Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of Idoru by William Gibson

Review of Idoru by William Gibson

[This is an old – nearly ten years old – review I discovered yesterday in my reviews folder. As you can see, I put a lot more effort into such things back then.]

Apart from Neuromancer and The Difference Engine (co-written with Bruce Sterling), Idoru is probably Gibson’s most memorable novel – but only just.

Set in the next century, it is the story of two people. One, Colin Laney, used to be a ‘quantitive analyst’, that is, he investigated the activities of celebrities and politicians to uncover scandals, for a firm with the intriguing name of Slitscan; the other, Chia Pet MacKenzie, is a teenage girl and a member of the international fanclub for Lo/Rez, a kind of 21st century Beatles. The chapters of the book alternate between these two, and they only actually meet each other once, and that without speaking. Both of the characters are given the task, by two different sets of people, of finding out why Rez, the Irish-Chinese frontman of Lo/Rez, has decided he wants to marry a virtual celebrity – an idoru – called Rei Toei.

As a novel, Idoru is quite readable, but not much more. Its moves along at a moderate-to-fast pace, and the chapters, as if to mirror the fact that Laney has a slight concentration deficit, are quite short (on average, just under seven pages each). The prose is fairly spartan, with some liberal use of ellipsis (for instance, ‘she went into the room’ would be written simply ‘into the room’). There are some interesting descriptions: virtual surfaces that are made up of collages of pictures and footage; one character has a voice modified in virtual space to sound like dry rustlings and other noises. Unfortunately, none of these descriptions seem to come alive in any engaging way.

The characters are acceptable, though fairly two-dimensional; there always appears to be the possibility that they will blossom into something rather more involving, but it never happens. The two protagonists have thoughts, but not much in the way of feelings. For example: Laney, whilst in an orphanage, was used as a test subject for a drug, and yet there seems to be little or no indication as to how he feels about it. Chia, although she is supposed to be a fan, doesn’t seem very moved by investigating, or even meeting Rez. Rez himself and the idoru, when we get to meet them, don’t have much in the way of personalities, though they are fairly central to the story. None of the characters are particularly interested or interesting. The one possible exception is an Australian called Keith Blackwell who used to make a living by torturing other criminals, quite powerful ones, into giving him their money and then killing them; in his acknowledgements, the author indicates that Blackwell is supposed to be rather a menacing character, but it doesn’t really come across.

The plot also lacks depth. Although it’s all reasonably plausible, the meagre emotional content of the book makes it very difficult to care about what happens. To be fair, the book does manage to maintain the reader’s interest. The scheme of alternating chapters works quite well in this respect – each chapter leaves you with a question, and to get the answer you have to read past the next one, which itself presents another question. This scheme gives the book a bitty quality, unfortunately, and none of the answers are especially compelling. In the first part of the book there is an interesting series of chapters in which Colin Laney recounts how he came to be employed at, and leave, Slitscan – this contributes to a plot twist later on, but there is little sense of development in the novel as a whole. There are also some elements of subplot which are left unresolved, in particular, Laney’s unusual skill as a quantitive analyst.

Idoru scores a little higher when it is viewed as a commentary on technological development. Rez’s affair with the artificial Rei Toei represents Man’s relationship with technology: we create it, it takes on a life of its own, and we marry to produce some new order. The idoru it/herself is the apogee of a series of artificial celebrities (a series which has, in reality, already begun with Kyoko Date, a ‘virtual idol’ created by Holipro, a Japanese music company). Paradoxically, these idoru come more and more to be regarded as human, and human celebrities come more and more to be regarded as interchangeable objects. This raises an interesting couple of questions: ‘What, actually, is the difference between a human being and a programmed computer?’ and ‘If computers can take the place of humans, why shouldn’t they?’ Gibson seems to accept that these changes will occur whether we like them or not.

William Gibson’s debut novel, Neuromancer, is something of a classic, though, to be honest, like Idoru and his other work it has an unengaging, anodyne quality. What makes it good is the novelty of its vision: it is the seminal cyberpunk novel, describing the new concept – and the author’s coinage – of cyberspace. Idoru might have been a better novel if the author had just concentrated on Laney, reduced Chia to a minor character, and allowed some of the other characters to have their own points of view; some more characterisation and background information wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Gibson is the progenitor of his genre and his work does hold a certain attraction, but this novel  is likely only to appeal to cyberpunk aficionados; anyone else will find it rather dull.

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Categories: Literature, Reviews
  1. 14 September 2006 at 9:27 pm

    Hmm can’t really say I agree with all that, but I’m not looking to upset ppl either, have you tried his latest? Pattern Recognition, I found it a much more mature work than his older stuff (well obviously). But if you want character depth maybe you should try it, I found myself forming a real bond with the protagonist.

  2. 14 September 2006 at 11:45 pm

    Nothing wrong with expressing an opinion, kubikboy. It may well have been a better book than I described.

    Idoru was the last Gibson book I read (or maybe Virtual Light, if that was later) and I have thought about reading some of his newer stuff, but just never really bothered. I might check Pattern Recognition out – thanks.

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