When real talent imagines a virtual future

The writer who invented 'cyberspace' triumphantly closes his prophetic trilogy.
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All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson (Viking, £16.99, 277pp)

All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson (Viking, £16.99, 277pp)

THE RULES for fantasy trilogies are graven in marble. It takes the principals most of the first book to meet, join forces and get into Big Trouble. The second book will separate them again, and get them into even bigger trouble before, when all seems hopeless, they eventually triumph in the last.

As might be expected from the man whose 1984 début, Neuromancer, invented cyberspace as a metaphor and created an entire sub-genre, William Gibson takes a very different approach. He followed Neuromancer with Count Zero, which used the same setting but introduced a fresh raft of protagonists. It wasn't until Mona Lisa Overdrive brought together the characters from both its predecessors that it became apparent that Gibson had written a trilogy-by-stealth, a semi-linear triptych in which each book enriches its neighbour while standing alone.

With All Tomorrow's Parties, he pulls off the same stunt. His previous novels, Virtual Light and Idoru, took as their theme the issue of "virtuality", their backdrop a post-earthquake, post-millennial Northern California; their agenda the impact of large events on small people, and - fractally speaking - vice versa. The bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco is the primary setting. It's where the cops don't go as long as the inhabitants don't leave, and it's ram-packed with the Gibsonian postmodern clutter of things left behind by our own era.

Nothing in All Tomorrow's Parties equals the poetic, hi-tech dream-logic of Idoru's central premise: that rock star Rez ("last of the pre-posthuman superstars") would fall in love with Rei Toru, the softwareconstructed "idoru" of the title and someone who, in "real life" terms, does not exist. But we do learn the fate of their romance, and bittersweet it is too. As an "emergent system", Rei Toru becomes "that river into which one can never step twice - she grew and changed. Rez hadn't."

We renew our acquaintance with Rydell, the hapless ex-cop security guard, with cycle courier Chevette Washington, both from Virtual Light; as well as with Rei and Laney, the drug-test victim turned cyber-seer from Idoru. The earnest "existential sociologist" Yamazaki is the human glue binding all three books together.

Gibson builds up an extraordinarily detailed society, where globalised megacorps run everything ("Nation-states - remember them?"). The acridly delineated relationships between haves and have-nots effectively rebut Gibson's own denial of any "political" content in his work. And his prose continues to dazzle: try reading the first few paragraphs aloud.

With more insight, wit and sheer style than any of his contemporaries (let alone his imitators), Gibson continues to explore and patrol not only the nebulous zones between the human, the post-human and the plain dehumanised, but those that separate science fiction, contemporary thrillers and genuine literature. The "virtual" sequence, which this novel triumphantly completes, is what contemporary SF might be like, if it ever grows up sufficiently to look our collective future full in the face.