William Gibson is never going to be able to live down being the sci-fi author who coined the term "cyberspace". First used in his debut novel Neuromancer which was published during the early 1980s, it was soon picked up on as an uncannily accurate description of the then-emerging Internet. His latest novel is somewhat flawed as a story but interesting in its depiction of the future.
All Tomorrows Parties features characters from two of Gibsons previous books, Virtual Light and Idoru. Its a sort-of sequel, but doesnt require any previous familiarity with Gibsons work.
Set in a very near-future San Francisco, the novel ostensibly follows the story of ex-cop Rydell being sent to the city on a mysterious assignment. The inevitable shadowy corporate forces are out to do something apocalyptically nefarious and its up to Rydell to stop them. So far, so sci-fi thriller, and it has to be said that the novels plot seems more like a framework around which to hang vignettes of future urban life rather than being the driving purpose of the book itself.
That said, the fragmentary approach lets Gibson excel in his descriptive powers of what could be waiting around the corner. The Golden Gate Bridge has been transformed into an autonomous shanty town, emphasising the divide between the super rich city and the fate of those with not enough money to stay within society. Virtually all commerce has shut up shop and moved online, except the ubiquitous 24-7 Lucky Dragon convenience store, complete with nanotachnology that can clone any object and teleport it to another Lucky Dragon anywhere in the world.
While Gibson has explored the nature of virtual living is his previous books, most of the action in All Tomorrows Parties take place in the real, or "meat", world. This accentuates the destitution of street life, and lets Gibson develop some truly human characters, such as the antique watch seller Fontaine and the street kid Boomzilla.
Its evident that Gibson is using sci-fi as a form of social comment on our own modern day life, mapping out the logical conclusions of consumerism gone mad. While technology is everywhere, it changes little in peoples lives unless they have the money to control it. Its not so much a dystopian view, more an indication that technology relies on the context in which its used and who is using it.
Unlike the lumpen prose of so much speculative fiction, Gibsons writing has a refined, delicate balance thats somewhat oblique. Indeed, this produces something of a baffling conclusion to the novels story thats likely to leave many readers unsatisfied, but All Tomorrows Parties is still worth reading as a fractured foreshadowing of the future.