Last week Kevin Mitnick was on The Colbert Report to promote his new book, Ghost in the Wires and talk about hacking. For those of us who grew up with the Web as a fact of life and absorbed "hacker culture" through Hollywood, Mitnick's experiences seem somewhat alien. Hacking started long before the Web, of course, and even today hacking is nothing like what one sees on the movies. However, it's just in this decade that we, as a society, are beginning to understand and react to the effects of hacking as a phenomenon. It seems like not a week goes by without another story in the news about a company or government database being hacked. Law enforcement agencies have taken cybercrime seriously for a long time now, as demonstrated by Mitnick's arrest and conviction, but lately arrests of alleged members of groups like Anonymous are making the news more often. We live in the WikiLeaks era, where it doesn't matter if information wants to be free. Once information is out there, there is no taking it back.
It strikes me that William Gibson gets this. In fact, he understood it a lot earlier than most of us. He was writing about this stuff before I was born. Neuromancer is indubitably his most famous and influential work, and the Hollywood vision of hacking probably owes a lot to his portrayal of the cyberspace experience of console cowboys (damn you, Gibson!). With Virtual Light, it feels like Gibson is looking at hacker culture, and its effects on society, from the other side now. The main characters are victims of hackers; they employ hackers; but they are not hackers themselves. Nevertheless, Gibson turns them into tools for making information free.
Virtual Light is a little confusing at first. I wasn't sure who the main character was—is it this nameless courier? This weird private security guard named "Berry Rydell"? This messenger whom we eventually learn is called Chevette? After the first few chapters, however, the story finally emerged, and its protagonists quickly followed. On a whim, Chevette picks a courier's pocket and steals a valuable pair of sunglasses, which contain information encoded optically about a sensitive business deal that will impact all of San Francisco. She ends up on the run with Rydell as an unlikely ally.
Rydell and Chevette wormed their way into my heart. This is good, because as far as its story goes, Virtual Light is surprisingly linear and predictable—surprising because I wouldn't expect it from Gibson. So I completely understand why people pan the book because of this aspect; story is not Virtual Light's strongest area. As an "on the run from the bad guys until we can broadcast our information" story, it keeps me entertained. To really appreciate it, however, one has to be willing to dig further into the way Gibson approaches the role of hacking, the flow of information, and the stratification of society in a broken United States of America.
I've already talked lots about hacking, but let me say a little more. I love how Rydell loses his job because someone hacked the computer on his company truck and created a false alarm. Not only are the scene and its subsequent debriefing hilarious, but this is something that could happen today (and probably already has). We get so much of our information from intangible, computer-moderated sources and have learned to trust that information implicitly. When Rydell's truck tells him there is an armed hostage situation on a client's property, he doesn't hesitate to respond aggressively. This trust is useful, because we can react a lot more quickly when the information comes to us instantaneously—but as Rydell learns, it is dangerous too. The same thing happens today, with hackers posting fake releases about celebrity deaths on legitimate news websites. So this is a very interesting phenomenon that we, as a society, are still struggling to adapt to, and I like how Gibson tackles it in Virtual Light.
In many ways this book is also similar to Gibson's "Johnny Mneumonic", of Keanu Reeves infamy. Both feature a courier carrying information that could incite unrest. In Johnny's case, it's hardwired into his brain. In Chevette's case, she appropriates the package as a pair of sunglasses. But the moral remains the same: in a world where we can send a message to someone across the ocean less than the blink of an eye, the only truly secure method of communicate remains a physical package (even if that package is only a one-time pad). As Loveless remarks in Virtual Light:
"Look at her, Rydell. She knows. Even if she's just riding confidential papers around San Francisco, she's a courier. She's entrusted, Rydell. The data becomes a physical thing. She carries it. Don't you carry it, baby?"
She was still as some sphinx, white fingers deep in the gray fabric of the center bucket.
"That's what I do, Rydell. I watch them carry it. I watch them. Sometimes people try to take it from them."
Imagine a map that depicts the world as lights connected by glowing lines—people, or buildings, or cities, connected by digital communication. Zoom in enough, and along the virtual representations of city streets, you will see glowing blue and red dots. These are the couriers, the physical purveyors of digital information. The trusted ones.
I guess ultimately what I'm trying to say here is that I appreciate Virtual Light for the way it raises relevant, contemporary issues about existing in the digital era. As always, Gibson's observations are a combination of chilling and seductive, with a little bit of edgy humour thrown in. There's Reverend Fallon's cult of Christians who believe they will find God in old movies, and the cult that worships Shapely, a man whose non-lethal strain of HIV resulted in a vaccine. Some of these subplots don't seem explored as fully as they could have been considering how much time Gibson devotes to them. Shapely's story in particular perplexes me, for we learn it all through exposition that seems otherwise unconnected from the rest of the narrative. Why is it all that important? I'm probably missing something larger here.
That being said, I can at least see how it works with Virtual Light's presentation of the rift between the various classes of American society. There's the sleek, slightly antiseptic feel of Karen Mendelsohn; the creepy vibe of the man we never see, Cody Harwood; the domineering little shit that is Lowell; the valiant, heroic, yet tragic Skinner; and of course, the working class: Rydell, Chevette, Sublett, et al. Karen treats Rydell as hot stuff while he is the best thing Cops in Trouble have going, but the moment a higher-profile opportunity arises, she kicks him to the curb. The people who want the data on those sunglasses kept secret, the people like Cody Harwood, do not hesitate to kill lesser people like Rydell and Chevette. And of course, there's the bridge.
People living on a ravaged Bay Bridge, having transformed it into an actual community, is a vision right out of something like The Wind-Up Girl, some sort of post-apocalyptic world gone mad. One might expect to see a little less civilization, and that's certainly what some of the minor characters in Virtual Light suggest. Warbaby gives Rydell a description of the Bridge community that Chevette and Skinner patently belie, and it's not entirely clear whether Warbaby actually believes this bit of bigotry or whether he's just coldly manipulating Rydell. (I suspect the latter, but with Gibson I'm not going to bet anything I value on it.) The Bridge community is intriguing, and I would have liked to learn more about it. But of course, that's what the other two books in this trilogy are for.
Virtual Light is not as stunning as Neuromancer, and it deserves the criticism levelled at its story and structure. I reject the idea that this is a bad novel, however, and certainly that this is somehow a lesser work of William Gibson. I think it does something useful and interesting, from its portrayal of hackers to the importance of securing the information that comes into Rydell and Chevette's possession. It might not do this as artfully or as skilfully as I would like, but it is still a fascinating piece of science fiction.
Except, of course, that it is no longer science fiction. Sure, the specifics of this 1990s novel, set in 2005, did not come to pass—but all of the issues Gibson raises are things we are confronting, or will soon confront, in our present decade. Virtual Light is a noteworthy example of how science fiction does not need to predict the future in order to predict the problems we will be facing and prompt us to ponder solutions before it's too late. As usual, William Gibson demonstrates that science fiction is valuable.