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Virtually a Bestselling Book

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William Gibson returns to the 21st century in 'Idoru'

By Andrew X. Pham

WHAT IS LIFE--real or virtual--but the angle of vision? Perhaps we are only what we know, what our experience encompasses. In Idoru, William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, once again takes this question into his world, into his "virtuality." The new novel marks Gibson's return to the unique techno-decadent 21st century of his previous works.

Spinning off from Gibson's last bestseller, Virtual Light, the story takes place in a Tokyo rebuilt by nanotechnology after a massive millennial earthquake. Net searcher Colin Laney is a man who sees things in data like he "sees things in clouds, except the things he sees are really there." He possesses a talent for discerning crucial information--"nodal points"--from random amalgamations of data on a single person. That is, he can predict the outcome of an event or the behavior of a subject.

When one of his subjects turns up dead, Laney finds himself without a job and targeted as a scapegoat by Slitscan, his former employer. Laney goes to Japan to interview for a job as data analyst. His new employer wants him to study Rez, singer for the band Lo/Rez, a Japanese superstar rock duo. Rez has apparently announced his intention to marry "idoru" (idol) Rei Toei, an information-generated personality-construct of a beautiful woman that flickers between reality and virtuality with the ease of a ghost. This decision jeopardizes the financial empire of Lo/Rez and its managers.

In a converging narrative thread, teenager Chia Pet McKenzie, a member of a Lo/Rez fan club in Seattle, comes to Japan looking for her own answers about Rez, only to fall victim to a nanotechnology-smuggling operation for the Russian underground.

Although Idoru falters with too-convenient happenstances and moves at a more sedate pace than Virtual Light, it is rich with Gibson's techno-visions, into which he weaves batteries of perspectives and criticisms, ranging from computer recycling, censorship of the Internet, privacy on the Net, Japan's weakness for idols and sundry other issues. Adeptly crafted and equally varied, his inquisitive angles lend depth to the book.

GIBSON ASSEMBLES future worlds with a rare extravagance. While other writers harp on one or two theories and rehash old themes, Gibson churns out new ideas and takes current scientific hopes one step beyond. This makes his fiction disturbing and, consequently, compelling.

With his concept of the Walled City, a multiuser domain closed to all but its members, Gibson casts the Internet as a new world, one of frontiers full of evangelists and criminals, conformers and dissenters. These unsatisfied Net denizens have created a virtual Walled City of Kowloon of their own and called it Hak Nam in the image of the original. Their efforts began as a shared "killfile," a device which blocks all incoming messages.

    [The] people who founded Hak Nam were angry, because the net had been very free, you could do what you wanted, but then the governments and the companies, they had different ideas of what you could, what you couldn't do. So these people, they found a way to unravel something. A little place, a piece, like cloth. They made something like a killfile of everything, everything they didn't like, and ... they pushed it through, to the other side. ... Then they went there to get away from the laws. To have no laws, like when the net was new.

It is difficult to label someone like Gibson a genre writer when his selective distillations of the mundane exhibit a poignant sensitivity for imagery. He captures a common science-fiction streetscape with rare skill:

    Dozens of bicycles were parked everywhere, the fragile-looking kind with paper-tube frames spun with carbon fiber. ... [An] enormous turquoise garbage truck rumbled past, its driver's white-gloved hands visible on the high wheel.

In his descriptions of the uncommon, such as the skyline of the virtual city Hak Nam, he uses familiar images to emphasize the contrast between the prosaic and the extraordinary: "The high, uneven crest of ... black fur of twisted pipe, antennas sagging under vine growth of cable. And past this scribbled border a sky where colors crawled like gasoline on water."

IN SHEER inventiveness, Gibson has few rivals. Unfortunately, Idoru's plot is a hindrance, a poor vehicle for his imagination. Although Idoru is Gibson's most stylized novel, it is also his most commercially ambitious--maybe too overtly so.

Gibson cuts, pastes, improvises and deploys just about everything in a writer's arsenal to shoot another book up the bestseller list. His overkill makes the narrative's structure and intent transparent, its drive, lures and mechanics as obvious (not to mention annoying) as the frame of a unfinished house.

To propel the plot, Gibson inserts a thriller hook at the end of each chapter and then resolves it two chapters later merely to set up yet another hook. Old tactics, standard thriller devices. But with only two story lines (Laney's and Toei's) in the linear narrative, the predictability of this layout creates a leap-frogging effect that turns boring after several chapters. Unfortunately, this pattern actually propagates itself through 40 chapters.

The fact that the tensions fail to culminate has little to do with whether there is an explosive climax. The little void that Idoru leaves the reader with has more to do with Gibson's unwillingness to delve further into his own suggestions of virtual life, and (ahem) virtual love. His artful feints at the specters he raises leave too much out to be truly thought-provoking; yet, just enough remains to make some of them appear to be very shaky propositions.

Still, Idoru is something of a corridor between science fiction and mainstream fiction, between the present and a strange, new, but hauntingly familiar, future. Despite its failings, Idoru's angle of vision is as much a joy to experience as a passage of exquisite computer-generated animation.

Idoru, by William Gibson; G.P. Putnam's Sons; 304 pages; $24.95 cloth. Gibson will discuss and sign copies of Idoru on Tuesday (Sept. 17) at 7:30pm, A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, 21269 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino. (408/255-7600)

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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