Matthew is intelligent and an asset to the group, is open to frank discussion with him but makes sure his say prevails. The two men have quiet conversations in the evenings about what must have happened on the mainland – if no rescue planes have flown over or helicopters come, it must mean it’s as bad there as here on Guernsey. Matthew realises Miller is being lining him up as his lieutenant and confidante, a role he is happy to acquiesce in, for the time being.

Irene and Hilda are added to Miller’s gang

They find a cow that needs to be milked. They realise the madman for St Peter Port is following them. They find two young women who had been sleeping in a basement flat. The women need digging out but are essentially alright. Matthew immediately sees that Irene will look very attractive once she’s cleaned up, and indeed she is.

Irene was a very good-looking girl…Shirley was a very ordinary little slut against either of them… (page 76)

This creates tensions immediately among the menfolk and it is fascinating to see this described through a 1960s mentality. Miller asks Irene to come with him for a chat – she refuses and so he asks Matthew to come along too – but his point is not to rape her (as, we discover later, many men have been simply raping the women they encounter), it is to discuss arrangements in the camp.

Basically, he tells Irene that he is going to tell the other men that she is now his woman. It doesn’t matter whether she is or not, but they must believe she is. This will make her off-limits and prevent competition over her developing into fights. This is what he’s worried about; that the group will be weakened if the men fall to fighting over the most attractive women. He explains all this to Irene and that it doesn’t mean she has to be ‘his woman’, but it will also offer her protection from unwanted attentions.

Matthew, as ever, is impressed by Miller’s shrewdness, but he also realises Irene is no pushover. She is educated and clever too. After pausing to consider it, Irene agrees. Miller is visibly relieved. He isn’t in control of the situation, but he is definitely the nearest thing the little gang have to a leader.

Five days after the quake the weather breaks and it starts to rain, giving us plentiful descriptions of how utterly miserable it is spending nights out in the cold and the wind and the rain. One night at the campfire a stranger appears. He is named Le Perré and has walked the nine miles across the ocean floor to Guernsey. Later Matthew takes him aside and asks him what the ocean floor is like to walk on. Patchy, is the answer, some sand, some shingle, some weeds, some gloopy mud. But he made it.

Throughout all the preceding passages Matthew has periodically thought of his daughter, Jane, at uni in Sussex, hoping longingly that she is alive. When he mentions his intention of walking across the sea floor to the mainland, Matty thinks he’s mad then becomes threatening. Their little band needs every good worker they can get. He refuses to let Matthew leave. From now onwards Matthew starts making a secret stash of provisions.

Walking across the dry seabed

A few days later Matthew is woken by one of the countless minor tremors and shocks they are continuing to experience, in the makeshift ‘tent’ he shares with Billy. He quickly dresses, slips on his shoes, takes his shotgun, takes his haversack and jerrycan filled with water and slips out of the base.

He makes his way to the coastal cliffs and by slippery paths down to the beach and across and out into what used to be the English Channel. Thus begins his surreal journey across the dry seabed. As the sun comes up and he sees the wide dry ocean floor stretching out in all directions, he discovers the worst enemy is anxiety, his sense of nagging unease, as if this is so against nature, so unnatural. His unconscious expects the sea to come rushing back at any moment.

Thus it’s a relief when Matthew hears a voice calling and returns its calls. It takes a while for him to realise that it’s Billy. His departure had woken Billy who watched him leave, then slipped into his own shoes and clothes and has followed him. Matthew knows the future can only hold uncertainty and danger and tries his best to send Billy back. But Billy was rescued, had his arm set in a splint, and fed by Matthew. He is now, in effect, his father.

Alderney is riven in two

Matthew navigates by the sun to guide them towards Alderney, hoping there might be food, a spring of freshwater and even survivors. But as it comes into view he and Billy see it has been struck by an even more severe calamity – the entire island has been lifted up and split in two, is now divided by an immense fissure starting in the ocean floor and quite splitting the island in half.

The container ship with the mad captain

Matthew knows he ought to take Billy back to the safety of Miller and the little community on Guernsey but he is driven on by his obsession with finding his daughter. After spending the night near ruined Alderney they head off north again. They see shipwrecks on the ocean floor, maybe Elizabethan galleons.

Then they are stupefied to come across a vast modern container ship, which somehow got stuck in the V of some reefs and so is sitting on the ocean bed completely upright. Mystifyingly there is a rope ladder down from the deck near the control tower. They climb it and discover the ship is in excellent condition throughout. They are staggered to find the corridors and cabins are fully lit and then discover the kitchen, which contains fresh bread and working fridges and freezers packed with food, and set about gorging themselves.

They are interrupted by a ‘short, fat, swarthy man’ in a gold-braided peak cap who introduces himself as Captain Skiopos (page 116). Skiopos is hospitality itself, forcing more food and drink on them, giving them a tour of the entire ship and explaining how it was his first command. Slowly they realise he is deranged. Every day he gets up early, shaves and dresses, makes all the beds, scrubs the floor in the kitchen and keeps the ship shipshape. When Matthew points out that eventually the oil will run out and the generator will stop working, Skiopos blinks and shakes his head to shake away the thought. ‘Nothing to worry about, everything will be fine,’ he insists.

They are astonished to discover the ship has its own private projection room, in effect a cinema, but disconcerted when Skiopos insists on playing a succession of films regardless of our guys’ protests that they’re exhausted, and by the way the captain talks to the figures upon the screen.

Next morning Skiopos is a different man, uncommunicative, in fact he ignores them as they go about making breakfast. Billy is scared but Matthew realises he is what he defines as a ‘psychotic’. Our guys select food from the fridge (half a roast chicken etc) load it into their bags, along with drinks and exit the crew area and walk across the deck to the rope ladder.

They are disconcerted when they see Skiopos approaching it, still ignoring them. Matthew makes the big, big mistake of volunteering to tell the captain that they are taking some of his food, he hopes he doesn’t mind. Oh but he does. The captain flies into an insensate rage and insists they give it all back which Matthew, reluctantly does. Once satisfied Skiopos bundles up the chicken etc, ignores our guys and walks back towards the bridge.

Keen to get away, Matthew bundles Billy over the bulwark, down the rope ladder, onto to the ocean floor and away.

Arriving in ruined England

Four days later they sight the coast of England. Matthew figures they are where Bournemouth should be but the entire town was scoured and washed away by the Channel tsunami leaving blank rocks and mudslides. On the ocean floor they come across all kinds of seaside wreckage. They clamber ashore into ‘a wrecked and meaningless world’ (page 136). Rubble and wreckage everywhere. They find some abandoned fires, realise most of the buildings have been foraged already, so there are at least some survivors.

One misty morning they see New Forest ponies loom out of the mist. They spot two women who turn and flee when they shout to them. They carry on along a road Matthew thinks is the A31.

Lawrence and April’s group

A little later they see a different kind of woman, calm, stationary, self-possessed watching them. As with Irene and Hilda, Matthew’s first reaction is to her physical attractiveness.

She was in her middle thirties, he judged, of medium height and with a good figure… [in her face] intelligence and courage but not beauty. (page 143)

She introduces herself as April and is astonished and angry when Matthew tells her they’ve come from the Channel Islands. Quite quickly she makes clear that life on the mainland is much more dangerous. She is acting as lookout to her group who she now takes them to. This consists of Lawrence, a 50-something doctor, George, Archie and Charlie, a young girl Cathie, and Sybil. Matthew/the narrator assess Sybil in the sexualised way we’ve come to expect:

Sybil was about twenty-eight, a cowed-looking, not very attractive girl, hiding a thin figure under badly fitting blue overall trousers… (page 145)

Several things emerge. April used to live in the big house whose ruined garden the group now use as a base. Her husband and two children were killed in the quake. She dug them out and buried them herself. She is tough. She encountered Lawrence who was the local doctor and who, having grasped the scale of the apocalypse, was on the verge of killing himself with an overdose when he heard her calling. He is kindly, intelligent and weak. These are the two representatives of the ‘educated’ class; the others are working class (page 148).

April and Lawrence tell Matthew that the countryside is overrun with what they call the ‘yobbos’, the uneducated, chavs, gangs who steal whatever April’s group have foraged and found. Don’t kill them or hurt them, just steal everything. Hence April standing as lookout. They take Matthew and Billy back to their base.

Here Lawrence expounds on the kind of neat little theory the educated like to come up with, which he has called the Anthill Syndrome (page 153). This is that, if you disturb or destroy an anthill up to a certain point, the ants will rally round their queen and rebuild it, no matter what it takes. But if the destruction goes beyond a certain threshold the ants will descend into chaos, running round with no plan or goals, attacking each other and undermining the colony’s very survival.

At their ‘base’ – April’s ruined house with its formal gardens, vegetable garden and fields – they show Matthew the secret stash they’ve created in a cellar whose entrance they carefully cover with a huge heavy table and then wreckage. It contains not only the usual tins but such medicines as Lawrence has salvaged and some bottles of fine wine and brandy. They tell him they’ve spotted a bull, which would make an excellent meal. Matthew has his gun.

Next morning Matthew goes to wash at the nearby stream they’ve shown him and comes across April naked from the waist up (pages 162 to 163). He had noticed the shapeliness of her body from the first moment. Now his mouth dries out with desire. Not just that. Beauty. He’s forgotten what beauty was like in a world of ugliness and death. Eventually she notices him but doesn’t mind. Unashamedly towels herself down and walks over to talk with him.

Later that morning all the men bar Ashton set out on the bullock hunt. They succeed in cornering the bull and Matthew shoots it, blasting away half the animal’s face. Disgusted, he goes away while the others saw up the body. But on returning to the base they hear cries and screams. Sneaking up carefully they discover their base has been discovered by a small group of five yobbos, who have tied Archie up, pulled down his trousers and are torturing him with a wax taper. Those were the screams. They are torturing him to find out where the group’s stash is.

Blinded by anger Matthew leaps out from the bushes where he’d been hiding and blasts a shot at the two men holding Archie, which appears to catch both of them, and turns to get the apparent leader of the group, a tall, strong, bronzed, blonde man who makes a lunge at him but Matthew shoots him at virtually point blank range, obliterating his chest and face.

Two of the five have scarpered. Now April goes up to the other two wounded men and tells them to hop it. When they don’t she hits one with the shotgun butt and kicks the other viciously. They limp off bleeding, probably to die.

Matthew twisted his ankle turning to shoot at the leader of the yobbos. Now April bandages it calmly and professionally. She says she is proud of him. Matthew finds his heart bursting with desire and love. The others tend to poor sobbing Archie, then build a fire and begin to cook the hand-carved steaks. Billy asks Matthew if they can stay. He likes Cathie and Lawrence has promised to show him how to be a doctor. Remember Billy is only 11.

The group discuss plans.

  1. April says the yobbos had tortured Archie because they couldn’t believe they didn’t have a stash. Therefore what they should do is create a diversionary stash which they can admit to under duress and so satisfy the next band of yobbos.
  2. The shotgun cartridges will run out. Matthew notices some lengths of steel in the cellar. He speculates that they could try making bows and arrows.
  3. Most momentously, he, April and Lawrence discuss heading for the hills. It’ll be easier to create a fortified encampment, maybe farm animals have survived in the hills, it’ll be easier to pen and farm them.

Rape and rapists

Next day, with lookouts posted and no immediate threat, Matthew goes strolling and comes across April in the grounds of her ruined house. They walk across fields to an old oak tree. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, she tells him her boys used to love climbing this old oak tree. He feels very close to her and heavy with love/lust/emotion. She puts her hand on his sleeve, he thinks he’s going to explode with desire.

However, this idyllic lovers’ walk takes a disastrous turn for the worse when they start talking about the incursion of the yobbos the day before and Matthew lets slips remarks which imply he’s relieved that nothing worse happened to the women in the group i.e. April herself, Sybil and young Cathy.

April withdraws her hand and is disbelieving, then angry. Is he so thick that he doesn’t realise that she was raped, her three times, and Sybil twice, before the menfolk arrived back. And that she has been raped again and again by gangs of yobbos since the catastrophe, and that even 11-year-old Cathy has been raped? Didn’t he realise that’s why she kicked and hit the wounded men? Because they raped her!

Matthew’s face reveals his horror and also, despite himself, his disgust, so she goes on to tell him about the man who spat in her face while he was still ‘inside’ her. How Lawrence comforted her after the first time it happened but, more practically, inserted ‘coils’ into the three women to prevent them getting pregnant, though she wonders if any of them have contracted venereal disease. And then Lawrence so obviously, pitifully wanted to have comfort sex that she let him sleep with her. And Charley too, the young man in the group.

Now it all comes tumbling out, her contempt for men, her cold fury, her disgust… and her disgust with him (pages 192 ff.)

‘Sex and motherhood are the centres of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear. (page 195)

The conversation has wandered right out of control and now she says she doesn’t want him to stay. If he wants to pursue his stupid, foolish fantasy quest to look for his daughter Jane, then by all means go. If he doesn’t leave, she’ll have to, he has reminded her too much of everything she lost.

It’s a brilliant passage, the reader had been lulled into the false sense of security just like Matthew, so April’s revelations are genuinely shocking. But also the way their lovers’ walk is so close to falling in love and then he wrecks it beyond repair by a small remark which reveals the gulf in understanding which separates them. Christopher’s books are problematic in many ways but he has this knack for getting inside (middle class) relationship, as witness the lengthy description of the middle class affairs which open The World In Winter.

Quest for Jane

And so Matthew and Billy load up with provisions and water and embark on the next stage of their quest, heading East along the coast to find Matthew’s daughter. There follows a long, gruelling description of their horrible trek along the ruined coast, past what used to be Portsmouth, amid ruins and detritus. At one point a man waves at them from the shore and comes bounding towards them, turning out to be a harmless religious nut who is convinced the disaster is the work of God and quotes liberally from the Bible but is genuinely kindly, takes them back to the shack he’s built, gives them hot food and shelter for the night.

After this pleasant interlude they struggle on to the East. They pass the ruins of what Matthew thinks must have been Littlehampton. Here, for a moment the narrative becomes Ballardian. They see a sports car standing upright, its bonnet gripped in the earth which had opened and clasped it, with the skeletons of two bright young things rotting in it. At the same time Christopher was writing his apocalypse novels i.e. the start of the 1960s, so was J.G. Ballard. Suffice to say the reason Ballard’s are known and Christophers’ a lot less so is because:

  1. Ballard’s books convey the real psychological damage the collapse of civilisation would cause in a brilliant and completely original way, illuminated by countless weird and disorientating tableaux.
  2. Line for line, as a writer, Ballard’s sentences are full of vivid and exciting analogies, similes and metaphors; reading them is like taking acid – Christopher’s scenarios and sights are often vivid and shocking but the prose he describes them in is very workaday and practical.

The trek goes on for days. Billy falls ill with a fever, which gets steadily worse. He goes off his food. He has feverish dreams. Matthew feels guilty for taking him away from the safety of Guernsey, or Lawrence’s happy group. He imagines he can hear April’s voice accusing him of stupid, vainglorious fantasies of finding his daughter. Billy gets more and more ill but doggedly insists on going on. They advance up a long, long, long slope towards the horizon. As they finally get to the top, expecting to look out over the Sussex landscape Matthew is stunned to find himself looking out over… the sea! So this is where the sea went. The south-east of England has sunk deep enough to drain the English Channel and create a new sea. It is all under water. Nothing could have survived.

And at this moment he hears April’s voice in his head accusing him of obsession in following his fantasy of a Happy Ending.In his feverish mind they argue. Matthew says April had the chance to bury her dead, but he hasn’t. He had to do everything he could to find her. But now the scales have fallen from his eyes. It is over.

He looked, and knew himself, and understood… He had taken his fantasy to the bitter end and seen it drown… (page 215)

The journey back

So they turn right round and go back. Billy is very ill, Matthew begins to think he’ll die. There’s no medicines and no shelter. Sometimes they sleep in blankets in the pelting rain. Matthew beds Billy down in a hay barn and goes to pick some half-ripe potatoes but when he gets back a gang of foragers have found Billy and his haversack. Matthew makes up a story on the spot about having a plague which has killed off two of their companions, but the tall Northerner leading the gang takes Matthew’s much-travelled shotgun and delivers Matthew a mighty punch into the bargain.

Matthew keeps Billy’s spirits up by telling him they’ll find the religious man with the shack around Portsmouth and then press on to reunite with Lawrence and his people and go to the hills with them. But when he finally rounds some rocks and looks for the religious man’s hut, he sees at a glance that it’s been burned down. It starts to rain and Matthew tries to make Billy comfortable in the remains of the burned and vandalised hut. He goes foraging inland and discovers the preacher man’s body. Looks like he threw himself at one of the foragers and had managed to strangle him before he was himself pole-axed by an axe (page 228).

Lawrence and April have gone

Matthew is beyond desolate now. Everything is destroyed, everyone is dying. He makes a kind of rack and straps Billy’s wasted feverish body to it and then staggers on westwards. If only he can make it back to Lawrence. Half deliriously he has conversations in his mind with April, saying he has learned his lesson, and he wants to learn more from her. His progress becomes ever more painful and slow. They cease for the night and rest in a ditch in the seabed. It rains. Billy moans and fevers. Matthew is overcome by a vast sense of loneliness and failure (page 231).

Next day he staggers on bearing the rack with Billy’s wasted body tied to it. They encounter a small group who see how wasted he is and simply ignore him, laughing at his request for condensed milk for Billy. Finally, he reaches the main road he stumbled along all those weeks before and then the mound where he first saw April, staggers through the woods and comes to the stream where he saw April bathing and then on to the wrecked house where they’d made their base.

They’re not there. No sign of April, Lawrence, Cathy, Archy et al. Silence. He tries to keep Billy’s fever down with stream water and tells him the others will soon be back. He visits the graves in the rose garden which April dug for her husband and sons and notices someone has carefully placed a rose on each one.

After an enormous effort Matthew manages to budge the huge oak dining table just enough to squeeze down into the cellar where, once his eyes become accustomed… He realises they’ve taken everything practical and portable. They’ve gone to the hills as they had discussed. He will never find them. He is doomed.

He tends to Billy who is having fever dreams all the time. He gives him aspirin crushed into milk, then later in the night Billy fights hard to get up and escape. Matthew knows he’s dying now. He cuddles the skinny, feverish boy to him for warmth and falls asleep under a ragged blanket. The reader is convinced he will die, too. Where else can it go?

When he wakes the next morning Billy is quite still and Matthew is convinced he’s dead. But he touches his pale gaunt skin and discovers he isn’t. He wakes up and talks rationally. The fever has broken and he is well. He can’t remember how he got here or any of the nightmare journey. Matthew explains the others must have headed for the hills and greater safety. He starts to prepare, resting up, eating properly, sheltering them both from the rain, gathering supplies. He tries grinding the steel rods to make arrows but gives up. He loads the rucksack with provisions.

He walks the route he took with April what seems like months earlier and hears her voice mocking him. She says his plan to head for ‘the hills’ in order to find her and Lawrence is yet another quixotic fantasy. How much longer will he drag poor Billy round with him? Till they both drop dead?

Next morning they wake and Billy asks if it’s the day they’re going to set off for the hills. No, Matthew says. They are going back to Guernsey. It will be safe. He realises now he should never have left.

Back to the Channel and a happy discovery

The last chapter cuts to them walking across the dry channel seabed. They are both much rested and recovered, Matthew had time to repair their shoes and find new clothes. They skirt the vast container ship and wonder what’s become of Captain Skiopos. They won’t head for Alderney, knowing it is ruined. They make camp for the night and Matthew holds the boy in his arms. He hears April’s voice in his head but no longer mocking him. She is distant. Her and his hopes for them are in the past. Miller will be pleased to see him back and to hear news of how lucky they are to be on Guernsey.

Next morning it is thick fog. Matthew gets Billy to climb to the top of some reefs. From there he thinks he sees water, a lot of water. For a moment I thought the sea was slowly returning. But they’ve come a different route from their outward passage and so have discovered a large salty lake. It’s three quarters of a mile across, too far to swim, and they and the food and blankets would get wet, anyway, so they have to go round it.

It is a long detour, maybe ten miles before they reach the head of the lake and round it to resume their trudge south. And there to their utter amazement, they hear a familiar voice and come across Archie, Archie from the Lawrence-April group, happily fishing. In his simple-minded way Archie tells them the group decided against the hills and, inspired by Matthew’s tales of the security of Guernsey, had set out for the islands themselves.

They had come to Alderney and, Archie tells them, the island has chickens, there are fish down in this small sea, there are no yobbos, they are enjoying a healthy diet. Matthew can’t express what he is feeling, after all this time, after the agonised imaginary relationship with April. And now here she is, along with the gentle old doctor. ‘Reckon they’ll be glad to see you,’ says Archie. Not as glad as Matthew will be to see them.

And so, after 250 gruelling pages, feeling thoroughly exhausted by the relentless physical assault of the elements, the starving, the violence and the emotional extremes, with the rest of the world in ruins, somehow, the book manages to have a happy ending.


Themes

Obviously the over-riding theme is what happens when civilised society is completely destroyed and a handful of survivors are thrown back on their own resources – which is that they resort to Dark Age barbarism, only with tinned food and shotguns. But within the overarching idea, several other themes stood out for me.

Class

One was how very clear the narrator is about the distinction between ‘the educated’ and ‘the yobbos’.

The educated, such as Lawrence the doctor, can immediately be recognised by their accent (their ‘recognition of someone who talks the same language’, page 157), and will invariably be polite, well mannered, cultured, curious and respectful.

The yobbos, on the other hand, can be expected to be stupid (although often characterised by low cunning), violent to women (key sign of yobbishness) and often rapists. The educated talk, like talking, enjoy conversation, have lots of ideas and perceptions to talk about. The yobbos look after number one, constantly tell people to shut up and obey their peremptory orders. They live in their bodies, enjoying eating, getting drunk, sex and demonstrating their violent prowess.

Repeatedly, throughout the book, you wonder how much English society, deep down, has changed from this bleak duality.

Gender

Inevitably, most of the women are converted by the collapse of civilised society into sex objects and breeders. This is how Miller regards every fertile woman who joins his band, although he at least has a plan, namely to father a new generation, which entails protecting women for their function as mothers. Pure ‘yobbos’, in line with their lack of long-term thinking and slaves to immediate physical appetites, just rape women and abandon them. This may be objectionable to most female readers, but appears to reflect the real world. As soon as war breaks out anywhere and social norms are abandoned, rape becomes common. It appears to be the basic state of Homo sapiens unless moderated by social forces, conventions and authority.

Anyway, the narrating voice uncomfortably reinforces this objectifying tendency by assessing every new female character by their attractiveness. After a while I found this a bit creepy and oppressive. Shirley, Miller’s initial girlfriend, is referred to not only by Miller but by Matthew and the narrator as a ‘slut’, content ‘in her sluttish way’, and so on and so on.

But, to balance this, it also needs to be emphasised that Christopher goes out of his way create strong female characters. Quite quickly Irene steps up to become Miller’s number two, asserting her authority without really having to, and cows Miller himself. Just as April emerges as a very strong, tough-minded woman who has survived the death of the rest of her family and repeated rapes to become an unillusioned survivor, stronger than Lawrence.

The difference between John Wyndham and John Christopher

They were friends and colleagues and both wrote apocalypse, end-of-the-world science fiction stories but their works leave a very different taste in the mouth. Basically, Christopher’s books are a lot more cynical and violent, and feature really gruelling physical trials.

I’m very influenced by reading Amy Binns’s excellent 2019 biography of John Wyndham in which she brings out the way the succession of shrewd, clever, resourceful, strong women in his novels and stories are all versions of his lifelong beloved, Oxford graduate, teacher and left-wing activist, Grace Wilson. Having read that biography I understand better why Wyndham’s novels, even at their bleakest, are nonetheless anchored or underpinned by a fundamental sense of decency. The male narrators or protagonists ultimately feel safe because there is a strong woman sharing their ordeals. This contributes to the strange sense of comfort or reassurance they have, even in the bleakest moments.

Whereas in Christopher’s novels, although there are strong female characters (Carol in World In Winter, April in Wrinkle) the relations of men and women are much more troubled. Couples get divorced, fall in love but then break up, argue, realise they are incompatible. This leaves them feeling profoundly alone and isolated. Characters in a Christopher novel fall more easily into utter despair than in any Wyndham novel, as Andrew Leedon finds himself weeping uncontrollably on a Nigerian beach for the world he has lost in World In Winter and Matthew at several points feel overwhelmed with utter despair and ‘hopeless misery’ (page 99).

He was conscious only of their wretchedness, their vulnerability. (page 108)

And the reader experiences that despair for themselves. I think it’s this much harsher emotional climate of Christopher’s novels which makes them a much grittier, often more unpleasant read, than Wyndham’s.

Triffids is easily Wyndham’s bleakest novel but even there, by a quarter of the way through the story, the protagonist has met the lovely Josella who becomes his lover, his friend and support, offering the male protagonist (and the reader) a sense of feminine consolation. And Wyndham’s other three big novels all have strong women underpinning and supporting the male protagonist (Phyllis in Kraken, Rosalind in Chrysalids, the narrator’s wife Janet and Ferrelyn Zellaby in Midwich Cuckoos). What makes Wyndham’s apocalypse novels ‘cosy’ is the warm emotional climate which suffuses them; even at their most scary and bleak there is always a strong woman there, or in the protagonist’s thoughts, to help and support him (and, by extension, the reader).

There isn’t in Christopher’s novels. There are just as many female protagonists but they are, themselves, as imperilled, as compromised, as lost, as the male leads, which contributes to his novels’ sense of cold, gritty, unforgiving brutality. Maybe this is one reason for Christopher’s lack of popularity and relative obscurity.


Credit

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1965. All references are to the 2000 First Cosmos paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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