“A thing of random human accretion, monstrous and superb”

Idoru is a return to William Gibson’s stylish preoccupation with dense cityscapes, something that had been set aside in favor of the chaotic earthiness of the shantytown of The Bridge in Virtual Light. The novel is set in a near-future Tokyo, which has been partially reconstructed via nanotechnology following a massive earthquake. One of the most engaging elements of Gibson’s fiction has always been a sense of atmosphere, and his affection for Tokyo manifests through the constantly-shifting backdrop of bars, hotels, arcades and general streetlife of the deeply-urbanized megacity.
Tokyo itself has a reputation for being something of an aesthetic science fiction wonderland. By capturing some of its natural strangeness, Gibson is able to use it as an exploration of his most commonly-recurring theme: the unexpected ways that ideas develop or are adapted into completely new phenomena. Throughout Idoru we have, for example, one bar which preserves the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the city post-quake and another, Kafka-themed, complete with insectile bar stools and bruised inmate waitresses. Tokyo itself, its new buildings “grown” out of the rubble of the old through nanotechnology, is itself a metaphor for the ways that modernity re-appropriates and recontextualizes original meanings. Modern life is not directed; it simply grows, often in complex and unintended directions. Society and technology do not meld seamlessly; they tangle into each other and emerge like some sort of Cronenbergian mutant.
The plot of Idoru concerns rumors that Rez, an aging rock star, wishes to marry Rei Toei, a Japanese virtual idol – the titular Idoru, a megacelebrity singer that is entirely a software construct. Rei inhabits the virtual world, drawing experience from the well of all available human information. This, the novel implies, allows Rei to remain relevant, to analyze the currents and patterns of human culture and so maintain celebrity indefinitely. The marriage of Rez and Rei Toei is a bridging between the abstract density of data and the singular experience of wealth and celebrity leading towards some new creation: an organic personification of all available human experience. “Popular culture … is the testbed of our futurity,” Rei’s human handlers explain. “If there were going to be genuine AI, the argument ran, it was most likely to evolve in ways that had least to do with pretending to be human … AI might be created accidentally, and … people might not initially recognize it for what it was.” The post-modern suggestion, here, is that in creating a believable celebrity, the software engineers have inadvertently created something which by necessity has become organic, conscious life.
It’s impossible to talk about Gibson’s work without also addressing the moments of prescience within. Gibson himself points out that his moments of imaginative creation were meant to address what he himself observed in the increasingly fracturing modern world. Yet at the center of the novel lies the Walled City – a distributed virtual environment modeled after Kowloon Walled City which functions as a sort of off-the-grid hacker commune. It is the digital equivalent of The Bridge – a virtual deadzone re-appropriated by the computing underground. Gone completely, here, is the romance of Neuromancer‘s hacker community; Walled City is a community not of criminals but one defined by its independence, its removal from corporate powers of influence. It’s a prophetic examination of emerging issues of internet neutrality, a sort of virtual micronation, and eventually the only place within which the Idoru, Rei, is free to realize total organic growth.