Idoru
By William Gibson
Putnam; 304 pages; $24.95

Perhaps it's time for William Gibson to go lie down for a while. The writer who added "cyberspace" to the lexicon seems somewhat fatigued by the future.

Gibson's new novel, "Idoru," takes place not long after and shares incidental characters with his last book, "Virtual Light." Instead of conducting a tour of the near-future West Coast, this time the author of "Neuromancer" and "Mona Lisa Ovwerdrive" shifts the action to the streets and cybernetic byways of twenty-first century, post-quake Tokyo.

Gibson continues his habit of spinning plot strands that intersect only during the final half of his novels. At the start of "Idoru", data analyst Colin Laney arrives in Japan for a job interview conducted by Keith Blackwell, the menacing, one-eared ex-con who serves as security for Lo/Rez, a popular rock duo. Still wounded by the mistakes he made during his tenure at Slitscan, a high-tech version of today's tabloid television shows, Laney is nevertheless intrigued by the offer.

Laney's task is to attempt to predict the uncontrollable Rez's future behavior. Gibson writes, "The relevant data, in terms of his current employability, was that he was an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature a particular individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society. Laney's concentration-deficit, too slight to register on some scales, made him a natural channel-zapper, shifting from program to program, from database to database, from platform to platform, in a way that was, well, intuitive."

The problem with Rez, however, is that since he allows others to transact virtually all of his business for him, he has left behind no electronic fingerprints for Laney to analyze.

Meanwhile, Chia Pet McKenzie, a teenaged fan of Lo/Rez, travels from Seattle to Tokyo on her own, determined to track down the rumors that Rez plans to marry an "idoru," an idol-singer, a piece of artificial intelligence software programmed to mimic a pop star. On the plane over, another passenger stuffs some contraband into her luggage.

Chia finds herself on the run from smugglers and the Russian mob, her only protection a band of computer-savvy teenaged boys with access to a virtual reality space of unimaginable complexity. Eventually, her path crosses Laney's, and the nature of Rez's romantic interest in the idoru is revealed.

Plot has never been Gibson's strong suit, but this time he seems especially indifferent to it. As in "Virtual Light," there's a McGuffin that everyone is chasing after, only this time it's not a set of souped-up sunglasses, but a canister of nanotechnological agents. In "Virtual Light," there was at least the satisfaction of a clever resolution, a neatly executed payback for the novel's villains. In "Idoru," the narrative doesn't so much resolve itself as sputter to a close.

Not that it really matters. Gibson's primary goal is simply to keep moving his off-beat characters from one interesting environment to another, whether it be a nightclub with a Franz Kafka theme or the virtual reality domain known as Walled City.

For some readers, that will be enough. Gibson is one of the genre's slyest writers when it comes to putting just the right futuristic spin on current trends and technology. He definitely knows how to conduct an entertaining travelogue. But those seeking something more substantial are likely to be disappointed by "Idoru."

(c) 1996 by Michael Berry


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