Idolon by Mark Budz

Reviewed by Niall Harrison

Idolon cover

Idolon looks like core science fiction. Or it would, if the genre still had a body of work that could be confidently described as the core. Perhaps it would be better to say that Mark Budz's third novel looks familiar, looks like the sort of thing we might expect to find a lot of on the science fiction shelves, even in the heat of the form's current artistic and commercial diaspora: near-future speculation shaped around a thriller plot, with a cast that fit their roles more neatly than true characters ever do. But—to decode the title and paraphrase one of the cast-members in a single swoop—surfaces are phantoms. They can hide as much as they reveal, and vice versa, perhaps in genre novels more than most. The question, then, is whether there's more to Idolon than meets the eye.

We open in noir territory, shrouded in "White-hot fog. It boiled over the halogen-lighted streets—scalding to look at but cool against the skin" (p. 1). In a similar vein, the second paragraph introduces us to a private eye, Kasuo van Dijk. So far, so cyberpunk. The third paragraph lets us know that what we're seeing knows that it's a cliche. This San Francisco neighbourhood is "philmed," the buildings apparently reconstructed to resemble famous landmarks from films such as The Maltese Falcon, which means we're reading a book set on the edge of the sort of shared sensory environment seen most recently in the work of Vernor Vinge and Chris Beckett. The fifth paragraph gives us a look around: there's an Edward Hopper district to the southwest, while eastwards there's a zone of "delirious exuberance," shaped around melting Gaudi lines. So far so post-cyberpunk, but it's all efficient enough to suggest that Budz knows what he's doing. The hint of a more organic aesthetic lurking in the background is promising too: one of the most satisfying features of Budz's earlier novels, Clade (2003) and Crache (2004), is their commitment to a future in which bioscience is an integrated part of the landscape, rather than (as is all too common) grafted on as an afterthought. So we keep reading. The rest of the chapter is standard stuff, involving a grisly crime scene, an unidentifiable dead girl, and a hook for the plot to hang from. The catch is that when we start the next chapter we discover that we've said goodbye to detective van Dijk; we don't bump into him again for another fifty or so pages.

And by the time that happens, we've met most of the rest of the cast, including the real protagonist, and started to discern the intricate web of relations between them. Pelayo Tiutoj makes ends meet by working as a test subject for Iosepa Biognost Tek. Philming, it seems, can be applied to people as readily as to buildings, the programmable matter shaped into electronic second skins. E-skins are the ultimate fashion accessory, for those who can afford the latest designs, and Pelayo's job is to try out the beta versions. Pelayo's cousin Marta works at another point in the chain, in a "cinematique" parlour called Get Reel. In between helping people to find the philms they want, she helps out people who really need help, which is how she gets involved with Nadice, a maid with Atherton Resort Hotels who's just transferred to the Bay Area from Nigeria. And Giles Atherton, her ultimate employer, is the backer behind IBT's latest skin upgrade ... the one Pelayo's wearing by the end of chapter five. Let's not forget Lagrante, the black market philm rip-artist Pelayo visits to make a bit more money on the side, or Al-fayoumi, the graduate student obsessed with what appears to be Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics among philmed fruitflies, or Mateus, a Bad Guy searching for Nadice—or our detective (remember him?) or indeed the girl he's trying to track down, Lisette, who might be a witness to that first-chapter crime.

Given such a satisfying socioeconomic range of players to work through, the plot unfolds with unforced briskness, actions in one strand triggering unforseen consequences elsewhere, after the fashion of a book like Ian McDonald's River of Gods (2004). Each character works against the world, and the world works against each character. But Budz employs little of McDonald's verbal pizazz. The pages of Idolon may be littered with neologisms—some bad (skincense, cinesphere), some good (people "ware" philms, which is a rich enough substitution that it suggests many further variations, such as "warewolves")—but they are almost entirely stripped of metaphors or similes. I counted maybe a dozen analogies in the entire novel. The descriptive details Budz supplies to set his scenes are often specific and distinctive, but they are delivered plainly. Despite this, there is something oddly effective about describing a world in which nothing is as it seems in terms that always mean exactly what they say. It may be accidental (it is, after all, something of a convention of the form the novel follows), but it helps Budz to get at the heart of his world, to explain to us, without undue fuss, how it all works. The interplay of culture, biology, and technology is fascinating—and for the members of Idolon's cast, often suffocating. We learn early on, for instance, that Pelayo is driven by something "deep, umbilical, the need to find a way out, to change either himself or the world" (p. 12).

And yet although Budz lays bare the systems that make his cast who they are, he does not lay bare the cast itself. If I try to describe Pelayo, or Marta, or Nadice, in terms of who (as opposed to what) they are, adjectives more or less fail me. Nadice is nervous but resourceful; Marta is impulsive, but doesn't know herself as well as she'd like; and aside from the desperation mentioned above, Pelayo is something of a blank. And that's all I can tell you. This is frustrating, but we don't read a novel like Idolon for character—and like the style, it's a bug that turns out to work as a feature. The cast of Idolon live in a world where mass-media dominates thought: not only is nation-state loyalty almost a thing of the past, but maintaining coherence as an individual is hard.

To his credit, Budz doesn't play too hard on the cautionary aspects of this premise, instead allowing his cast to speak for themselves. "I want to get rid of the 'skin completely," Nadice tells Marta, when they meet. "No more philm. No more images. I just want to be me" (p. 19). It is very much easier said than done: the newest skins may be bonded directly to the wearer's nerves, but they're already stuck in place by a more permanent, social glue. Almost the first thing Pelayo notices about his new IBT philm (the thing that alerts us that Something Is Up) is that it lacks "a sense of direction, of place, in the world ... the main reason people wore philm in the first place. Belonging." (p. 33). In other words, this philm, for once, isn't an off-the-shelf identity; it doesn't allow people who wear it to pretend to be who they aspire to be. (It turns out that it tells them who to be.) Even the cultish Transcendental Vibrationists, who eschew all fashion skins in favour of clothing the colour of a TV tuned to a dead channel (circa 1984; there's a witty moment where Pelayo "flips off the TV"), are defined by their surface, while others, such as Giles Atherton, see philming as an essential form of self-improvement. Before a church service, Atherton philms himself "in a pseudoself based on Martin Luther and John Brown, in order that the spirit of those men, long dead, might enter him. By casting himself in their image he became something other, greater, than himself" (p. 25).

There are three main agents whose actions shape the course of Idolon, of which Atherton gets perhaps the least screen time and is perhaps the most interesting. Atherton is a man who believes deeply that the world has gone wrong, and bends all his means to the end of making things right. "The world was good once," he tells his wife, "it will be good again" (p. 261). His hotels around the world embody this philosophy. They are luxury enclaves that provide sanitised, Hollywood-philmed versions of the locations beyond their walls. In Atherton's eyes, the philmed crowds need a new order. They are currently less than human, no better than a mindless mass of bacteria. And to the extent that like everyone else in Idolon he is living in an unstable orbit in a space of lies, he's right. Pelayo feels the pressure it too:

It got to him after a while. It got to everyone. Each day, reality became a little less familiar ... a little more uncertain. Maybe that was why so many people cast themselves in the past. It wasn't real, but it had been real. Which was more than anyone could say for the future. (p. 285)

In other words, the twentieth century (for it is from the twentieth century that almost all the philms are drawn; at least, I don't remember anyone wandering around in full regency getup) is the dark mass at the bottom of the cultural gravity well, and the world is sliding further down the slope every day. Which means that Idolon is a novel that is as science fictional as they come, set in a world that no longer believes in the future. Realising this is disconcerting, especially once it becomes clear that Atherton's solution, if it happened, would be equivalent to locking the world into a permanent perfect past. It is also, for anyone with a residual belief in the project of science fiction—the belief that thinking about the future matters, that even though none of SF's futures have or ever will come true, the generalised concept of "the future" created when you sum across the genre is a precious and important thing—curiously powerful.

Arguably, Idolon works (and fails) because it's a novel set in a world that works (and fails) in the way that science fiction novels work (and fail), in terms of being shaped by convention and convenience; see the comments about character and style above. It works more than it fails because it threatens to end by undoing not just the lives of its cast, but the conceptual foundations on which its existence as a story rests. Certainly as I neared the end of the novel, as much as I was enjoying the unfurling of plot, as much as I was cheering the cast on (or heckling them), what I found was making me turn the pages, above all else, was hope. Hope that Budz's world would achieve escape velocity; that it would reclaim the future the plot threatens to steal from it once and for all. Hope that it would go, as one cast-member says to another, "Someplace new, where we've never been" (p. 438). Hope for a place called tomorrow. And that was enough.


When he's not editing reviews for Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison can be found co-editing Vector, blogging, or writing reviews for various other venues. (He gave up on sleep a few weeks ago.)