Novel's Bleak Vision Casts Dark Shadow on Cyberspace

Idoru

By William Gibson

Putnam

292 pp., $24.95

Skeptical of the hype about how the Internet is going to change your life? Optimistic that a Web-linked world will usher in the millennium? William Gibson's new bestseller, "Idoru," will take such perceptions and squeeze them into a cyber-paced, high-level angst.

On the surface, "Idoru" is a tale about a rock-star's pending marriage to a "virtual" diva. She [it] is an artificially intelligent composite of a young woman existing solely as software, but who can be projected by computer into the image of a being so vivid that she makes a perfect companion for nightclubbing, or even marriage. The setting is the 21st century in Tokyo.

Idoru's raison d'tre is to fill the void caused by excessive materialism in the human heart of the lead singer of the rock band. But she is much more than a Stepford wife. Gibson links "her" to a micro-circuit world of corporate greed, mad ambition, scientific materialism, organized crime, and the absence of anything remotely suggesting transcendence. It is a world where human motives, aspirations, and desires are predicted by examining credit-card receipts and other incidental digital traces.

The book's message projects a darker vision of what may happen in a world relentlessly linked by databases; a fast forward examination of a wholly new use of existing technology that consumes the privacy of its users and alters the character of consciousness itself. "I am," is subverted and becomes, "What am I?"

Gibson is known as the father of cyberpunk literature and the originator of the term "cyberspace" (in the summer of 1981). His work poses essentially metaphysical questions for the brave new world spawned by telecommunications/micro-chip technology.

This is the best that future fiction offers, a saga that draws on related themes found in Mary Wolencraft Shelley's highly moral "Frankenstein" and the amoral materialism of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (made into the movie "Bladerunner").

In cyberspace, the content of our lives becomes software constructs forming patterns of information (where we shop, what we buy, eat, or wear) that leave a "signature" of our daily activities. These patterns enter databases, creating a "fingerprint" of the individual who made them. They can be stalked by hackers and, like clues left at the scene of a crime, can be traced. More ominous, our every thought can be influenced by computer projections, distorting in our own minds what it is we think we thought.

"Idoru" convincingly presents how a highly developed state of cyberspace alters for the worse the most basic understandings of human identity. The vision is bleak. One hopes it never prevails.

*Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

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