Cyberpunk is supposed to be a dystopian genre, right? It’s full of evil, monolithic corporations with unlimited power, crime controlling everything, technology that leaves humanity adrift, and characters that wear black and sunglasses in neon cities. And this probably is accurate for a lot of Cyberpunk stories of the Eighties and Nineties. It’s been a while since I read Neuromancer by William Gibson, but I remember it pretty much being a Noir story, complete with a hacker anti-hero, a corrupt world and a future without hope. I read it in high school and as someone who loved Noir — and still does — I really liked this version of the future. Well, I recently finished one of Gibson’s later works, Virtual Light, and I was surprised to find the bleak Noir tone gone and replaced with something a little more friendly.
First of all, it’s important to note how much Virtual Light gets right. The novel was written in the Nineties and takes place in the far future year of 2005. I always like looking at how science fiction authors of the past imagined how we’d be living now, mostly because they fail in every conceivable way and illustrate the prejudices and beliefs of their times more than a realistic approximation of the future. Gibson doesn’t fall into that trap. The MacGuffin in Virtual Light is pretty much a set of Google glasses. And while we still don’t have the cure to AIDS and California hasn’t split into two states, Gibson also predicted the ubiquity of Reality TV, unmanned drones, the collapse of the American economy and the all consuming power of contemporary capitalism. When an important part of the story happens in a dead mall ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_mall ), you know that this is a story set in a version of the present that’s not so different from the one we currently live in.
But what’s more interesting about Virtual Light, to me at least, is the tone. While Neuromancer was stone-cold Noir, like something by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, Virtual Light feels more like a breezy Elmore Leonard story. There’s a satirical edge to it (a part about a TV worshipping Christian cult and Cronenberg’s Videodrome is particularly inspired), but more important is the tone of friendliness between most of the characters. The novel features two main characters, a disgraced, unlucky rent-a-cop named Rydell and a bike messenger turned thief named Chevette, and both are decent people who are valued by their networks of friends. The cop is friendly with his co-workers and his roommates, and they end up helping him as his life spirals out of control. It’s nice to see them band together to help him, but things get more interesting with Chevette.
She’s in San Francisco, in a place called the Bridge — which is a makeshift community of vagrants that settled an unfinished bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. Besides working as a bike messenger, she also runs errands for an old guy named Skinner, who was one of the Bridge’s first residents. The people in the Bridge work together, help each other with getting power, sewage and other amenities and they all value Chevette. When a ruthless mercenaries come after her, they band together to help defend her. The Bridge is also visited by a Japanese graduate student, who is studying the place, and he ends up becoming Skinner’s assistant, giving up on his hotel room and moving to the Bridge full time. While it is built in an unfinished construction site and can be dangerous, the Bridge is also a hopeful place. It’s a place where poor San Franciscans of all races and sexual orientations, as well as immigrants from around the world, live and work together and try to carve out lives in the face of appalling poverty and dehumanizing technology.
I feel that this is an example of hope in a hopeless place. It’s not that technology will improve our lives (we all know that’s not the case) or that governments or the free market or anything like that will save us — because in fact, we won’t be saved at all. But maybe we can be friendly to each other and help each other out. That might not be a completely happy future, but it seems like the one we’re going to get. Gibson should be commended, not just for creating the most insightful vision of the future in Cyberpunk, but for using Virtual Light to infuse that future with some much needed hope.