I really liked William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Virtual Light so much that I went right ahead and picked up the sequel, the second book in the Bridge Trilogy, which is entitled Idoru. I enjoyed Idoru a lot as well and I’m sure I’ll pick up the final book in the series, All Tomorrow’s Parties, as it seems to feature a lot of the characters from the first two books. I was curious to see if the themes about friendship and community — the ‘everyone helping each other’ shantytown of the Bridge in Virtual Light, would make their appearance in Idoru, or if this would be a return to the dark, morally ambivalent world of Noir where everyone’s betraying everyone and soullessness and technology go hand in hand.
Idoru is the story of Colin Laney, an orphan who pretty much had a form of ADHD when he was younger and received experimental medication that now makes him focus on certain details extremely hard and completely understand social trends and technology. The other main character is Chia Pet McKenzie, a fourteen-year-old girl who is an active member of the fan club for Irish-Chinese rock band Lo/Rez. When Rez, one half of the rock band, announces his plans to marry Rei Toei — a virtual, holographic AI celebrity, Chia jets off to Japan to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, Laney’s hired by a company managing Lo/Rez for the same reason. The story takes place in Tokyo — which already seems as cyberpunk as a city can be — and finds Chia and Laney getting involved with the Russian Mob, the Yakuza, Laney’s old Hollywood employers and various other threats as they struggle to deal with Rei and Rez’s bizarre nuptial plans.
First off, I have to once again give credit to Gibson for pretty much being an oracle. Like Virtual Light, Idoru is set in the distant future year of 2007. And again, while it gets quite a few things wrong, it gets much more stuff right. There are whacky theme hotels in Tokyo, Chia chats with her friends in cyberspace (where their avatars may not be representative of reality — a very modern issue) and Laney’s former employers, a company called SlitScan, are pretty much modern amoral paparazzi. Once again, there are plenty of themes of capitalism, consumerism and technology run amok and making everyone’s lives just that much harder.
But the sense of community is gone. Most characters in Idoru are weak and abused, just trying to make it out alive. Both Chia and Laney quickly realize that they’re in over their heads and have to rely on strangers (like an Otaku hacker in Chia’s case) who they can never really trust. Friendly Rydell from Virtual Light makes a few cameo appearances as a pal of Laney’s, but beyond that, the two characters are on their own. Between the other characters, like a crooked club owners, his drunk girlfriend and his Russian Mafia backers, there is only the binding of greed.
There are however, two big exceptions — actual friendships and romances that are fairly touching compared to all the amorality around them. The first is between Rez and his bodyguard and security manager, a hulking Australian named Keith Blackwell. Based on real Australian criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, Blackwell is a career criminal who saved Rez after a prison concert went wrong and they’ve been together ever since. With his massive size, variety of sharp implements and eagerness for violence, Blackwell’s an intimidating force and he doesn’t particularly like the idea of his charge marrying an AI hologram — but you can see how much the two men care about each other, with Blackwell being worried for Rez’s well being and Rez assuring his friend that his relationship with Rei Toei will work out all right. The other good relationship is between Rei and Rez. I don’t want to spoil what exactly their plan is (it involves nanotechnology), but they seem to love each other in the way that two independent entities can — only one happens to be a hologram. I think that these relationships stand out because of their uniqueness as much as how isolated they are.
Still, I guess there is some hopefulness in the fact that — even in a world as mercenary and bizarre as ours — a computer, a criminal and a rock star can get along. Thankfully, Idoru does provide a happy ending for Laney and Chia , though it’s pretty open-ended too. The Bridge Trilogy is shaping to be a measured, slightly more hopeful update of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (of the famous Neuromancer) and maybe that’s the best that the not-so-great future — and our present — deserves.