This world's technology is explicitly invasive, even infiltrating the postures of street gangs. "He had sharp eyes, Little Bird, and a 10X monocular that dangled on his chest amid the bones of assorted animals and antique bottleneck cartridge brass." The novel evokes locales with sophisticated shorthand and keeps a thumb firmly clamped on the pulse of accelerating societies, but it finally delivers less impact than it should. It concludes a trilogy whose earlier successful volumes ("Neuromancer," "Count Zero") clog the last third of this one with their background stories. Software ghosts come to loom as large as the onstage characters. Murky allusions to voodoo spirits in computer-created worlds will simply baffle those not up on the earlier books.
Finally there is no place for the characters to go. They walk off into a kind of software heaven where apparently anything is possible and therefore, following H. G. Wells' admonition to science fiction, nothing is interesting.
Science is the fundamental tool distinguishing the genre from fantasy, but its uses are diversifying as the field matures. Venus of Shadows chronicles the transformation of the planet Venus to make it habitable, a tale begun in Pamela Sargent's "Venus of Dreams." Centuries hence, only honored people are allowed direct linkage to computer databases, so Gibson's visions cannot happen.
Instead, enormous engineering dominates the human dramas here: "The shield called the Parasol, an umbrella of giant panels with a diameter as large as the planet's, hid Venus from the sun, enabling that world to cool. Frozen hydrogen had been siphoned off from distant Saturn and hurled toward Venus in tanks, where the hydrogen combined with free oxygen to form water. The atmosphere had been seeded with new strains of algae that fed on sulfuric acid and then expelled it as iron and copper sulfides."
This recipe might conceivably work, but that's not the point. In the future our species may seek immense drama. Sargent's characters long for "scenes of grandeur and self-sacrifice," but to them the ancient struggles of religions and nations seem dwarfed by science's steady unraveling of riddles. Humanity responds to the scientific landscape by grasping for Godlike powers.
This is the generational sage writ large indeed. Yet the ponderous sway of worlds and human masses does not cloak the personal tales that Sargent follows with a patient, insightful eye. Here humanity is aware that science has given it stewardship over all life, bringing a subtle, somber weight to even coffee-klatch gossip.
Though science is a human creation, it casts doubts on the primacy of human views of space and time. Cramer's shadow universe expands our sense of the possibilities brimming beyond the next turn, making Gibson's stylish, electric zest seem oddly narrow. Sargent writes of a time when we have learned to think in larger categories. Still, all three authors assume the deeper program of the genre: that we shall transform ourselves, forced by our discoveries, like it or not.
TWISTOR \o7 by John Cramer (William Morrow: $18.95) \f7 MONA LISA OVERDRIVE \o7 by William Gibson (Bantam Spectra: $18.95) \f7 VENUS OF SHADOWS \o7 by Pamela Sargent (Doubleday: $19.95) \f7