I’m curious as to why, in his first five solo novels (he drops the convention for All Tomorrow’s Parties, and it was largely irrelevant in The Difference Engine, the collaboration with Bruce Sterling that came between Mona Lisa Overdrive and Virtual Light), Gibson uses a phonetic spelling of the Japanese pronunciation of words borrowed from English. The Idoru of the title is a Japanese borrowing of the English word “idol,” and it’s not uncommon for Gibson to write “sarariman” when he means “salaryman.” Perhaps it’s to indicate that, while these words have been borrowed from English, the concept has been altered, formalized or radicalized enough, to the point where it’s no longer quite the same thing as it would be in English (a process that words go through quite regularly in the English language’s gluttonous drive to expand its lexicon). If that’s so, then why drop most of the terms in favour of conventional English in All Tomorrow’s Parties? Perhaps it was a decision made by his editor or publisher.
An idoru, a Japanese pop idol, is a different thing than the pop idols we have here in North America, even after the advent of programs like American Idol and Canadian Idol. Their careers are generally more varied, even more manufactured (if you can believe it), and significantly shorter. They are also almost exclusively young women (not so many Justin Biebers there). Rei Toei has been built from the ground up to be the ultimate idoru. Her appearance, her personality, perhaps even her music all shifts to accommodate the specific likes and wants of any one of her fans. But she learns, and she becomes. While Rei Toei’s AI is not quite on the level of Wintermute and Neuromancer of the Sprawl Trilogy, her identity is equally about process. She is an emergent consciousness rather than a constructed one, greater than the sum her parts. She is growing all the time, so densely packed with information that Colin Laney, a savant with a sort of chemically induced mild autism, a data-whisperer, if you can forgive me that construction, can’t even bear to look at her. The catalyst for most of the action of Idoru comes from her impending marriage to Rez, a rock star who has managed to stay on top for decades, whose wealth and stardom has taken on a life of its own, autonomous in a way that suggests that, given enough time, something like Rei Toei herself may emerge from the data it generates, or perhaps it already has, and Rez is merely a species of vestigial limb or organ, like an appendix. None of the characters seem to understand the point of the marriage, though to be fair even I had difficulty figuring out what Gibson was trying to say after he’d filtered it through Rez’s rock star-grade philosophy. I think that when Rez and Rei are together neither possesses a stable identity (as far as such a thing goes), but rather move into the realm of pure process. There are ripples here of Sharon Apple and Motoko Kusanagi.
Poor Colin Laney. Gibson writes a number of characters who have special relationships to information, like Marly in Count Zero and Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition, but I think Laney is the closest to a contemporary “power user” of the Internet, though he is also the only one who has been altered or augmented in any way. He has access to considerably more and different kinds of information than we do, but anyone who has gone looking for an innocuous piece of information only to find themselves locked in an intense, quasi-addictive and profoundly focused state, traveling from link to link and eventually seeing things that probably aren’t that innocuous, anyone who has experienced that will have no difficulty understanding the sometimes dramatic leaps in logic Laney makes when sifting through the detritus of someone else life, looking for “nodal points” (I have an example from my own life in mind, but it’s creepy as hell, and was entirely innocent/accidental, but there’s no possible way to explain it that will sound innocent/accidental, so the anecdote must remain untold). There are paths through the information out there, and what’s required to navigate them is a considerable gift for a certain kind of intuition. Colin Laney is just such a pathfinder.
And speaking of occult information, the Bridge isn’t the only architecture in the Bridge Trilogy inspired by Kowloon Walled City. There is also a digital structure, a kind of communal (yet paradoxically private) data haven, so directly influenced by it that its creators have simply taken the name “Walled City.” Walled city is where any number of different pathways in Idoru converge, which is interesting if for no other reason than because it’s a community founded on the principle that no roads, physical or metaphorical, should ever lead there. The online Walled City is in part responsible for Rydell losing his job at IntenSecure (though Rydell barely figures in Idoru). They are hackers, idealists, otaku, Laney without the augmentation, without the bullshit. They are the ones who find Chia Pet Mackenzie (yes, Chia Pet Mackenzie) so that all the pieces can fall into place.
Chia’s name is one of those ridiculous stories that you think could only happen in a William Gibson novel, but that anyone who’s read Freakonomics would understand, so I won’t get into it here, but she’s another of Gibson’s lost girls and boys, out in the world doing something just a half step away from normal and getting caught up in a massive conspiracy. Chia is the closest thing North America has to an Otaku, and she’s been drafted to travel to Japan on behalf of her local chapter of the international Lo/Rez fanclub to learn the truth of what’s going on between Rez and Rei Toei. She’s never really traveled before, and she’s gone without permission, and those things make her a target. She’s manipulated into being an unwitting mule, and things just kind of go to hell from there. An organization called the Kombinat, a kind of mafia/government hybrid operating out of Russia, is after her, the smugglers are after her, and all because she accidentally intercepted a small grey case containing a nano-machine factory. The kind of thing they used to rebuild Tokyo, and were planning to use on San Francisco in Virtual Light. The kind of thing that Rez and Rei Toei believe can make their marriage happen. Nobody is entirely sure how, but as Idoru closes, a new island rises from the murk of Tokyo bay…
Idoru (which features my favourite of all William Gibson covers) was my twentieth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is All Tomorrow’s Parties, the last William Gibson book for a little while.