As a rule, I avoid judging the quality of a science fiction novel by the success of its predictions. For one, it’s too easy. And I inherently distrust any method of judging literature as cleanly qualitative as “did this invention end up being true”?
Although science fiction’s role isn’t necessarily to be prophetic, it often fulfills its own predictions. The predictive quality of the genre is how you sell science fiction to neophytes: did you know Arthur C. Clarke invented the geosynchronous communications satellite? Jules Verne the modern submarine? Granted, when writers have imagined 10,000 different futures, a few of them are bound to be true–monkeys at typewriters and all that. Still, some form of prescience, whether it pans out or not, is an essential dimension of science fiction, and a variable completely absent from almost all other literature. For that reason, it’s interesting.
A creative approach to future-making isn’t just a burden of conceit. It can actually alter the future; new ideas, presented via radically dissociated future-scenarios in literature, can help us realize the prevalence of old ones, and shock us into perception. This is to say that a strictly pragmatic, humanist, or scientific approach to understanding history (and I include the history of the future in that statement) is not often the most accurate. The unexpected happens continually in the history of science, as in the history of humankind; ideas that seemed like nutty fantasies in the heyday of early science fiction look cute now, because the future is explosive and manifold and strange. Sometimes the best way to predict the future is to make outlandish projections, imaginative assumptions, and intuitive guesses–all the purview of artists.
The great science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, in the preface to his epic evolutionary future history Last and First Men, explained it this way:
We are not set up as historians attempting to look ahead instead of backwards. We can only select a certain thread out of the tangle of many equally valid possibilities. But we must select with a purpose. The activity that we are undertaking is not science, but art; and the effect that it should have on the reader is the effect that art should have.
I love this idea of selecting “a certain thread” from a tangle of possibilities; to me, it really speaks to the complex, simultaneous, and utterly subjective experience of “future” and “futuristic” things. We often confuse futurism, of course, with the high-tech experience; after all, the present day was once the future, and there are plenty of people living on the Earth who live day-to-day much as their ancestors did, unchanged. For a writer to suss out a thread from such an uneven present in this way and draw it to narrative extrapolation–what the literary critic Robert Scholes calls a “projected dislocation of our known experience”–they need a sense of the tangle, they need to be able to see the larger picture, the context, to see which threads throb with importance and which are just uselessly snarled, going nowhere.
This, to actually get to the subject of this review, is William Gibson’s genius. He often writes about people who are able to cut through webs of information, sensing patterns. Like his characters, the data cowboys, he can see interwoven threads and pull them in just the right place, elegantly displaying the nature of the knot. To wit, he once compared himself to Colin Laney, the protagonist of his 1996 novel Idoru, whose peculiar talent lies in sieving “nodal points” of relevance from vast fields of data:
Laney’s node-spotter function is some sort of metaphor for whatever it is that I actually do. There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I can’t tell you how; it’s a non-rational process.
Like Stapledon said, it’s not a science. As a non-rational process, the results have the effect that art has. But because it plays with interpretations of reality, and because reality is often irrational, the results can–especially when the node-spotting ability is strong–incant elements of the real future.
Idoru centers around Rei Toei, an artificial intelligence embodied as a Japanese idol singer. She manifests holographically, draws deeply from the public web, and is a multiplicity of things to different people. There are as many versions of Rei Toei as there are fans, with each fan constructing her identity, performance, and form based on their preference. There are some truly beautiful descriptions of her shimmering iteration, coded with icy imagery in shards, the hologram only a visible manifestation of some unthinkable volume, “an Antarctica,” of information. Consistently described as cold, as snow, she moves unhindered from the world to to the web, changing form, like a ghost. The central crisis of the novel is that an important man wishes to marry her: an unholy union of the flesh and the digital.
I’m certainly not the first to draw this parallel, but the fictional Rei Toei was computer grandmother to Hatsune Miku, a real-life digital idol, a blue-haired avatar that is the biggest pop star in Japan. Like Rei Toei, she is an empty shell for the creative impulses of her fans, who write her songs on Vocaloid 2, a ”singer in a box” software platform designed by Yamaha. In a sense, Hatsune Miku is even better than her fictional forebear, because (despite being owned by a technology firm called Crypton Future Media) the songs, illustrations, videos, and sundry visual fanfic that make up her multifarious identity are all collectively authored by her millions of fans. She doesn’t just present herself uniquely to each user; instead, each user uniquely makes her. In concert, in front of millions of screaming fans toting glowsticks, she is conjured from the web into a massive pony-tailed hologram flanked by a live band. Each song performed is the result of a massive pool of user-noodling on the Vocaloid software, perfectly synthesized and on-pitch, belonging to everyone while simultaneously being unachievable for anyone.
It’s uncanny that, in 1996, Gibson could spot the cresting twin vertices of Japanese pop-idol culture and the democratization of mass-media, infer their ultimate collision, and give us Rei Toei. But it’s the particular skill of the science fiction writer to draw those threads; this strange hybrid of digital pop culture was undoubtedly a long time coming.
And stranger things await us still, if we know where to look.