found drama

get oblique


by Rob Friesel

Idoru by William Gibson at Amazon.comQuote:

…I think I’d probably tell you that it’s easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us.

There is an odd surface tension here; some readers may approach Idoru from the wrong bias, through the lens of Neuromancer and the Sprawl trilogy. Those readers will expect the traditional cyberpunk romp of amphetamine-fueled Yakuza battles and twisted violent sex in coffin hotels; those readers will be disappointed and may not be able to penetrate the skin of this charged, deeply emotional book. Idoru is William Gibson’s Through the Looking Glass.

In typical Gibson style, the dueling narratives follow two distinctly melancholy characters: there is the starry-eyed teenaged angst of Chia Pet McKenzie and the existential, nearly Phildickian dread of Colin Laney1. The novel opens on Laney, recently terminated under dubious circumstances from his “quantitative analyst” position for a tv program called Slitscan; Laney has a rare gift that enables him to tease patterns out of seemingly random data and he is recruited by a Japanese company to come to Tokyo and perform some research on their most valuable asset — a rock star named Rez. Meanwhile, Chia is sent to Tokyo by her friends in Rez’s Seattle-based fan club to discover the truth about The Rumor — that Rez intends to marry a software construct, an idoru called Rei Toei.

Without a close inspection of the text, the novel might appear energetic but thematically trite. The plot moves along at a brisk pace: trans-Pacific flights whisk our protagonists into a Japanese Wonderland, quick-cut flashbacks fill in their respective histories, malicious and unseen maneuvering keeps every last character on his or her toes. Gibson drops his customary tropes: seedy back-alley deals gone awry, a detailed but ultimately vague send-up of “cyberspace”, a mischievous and emergent AI…

But this book has nothing to do with AI or cyberspace or seedy back-alley deals.

At its core, Idoru explores the proposition that intimacy is a function of immersion, of experience, of fully surrendering to the risks of engagement and that knowledge or facts or data by any name and in any quantity cannot bring affinity. The narrative contains a relatively early scene wherein Laney is subject to a monologue by Kathy Torrance (his boss at Slitscan); she goes on at length about “celebrity” as a natural resource, about how media and tabloids like Slitscan have corralled “celebrity” into a commodity that can be controlled and brokered. Taken out of context, the monologue appears to be a provocative and unambiguous statement about celebrity in and of itself. Examining the scene with the novel’s thesis in mind, we begin to see what lies at the kernel of Kathy Torrance’s soliloquy: how “celebrity” is a focal point for a broad knowledge about a person (or other object of affection/attention) that by definition cannot be fully experienced. “Celebrity” is data presented as intimacy — the fine-grained details of some person’s life presented to you in all their banal urgency, more fantasy than reality, ever out of reach, inevitably unable to satisfy your need to share and experience.

Consider Kathy Torrance’s rant about celebrity as a mirror to Alison Shires and Laney’s own back-story. As Laney reflects on Alison Shires’ suicide, we begin to see these themes take shape. In her original context, Alison is presented to Laney as “all data”; she is little more than some fulcrum of collapsed transactions that swing back onto some celebrity target of Slitscan’s. But as her imminent suicide becomes obvious to Laney through his “nodal apprehension”, he becomes concerned about, even attached to her; he breaks through his own Fourth Wall and allows himself to become involved, to experience her face-to-face. He is there in her apartment for the shot that kills her. We can hear echoes of his investment, how the experience created an instantly intimate moment which he capsulizes as:

“…the whole thing would settle to the sea floor, silting over almost instantly with the world’s steady accretion of data.”

The experience would be lost, buried under the steady stream of celebrity’s telemetry, and he wonders how he can live with that outcome.

The novel is peppered with examples to underscore this proposition about intimacy:

  • Consider that every bar, cafe, restaurant, etc. featured in the text is somehow themed and each theme is just data, each motif is hollow and empty — the impression of something, its image, a copy or facsimile or interpretation but not the thing itself;
  • Consider how Chia’s story about her Sandbenders computer resonates on this chord, how she descrives the disposable shells of modern electronics as insufficient for people to make a connection with them, and how a “tribe” in Oregon humanized each computer through their artisanal cases2;
  • Consider Masahiko’s tales of Walled City and how he continually asserts to Chia that it is “real” and not just a MUD, not just a website;
  • Consider Blackwell’s final affirmation to Laney, that Kathy Torrance will no longer threaten him, how they will “carve out this deep and meaningful and bloody unforgettable episode of mutual face-time”, how they will have reached “very personal terms” — the data, the facts are discarded, meaningless — only the experience matters.

Throughout the narrative, there is a very keen sense that each character is desperately seeking something “real”, something with which he or she can truly and intimately connect. Rez at one point blurts out: “Nothing like it […] That physical thing.” It is on those sentiments that the novel opens and again where it closes. We open on Laney in the aftershocks of just such a “physical thing” and Chia striking out to Tokyo in search of same. And we close on Rez and Rei Toei — both symbolic of Kathy Torrance’s “celebrity”, different sides of that same coin3 — discovering that their union cannot be completed without it, and daring to forge just such a path.

Review originally published on

  1. Think of Colin Laney as a more mature version of Neuromancer‘s Case and as a prototype for Pattern Recognition‘s Cayce (though I happen to find Laney’s character better developed). []
  2. But also consider Chia’s discontent with the software agents on that same Sandbenders: the sweet but synthetic version of Lo that she dismisses, the Music Master, the Mumphalumphagus… []
  3. Cast through Laney’s lens: Rez is all experience and no data (which is why he is invisible to him) while Rei Toei is all data and no experience. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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