Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Virtual Light

Why yes, I am reading these out of order. I'm going to try something I did in a couple of posts on the old blog, and examine the opening. So many people in the business emphasize the important of the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter.

I can't find a ton to pick apart in this one. This is the sort of description Gibson absolutely excels at, full of tiny, lyrical touches and fearless language. It gives an impressionist glimpse of the world of the book (in SF, it could be argued that the world functions as a main character), perfectly juxtaposing beauty and decay. It draws you in without apparent effort to see what will become of this man, this place. Unfortunately for the reader, the courier described turns out to be not a character at all, but a plot device.

I used the word fractal in conversation the other day. The book is a bit dated that way. I haven't read Virtual Light before, and I bogged down about three quarters of the way through. In the process, I noticed a couple of patterns that showed up in this one and in Idoru.

Gibson relies strongly on impossibly naive observers. Every main character in both of these books has a fish-out-of-water thing going on. It lets him pile on the descriptions, to be a tourist in his own near-future world, but makes it difficult for the characters to be effective actors and occasionally comes across as ridiculous--Rydell's ignorance on many occasions is simply impossible to buy. They don't seem to have any realistic connections to other people, normal friendships or families. They stand to one side and watch, anchorless, puzzled by everything that is going on around them, which is to say, the plot. The bad guys have a lot more on the ball, though they also tend to be featureless and direly uninteresting.

A general historical amnesia seems to be in play. This book is set in 2005, but everyday things from their own recent past are cast as strange almost beyond belief. It's a sort of reverse time-travel effect, where the pre-industrial character is astonished by cars and vacuum cleaners, but considerably less explicable. Factory-produced cigarettes? Cars that ran on gasoline? RVs? How bizarre! It's heavy-handed to say the least, like none of the main characters ever watch TV. There's a lot of time spent on descriptionss, on stuff, but there is an almost total cultural vacuum (yes, despite the presence of Yamazaki, who is supposed to be studying it). Like Idoru, on the whole this reads like notes for a novel, rather than the completed thing. It gives a glance at things I want it to dig into, then gets distracted by its own surface.

I also realized while reading this just how annoying it can be to use italicized speech for emphasis. A couple of minor characters in Virtual Light speak this way. "I haven't seen your friend before." "That storm was just terrible, wasn't it?" "We're a full-service shop...." I had a critiquer once flag me for overusing emphasis in dialog, and I didn't think at the time that it was that big a deal, but I'm definitely going to be more careful about it in the future. I'm not sure it's ever defensible to give such a distracting characteristic to a character so minor that they are more properly a piece of set-dressing than a person.
    The plot is not innovative; it's a straightforward technological McGuffin pursuit, which unfortunately is almost the exact same pattern the next book follows, though Virtual Light has far better action scenes. The stakes seem to be high, but he frequently blows the tension, and the ending is so pat, so literally deus ex machina that I found myself wondering if I was misremembering how much I liked the Neuromancer trilogy.

    I'm going to give the third one in this series a miss and move on to something different.

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