William Gibson Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

William Gibson's 1984 novel "Neuromancer" galvanized the critical community and launched a subgenre. Among Gibson's many contributions to postmodern culture is the term "cyberspace." And it seems as if the Internet has evolved based partly on the metaphorical infrastructure provided by his early stories and novels. Gibson is one of the best prose stylists working; his futures are lean and utterly believable works of extrapolation. Fortunately for us, he shows no signs of stopping.

Related links:

William Gibson's official site



"Pattern Recognition," William Gibson's first non-SF novel, is one of his very best: harrowing, atmospheric and impeccably rendered. After navigating the predictable dystopias of would-be cyberpunks, reading Gibson is like making the leap from small-screen TV to high-definition. "Pattern Recognition's" main character, Cayce Pollard ("Cayce" pronounced as "Case," recalling a protagonist from a very different Gibson novel...) is a savvy, intuitive design consultant with unerring psychic radar for emerging fashion. Haunted by her abilities and drawn into an unfolding online subculture devoted to inexplicably affecting bits of anonymous video footage, Cayce's skills are exploited by her enigmatic employers. Drawn moth-like from the Victorian "mirror-world" of London to the neon-lit jungle of Tokyo, Cayce finds herself enmeshed in an escalatingly strange conspiracy that may or may not have something to do with the disappearance of her father on 9-11-01.

"Pattern Recognition" is cinematic in scope, delivered in sleek, episodic chapters that thrum with narrative energy and unforgettable images. Gibson consistently evokes a spooky, detatched ambience rife with paranoia. Yet "Pattern Recognition" is a cryptically funny read, brimming with meticulous observations on consumer iconography and the blurring distinction between cultural barriers. (Take Billy Prion, a has-been British pop star who's been effectively "repurposed" into a soft-drink spokesman in Japan.) Gibson, as always, can make us see our emerging zeitgeist with open-mouthed wonder; the simple act of booting up a laptop computer, in Gibson's prose-universe, is a prescient and singular experience. ("Pattern Recognition" is dedicated to Jack Womack, whose fascination with language and Russian culture are readily discernable here: pay attention to the way his characters talk and you'll be rewarded with nothing less than a preview of tomorrow's street-level vernacular.)

"Pattern Recognition's" unwavering eye for technological and social change are rooted in the Sprawl of 1984's "Neuromancer" but adjusted to the more subtle contours of today's future. The result is a truly prophetic novel whose pace rarely slackens. "Pattern Recognition" is a novel to be savored and contemplated: a milestone in an already stellar literary trajectory.



"The sky over the port was the color of television, tuned to a a dead channel." So begins "Neuromancer," Gibson's debut novel and the first in a loose series later known as the "Sprawl trilogy." This is one of the most important books of the 1980s: a poetic and visceral future noir that terrifies, provokes and inspires. Gibson turns the science fiction genre to putty and twists it into something frighteningly new and palpable, beaming a spotlight on society's uneasy symbiosis with technology. "Neuromancer" is dark, poignant and infinitely rewarding: a form of literature caught in the act of adaptive mutation.



"Count Zero," Gibson's loose sequel to "Neuromancer," is written with a distinct human element that lends his "Sprawl" a bit more sympathetic urgency. Many readers consider "Count Zero" a more accessible exploration of the future world presented in "Neuromancer" and the stories collected in "Burning Chrome" (see below).



Possibly the most speculatively ambitious of Gibson's early novels, "Mona Lisa Overdrive" is an excellent note on which to close the curtain on one of science fiction's most unique and harrowing futures.



"Virtual Light" is Gibson's departure from the darkly inviting chrome-and-silicon world popularized by the "Sprawl" trilogy. Brimming with futuristic thrills, "Virtual Light" reveals a future so restless and strange it simply has to happen; having plumbed the late 20th century's zeitgeist, Gibson's storytelling abilities have crystallized into a pointillist accuracy that continues to defy comparison. Readers deserve more futures as tangible as "Virtual Light."



"Idoru" is a high-resolution kinetic thriller in the same luminous vein as "Virtual Light." Gibson creates a lush, texturally-consistent future that renders today's notions of humanity suspect and obsolete. "Idoru's" voice is distinctly Gibson's, and its panoramic descriptions of 21st century architecture and pop culture excess are honed to consciousness-altering sharpness. Forget the allegations that Gibson "isn't what he used to be." He's matured and his vision of the future is as brilliant and breath-taking as ever.



"All Tomorrow's Parties" is the third, climaxing volume in Gibson's latest loose trilogy (beginning with the uniformally excellent "Virtual Light" and "Idoru"). "Parties" is episodic, cinematic and fascinating; Gibson's panoramic prose style is well-honed, and his ability to whisk his characters (and his readers) in and out of the digital netherworld of virtual reality recalls his hyperkinetic first novel, "Neuromancer." "Parties" is the most subtle novel Gibson has ever written. He isn't out to wrench your mind apart, but to show you the future through a scattering of odd, enchanting perspectives. Chevette Washington, for example (the bicycle messenger from "Virtual Light") and her ex-beau Barry Rydell return to the fractured landscape of Southern California in this decidedly character-driven novel. The Wild Ideas are still there--just embedded in the pointillist landscape where, it seems, Gibson prefers to have them. The experience is not to be missed. What are the forces shaping our history? Are we really skating headlong into the Mother of All Nodal Points? Gibson doesn't answer all of our questions directly; if he did, "All Tomorrow's Parties" wouldn't be a Gibson novel. Thankfully, it is.



Gibson's phenomenal early short stories are collected in "Burning Chrome," one of the definitive documents of the Cyberpunk Movement, to be read alongside Bruce Sterling's "Mirrorshades" anthology. Highlights include "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," "The Belonging Kind" (written with cyberpunk veteran John Shirley) and the haunting title piece. "Burning Chrome" features collaborations with Michael Swanwick and Bruce Sterling (who also writes an insightful introduction). The ideas addressed in "Burning Chrome" prefigure a subgenre; this is Gibson at his most playful and reckless.



Cyberpunks William Gibson and Bruce Sterling join forces. The result is "The Difference Engine," an alternate-history Victorian mystery/social discourse in which the transcendent heart of the digital age has been transplanted from the ubiquitous CPUs of the late twentieth century to towering, steam-driven analytical "engines." Dense, wry, and weirdly funny, "The Difference Engine" is an unlikely literary artifact that recalls Thomas Pynchon's "V." The quintessential "steampunk" novel, not likely to be superseded.

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