Review of Idoru by William Gibson
by William Gibson
One reason I regret that so much young-adult science fiction is dystopian at the moment is that it fails to adequately explore the intersections of technological advancement and pop culture. In fact, this is largely true of much science-fiction—but it’s a particularly keen absence in a subgenre wherein pop culture should be at the foreground of the protagonist’s experience. Considering that the amount of time most of us spend engaging with pop culture to one degree or another is dwarfed only by the amount of time we spend thinking about sex, food, and sleep, it’s curious that we often neglect it in favour of so-called “Bigger” Ideas.
So maybe William Gibson’s brilliance isn’t so much his seeming prescience as it is his willingness to turn the light of technological extrapolation into an introspection of our own cultural evolutions. I suspect this is why Japan figures so prominently in much of his writing: Japanese culture operates within a pressurized equilibrium between the traditional realm and the hyper-accelerated popular realm. This embodies the famous Gibsonian adage that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed”. Our techno-fetishist obsession with Japanese culture means the media tends to present it as racing ever-towards a cultural singularity in sharp contrast to the more sedate pace of Western adjustment to the proliferation of networking (or cyberspace, as Gibson called it in those days) and distributed social cognition.
Idoru exemplifies this facet of Gibson’s genius, then. As the second book in the loose Bridge trilogy, it is set in a near future in which an earthquake rocks both Japan and San Francisco, and the resulting use of nanotechnology to rebuild has altered the geography and culture of these places. The eponymous character is a semi-sentient AI construct that also happens to be a pop singer—this is Japan, after all, and her name is actually Rei Toei. She doesn’t enter into the plot for a while, however. Instead, Gibson intersperses the narratives of Colin Laney and Chia McKenzie—and the result is addictive. He splits scenes across micro-chapters in such a way as to create knife-edge tension, forcing me to read a Chia chapter so I can get back to what Colin was doing—or vice versa, for my relative fascination with the two protagonists changed multiple times as I read.
This ability to make the reader’s opinions progress and regress in dazzling, non-linear fashions is another reason I love Gibson’s writing. His plots tend to be intricate and abstract to the point of seeming like they aren’t there—and they are, but he builds them into the background of the world until they reach a point where they just appear to be setting. You really have to work to follow the bizarre chain of events that leads from beginning to end, and that doesn’t always pay off. But I’m willing to overlook this, because Gibson manages to engage that part of the brain that likes thrillers—for Idoru, like so much of his work, is undeniably a techno-thriller—without making me hate myself for reading a thriller.
He also makes it all seem so effortless, even though a moment’s consideration will reveal it obviously isn’t. Idoru has a lot of very plausible technology—Colin’s job sounds very Big Data, definitely something Hubertus Bigend would be into, and certainly well within the capabilities of the NSA, Google, or maybe Amazon—as well as some stuff that is possible but not quite there yet—Chia’s immersive computing rig is like the Oculus Rift, only actually good. Unlike some authors, however, Gibson spends almost zero time on technobabble explanations of how these things work. (Keep in mind this book was published in 1996, so the Internet and web were both a thing, but they were things very different from the Internet and web as we think of them today.) Gibson demonstrates why distinctions between so-called hard and soft science fiction are meaningless. This is hard in that it involves AIs and virtual realities and nanotechnology and soft in that it involves the cultural implications of marrying an artificial person, of identity in cyberspace, of ethics and morality in the land of Big Data.
Let’s put it this way: it says something about Gibson’s skills that Idoru is generally one of his lesser-known novels. A lesser writer who put out Idoru would be remembered for it. This book is overshadowed only because Neuromancer et al happen to be titans to this book’s giant. On its own, it can still crush the weak and puny dross of pulp science-fiction any day of the week.
No, I’m not actually going to spend that much time talking about the book, just meditate on its and Gibson’s awesomeness. This is a book for Gibson fans to enjoy; it’s a book for newcomers to read as well. You don’t need to read Virtual Light to pick up Idoru—you could read the former afterwards and not really be spoiled. All you need is a certain willingness to contemplate the various complexities of our nascent networked age and how that will influence our relationships, our identities, and of course, our organized crime.
Because if there is one constant in William Gibson’s novels, it’s that somewhere along the way, you run into a mob boss or two.