Virtual Light is the first book of William Gibson’s “Bridge” trilogy, in which an nonfunctional, shanty-town Golden Gate bridge is a major feature. Like his previous “Sprawl” trilogy, it leans low and hard into its dystopian city-scape, positing a completely probable slumification of the modern metropolis — one which has developed laterally, growing in spontaneous density, rather than upwards into the mega-skyscrapers and glass-domed arcologies of standard gung-ho futurism.
Unlike the Sprawl books (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive), however, Virtual Light doesn’t take place in the future, not really; with a time-stamp of 2006, it’s an alternate present rather than a straight science-fictional tomorrow, although the effect is the same. While stories that unfold in the future give us an extrapolative shock, Gibson seems to understand that in an urbanized world of mediated digital communication — a climate of instantaneity — the distinction between “now” and “tomorrow” is irrelevant. Reality fluctuates wildly from individual to individual depending on his or her point of perceptual entry, and hence Gibson’s dystopian 2006 is as real as the person reading it.
As with many Gibson novels, the most compelling thing about Virtual Light is its atmosphere. The environment of the novel, essentially an archetypical cyberpunk milieu, is dizzying: a California divided into two nation-states, jacked up on privatized security thuggery, pocketed with anarchist utopias of organic provenance. Data pirates, security cops, hackers, and televisual evangelists war over hardware; namely, a pair of “Virtual Light” glasses, a virtual (today we might say “enhanced”) reality device that ratchets directly into the optic nerve, overlaying any number of data points seamlessly onto the visual plane.
This book is about architecture and perception. The crux of the plot is that the virtual light glasses, when worn to gaze upon the city of San Francisco, reveal a plan by overseas developers to restructure the city. The plan, to plant nanomachines in the downtown that self-construct into buildings — buildings that “just grow” — is presented as being so fundamentally repulsive and unnatural that the hacker underground is galvanized to prevent its implementation without any encouragement.
That’s because architecture, here, is a metaphor for class: the rich, in Virtual Light, live in planned corporate megaplexes — giant glass domes, gargantuan malls — while the poor live in organically-generated slums, which are portrayed as being vibrant, warm, human communities, beautiful in their senselessness. Gibson’s tenderness for the slum is manifested through the character of Shinya Yamazaki, a Japanese sociologist studying the community of the Bridge.
“The integrity of its span was as rigorous as the modern program itself, yet around this had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic.”
The Bridge, which Yamakazi describes in his notebooks as an “accretion of dreams,” something with “magic and singularity,” a “pointless yet curiously artlike feature of the urban landscape,” is the home (physical and spiritual) of Virtual Light‘s most likable protagonists, those fighting the nano-urbanization of San Francisco. There’s a clear binary here. On one side, the wealthy, whose urban environment is intentional, architectural, built, technological, clean, and corporate. On the other, the poor, whose practical ingenuity has cumulated in a massively dense, anti-technological, piecemeal construction that somehow reflects the best qualities of the human spirit, of a community of individuals fighting against the compartmentalized alienation of the modern city. On the Bridge, everyone lives on top of everyone else, in an interconnected system functioning entirely outside of the matrix of the law.
The Bridge, Gibson clearly iterates, is real life — sweat, filth, and color.
The city, on the other hand, is Virtual Light: it’s data. It’s glass and steel. It’s businesslike efficiency, robot maids, and stringent rules. And it has no right to impinge on the Bridge’s natural quality of growth — it simply can’t, in Gibson’s world, share any qualities whatsoever with the people’s Temporary Autonomous Zone-esque urbanism. The rich just mustn’t implement technologies that mimic the organic development of the slums. It would be a perversion, a co-opting of the underground.
The takeaway, it seems, is that the poor — i.e. the nontechnological — are the only truly connected people. Technologies like Virtual Light, or the complex computer systems that monitor the security of the wealthy, only serve to alienate people from one another. A clapboard house constructed bit by bit from hand tools, a bicycle, a slum full of cultures woven into a hallucinatory puzzle: these are the real connective technologies. It’s obvious (to me) that Gibson is often mislabeled as a cyberprophet, a digital zealot. He’s quite the opposite: not a luddite, but certainly an advocate of that human je-ne-sais-quoi that seperates us from machines.