Friday, August 10, 2007

10 August 2007: The Luminous Flesh Of Giants

Once every four years I buy a new novel.

It used to be more often than that. Around the time of doing my A-Levels I actually bought and read no less than four novels in one year. This wasn't to do with a voracious literary appetite so much as curiosity into writing styles: how do different authors, in different contexts, for different audiences, tell a story? Turned out Emily Bronte, Alice Walker and Vikram Seth had a lot in common (English language, use of chapters, freeform movement between first and third person). The fourth was also similar in these respects, although the only reason I bought it was because I had a train journey and this book had a shiny, attention-seeking cover.

I spotted it, in October 1994, in Waterstones here in Southampton. A paperback, there were a small pile of them on the floor section of a black IKEA-style cuboid shelf unit in the middle of the basement room. It jumped out at me because of the unusual colours, the cool (even I could tell it was cool) use of sunglasses reflecting San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge in the hand-drawn artwork, and the fact that although it was clearly 'sci-fi' in loose terms (and I hadn't read one of those yet that year), I'd heard neither of the book nor its author.

The book was called 'Virtual Light', the author one William Gibson.

So, I bought it out of curiosity, mainly because of that cover. Even the tagline "Author of Neuromancer" made me curious: I hadn't heard of that either, but obviously it sounded like I should. And so I walked through the rain and under rapidly darkening skies down to the station, hopped on the train to Plymouth (requiring change at Westbury and costing no less than forty-nine pounds, and this in 1994, remember) and started to read.

The first chapter of Virtual Light remains the single most baffling piece of writing I've ever come across, and that includes all those bizarre Description Logic papers with upside-down A's I had to read for my PhD:

The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city's middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod. Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb; seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed. But here the mirrored ziggurats down Lozaro Cordenas flow with the luminous flesh of giants, shunting out the night's barrage of dreams to the waiting avenidas-business as usual, world without end.

The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night. Closing his eyes, he centers himself in the background hiss of climate-control. He imagines himself in Tokyo, this room in some new wing of the old Imperial. He sees himself in the streets of Chiyoda-ku, beneath the sighing trains. Red paper lanterns line a narrow lane.

He opens his eyes.

Mexico City is still there.

And so it went on, the following paragraphs of that opening chapter equally baffling and yet somehow lyrical in their technical descriptiveness. Fortunately, the second chapter and those that followed made more sense, and now, some thirteen years on and having re-read Virtual Light countless times, I can pretty much understand of most of that opening sequence, although for 'faint hepatic corona' I still just read 'yellow glow'.

So this was Gibson's latest, at that time, newly released in paperback and, I discovered, his first novel not to be part of the 'Sprawl' series, of which the aforementioned 'Neuromancer' was the first. For whatever reason, I didn't rush to pick up the Sprawl series, nor indeed did I think about Gibson again until three years later when I saw a new paperback named 'Idoru' for sale, and read it on a train journey, this time from London to Plymouth, and was happy to note some of the same characters appearing.

Then it sped up a bit. Two years after that, in 1999, waiting at an airport in Los Angeles for a very delayed flight back to Blightly, I thought I'd better read Neuromancer (and enjoyed it, although I preferred the world of Virtual Light), then later in 1999 I spotted and purchased (in hardback this time) another new Gibson (All Tomorrow's Parties), which turned out to be the final (and lightest, in terms of both plot and prose, and thus more accessible) book in the Virtual Light series. Over the following couple of years I made my way through the remainder of the Sprawl series (Count Zero comfortably being the best of the three in my opinion, although clearly not as groundbreaking as Neuromancer), and the short-story collection 'Burning Chrome and other stories' which was like eating Gibson sandwiches for lunch instead of a huge evening meal that you had to spend a week digesting: you got all the goodness with less of the effort, and Burning Chrome remains, possibly, my favourite Gibson product. And that was that, the back catalogue dealt with.

2003 came round, and with it the next 'new novel' (at which point I realised he was producing them every four years). By this point I was plugged (a little, at least) into the online Gibson fan forum, and thus discovered that, to compensate for the new novel (Pattern Recognition - the first novel he's written that's set in the present day) being published in the UK some five months after its release elsewhere in the world, there was an official launch happening in Russell Square, with Gibson reading, answering questions and signing books. Naturally I went along, got his rather-too-printed signature in my copy, asked when he'd write more short stories ("when they come along," he replied, "although they don't pay the mortgage like a novel does").

Like he still has a mortgage after all the money I've paid for his books, I thought.

And that, then, was it for another four years (give or take the Relevant Experiment, conducted by Gibson fans and mildly Gibsonian in nature), until Spook Country came out last week. I finished it last night (four years wait for three days of reading: something's wrong with this equation, although I will re-read and re-read again numerous times for the sheer enjoyment of the prose) and will probably blog about it sometime (let's just say it makes me want to head down to Dock Gate 20 and drill holes in some of those containers). But it made me think back to whatever it was that got me started on the Gibson journey, and all I can trace it back to is that front cover, flourescing up at me from near the floor of Waterstones' basement level, beckoning me into Gibson's densely-worded universe of long-chain monomers, that new car smell, wolfishly professorial assassins and that faint hepatic corona.

Postscript: Wow, all that without mentioning stuff like cyberpunk, Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves, The Matrix ("the unpaid bill" according to Gibson) and the fact Gibson invented the word 'cyberspace', and envisioned what it meant, quite a number of years before Sir Tim invented the Web.


Nick Gibbins said...

First novel that wasn't part of the Sprawl cycle? Doesn't The Difference Engine count?

DuncMcRae said...

It almost counts: in fact I nearly mentioned it in the thickly-covered blog. TDE is a steam-punk 'what if...?' novel Gibson co-wrote with Bruce Sterling covering what might have happened if Babbage had managed to get his analytical engine to actually work.

But... for whatever reason, I really don't like Sterling's work and there's something about his collaborations with Gibson (there's a short story too about Russians on a space station I think) that put me to sleep; thus TDE is a co-authored novel, not pure Gibson; thus it doesn't count! Mainly because I don't want it to. :-)

In 1990 he also wrote a short story "Skinner's Room" which began the Virtual Light/Bridge thing. I've never read it, but I'd love to get hold of a copy.

Becky said...

I remember you reading the Vikram Seth. You finished it the summer after we'd completed our A-levels. I know because I saw you reading it and borrowed it straight after! It was the summer we all spent about three months going to the beach pretty much every day, so Vikram Seth still means for me sandy pages.

DuncMcRae said...

Didn't you drop that book in the sea or otherwise get it wet or something so the pages all fanned out?
Curiously I've never re-read the whole of 'A Suitable Boy' due to the short life-span of the universe...

Becky said...

I don't remember dropping it in the sea, but I suppose it's possible it incurred some beach-related damage, for which I humbly apologise (only 13 years too late!).

I seem to recall that I spent the first few chapters endlessly flicking back to the family tree at the front to see who was who and how the several hundred characters were related. After that though, it was prety much one giant soap opera. All in all, I enjoyed it but wouldn't bother re-reading for the reason you mention.

Speaking of there the short life-span of the universe, I suppose you STILL haven't got round to joining Facebook?

Joy said...

If this is the Duncan that visited the US several years ago? Assuming it is (the pic is very familiar) please send me a note Would love 2 hear how u r. 4 me, still happily married with 2 (yes 2)kids in MI. Hope 2 hear from u soon and that you're still serving the Lord!!

Anonymous said...

come on McDuncan, write something to entertain me.

I'm bored