A hologram doesn't really exist in physical space. You can walk around it, marveling at the way perspective shunts as you move, appreciating the nubby details of 3-D texture. But reach out to touch it, and it stands revealed as a trick of the light a beautiful scientific con.
All Tomorrow's Parties is a hologram. Oh, the new novel by William Gibson author of 1984's groundbreaking Neuromancer and, famously, the man who invented the concept of cyberspace looks like a book all right. It has heft; it involves printed words on paper. But just as a hologram uses the interference patterns of two sources of light to create something that appears to be more than the sum of its parts but is, in fact, less, so Parties combines the themes, characters, and settings of Gibson's previous two novels into a futuristic chimera. You can't touch this story. And it certainly doesn't touch you.
Frustrating? You bet. In the years since Neuromancer came out, presaging such developments as the World Wide Web, virtual reality, the hacker mystique, and The Matrix, Gibson has struggled to match the dour pop power of that cyberpunk classic. He's had varying degrees of success, but with 1993's Virtual Light and 1996's Idoru, he reclaimed his gift. The first novel took readers to a day-after-tomorrow San Francisco, where the quake-damaged Oakland Bay Bridge has been rebuilt as a towering city of squatters. Idoru was even better, with its prescient visions of virtual Japanese pop stars, soul-damaged data adepts, creepy-crawly reality TV shows, and a sweet-faced teenage girl named Chia Pet McKenzie who finds herself down the virtual rabbit hole. Together, the two novels reminded readers of what makes Gibson so damn good: a love of Raymond Chandleresque pulp poetry, a knack for visionary squalor, a bone-dry wit, and an insistence that the technology we create will inevitably evolve beyond us.
All Tomorrow's Parties promises more of the same. Even the title, a Velvet Underground reference, hints at the pop-music arcana that studded earlier Gibson novels (the songs of Steely Dan practically constitute a sub rosa concordance to Neuromancer and its two sequels). Instead, the author uses the characters from the previous two books to prop up an empty house. Idoru's Colin Laney, whose freakish gift allows him to glean meaning from oceans of data, returns as a Tokyo subway vagrant convinced that a Y2K-style info-pocalypse is at hand. Virtual Light's dauntless bike messenger Chevette Washington winds her way back to the Bay Bridge and resumes a wary romance with rent-a-cop Berry Rydell. Flitting around the edges is Rei Toei, the beautiful, wise, and 100 percent holographic diva who was the title character and unsettling centerpiece of Idoru.
They all converge on both the bridge and the nefarious plans of one Cody Harwood, an obscenely rich PR mastermind who suggests Bill Gates with Dr. Evil's agenda. For the first time, though, Gibson leans too heavily on his tough-guy, future-retro writing style, and it turns comic book on him. One passage: ''The elevator, this ballroom, this waltzing host unseen now but sensed as background, as necessary gestalt, descends it seems down all his days, in some coded iteration of the history that brings him to this night.'' There's lots more like that.
Which might be all right if Gibson described his world in any vivid detail, but he seems to take it on faith that you've read the first two books in the trilogy. Virtual Light bristles with descriptive passages of the shanty city on the bridge; Idoru vibrantly sketches in Colin Laney's life story and postmillennium Tokyo; All Tomorrow's Parties just plonks it all down in front of you, ready-made, barely limned, and not very interesting. And the new characters introduced here a Nietzschean assassin, an autistic, watch-obsessed street kid, a film-grrl who records everything with a miniature hover-camera float through this skeletal narrative like free ions.
In many Gibson novels, the climactic plot turn occurs virtually off stage, and it's not until later that you realize what an immense, mind-blowing event has transpired. All Tomorrow's Parties runs true to form, but for the first time there's no deeper resonance. How can there be when the world in which the characters move has only been roughly penciled in? Without spoiling the end, I'll just say that holography is revealed as having a soul. It's a measure of a reader's disappointment that you can't say the same for the book. C