ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES

By William Gibson

Putnam. 304 pp. $24.95

Mention William Gibson and you can pretty much foretell the string of catchphrases, sentences and characters his name will elicit -- cyberpunk, the Sprawl, Neuromancer, jacking in, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel," Mona Lisa Overdrive, the street samurai Molly (she of the retractable razor-blade fingernails), above all the future as a grungy, high-tech junkyard. Of his generation of American science fiction writers -- one that includes such gifted talents as Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling and Michael Swanwick -- Gibson alone has made the jump to hyper-success, leaving the genre ghetto of Star Trek tie-ins far behind. Neuromancer was published in 1984 as a lowly Ace paperback original; All Tomorrow's Parties is a major October hardcover release, with author tour and national print advertising.

In some ways, this isn't quite fair. Sterling and Robinson, for instance, are more dazzling visionaries, with imaginations of enormous scope, fertility and energy. But Gibson possesses a storytelling voice that even Scheherazade might envy. Early critics often pointed to Raymond Chandler as an influence on his engaging, metaphorically revved-up style. More recent reviewers opt for Elmore Leonard, and certainly the likable rent-a-cop Rydell -- hero of All Tomorrow's Parties -- might fit easily into one of the Detroit master's laid-back thrillers. Moreover, like Leonard, Gibson enjoys meandering back and forth among three or four characters, slowly bringing them toward a usually deadly convergence, but with no special hurry. The contented reader goes with the flow, in thrall to that irresistible voice: "They set a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chaudni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT. He didn't see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco facade of a place called Khush-Oil Hotel.

"Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him anyway. . . . It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green." (That's the opening to Count Zero.)

Gibson's latest, All Tomorrow's Parties, builds on characters and backgrounds established in his two previous novels, Virtual Light and Idoru, and may thus be the conclusion to that venerable science fiction standby, the trilogy. May, that is, because there's no reason why Rydell, Chevette, Rei Toei and various other characters might not return for "further adventures," but I hope that Gibson has finished with them. Even now, All Tomorrow's Parties includes occasional info-dumps of back story -- paragraphs summarizing some of the history recounted in the two earlier novels -- that obtrude into the otherwise dependably smooth narrative. We don't really need any more visits to the Bridge either -- once the Bay Bridge, now transformed into a kind of libertarian squatters' village, part bazaar, part bohemia. Time to move on.

In Virtual Light, Gibson introduced Chevette, a pretty, slightly punkish bicycle messenger, who on a whim steals a pair of high-tech sunglasses that jack directly into one's brain. Bad idea. These shades, it turns out, can access a sinister project developed by one of those bland-seeming international corporations that secretly control Everything. Before long, various people are after the hapless Chevette, one of them being the former IntenSecure cop Rydell. These two amiable losers eventually join forces and, against all odds, manage to thwart their seemingly all-powerful enemies. In Idoru Rydell subsequently met up with Colin Laney, disaffected and confused like most of Gibson's heroes but in possession of a special hypersensitivity to the flow of computer information; he is able to intuit the nodal points at which data forces converge or break up. Laney ends up in Japan, where he encounters Rei Torei -- the idoru -- a computer-generated simulation, the most gorgeous and desirable woman imaginable, the sum of all men's dreams. Much of the novel involves her possible "marriage" to a world-famous rock star.

When All Tomorrow's Parties opens, Laney has escaped from the luxurious surroundings of Idoru and is now living in a cardboard box on a platform of a Tokyo subway station. To be precise, he's living in the back half of a box, sharing it with another down and out. He has retreated there for two reasons. First, because a drug, administered to him as a child, has finally kicked in: 5-SB gradually turns its victims into stalkers, and Laney has become fixated on the immensely rich and reclusive Cody Harwood. More important, the increasingly obsessed data-mystic has come to realize that history is approaching a critical turning point. "We're coming up on the mother of all nodal points. I can see it, now. It's all going to change." Somehow, Laney realizes that Harwood is trying to control this moment and must be stopped.

And so, from his hovel, Laney masterminds a plan to thwart the most powerful man in the world. To do this he recruits his old friend Rydell, who quits his job at a Lucky Dragon convenience store and travels back to San Francisco, where he is to retrieve a mysterious package. At the same time, Chevette goes on the lam from her abusive boyfriend Carson and returns to the Bridge with a friend who hopes to make a documentary film about its "interstitial" culture. Just as crucial, the junk dealer Fontaine takes in a kind of Hispanic Wild Child, discovering that Silencio possesses an uncanny sympathy for watches and timepieces. (Gibson fans will recall that the novelist wrote an article last spring about his own addiction to buying classic watches on the Internet.) Around all these figures there also moves, with calm deliberation, an unnamed figure, a deadly assassin with the courteous air of Max von Sydow in "Three Days of the Condor" and the accepting spirit of a Zen master. Gibson's prose grows formal, almost lyrical when he describes this mortality artist: "Beneath his right arm, reliably concealed, depends a knife that sleeps head down, like a vampire bat, honed to that edge required by surgeons, when surgeons cut with steel."

When this bespectacled warrior goes into desperate battle against a team of five highly trained professional killers, he is utterly peaceful: " `Don't anticipate outcome,' the man said. `Await the unfolding of events. Remain in the moment.' " In several ways, this nameless assassin nearly steals the book away. But then Gibson has always been good with such characters: Think of the sorrowful Mr. Warbaby in Virtual Light, with his crutch that fires incendiary missiles, or the polite, truly scary Blackwell of Idoru, formerly "a standover man," preying on other criminals, but now utterly devoted to the rock star who got him out of prison.

As usual, Gibson moves all his players with consummate skill, though one feels some looseness in the plotting. The abusive Carson seems underemployed, even thrown away. Silencio and the watches are put to a somewhat mundane though rather charming use. Laney's fate may be unavoidable but perhaps too obvious. The old-world assassin's final act is equally traditional.

So the reader won't be particularly surprised by the way matters play out in this new novel, which is another reason why I think it time for Gibson to search out new futures, as he did after his first "trilogy" (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive). Still, All Tomorrow's Parties is immensely engaging, alive on every page and as enjoyable a weekend entertainment as one could want. Who else but William Gibson would envisage a 21st century in which nature shows would be filmed in Detroit? Or imagine a flophouse that required reservations, booked in advance through an agency in the city?

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.