Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was still in the mood for some 1990s sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru”. This novel is the second novel in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy” (you can see my review of the first one here) and, like the rest of the trilogy, it is a book that I’ve been meaning to read ever since I found it in a second-hand bookshop at least a decade ago.
Interestingly, although this novel is the second novel in a trilogy, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone story. Yes, a few familiar faces from “Virtual Light” appear as background characters and there are a few brief references to stuff from that novel but, for the most part, this is a self-contained cyberpunk novel that can probably be enjoyed without reading “Virtual Light”.
So, let’s take a look at “Idoru”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
Set in the near-future, the novel begins with ex-security guard Rydell passing on a job offer from a company called Paragon-Asia Dataflow to a talented data analyst called Colin Laney who is staying at the same hotel as him. When Laney flies out to Tokyo for the interview, he ends up meeting a sociologist called Yamazaki and a burly, scarred Australian man called Blackwell. Moving between various bars and restaurants, Laney tells the two men the story of how he came to be fired from his previous job at an unscrupulous gossip site called Slitscan.
Meanwhile, in cyberspace, several teenage members of the American fan club for ageing rock band Lo/Rez are meeting up to discuss rumours that one member, Rez, has decided to marry a famous A.I. construct called Rei Toei. After some discussion, one of the members steals some of her father’s frequent flier miles and hands them to another member called Chia, who is dispatched to Tokyo to find out more….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a compelling, suspenseful and atmospheric story that is also ridiculously ahead of it’s time too. Plus, it is also more of a cyberpunk novel than “Virtual Light” was, albeit with a slightly more understated and realistic atmosphere than in any of Gibson’s classic 1980s cyberpunk novels (like “Neuromancer”). Seriously, this novel is really cool 🙂
I should probably start by talking about the novel’s sci-fi elements. Although there’s all the classic cyberpunk stuff like virtual reality, nanotechnology, A.I. etc.. the most interesting “futuristic” part of this novel is how accurately Gibson predicted a lot of stuff about the modern internet.
Whether it is the novel’s cynical depiction of internet journalism, how the internet has affected fame, the way old music still seems “current” thanks to the internet, scenes involving something similar to the dark web, lots of stuff about privacy and big data or even a scene where a character is blackmailed with something very similar to a modern “deepfake” video, this novel often reads like a brilliantly cynical satire of the modern internet… that was first published in 1996. Just let that sink in for a minute. 1996.
Like with “Virtual Light”, this novel is also something of a thriller too. But, unlike the slightly more action-packed storyline of “Virtual Light”, this is much more of a tense suspenseful thriller that gradually builds up an atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and unease. There are lots of mini-cliffhangers, scenes where characters find themselves “out of their depth” and scenes where characters are followed by ruthless villains. In a lot of ways, this focus on suspense reminded me a little bit of 1990s horror novels by Ryu Murakami like “Piercing” and “In The Miso Soup”.
I cannot praise the atmosphere and locations in this novel highly enough 🙂 If you enjoyed the atmospheric settings of either of the 1990s Ryu Murakami novels I mentioned earlier, then you’ll be on familiar ground here. Although Gibson’s fictional version of Tokyo contains some futuristic elements and is presented from more of a tourist’s perspective, it is a really fascinating and vividly-described location that really helps the novel to come alive.
Literally my only criticism of the settings is that the novel’s most intriguing location, a hidden virtual reconstruction of Kowloon Walled City, only appears during a few brief scenes and isn’t really described in the level of detail that I’d expected (and it’s probably more there as a metaphor for the benefits and drawbacks of online anarchy). Given how fascinating photos, videos etc… of this demolished city are, it is a bit of a shame that such an intriguing location doesn’t get more time in this story. Still, the very fact that it is there is incredibly cool.
In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is – like in “Virtual Light” – written in a slightly more understated version of Gibson’s classic writing style. In other words, the narration in this novel is a brilliant mixture of more hardboiled, flowing, fast-paced “matter of fact” narration and lots of vivid, detailed, slow-paced and atmospheric descriptions 🙂 Seriously, I love how Gibson is able to write in a style that is both fast and slow-paced at the same time and which is also both pulpy and intellectual at the same time.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. They all seem like fairly realistic people and the novel also handles characterisation in different ways for several characters too. With Laney, the bulk of his characterisation focuses on his backstory. With Chia, the bulk of her characterisation focuses on her music fandom, her friendships, her impressions of Tokyo and how she handles various dangerous situations. With Blackwell, we get a few tantalising pieces of backstory but most of his characterisation is done via actions, descriptions and dialogue. I could go on for a while, but this variety of characterisation types really helps to add a lot more intrigue to the characters.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At a fairly efficient 292 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted here. As I hinted at earlier, this novel is both fast and slow-paced at the same time, with the suspense, multiple plot threads, writing style and premise keeping this novel gripping, but with lots of slower descriptive moments that really help the story to come alive. On the whole, this novel’s pacing is really good – with the story gradually building in suspense and scale as it progresses.
As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the novel’s internet-related satire is ridiculously ahead of it’s time and the story also still remains very compelling when read today. Yes, there are a couple of mildly “politically incorrect” moments and some elements of the story do seem a bit ’90s – such as a possible ’90s computer game reference (eg: a rock band called “The Dukes Of Nuke ‘Em”) but, on the whole, this novel is very much ahead of it’s time.
All in all, this is a really cool novel 🙂 It’s an atmospheric, compelling and intelligent cyberpunk thriller that is also very far ahead of it’s time too.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.