Virgins, veterans and nodal visions

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All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson (Viking £16.99)

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson (Viking £16.99)

There is no Groucho Club in cyberspace. Readers who, beguiled by its title, turn to William Gibson's latest novel for media bohos traipsing exhausted between sequinned soirées will turn away disappointed. In Gibson's vision of our future apocalypse, no one has time for parties. They're too busy trying to stay alive.

Twenty-first-century San Francisco is a world of disposable telephones, cars that ask you to respect their boundaries, "cannibal" areas and mixed-race "hybrid vigor"; murder is easy here, and survival is relative.

Rydell, an ex-cop, is sent among the semi-feral inhabitants of the Golden Gate Bridge, on the trail of a nameless killer. He is enigmatically guided by Rei Toei, a cybertransmission reminiscent of Princess Leia's Star Wars hologram with a Bond-style belt. He is otherwise impossible for Rydell, or indeed his readers, to comprehend. Our antihero, fortunately, is less evasive. Gibson's chief strength, the quality that draws his readers on, is his protagonists' humanity and convincingness, even in alien situations. It is their work ethic or honesty, the way they fish lime from a bottleneck or play with a switchblade, which ensures that through every unimaginable plot twist our interest never wavers.

Gibson's sharp writing and eye for basic truths increases his novel's appeal, from dry one-liners: "Heroin - it's the opiate of the masses", to engaging asides on the embarrassing spectacle of hands-free phone conversations. As with his characterisation, however, it is the human touches - a nursery-school blanket, the "irresistible new fashion" - which ground his protagonists.

However, sympathy for Rydell and those he encounters can only partly compensate for the novel's more serious flaws. Gibson's reputation for literary sci-fi, and his casually stylish prose, mean that All Tomorrow's Parties deserves to be read as a novel in its own right, not just as the conclusion to a trilogy. Virgins and veterans rarely combine well; new readers need explanations unnecessary to faithful fans. Nevertheless, despite the author's manifest intelligence, this is often clumsily done. While unimaginable disasters and advances are usually woven smoothly into the narrative, other signposts, such as TB strains and banned cigarettes, or an oddly plodding description of "simple" - but foreign to us - technology, are disappointingly obvious.

This unsubtlety is particularly jarring when Gibson refers to Laney, Rydell's mysterious (to new readers) insomniac boss, phoning directions from Tokyo's cardboard city. The chemical trials which made Laney a data-psychic are repeatedly referred to, but the exact nature of his ability to "read" changes in data remains unclear: "he palps nodes of potentiality, strung along lines that are histories of the happened becoming the not-yet." Given that the book revolves around Laney's nodal vision: "some very basic state is on the brink of change", this vagueness is frustrating.

In addition, while his protagonists are real and believable, Gibson keeps the number, importance, affiliations and identity, real or virtual, of other characters frenetically unclear, with a new configuration every few pages. An unconvincing slice of cyberTaoism, references to "realities" which even Laney is unable to comprehend, and occasional spills into overwriting - "a billet of their strangely grained Damascus", "whenever they went to bed, it had seemed more like making history than making love" - further muddy Gibson's meaning for all but his most hubristic readers.

Despite the novel's hi-tech trappings, its structure is surprisingly old fashioned. It rests on a series of basic coincidences: the frequent overlappings of ex-lovers and acquaintances; Rydell's discovery of the bridge's least flammable spot, with the only person who knows that it is there. Moreover, despite the blurry omnipresence of the forces of evil, there's always a solid-matter fax system or two million gallons of water to hand.

While the subplots are diverting, the main narrative thread is surprisingly slender; a short time passes, and relatively little happens, before the more sympathetic characters converge for a stylish but traditional scene of guns and blood and crying women. Equally traditionally, the goodies are rewarded, with love, prospects, or a serendipitous cough-medicine overdose. And despite their dominance over the novel, the nameless man, Rei Toei and the "nodal point" are transcended in the gripping but satisfying ending.

Gibson's future is flawlessly imagined, but imperfectly conveyed. No amount of supple prose and hanging off bridges can compensate for clunking signposts, cursorily described virtual cyberspaces, and the obscure, if not meaningless, concepts which are his characters' main concerns. When reality shines through - only our version of it, naturally - even the most careful artifice looks insubstantial and false. Not so unlike the Groucho, after all.

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