All Today’s Parties

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive. I think she’s half-right: sometimes it is predictive.

William Gibson has been writing science fiction long enough that he can now write stories containing some of the predictive elements from his earlier works, and present them as descriptive elements in contemporary fiction. I just finished reading Spook Country, and I get the distinct impression he’s having fun with this.

It has some of his favorite character types—defrocked military men, art traders, hugely wealthy pawn-pushers, loners living outside their home countries.

It has specific concepts and technologies, slightly altered to fit present-day circumstances:

From Virtual Light:

He had his feet up on the back of the front passenger seat and the little red lights around the edges of his sneakers were spelling out the lyrics to some song.

From Spook Country:

“You can’t see an image unless the wheels are turning. The system senses the wheel’s position and fires the LEDs it needs, to invoke an image in persistence of vision”

In the future world Neuromancer, ICE stood for Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, software to prevent hackers from gaining access to computers. In the contemporary world of Spook Country, ICE is a different kind of gatekeeper: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The “locative art” helmets in Spook Country, while I’m not aware of any such item available as an off-the-shelf product, would be technically feasible today. And they recapitulate the augmented-reality goggles that were the MacGuffin in Virtual Light.

The most delicious update of all, in Spook Country:

“See-bare-espace,” Odile pronounced, gnomically, “it is everting.”
“Turns itself inside out,” offered Alberto, by way of clarification. “Cyberspace.”

Here Gibson gets to take a word he coined in Neuromancer, which was adopted wholeheartedly into the English language, and re-uses it here unironically. I have to wonder if he was consciously looking for an opportunity to work it in, or if it just flowed out naturally—as if he had re-learned the word as everyone else uses it—and then he rocked back and thought “How about that!”

Perhaps Gibson’s favorite character type—appearing in one form or another in Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Pattern Recognition—is the idiot-savant bricoleur. That character makes no appearance in Spook Country. Perhaps the part is played by Gibson himself, cutting pieces out of his old books and reassembling them into something new.

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