Idoru (1996) is billed as the middle novel in William Gibson’s BRIDGE trilogy (bookended by Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties) but, though it shares some history and characters with its companions, it can easily stand alone.
Idoru follows the stories of two people who live in Gibson’s post-industrial world. One is Colin Laney (of All Tomorrow’s Parties) who grew up in a Florida orphanage where he was given experimental drugs that changed his brain in such a way that he can now see patterns in huge amounts of data. Laney thinks of himself as a “cybernetic water witch” — he can sometimes predict that something important is about to happen, just by noticing the changes in seemingly mundane data. This skill was very useful to his former employer, Slitscan, a SoCal company that makes money by creating and destroying celebrities. But when Laney’s ability gets him in some trouble with the law, he decides to look for a new opportunity in Tokyo.
Our other main character is a young girl named Chia Pet McKenzie, a member of the Seattle chapter of a fan club for a Tokyo-based popstar named Rez. When rumors arise suggesting that Rez is going to marry the idoru Rei Toei, a virtual popstar (who we also met in All Tomorrow’s Parties), Chia’s fan club sends her to Tokyo to track down the truth.
In Tokyo, which is still rebuilding after a devastating earthquake that killed thousands, both Laney and Chia get caught up in a plot that involves nanotechnology, the Yakuza, and some Russians. The drama takes place in both a virtual and the real world.
Idoru is the cyberpunk adventure that Gibson’s fans expect — it’s fast, fun, and flashy with bizarre but likeable characters, high-tech futurology, and striking scenery. Gibson’s novels always leave me with images that stick. In Iduro we get to visit a Kafka-themed bar, see computers made of semi-precious stones, walk up stairs decorated with “chemically frozen frescoes of piss,” and meet adherents to strange cults.
My favorite image comes from a scene where Chia has to go to a “Love Hotel” because there’s nowhere else in Tokyo to privately access the internet. The hotel’s bathroom is all black, white, and chrome, and it contains a goody-bag for the hotel’s clientele. After the bad guys show up, there’s a tussle in the bathroom which knocks over the goody-bag and when Chia later walks in, she sees “Day-Glo penis-things scattered across the black and white tile floor.” I’ll never forget that.
But Gibson’s novels are not just about the adventure and the imagery. They’re always thoughtful and often deep. Like most of Gibson’s work, a major theme in Idoru concerns the roles of technology and pop culture in human evolution. As one character puts it:
It’s about futurity… Do you know that our word for ‘nature’ is of quite recent coinage? It is scarcely a hundred years old. We have never developed a sinister view of technology… It is an aspect of the natural, of oneness. Through our efforts, oneness perfects itself… And popular culture is the testbed of our futurity.
The word “idoru” (from the Japanese word “aidoru” meaning “idol”) refers to industry-made virtual popstars — they don’t really exist — and the novel asks us to consider celebrity and the roles of industry, media, and consumers in creating both “real” and “virtual” celebrities. One memorable character, an online friend of Chia’s, uses technology to re-create herself in a way that is beneficial to her own mental health. And, the idoru herself seems to be in control of her own evolution and destiny, making us wonder if artificial intelligence is capable of such feats and how blurry the line between “real” and “virtual” may get.
Gibson’s characters feel comfortable interacting with technology in virtual worlds, but they also seem to be searching for something tangible in the real world. We see several examples of the desire to make physical connections with real people, starting with Chia’s flight to Tokyo to chase down the rumor about her idol and Laney’s visit to a celebrity whose data suggests she is suicidal. As we worry about how technology, especially the internet, may be changing our brains, I appreciate that Gibson makes the point that we still crave real human relationships.
Tantor Media released an audio version of Idoru a couple months ago. I really liked John McLain’s narration but I don’t think that everybody will. His voices and pacing fit the story and are pleasant to listen to, but he can sound a bit mechanical. I didn’t mind this at all, but others might. I’d suggest trying the sample at Audible or Amazon before purchasing this edition.