Virtual Light (Bridge, #1)

By William Gibson

23,594 ratings - 3.87* vote

Berry Rydell, an ex-cop, signs on with IntenSecure Armed Response in Los Angeles. He finds himself on a collision course that results in a desperate romance, and a journey into the ecstasy and dread that mirror each other at the heart of the postmodern experience.

... more

Book details

Paperback, 304 pages
October 26th 1996 by Penguin Books Ltd

(first published September 1993)

Original Title
Virtual Light
ISBN
0140157727 (ISBN13: 9780140157727)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Lyn

William Gibson begins his Bridge trilogy with this 1993 publication that was nominated for both the Hugo and the Locus awards.

In the air of great protagonist names won hands down by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 cyberpunkapalooza Snow Crash with Hiro Protagonist, Gibson introduces us to Chevette Washington, a messenger living on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland who gets caught up in corporate espionage surrounding some stolen glasses.

But these are not just any glasses, they produce virtual light, enabling the viewer to see more than reality, and this is not just the Bay Bridge, this is Gibson’s world building after devastating earthquakes and after tumultuous socioeconomic and political upheavals.

Taking off from his archetypal Sprawl series, Gibson gives us another foray into a near future cyberpunk landscape that mesmerizes as it entertains. While this lacks the fringe element edgy cool of Neuromancer, this is told more straightforward and has some early indications of the kind of writing Gibson would do with his Blue Ant series. SF readers who could not buy into the Sprawl books may find this one more approachable.

Lots of fun and highly recommended.

description

Hobie

I felt like Gibson created a cool world for the story to take place in, but then just never wrote the story. A messenger nabs some VR glasses and gets the help of some ex-cop blah... who cares? He just never got me to care about the characters or their conflicts.

I wanted to hear more about the dystopian California-states and the fancy VR itself, but then all Gibson wanted to talk about Berry and Chevette.

3 stars purely because of the world Gibson dreamed up, but if you're looking for a good story you should probably try elsewhere.

Brooke

Was rather disappointed by this one, and I'm starting to get the feeling that Gibson's been writing the same book over and over. While the technology mattered in Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, Virtual Light seemed more like a on-the-run-from-bad-guys thriller set in a vagueishly sci-fi setting. The tech that was stolen could have just as well been a candy bar. I wanted to find out more about the plan on the tech (to rebuild San Fran after an earthquake), the Bay Bridge community, and all the other interesting bits that Gibson created. Instead, all of that seems to be zooming by on the outside while the story focuses on one long chase scene; it's always present but is very blurry and merely serves as a backdrop.

Graeme Rodaughan

Not Gibson's best work, but still thoughtful. The whole cyberpunk genre is a valuable exploration of ideas about our near future. A future within reach of many who are alive today.

RandomAnthony

I'm re-reading the early Gibson because I remember liking them and I can't keep the books straight. Virtual Light stands as high-quality, maybe one of his more underrated titles, at least to me, upon a second reading, because except for a somewhat abrupt ending, the novel is excellent. The book's true star is the bridge, and if Gibson ever releases a "greatest hits" of passages from his work, his initial description of the bridge deserves a place of honor. You can see him extending Ballard's influence and perceptions of concurrent decay and advancement. The glasses connected to the title are cool, of course, and even better than whatever google's cooking up, but I think, throughout Gibson's work, the underlying focus is the tough, stubborn ability of humans to adapt, whether criminally or not, to roadblocks and opportunities. He's one of the best, one of my favorites, really, and his early work holds up.

Jamie

Is there a plot, characters, a "story" here? Sure, I guess so. But it all seems like window dressing to the dystopian "have nots" sticking it to the "haves" and mega corporations in near future "experience". Slightly more comprehensible than Gibson's earlier work, with occasional attempts at humor, but still, if this were a painting people would call it a mood piece. Some people would get it, most would not, though many would pretend to.

Kara Babcock

Last week Kevin Mitnick was on The Colbert Report to promote his new book, Ghost in the Wires and talk about hacking. For those of us who grew up with the Web as a fact of life and absorbed "hacker culture" through Hollywood, Mitnick's experiences seem somewhat alien. Hacking started long before the Web, of course, and even today hacking is nothing like what one sees on the movies. However, it's just in this decade that we, as a society, are beginning to understand and react to the effects of hacking as a phenomenon. It seems like not a week goes by without another story in the news about a company or government database being hacked. Law enforcement agencies have taken cybercrime seriously for a long time now, as demonstrated by Mitnick's arrest and conviction, but lately arrests of alleged members of groups like Anonymous are making the news more often. We live in the WikiLeaks era, where it doesn't matter if information wants to be free. Once information is out there, there is no taking it back.

It strikes me that William Gibson gets this. In fact, he understood it a lot earlier than most of us. He was writing about this stuff before I was born. Neuromancer is indubitably his most famous and influential work, and the Hollywood vision of hacking probably owes a lot to his portrayal of the cyberspace experience of console cowboys (damn you, Gibson!). With Virtual Light, it feels like Gibson is looking at hacker culture, and its effects on society, from the other side now. The main characters are victims of hackers; they employ hackers; but they are not hackers themselves. Nevertheless, Gibson turns them into tools for making information free.

Virtual Light is a little confusing at first. I wasn't sure who the main character was—is it this nameless courier? This weird private security guard named "Berry Rydell"? This messenger whom we eventually learn is called Chevette? After the first few chapters, however, the story finally emerged, and its protagonists quickly followed. On a whim, Chevette picks a courier's pocket and steals a valuable pair of sunglasses, which contain information encoded optically about a sensitive business deal that will impact all of San Francisco. She ends up on the run with Rydell as an unlikely ally.

Rydell and Chevette wormed their way into my heart. This is good, because as far as its story goes, Virtual Light is surprisingly linear and predictable—surprising because I wouldn't expect it from Gibson. So I completely understand why people pan the book because of this aspect; story is not Virtual Light's strongest area. As an "on the run from the bad guys until we can broadcast our information" story, it keeps me entertained. To really appreciate it, however, one has to be willing to dig further into the way Gibson approaches the role of hacking, the flow of information, and the stratification of society in a broken United States of America.

I've already talked lots about hacking, but let me say a little more. I love how Rydell loses his job because someone hacked the computer on his company truck and created a false alarm. Not only are the scene and its subsequent debriefing hilarious, but this is something that could happen today (and probably already has). We get so much of our information from intangible, computer-moderated sources and have learned to trust that information implicitly. When Rydell's truck tells him there is an armed hostage situation on a client's property, he doesn't hesitate to respond aggressively. This trust is useful, because we can react a lot more quickly when the information comes to us instantaneously—but as Rydell learns, it is dangerous too. The same thing happens today, with hackers posting fake releases about celebrity deaths on legitimate news websites. So this is a very interesting phenomenon that we, as a society, are still struggling to adapt to, and I like how Gibson tackles it in Virtual Light.

In many ways this book is also similar to Gibson's "Johnny Mneumonic", of Keanu Reeves infamy. Both feature a courier carrying information that could incite unrest. In Johnny's case, it's hardwired into his brain. In Chevette's case, she appropriates the package as a pair of sunglasses. But the moral remains the same: in a world where we can send a message to someone across the ocean less than the blink of an eye, the only truly secure method of communicate remains a physical package (even if that package is only a one-time pad). As Loveless remarks in Virtual Light:

"Look at her, Rydell. She knows. Even if she's just riding confidential papers around San Francisco, she's a courier. She's entrusted, Rydell. The data becomes a physical thing. She carries it. Don't you carry it, baby?"

She was still as some sphinx, white fingers deep in the gray fabric of the center bucket.

"That's what I do, Rydell. I watch them carry it. I watch them. Sometimes people try to take it from them."


Imagine a map that depicts the world as lights connected by glowing lines—people, or buildings, or cities, connected by digital communication. Zoom in enough, and along the virtual representations of city streets, you will see glowing blue and red dots. These are the couriers, the physical purveyors of digital information. The trusted ones.

I guess ultimately what I'm trying to say here is that I appreciate Virtual Light for the way it raises relevant, contemporary issues about existing in the digital era. As always, Gibson's observations are a combination of chilling and seductive, with a little bit of edgy humour thrown in. There's Reverend Fallon's cult of Christians who believe they will find God in old movies, and the cult that worships Shapely, a man whose non-lethal strain of HIV resulted in a vaccine. Some of these subplots don't seem explored as fully as they could have been considering how much time Gibson devotes to them. Shapely's story in particular perplexes me, for we learn it all through exposition that seems otherwise unconnected from the rest of the narrative. Why is it all that important? I'm probably missing something larger here.

That being said, I can at least see how it works with Virtual Light's presentation of the rift between the various classes of American society. There's the sleek, slightly antiseptic feel of Karen Mendelsohn; the creepy vibe of the man we never see, Cody Harwood; the domineering little shit that is Lowell; the valiant, heroic, yet tragic Skinner; and of course, the working class: Rydell, Chevette, Sublett, et al. Karen treats Rydell as hot stuff while he is the best thing Cops in Trouble have going, but the moment a higher-profile opportunity arises, she kicks him to the curb. The people who want the data on those sunglasses kept secret, the people like Cody Harwood, do not hesitate to kill lesser people like Rydell and Chevette. And of course, there's the bridge.

People living on a ravaged Bay Bridge, having transformed it into an actual community, is a vision right out of something like The Wind-Up Girl, some sort of post-apocalyptic world gone mad. One might expect to see a little less civilization, and that's certainly what some of the minor characters in Virtual Light suggest. Warbaby gives Rydell a description of the Bridge community that Chevette and Skinner patently belie, and it's not entirely clear whether Warbaby actually believes this bit of bigotry or whether he's just coldly manipulating Rydell. (I suspect the latter, but with Gibson I'm not going to bet anything I value on it.) The Bridge community is intriguing, and I would have liked to learn more about it. But of course, that's what the other two books in this trilogy are for.

Virtual Light is not as stunning as Neuromancer, and it deserves the criticism levelled at its story and structure. I reject the idea that this is a bad novel, however, and certainly that this is somehow a lesser work of William Gibson. I think it does something useful and interesting, from its portrayal of hackers to the importance of securing the information that comes into Rydell and Chevette's possession. It might not do this as artfully or as skilfully as I would like, but it is still a fascinating piece of science fiction.

Except, of course, that it is no longer science fiction. Sure, the specifics of this 1990s novel, set in 2005, did not come to pass—but all of the issues Gibson raises are things we are confronting, or will soon confront, in our present decade. Virtual Light is a noteworthy example of how science fiction does not need to predict the future in order to predict the problems we will be facing and prompt us to ponder solutions before it's too late. As usual, William Gibson demonstrates that science fiction is valuable.

My reviews of the Bridge trilogy:
Idoru

Creative Commons BY-NC License

Sean

Read "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson instead.

Mike

The last time I read this book was in the mid-90s. It came out in 1993, nine years after Gibson's Neuromancer, the novel that coined the phrase "cyberspace" and posited a world where we'd all be interconnected through an information network. He was wrong about the virtual reality stuff, but right about almost everything else. If Neuromancer was somewhat predictive of the future, Virtual Light reads like someone had gone to the future of 2005 and sent a postcard back to us.
Reading it now and reading it in 1995 are two different experiences. Back then, I read this and saw a future that was advanced, but full of sickness and decay. I saw some hope because humans had ingenuity, but despair because of waste and pollution. Now, I read it and it seems that we're only a few years away from things like the disappearance of the middle class, the privatization of public space, the adulteration of natural resources, and the occupying of space by squatters who turn unused space into a living space.
It's the future, AIDS has been cured, but new diseases pop up. Journalism and entertainment have merged to give us shows like Cops in Trouble, a show that Fox would be proud to show. Berry Rydell was a cop in trouble because he shot a guy who held his family hostage, and was subsequently sued by said family for his trouble. But in the midst of all this, a new story comes up about a cop who shoots a serial killer that preys on children and Rydell becomes yesterday's news before his story hits the air. Trapped in Los Angeles, Rydell again becomes a victim of circumstance and computer hackers as he gets fired and ends up working as a driver for a bounty hunter in San Francisco.
Chevette Washington lives on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco (the suspension side, not the cantilever side; it makes a difference in the book). She's in her early 20s, a ward of the state who was abandoned by her mother, and who made it from an orphanage in Oregon with barbed wire surrounding it, to NoCal and was taken in by Skinner, an old man who was there when the homeless occupied the bridge. In the book, she's lived there for some time and is a bike messenger. Some guy at a party she accidentally walked into hit on her in an obnoxious way and she stole a pair of very valuable glasses from him to shut him up. These aren't ordinary glasses though. They act as both MacGuffin and object through which social commentary on gentrification is dispersed.
Rydell and Chevette's paths cross. And that's what this book is about. Intersections. Just as the Bay Bridge becomes a living place that used to connect two cities but is now a place where many people's lives connect, we also see what happens when rich and poor meet, when technology and art meet, and when reality and entertainment meet. Gibson not only wrote a good story, but could predict things like the rise and fall of the Euro, the use of drones by law enforcement, and the shrinking of the middle class, and make them only passing mentions in this book to add color and background to the story.
While reading, I saw I had used many of his conventions in stories I have written, but forgotten where they'd come from. Things like jumping in time chronologically, using objects for something different than they had been intended for, and characters with convoluted pasts dealing with the situations they find themselves in now, are themes I recognize in my writing. But ultimately, that's what good writing comes down to. You write something that other writers "steal" without realizing they have "stolen" it. Like the bridge in the story, it all melds together to form a new place, a new setting, and a new way to look at things. This look at the "future" of 2005 helps us to see our present in a new way.

Topics