Vancouver novelist William Gibson writes about the future of the wired world as though it were a place he is compelled to visit, but would never want to live in. His characters move through cyberspace—a term he coined in his 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer—like automatons propelled through a spectral urban landscape that offers no shelter, no rest. Usually, readers have the comfort of knowing that such a future, if at all likely, is at several removes from the present. But the world of Idoru looks eerily like a future that has already arrived. The cult of celebrity has become a force above the law, and reputations are made and broken by demented, power-hungry producers. The global web of data has become so dense that truly useful bits of information are almost impossible to find.
At the same time, virtually every act, from raiding the hotel mini-bar to riding the subway, leaves a digitized record and a trail for others to follow.
And—pushing the envelope of credibility only slightly—intimacy with an artificial intelligence becomes inevitable, even weirdly welcome. Gibson’s impressive descriptive powers and his ability to keep a plot moving briskly are on full display in Idoru. But the cautionary tale offers little new insight into the difficulty of being human in an age dominated by machines.
Reading Idoru, however, is a trip in itself, much like launching into the Internet for the first time. Scene melts into scene without the usual signposts of conventional narrative: jargon is not explained, relationships are only hinted at. It is best, as when navigating the Net, to go with the flow. Eventually, a Gibsonian world reveals itself, a recognizable but appalling place where identity is little more than the sum of computerized information about a person—or a thing. Col-
in Laney, a Net researcher with a freakish knack for fishing vital information from vast pools of digital flotsam, is hired to find out why an aging rock idol has decided to marry the idoru, a Japanese celebrity who is a hologram. But Laney finds that Rez, the lead singer for the eternally popular—and therefore unique—rock band, Lo/Rez, is unusually elusive: his handlers have created a false electronic persona that even Laney cannot see through. A portrait only emerges after he sifts through the electronic messages of Rez’s fans, mostly young girls still untainted by the near-universal practice of “tweaking” and “spinning” information for profit and power.
In a separate plotline, one of Rez’s 14-year-old admirers is sent to Tokyo by her Seattle fan club to investigate the Rez-idoru rumor. Against the backdrop of a Lego-like Tokyo, rebuilt by machines after “the great quake,” Gibson fast-forwards the action through elaborately decorated, three-dimensional virtual meeting places to crumbling nightclubs in abandoned buildings. Like a Net surfer closing in on that elusive, I vital bit of data, the story gj line cuts back and forth E5 between the two narra^ five threads with ever-increasing urgency. Events climax, as it were, in a seedy Tokyo brothel, but the novel is finally unsatisfying. Gibson’s sweet, smart, bewildered protagonists cope as best they can with a world where the touchstones of identity—family, friends, work— seem hopelessly corrupted by technology. While the final chapters suggest something positive might emerge from the mess— even a way in which human beings might gain undreamed-of spiritual power through artificial intelligence—those ideas are barely developed. For a thriller, that may be just fine. But if Gibson aims to be more than the reigning guru of cyberspace, he will have to unravel the knots of the web he has woven so well.
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