Tuesday, November 15, 2011

William Gibson's Idoru

IdoruIdoru by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the William Gibson book I'd been dreading, where the amount of Japanese flavour he weaves into almost every story leaps into the foreground and the whole thing is set in Tokyo, and everything from the title to the time it was written suggested it would be too much of a book by a Japanophile, for Japanophiles. As I read more and more of Gibson's work, though, I had the growing impression that he really did 'get' Japan, or at least see it in a way similar to the way I do, and actually, Idoru is laced with little observations that tie into that. There's a moment where a girl in the bathroom in the back room of a nightclub sees a poster for an American white supremacist rock band and wonders what it's doing in Japan, but then notes that 'her father had said you could never tell what the Japanese would make of anything', and I think that pretty much sums it up.

I still don't actually know why it's called "Idoru" instead of "Idol" or "Aidoru", though, which is something that will bug me forever because I'm a pedant.

Idoru actually seems particularly interesting now, in 2011 (several years after it is set, if I'm not mistaken, though I'm not sure when exactly the Bridge trilogy takes place beyond "just after the Millennium") in that it concerns a virtual singer, the titular idol, and only last year - or was it this year? - Japan's AKB48 was found to have a new, virtual member; a synthetic singer whose public face was pieced together from other members of the band. The idol in Idoru is a little more complex, perhaps owing more to the artificial intelligence in Gibson's earlier Sprawl trilogy than to AKB48, but it struck me as an interesting moment of life imitating art.

As for the actual story, as you peel away the Tokyo flavour, I was a little less enthralled. Things start well, with the typical multi-perspective mess of Gibson characters, and over the course of the book all those threads get pulled in together, but by the end I was left more confused than anything else. There is a denouement, of a kind, but not one that felt satisfying - unless, perhaps, the story is going to be picked up in All Tomorrow's Parties. Idoru, though it contains some of the same characters, feels less connected to Virtual Light than the various books in the Sprawl trilogy did, though, so I'm not sure what to expect of this final part. I think part of the problem here was that, as in Mona Lisa Overdrive, one of the primary perspective characters has little idea or understanding of what is going on. Gibson is actually great at writing these characters, colouring the world with their viewpoint, but in this case I couldn't help but feel it detracted from my understanding of events.
In the end, this was an interesting foray into how Gibson sees Tokyo, or saw Tokyo, back in the early or mid '90s, with a curious story that may have further repercussions in the final part of the trilogy. There are a lot of interesting ideas in here, things that reminded me in part of Snow Crash and Stephenson's thoughts on the early internet - things like the Walled City, of the kind of computers people use, of people learning in school of a time when there wasn't an internet. In the Sprawl trilogy, Gibson predicted a cyberspace quite unlike the one we ended up with. In the Bridge trilogy, as he closes with the present, we see a world like ours, but distorted. I'm extremely curious to see where he goes next.

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