Wednesday, August 29, 2012

the last book I read

Idoru by William Gibson.

Colin Laney has a weird talent - he's able to detect patterns in computer data by picking out "nodal points". This makes him very useful in certain contexts and he's spent a while working for a TV network called Slitscan who specialise in celebrity stitch-ups and gossip.

That all ended in some unpleasantness, though, when Laney's pattern-recognition skills led him to correctly conclude that one of Slitscan's stalkees was about to top herself, and he made a botched and ultimately futile attempt at a real-life intervention.

So he's looking for another job. Luckily he's landed himself an interview for one over in Tokyo, recently rebuilt after a massive earthquake (as described in Virtual Light), where he meets the enigmatic Mr. Yamazaki and giant Australian bodyguard Keith Blackwell. It turns out they want him to do his data-sniffing thing on rock star Rez (of the band Lo/Rez), who has recently expressed a desire to get married to a lady called Rei Toei - nothing so unusual there except that she's a digital construct (a "synthespian") and not a real person. So basically Laney is supposed to find out if Rez has flipped his lid, or is being manipulated somehow, or if some other weirdness is going on, all by sifting through the spoor of his online existence.

At the same time 14-year-old Chia Pet McKenzie has been dispatched to Tokyo by her chapter of the international Lo/Rez fan club to try to find out what's going on. She gets talking to a woman called Maryalice on the plane and ends up inadvertently smuggling some contraband through customs for her. Her subsequent attempts to focus on what's going on with Lo/Rez are hampered by various heavy types' interest in the contraband - principally Maryalice's boyfriend Eddie and various scary Russian types who work for a shady outfit called the Kombinat.

In parallel with all this real-life stuff there is an accompanying narrative conducted solely in cyberspace - Laney's attempts to make sense of Rez's data, Chia's attempts to keep in touch with the international network of Lo/Rez fans, and increasingly influential interventions from the idoru, who it becomes clear is the human-friendly face of a massive and growing artificial intelligence. Influential in real life as well, as when it looks like Chia is in serious trouble with those who want to retrieve her smuggled package - which turns out to be some sort of nanotechnology starter kit - things are arranged so that honour is satisfied with the Kombinat, Chia is able to go home unmolested, and Rez and the idoru are free to take their relationship to the next level with some help from the nanotechnology gizmo.

This is a sort-of sequel to Virtual Light, but apart from a couple of brief appearances from Berry Rydell, one of the main protagonists of the earlier book, and being recognisably set in the same universe, there's not much of a narrative thread that links the two. They aren't that similar plot-wise, either, Virtual Light being (despite the title) relatively free of the sort of cyberspace shenanigans that were such a feature of Neuromancer, while Idoru has lots and lots of matrix-based action. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though one of the other things that Virtual Light had was a compelling plot, and for all the portentous hints that Rez and the idoru's relationship is significant of some Momentous Mystical Stuff about to happen (some sort of melding of human and AI with a bit of nanotechnology thrown in, presumably) none of that actually happens during the course of the book.

This isn't really that much of a problem, though, as Gibson's twisted visions of the future are compelling enough without any crash-bang action being required. That said this is probably the weakest of the three Gibsons I've read - as I've said in an embarrassingly large number of places, Neuromancer is one of the great novels of the second half of the 20th century, regardless of genre, and everyone should read it.

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