Virtual Light (1993)
This novel is a beautifully decorated and polished shell hiding a trivial core. Gibson is an exceptional wordsmith. His style is unique, but unfortunately style also seems to be all his writing is about. Plotwise, Virtual Light is a most simple thriller. The main characters are Chevette, a bike messenger in a weirdly transformed San Francisco, and Rydell, an ex-cop now working for a private security outfit. While delivering a package Chevette gatecrashes a party she's not supposed to be at and steals "this total asshole's sunglasses". Turns out the shades are in fact a device that superimposes data displays over the wearer's normal sight with <wild handwaving> EMP-drivers directly affecting the optic nerves. Virtual Light glasses. Expensive but otherwise not very special devices, weren't it for the data stored in this particular set. The courier who lost the glasses to Chevette is found killed in his hotel room, and then the heat is on. Freshly fired Rydell follows an opportunity for a freelance job and is quickly drawn into the hunt for the magic goggles. From there on it's a fairly straightforward sequence of chases and shootings.
The main focus of interest isn't the story itself but its setting. Gibson's often refreshingly cyncial descriptions evoke a very near-future, slightly blurred, and often bizarre world. Everybody's relations appear royally screwed up. The weird is normal. Nations and states are falling apart. Europe is vaguely war-torn. Large corporations are imperceptibly taking over power. Phreaks and crackers scour the networks. American society is fragmenting into sharply distinct classes, religious cults, and strange subcultures. Most spectacular is the Oakland Bay Bridge. Abandoned after the Big One, it was subsequently taken over by the homeless, and the resulting slum has gained a cultural identity of its own. A whole little society has sprung up, pictured for the reader by Chevette, her friends, and a Japanese sociology student. References to the early 1990s are abundant, making the novel feel very alive and real, but also dooming it to rapid aging within the next decade.
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