Book Review: Idoru, by William Gibson

Lo/Rez is the hottest rock band on the planet, but their fan club is horrified by rumors that Rez, the band’s lead singer, intends to marry Rei Toei, a Japanese idoru, an “idol singer.” The problem is, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Tokyopop princess—Rei Toei is a software agent, a complex amalgamation of computer code that simulates a human being. The Seattle branch of the Lo/Rez fan club is disturbed enough to send one of its members, fourteen-year-old Chia McKenzie, to Japan to investigate. Enroute, a strange woman gives her a package to carry through Customs, and Chia soon finds herself in a whole lot of trouble.

Meanwhile, data analyst Colin Laney is losing his job at Slitscan, a company that gleans, manufactures, and spins news about the rich and famous. Laney has a singular gift—he can intuitively spot trends developing within masses of seemingly-unrelated data. He tried to thwart the suicide of a celebrity’s girlfriend, an incident only he could foresee, and that action wasn’t in Slitscan’s financial interest. To make matters worse, Laney’s been offered a new job by a menacing representative of the conglomerate that manages Lo/Rez. Slitscan would like nothing better than to destroy Lo/Rez with the scandal of the century. If Laney accepts the job offer, he risks much more than the loss of Slitscan’s goodwill, and if he rejects it…well, let’s just say that’s not really an option. He’s caught between two powerful forces that covet his talent, an ability even Laney doesn’t completely understand.

Something earthshattering is about to happen, and Laney is the only one who can see it coming. He doesn’t know exactly what it is yet, but Rez and the idoru are at its heart. Is Rez just an eccentric rock singer who’s fried his brain with recreational drugs? Is Rei Toei something more than a fancy computer program? What’s inside that mysterious box in Chia’s purse? Inquiring minds want to know, and they’re willing to kill for the information.

In Idoru, William Gibson, the acclaimed father of cyberpunk and author of Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, takes us once again to a near-future world where the line between the real and the virtual blurs. This time, he explores the nature of celebrity in the Information Age, a phenomenon not fully explained by either reality or illusion. In the world of Idoru, celebrity is a commodity, and its creation and destruction are a profitable business. Fans create a living mythology that shapes both the object of their adulation and themselves. Virtual reality and telepresence create autonomous societies within the infosphere invisible to the outside world and wielding enormous power. True artificial intelligence hovers just beyond the limits of technology, composed, as one character says, of the “aggregates of subjective desire.” When, and if, it emerges, Gibson asserts it will be in a place and of a form that no one would have expected.

Idoru is a gripping story, intriguing and suspenseful. My one disappointment was that all the characters, even the ones who were ostensibly pulling the strings, seemed to be wandering in a fog, pushed about by forces they couldn’t control or fully comprehend. Yeah, I know, life can be like that—a lot—but the story builds up an overwhelming sense of some guiding intelligence orchestrating events from the shadows that ultimately devolves into randomness. Remarkable and frightening things happen, but like Laney, who manifests his analytic gift without understanding how or why it works, I felt like Gibson never quite got around to telling me why these things were happening, or why they were so important and inevitable. There are hints aplenty, but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, even at the end of the story.

On the other hand, I loved Gibson’s foray into the world of image brokers, fangirls, mafioso of various flavors, and a virtual world that seemed just as real and surreal as the physical world.  The characters were interesting and memorable, especially Rez’ security chief, Keithy Blackwell, a Tazmanian ex-con and one of the smartest and scariest hired goons I’ve encountered in a long time. He’s a complex character, and his ethics are, to put it mildly, ambiguous. Another character remarks that the most frightening thing about Blackwell is that “sometimes I find myself getting used to him,” and that’s a pretty good assessment.

Idoru was published in 1996, but it still feels fresh and plausible to me. Some of Gibson’s projections are very close to becoming reality, and a few are already here.

I’d rate the material at an R overall, for a few stretches of raw language, a couple of non-explicit adult situations, and some violence, mostly implied, but perhaps more frightening because it’s implied.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: Idoru, by William Gibson

  1. Firstly, I liked the review. Where others tend to focus on Gibson’s stories or wordsmithing, you delved into many of the ideas underpinning the novel which is always nice to read in a review. Regarding the reason behind your comment about “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, Gibson does this in every book of his I’ve read. He never explicitly explains to the reader the moral paradigm at work or any message that has been written between the lines. It’s more that he presents a vignette about a possible future, which in turn makes the reader ask questions to themselves, and ultimately make up their own mind whether what they see is good, bad, beautiful, ugly, etc., etc. Naturally this vignette is the result of his worldview and is thus intertwined with a multitude of assumptions and angles. In other words, rather than striking the reader upon the head with an obvious statement like: “Humanity’s proclivity for celebrity worship will only be taken to more complex, strangely-moral heights in the future.” he prefers to let the situation and characters indirectly tell the same story. Though never stated overtly, it’s rather obvious to me that Gibson has some poignant concerns about the integration of technology with society, culture, religion, and so forth but is too subtle to state as much in bold letters.

    1. Jesse,

      Thanks for stopping by! That’s a great point, and it’s an element of Gibson’s writing I understand better after reading Distrust That Particular Flavor. While technology is one of the most powerful culture-changing forces, we often spend too much time focusing on the “what” and “how” of change rather than its *meaning* for humanity as a whole, and for Gibson, that’s the most important question of all. It’s the sort of prediction that science fiction *isn’t* very good at–it’s often quite effective in extrapolating technology itself, but tends to forecast shortsighted transformations in human society, both good and bad.

      It’s always better to show rather than tell–as you observe, Gibson understands this and leaves the connecting-of-dots to the reader. Alas, the little guy inside my head with green eye-shade and stubby pencil is always hollering for closure. 🙂


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