Book Review: All Tomorrow’s Parties, by William Gibson

Inside a cardboard box in a Tokyo subway station, Colin Laney sees the end of the world.

Or, perhaps, the beginning.

What do a down-on-his-luck rent-a-cop, a sentient Artificial Intelligence construct, a wealthy power broker, a global chain of convenience stores, and a faceless assassin have in common? Not even Colin Laney knows for sure, but somehow, they’re all intimately connected to a turning point in human history—a massive paradigm shift that’s going to begin in San Francisco, and after it happens, nothing will ever be the same.

In All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson picks up where he left off in Idoru (see my review here), bringing us back into the tortured mind of Colin Laney, a man with a singular ability to gather threads of cause and effect in the infosphere and anticipate when important things are about to happen. Laney is in the throes of the obsessive disorder that is the dark side of his gift, ill and malnourished, but jacked into the Net, desperately trying to make sense of the cultural juggernaut bearing down on society and how it relates to the object of his obsession, Cody Harwood, a reclusive American businessman.

Rei Toei, the virtual pop idol who Colin thought was going to launch a new definition of humanity, has disappeared, but she’s somehow still central to the coming tranformation. Laney sends his old friend Rydell to San Francisco to gather information and to locate a mysterious, nameless man who is integral to what is happening but appears only as a void in the data, leaving no trace of his activity.

Meanwhile, other seemingly-random individuals are converging on San Francisco. Chevette Washington flees an abusive boyfriend and travels back to the bridge where she used to live—her film-student roommate Tessa is shooting a documentary on the bridge community and needs Chevette’s guidance. On the bridge, Silencio, a mute street kid with a photographic memory, receives a strange gift from a killer—a gift that will fuel an even stranger obsession leading directly to the heart of Laney’s paradigm shift.

The story skips through multiple points-of-view and tenses past, present, and future. A lesser writer would get an editorial dope-slap for shifting POVs so much, but in Gibson’s hands, it works, and there’s a method to his madness. Time and reality are malleable and, ultimately, illusory in Gibson’s world, and the narrative reflects this sense of fluid existence—always moving, always changing, a river that is never experienced the same way twice. We see the impending event, and its fallout, through the eyes of most of the main characters, individually and in chorus, as they’re drawn inexorably into the nodal point, the focus of change.

The story swirls around what Tessa calls “the interstitials”—a society-within-society living by its own rules in the nooks and crannies of the conventional structures of civilization. The bridge community is its exemplar. Abandoned to decay after an earthquake, the bridge has been appropriated by the interstitials, who applique their dwellings and businesses onto and within it, using baling wire, plywood, plastic wrap, salvaged computer hardware, and super-epoxy hot glue. It’s the new urban frontier—dangerous, dirty, and gritty, with entrepreneurs and opportunists, hopeful and hopeless, in equal measure. In the eyes of the outside world, it’s just another edgy tourist attraction, but Gibson is saying very strongly, not in the least by literally placing it on the bridge between Oakland and Treasure Island, that this is the path to the future, for better or worse.

The players so very important to Idoru have only supporting roles here. For example, we get just a glimpse of the Walled City, that virtual enclave of wizard hackers quietly wielding massive power but invisible to the outside world, and Rei Toei remains an enigmatic will ‘o the wisp.

The paradigm shift was both less and more than I expected. On the surface, there is a quiet sort of revolution, ushered in by an evolutionary advance in technology that puts a deceptively powerful instrumentality into the hands of the powerless. The nearly incidental quantum leap wasn’t all that surprising, but it happened in a way and at a place I certainly didn’t expect.

As with Idoru, it was the puzzle at the heart of the story, the “what the heck is going on here?” factor that drew me in and kept me reading, along with Gibson’s intriguing and very credible descriptions of a near-future society poised on a razor’s edge between disintegration and transformation. The characters are interesting and accessible, but they’re swept along by forces beyond their comprehension toward a destiny that, in the end, seems unavoidable. It raises questions about the reality and scope of human free will in a world that, while governed by the synthesis of all human desire, frustrates the effort of any individual to enforce his or her own desires on that world or shift its momentum.  All Tomorrow’s Parties brings John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider to mind, a story in which the key to survival was riding the waves of continual change, understanding how to move and when to jump in order to be carried along on that eternal surf without wiping out.

Gibson ends his story on a note of optimism about people’s ability to do that, which is probably the best outcome available in a worldview where God is absent, and organized religion is a relic, useless at best, deceptive and exploitative at worst.  Gibson’s future is visionary, but utterly rational, existential, and deterministic. There are lots of clocks and watches in this story, and I don’t think that was an arbitrary choice.

All Tomorrow’s Parties moves quickly and evokes a plausible, disturbing, but ultimately hopeful near-future world populated with interesting, familiar characters. If you enjoyed Idoru and want to find out what happens next (well, sort of), you’ll like All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Older teens and up. Some coarse language and violence. Alcoholism and drug abuse are, unsurprisingly, rampant in Gibson’s future world, but clearly depicted as self-destructive.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: All Tomorrow’s Parties, by William Gibson

    1. Thanks, Tom. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Gibson’s stories are always worth reading. I think he does near-future better than just about anybody else out there.

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