Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy

Well, it finally happened. After many interruptions, thanks to other books that made it into my reading pile, I finally capped off Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy with All Tomorrow’s Parties. And as usual, Gibson’s combination of high-tech gadgets, low-tech environments, and an assorted crew of characters are all there in full force. And, interestingly enough, I also noticed some decidedly Gibsonian traits that appear in his other trilogies.

For one, there’s that tendency of his where he switches main characters between the first and second novel, then bring them all together again for the third. And then there is his ability to end a story abruptly and in a way that’s both confusing and a little short on explanations. As you might be able to guess, I had a few problems with this book, but none to write home about. Mainly, I thought it was a fitting and faithful ending to his second trilogy, chock-full of insights, ideas, and cool concepts.

Synopsis:
The novel takes its name from the song of the same name by Velvet Underground, which was apparently inspired by their contact with the Andy Warhol clique. The story opens in a Tokyo subway station, where the character of Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru) is now living in an improvised “cardboard city” with other misfits. Inside this assemblage of boxes, he spends all of his time online, following the exploits of a media baron known as Cody Harwood. Consistent with the effects of 5-SB, the drug that gives Laney his ability to discern patterns of information, he has become obsessed with this celebrity figure. However, he also sees that a nodal point is fast approaching, and that Harwood is at the center of it.

What this node is and what it entails, he cannot say exactly. All he knows for sure is it will change everything, and is set to go down in San Fransisco. To uncover the details of this , and perhaps stop it as well, he enlists help from the people of the Walled City – a virtual environment in cyberspace – Rei Toei (the Idoru), and Berry Rydell (the protagonist from Virtual Light). Meanwhile, Chevette Washington, the bike courier from Virtual Light, is also on her way to the bridge. Her new roommate, a film maker named Tessa, wants to go there so she can do a documentary on the people, how they live, and study the phenomena known as “interstitial places”. Pursued by her jealous ex-boyfriend, she agrees to accompany Tessa and show her around, and maybe reconnect with some of her fellow Bridge dwellers.

In time, and with the help of his hacker friends from the Walled City, Laney learns that Harwood has also taken 5-SB. He too has seen the nodal point approaching, and wants to shape its outcome to his liking. Although it not quite clear what its about, it seems to involve the Lucky Dragon franchise, and their incorporation or nano-assemblers in each of their outlets. In time, Rydell and Chevette arrive on the bridge, which is becoming a tourist attraction, and has a Lucky Dragon located just beyond it, with Rei Toei’s mobile projector. Several men show up and try to kill him, but he is helped unexpectedly by an assassin named Konrad – a man who is ostensibly in Harwood’s employ, but has chosen to switch sides.

After rescuing him from the first assassin, Rydell and Konrad run into Chevette at a club. She takes them her old friend Fontaine’s watch shop, where he and a young boy named Silencio – an apparent mute who is obsessed with researching watches –¬† take them in. When Harwood is informed that they are holed up and their assassins are dying off, he orders them to set fire to the bridge. Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Laney and his Walled City friends find him and confront him. He manages to escape into the folds, but Rei Toei comes to the little boy and tells him to find a special watch – a task which is in reality a trek to find where Harwood is hiding. They track him down, and he is neutralized.

Laney and Chevette narrowly escape to Skinner’s old hideout at the top of the bridge, where they kill the last of the assassins and wait out the fire. Rescue trucks and airships begin dousing the flames, just in time to save the bulk of the population. Meanwhile, Rei uploads her program to the Lucky Dragon’s database, and when the nanoassemblers go online, they produce endless copies of her! As the nodal point comes and passes, things have changed, though not in the way Harwood wanted, and in a small cardboard box in Tokyo, Laney is found dead by some of his old associates.

Good Points/Weak Points:
Much like its predecessors, this book advances the nanotechnology angle and brings it to an apparent conclusion. In book I, it was nanotech that was meant to be the means through which San Fransico was going to be rebuild after the Little Grande (aka. the Big One). It was also the means through which Tokyo was rebuild after said same earthquake. And many hints were dropped in Idoru that the character of Rei Toei, whose existence is strictly virtual, would be relying on it to manifest herself in reality. Alas, this finally seems to take place in this novel, where Rei uses the nanoassembly units in every Lucky Dragon around the world to produce copies of herself.

In addition, the concept of the nodal point is brought to its climax, where Laney and Harwood, both people who are sensitive to such things, are able to see one which will mean the end of the world. Not in the apocalyptic sense, merely that it will be the end of the world as they know it. From this description it is strongly implied that this will amount to a technological singularity, an event where advancement will speed up to the point where no one can predict the outcome. And given all the mentions of nanotech, it is entirely possible that it will be central to this transformation.

However, as I said earlier, this was not made clear. Much like with everything else at the end, explanations were lacking. What the big change-up involved, how Harwood planned to benefit, and how Silencio prevented that from happening… unclear! And Rei Toei’s involvement, her transformation and what purpose that served, also unclear. In essence, the climax just happens as describes, a few more short (really short) chapters tell what happened to all the characters once it was over, and the story ends. Little epilogue? Little conversation between the main characters explaining what they did and maybe what happened with Rei Toei? People learn the hero’s journey isn’t always an easy one?

Ah, I enjoyed reading it. Like all of Gibson’s work, it did a good job of contrasting high-tech and low, commercial applications and the streets use for them. The disparity of wealth and power also makes it in, as well as the average Joe’s ongoing attempts to subvert and resist it. In the end, Laney (the gifted social outcast), Rydell (the bewildered everyman), and Chevette (the streetwise survivor), all play a role in bringing down a major tycoon who’s only goal is to put himself at the center of the new order. Still, some indication of what that new order was and the meaning behind all his moves would have been nice!

And of course, the Walled City and Rei Toei make it back for their final appearances. Much like in Idoru, they are a shout out to the idea of artificial spaces, artificial constructs, and the line that separates them from that which is physically real. But rather than take a moralistic stance on the issue, Gibson’s approach was clearly towards the anthropological and sociological side of things. Mainly, he sought to show how humanity lives and adapts in an increasingly complex and changing world, and how the process is tied to the issue of control. Whereas everyone is effected by technological change and the social impact it has, it is clear that some are merely adapting whereas others have a degree of control over it.

And as with much of his other works, it is the disparity between the rich and the poor that is most central to Gibson. Whereas the rich occupy the top tier of society in his books, living on the cutting edge of development in comfortable, state of the art environments, the poor wait for development to trickle down to them and use it for their own purposes, meanwhile living in improvised environments made out of what’s available. In the middle, there are the “freelancers” who understand the conspiracies and agendas and do their best to expose them, hoping to do right by all the people who occupy the bottom rungs of society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bridge itself. Much as with the real life Walled City of Kowloon that inspired it, it all comes down to corporate interests who are trying to destroy, gentrify or commercialize it. Whereas in the first novel, the story revolved around a plot to gentrify San Fransisco through nanotechnology, in the third, those same interests try to demolish the Bridge itself because it is clearly beyond their control. It is only through the know-how and the sacrifice of those who see the larger agenda at work that it is saved, unlike the real Walled City (which was demolished between 1993/4).

It is little wonder then why this trilogy was seen as a sort of graduation for Gibson, moving from cyberpunk themed science-fiction to predictive social commentary. And while we might not be exactly where Gibson put us (2012 and we still don’t have nanomachines dammit!), the ideas he put forth¬† in this trilogy are still on our minds. These days, people are practically holding their breaths, waiting for the day when an artificial personality will finally be realized and machines small enough to manipulate matter at the atomic level can be built. And when that happens, we can still expect that the effects will be felt unequally. Some people will be living in seamless building made from carbon nanotubes and run by AI’s, others will be living shanty’s, making appliances out of spare parts. Or, to put it as Gibson once said “the future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

So long Walled City, you will be missed!

Of Kowloon’s Walled City and “Virtual Light” (by Gibson)

Just finished reading Gibson’s first installment in the “Bridge Trilogy”, and was reasonably impressed with it. In addition to being a good intro to his pre-Bigend series, it also gave me some insight into the writer himself and his inspirations. For starters, and I urge everyone to go look this up, I’d never heard of Kowloon’s Walled City before, nor did I know that was what inspired The Bridge for which the trilogy is named.

In short, this city began as a Chinese fort but became part of Britain’s mandate after they acquired Hong Kong in the lease of 1898. Since that time, it evolved into a massive squatter community, a place for refugees, migrants, drug dealers, thugs, and the poor and downtrodden. Although it had a reputation for being a den of crime, gambling and prostitution, it was also home to over 33,000 people. At least, until the Hong Kong government decided to demolish it in 1993. It took over a year to complete the process, and only after a very intense eviction process.

After reading about all this, I could see where Gibson got the idea for “The Bridge”, which is the center point of Virtual Light and other stories in the trilogy. Set in San Francisco in 2005, the Golden Gate bridge has become a squatter city of its own. This was due mainly to the fact that San Fran was devastated by the “Little Grande” (aka. the Big One), and this and other factors had a dramatic impact on the city. Like many of his other works, the US and North America have become fragmented shadows of their former selves, and private companies enjoy ridiculous amounts of power.

And, as usual, the main characters are freelance people who get caught up in a scheme that is far bigger than themselves. Add to that some cooky religious cult and an interesting side story about Shapely, a man who inadvertently cured AIDS and became a sainted figure, and you’ve got Gibson’s usual take on America of the future, a gritty, dirty place, marked by polarized wealth, private contractors, high-tech assassins, and corporate scheming. It was fun, enjoyable, and the concept of the Bridge was both novel and entertaining.

Now for the weak points. For starters, I really didn’t feel the whole “post-millennium shock” thing. While it was a very interesting idea, it was not as well developed or convincing as I was hoping. In addition, the techno-angle, not as intriguing as I would have hoped. The glasses, which are the MacGuffin of the story, were interesting enough, but really didn’t blow my mind the way some of his other works have. And the story’s setting just doesn’t seem realistic given that it was set only a decade from when he wrote it. It seemed far-fetched that nanotechnology and the disintegration of America could have happened in such a short time.

Perhaps that was why I felt unconvinced throughout, the fact that it was all taking place in 2005. Too soon to seem real! I was also thrown by the rather striking resemblance this book bore to Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, which had been published a year prior. The stuff about privatized America, cooky religious sects, hacker communities, and corporate plotting, not to mention how the lead female is a messenger; these were all the same! I’m a sucker for all that stuff, but perhaps that added to the whole “unconvinced” thing. I’d seen it done before, and frankly… better. Sorry William! This round goes to Stephenson.

Incidentally, I’m kind of sad that the Kowloon Walled City no longer exists. Rather than demolishing the place, I think the Hong Kong authorities ought to have preserved it as a museum. It was a living piece of history, after all! And let’s not forget that the place was the result of neglect by many generations of civil authorities, so razing it wasn’t exactly a smart (or particularly sensitive) solution! Look it up, the photo galleries are immense and very cool to look at. Here’s a few links I happened to find:

Kowloon Walled City, Cross-Section
“Kowloon Walled City: The Modern Pirate Utopia”, Coilhouse Magazine
Kowloon Walled City Park: Official Webpage