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Idoru: Gibson’s astonishing glimpse of virtual reality’s future

William Gibson — creator of Neuromancer, among other gripping sci-fi novels — has arguably delved even further into the latent possibilities, or what Gilles Deleuze called virtualities, of the information revolution, in his quotidian dimension-surpassing novel, Idoru (Penguin 1996), one of the so-called Bridge trilogy. So much so that Peter Popham in the Independent commented that, as “[T]he poet of cyberspace”, “Gibson has done for the digital dimension” what “Hopkins did for the flight of the falcon, Turner for fog, Dali for the unconscious and … Burroughs for a brain deranged by junk … ” (quoted on inside cover page of Idoru).

Aside from believing literature to be one of the unsurpassable fields of human creativity, my philosophical interest in Idoru is ontological — that is, I am interested in Gibson’s capacity to illuminate the ontological (reality-) mode of the virtual realm from within, as it were, as well as to uncover, if not impart to cyberspace a capacity of reality-generation that one would not easily guess at by merely using a computer.

An idoru is an entity inhabiting virtual reality — an “Idol-singer”, or “personality-construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers”, or what “they call a ‘synthespian’ in Hollywood” (p. 92). And in case you are wondering, they already exist in a country like Japan, as virtual pop stars who, in holographic mode, give concerts attended by throngs of fans.

Take this passage from Idoru as a demonstration of what I mean by Gibson’s prose being able to generate cyber-realities that don’t yet, but may soon exist. When Colin Laney, the “netrunner” of the story, first locks eyes with virtual Rei Toei, the idoru, this is what happens (p. 175-176, 178):

“He seemed to cross a line. In the very structure of her face, in geometries of underlying bone, lay coded histories of dynastic flight, privation, terrible migrations. He saw stone tombs in steep alpine meadows, their lintels traced with snow. A line of shaggy pack ponies, their breath white with cold, followed a trail above a canyon. The curves of the river below were strokes of distant silver. Iron harness bells clanked in the blue dusk.

“Laney shivered. In his mouth the taste of rotten metal.

“The eyes of the idoru, envoy of some imaginary country, met his …

“Don’t look at the idoru’s face. She is not flesh; she is information. She is the tip of an iceberg, no, an Antarctica, of information. Looking at her face would trigger it again: she was some unthinkable volume of information. She induced the nodal vision [Laney’s special talent] in some unprecedented way; she induced it as narrative.”

And just as Laney, who is gifted with singular pattern-recognition powers (which is why everyone wants to employ him to get the dirt on characters by studying their internet footprint), perceives this galaxy of information embodied in the holographic image of the idoru as narrative, Rei Toei’s performances are not ordinary, recorded music videos. What she “dreams” — that is, “retrieves” from the mountains of information of which she, as idoru, is the epiphenomenon — comes across as a musical performance.

If you haven’t read the novel this would probably be Greek to you, so let me try to clarify. Gibson seems to understand in a particularly perspicacious manner that reality in its entirety, and in detail, can “present”, or manifest itself in digital format. It is like a parallel universe, and what is more, just like Lacan’s “real”, it has concrete effects in everyday social reality. This is what the Chinese-Irish pop singer in the story, Rez (member of the group, Lo/Rez), understands better than everyone else in his entourage, who are trying their level best to dissuade him from “marrying” the idoru, for obvious reasons. How does one marry a virtual creation, anyway. But Rez and Rei Toei understand it. Commenting on Rei Toei’s ontological mode, Rez tells Laney (.p 202):

“ ‘Rei’s only reality is the realm of ongoing serial creation,’ Rez said. ‘Entirely process; infinitely more than the combined sum of her various selves. The platforms sink beneath her, one after another, as she grows denser and more complex … ’ ”

And the idoru’s “agent/creator”, Kuwayama, tells Laney (p. 238): “ ‘Do you know that our [Japanese] word for ‘nature’ is of quite recent coinage? It is scarcely a hundred years old. We have never developed a sinister view of technology, Mr Laney. It is an aspect of the natural, of oneness. Through our efforts, oneness perfects itself.’ Kuwayama smiled. ‘And popular culture,’ he said, ‘is the testbed of our futurity’ ”.

Such a notion of technology is right up the alley of a philosopher of technology like Bernard Stiegler, as well as of Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The latter two regarded all of reality as being fundamentally process, as did Henri Bergson before them, and in addition to this Gibson writes in an idiom that resonates with their ontology of “desiring machines” constituted by “flows of desire”, where (p. 178) Kuwayama (presumably alluding to the idoru) says something to Rez about “ ‘ … the result of an array of elaborate constructs that we refer to as ‘desiring machines’ … ‘[N]ot in any literal sense … but please envision aggregates of subjective desire. It was decided that the modular array would ideally constitute an architecture of articulated longing … ’ ”

All of these tantalising philosophical ideas permeate a story with parallel narratives that is sometimes too gripping to put down the book. It is impossible to summarise it adequately here, so a thumbnail sketch will have to do. The parallel narratives concern Laney, on the one hand, who was employed by a mean media company suggestively called “Slitscan”, which specialises in “celebrity-exposure”, except that Laney sensed the impending suicide of a woman who “felt” his presence among the data she was generating, and tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent her from killing herself. In the chaos that followed he ended up being offered a job in Tokyo to identify a threat that Blackwell, Rez’s larger-than-life security guy, believed to be lurking somewhere in the data surrounding Rez’s complicated life, and to be connected with his intention to marry the idoru.

The other narrative thread involves 14-year-old fan-girl Chia McKenzie, who travels from Seattle to Tokyo to meet with a Japanese “chapter” of a worldwide Rez-fanbase out of concern that the rumour about his intention to get hitched to a “non-existent” being (Rei Toei) would damage his image irreparably. Unbeknown to her, someone called Maryalice hides a very advanced, illegal piece of nanotechnology in Chia’s bag, and when they become separated in Tokyo, Maryalice’s nasty boyfriend and his Russian Kombinat “friends” will leave nothing untouched to get the nano-module back from Chia. Eventually the two narrative strands converge, but I’m not going to spoil it for you …

In addition to the philosophically exhilarating ideas and the often highly poetic evocations of unheard-of cyber-worlds, Gibson’s Idoru also teems with insights into the shapes and textures of our globalised world, and of their effects on people. Take this passage on Chia’s experience of downtown Tokyo (p. 140):

“Maybe what she was feeling now was what her civics program at her last school had called culture shock. She felt like everything, every little detail of Tokyo, was just different enough to create a kind of pressure, something that built up against her eyes, as though they’d grown tired of having to notice all the differences: a little sidewalk tree that was dressed up in a sort of woven basketwork jacket, the neon-avocado color of a payphone, a serious-looking girl with round glasses and a gray sweatshirt that said ‘Free Vagina’. She’d been keeping her eyes extra-wide to take all these things in, like they’d be processed eventually, but now her eyes were tired and the differences were starting to back up.”

This novel, with others like it by Gibson, could form a crucial part of a university course in creative writing, or better still — given the many intertwined ontological layers that its narrative unfurls — in comparative literature, where all these layers could be placed in a generative constellation with one another.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

2 Comments

  1. DavyH DavyH 9 December 2015

    According to everything I’ve heard and read about William Gibson, the man is a bit of a Luddite and the Matrix was invented to explain (to himself) something he basically didn’t understand (he has vastly improved his knowledge levels since Neuromancer though). Notwithstanding, the father of cyberpunk still writes a good story.

  2. Maria Marquez Maria Marquez 23 December 2015

    What one learns about the structure of time, phenomenologically speaking a la Husserl, namely, that it is a function of anticipatory projection, is elevated to a global, collective niveau by Gibson in his science fiction. Witness the actualization, today, of the figural-discursive lines projected by Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Count Zero, Burning Chrome (particularly Johnny Mnemonic), Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. As you have argued in your work on Castells, Gibson, Ishiguro and Ranciere, Castells’ description of The Network Society as it already exists today, was anticipatorily evoked by Gibson from the 1980s onwards. Talk about creative fiction! So much for your suggestion that he is a Luddite, DavyH; his literary genius constructed the very conditions of possibility of the tech-‘knowledge’ you valorize.

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