What Do We Call Their Union: On Reading William Gibson’s Idoru

Continuing with William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, I read Idoru (1996) this past Sunday.

My sense of deja vu was as pronounced as when I read Virtual Light, but I still cannot bring myself to say with absolute certainty that I had read these books before. I tend to believe that my triangulation of these narratives from conference going and secondary literature reading have implanted the seeds of these novels in my memory–with roots long, but stem and leaves stunted–almost translucent.

Idoru circles the entertainment-industrial complex’s creation of celebrity, fandom’s eclipsing of the actual cultural production of celebrity, personal metadata and its uses for surveillance and control, and another trajectory of emergent AI/personality construct–in this case the idoru, Rei Toei.

Rei Toei is like a more advanced version of the vocaloid, Hatsune Miku. Her entrance into the real world might be more aligned today with 3D printing technologies and robotics like Danny Choo’s Smart Doll (though, I’m sure Mr. Choo would do equally interesting and exciting things if he got his hands on a packet of self-assembling nanomachines described in the novel). Or, in 2009, a Japanese man married Nene Anegasaki, a character from the Nintendo DS game Love Plus (Telegraph story, BoingBoing video). These bonds are so strong that in 2012, a Japanese groom and his bridge destroyed his Nintendo DS and Love Plus game cartridge, which held his saved game data with (again) Nene Anegasaki (Kotaku story, Twitter post).

I recalled David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (2008), which explores how humanity’s relationships with its technologies–especially those anthropomorphized or imbued with human qualities–has and continues to change over time.

In regard to Rez’s desire to wed Rei Toei, on the one hand, the union is of celebrity–albeit two forms of it: a human male musician and an AI construct gendered female and given form holographically (machinery and bandwidth permitting). What should we call this sameness?

On the other hand, it is a union of biological and technical, human and computer, human and technology, human and entertainment, human and the Other. What should we call this difference?

However, the wedding of human-AI construct seems pedestrian, a reinscription of heteronormativity. It is a capitulation to heteronormative culture instead of an embrace of the newness, the otherness, the differentness brought about by human-technology co-evolution (thinking of Bruce Mazlish’s The Forth Discontinuity).

Considering its heteronormative trajectory, what is Rez and Rei Toei’s marriage produce? Seems like there’s talk about some kind of becoming or emergence. This brings to mind arguments like Leo Bersani’s in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” or Christine Overall’s in Why Have Children? It should go without saying that a child need not be the result of a union/marriage/partnership, but if we follow the heteronormative logic of Rez and Rei Toei marriage, what might their desire be–merging, emergence, becoming, creating?

Regardless, I welcome these new developments, their possibilities, and how we account for them with language. But, I hope that the new is unshackled from simply repeating what has come before.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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