Whenever I need a dose of the future past, I turn to William Gibson. I’m catching up. Soon I’ll be able to read The Peripheral. But first we need to return to Northern California, circa sometime in the near future that never was. All Tomorrow’s Parties definitely has a conclusive feel to it. The Bridge trilogy has always felt somewhat laid-back in its connections across books—characters in common, vague references to events, but each book has been very much its own story. This has a lot to do with the way Gibson creates his settings, and the way his characters interact with each other in his weird nearly–post-apocalyptic environments.
Gibson is famous for coining cyberspace and sparking the genre of novels that take place in entire digital realms. Yet I think what makes his stories so interesting is not solely his depiction of cyberspace. Rather, it’s the juxtaposition of cyberspace with real space that matters. The Bridge trilogy exemplifies this. We return to the Bridge in All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Gibson remarks on how its layout has influenced architecture, which in turn affects how Bridge denizens live and get around. Physical space, its layout and decoration and the ideas of ownership over it, is a huge factor in our lives.
In the earlier books, we had characters attempting to control physical space by engineering it with nanotechnology. Hackers of the Walled Garden created their cyberspace environment precisely because it was impractical and dangerous for them to communicate with each other in physical space. Now in this book, the very existence of the Bridge comes under threat, while we spend comparatively little time in virtual worlds. Gibson explores the tension between the real and unreal in subtle ways here, but it reminds me nevertheless of the ways in which some philosophers and sociologists have mused on the effects of the Internet on our society.
Amidst this meditation on space, Gibson gives us characters who are all isolated from the space of relationships. Rydell, now that he broke up with Chevette, has no one. His only “friend” is his coworker at the Lucky Dragon. Laney has withdrawn almost totally from society, literally living in a cardboard box in a subway station and peeing into a bottle (ewww). Chevette is running away from an abusive ex-boyfriend and an old life, running back towards the last place she had stable relationships, but connected to it all only by her friend, Tessa. And we have the mysterious hyper-capable assassin Konrad. These are people who are alone despite being next to each other in some cases.
I admit I found the vagueness of All Tomorrow’s Parties’ plot somewhat frustrating. Laney keeps insisting we’re approaching a “nodal point” similar to what happened in 1911. But of all the Gibson’s ways of talking about the future, this one was least impressive or evocative. I’m down with the idea that we could somehow enhance our ability to spot patterns in data flow and anticipate the way events will develop. But he doesn’t really develop that here in the same way he has explored other ideas.
Towards the end of the book we see hints of the bright and dismal nanotech future, thanks to the Lucky Dragon nanofax service. This is an entertainingly anachronistic use of future technology, but with the rise of 3D printing it no longer seems so silly. (Why buy a physical product online if there’s a 3D printer nearby that will print it on demand for you?) Once again Gibson demonstrates that even if a science-fiction author’s job isn’t to predict the future, it’s still mighty impressive when the dart lands in the general vicinity of the bulls-eye.
All Tomorrow’s Parties is a rich, meditative conclusion the Bridge trilogy. It’s one last shot to see some of those old characters again, and it’s another walk through Gibson’s fantastically fertile imagination. It didn’t grab me as one of his more impressive works, but it certainly has his characteristic originality mixed with a patient appreciation for characterization and setting.