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Sunday, October 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gibson's Latest Party Ends A Bit Too Soon

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "All Tomorrow's Parties" by William Gibson Putnam, $24.95 -------------------------------

By now, readers of William Gibson's novels have a pretty good idea what to expect from one of his books: Streetwise characters, usually damaged or downwardly mobile, struggle against inimical corporate and/or criminal forces in a realistic, computer- and media-saturated, near-future milieu.

Gibson didn't originate the term "cyberpunk," but he is the foremost practitioner of that particular literary genre, his influence spreading beyond science fiction into the fabric of popular culture.

"All Tomorrow's Parties," the third, and best, novel in a loosely connected series begun with "Visible Light" and continued in "Idoru," is something of departure in subject matter, while retaining Gibson's hard-boiled style. Cyberspace plays an integral part in Gibson's new book. But the great majority of the novel takes place in the physical world, focusing on the effects of conceptual breakthrough, in this case the convergence of hidden patterns that change history.

While the book is not entirely successful in execution, the concepts underpinning it are fascinating. The novel begins in 21st-century Tokyo with Colin Laney (the "netrunner" introduced in "Idoru") living among the homeless in a makeshift city constructed of shipping cartons. As a result of a pharmaceutical experiment performed upon him as a child, Laney can track nodal points, ". . .

discontinuities in the texture of information," in cyberspace. "They indicate emerging change, but not what that change will be," Laney says.

Laney realizes the millennial fears at the end of the 20th century were well-founded but premature: "Know what the joke is? It didn't change when they thought it would. Millennium was a Christian Holiday . . . We're coming up on the mother of all nodal points . . . It's all going to change."

He also knows the change will happen in San Francisco. Unfortunately, he is crippled by a side effect of the drug treatment: test subjects become obsessed stalkers of media figures, in his case, one Cody Harwood, "a twenty-first century synthesis of Bill Gates and Woody Allen."

Laney needs a man on the ground in San Francisco to track Harwood. He finds one in his former associate Rydell, a character first encountered in Gibson's "Visible Light." A former cop, Rydell is currently down on his luck, working in Los Angeles as a security guard at a Lucky Dragon, one in a chain of convenience stores owned by Harwood. Only too happy to ditch his dead-end job, Rydell accepts Laney's commission and heads to San Francisco in the company of Buell Creedmore, ersatz country singer.

Gibson also reintroduces Chevette, another character from "Visible Light" and Rydell's ex-girlfriend. On the run from another ex-lover, this one abusive, she too flees Los Angeles for her old stomping grounds in San Francisco.

Having taken the same drug as Laney, Harwood can also see nodal points. He plans to profit from the coming paradigm shift and is not above using Konrad, his assassin, to achieve his ends. Harwood and Rydell enter into a duel by proxy, using their respective agents.

Also part of the mix are Rei Toei, the virtual title character of "Idoru," as well as the inhabitants of San Francisco's Bay Bridge, now a home to outcasts and marginalized members of society.

Gibson skillfully juggles the cast and plot threads and displays his considerable abilities at dropping in convincing near-future details, giving the book its necessary day-after-tomorrow verisimilitude.

"All Tomorrow's Parties" hits on all cylinders for the first half of the novel, its stripped-down prose a welcome return to form after the naive, Nancy Drew quality of "Idoru." Gibson is often compared to Raymond Chandler and, while both writers are essentially romantics, "All Tomorrow's Parties' " combination of subject matter and compacted language more calls to mind a melding of J.G. Ballard and James Ellroy.

Once all the pieces are in place, however, the novel loses its focus. Gibson seems to get impatient for the book to end. Coincidence upon coincidence mix with too many B-movie conventions, including a deus ex machina lifted from "The Towering Inferno." The hurried feel of the last third of the book robs it of a climax worthy of its setup, and the novel ends on a confusing, rather than satisfying, note.

Still, the philosophical underpinnings and strong sense of place nearly rescue "All Tomorrow's Parties." Fans of Gibson's may be satisfied, but readers new to him are advised to start with "Neuromancer" or "Burning Chrome," his excellent short-story collection. ------------------------------- Author reading

William Gibson will read from "All Tomorrow's Parties" at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. Sponsored by University Book Store. Information: 206-634-3400.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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