Mark Budz is turning into the kind of writer whose name pops up in "if you like..." discussions. If you like Greg Egan, or Charlie Stross, you'll probably like Mark Budz, a writer fascinated by the wildest speculations imaginable regarding the future of biotech and its impact on culture and individuals. With Budz, you really have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate his work. His first two novels, Clade and Crache, were intriguing but sometimes awkward exercises in finding his voice. (I just couldn't get into Crache.) Idolon is the best realization yet of his ambitious biopunk themes. Even so, its ideas are more compelling than its noirish story, which has its share of lapses into confusion and inaccessibility.
Yeah, so, The Big Sleep isn't exactly easy to follow either. But then, what gives classic noir its appeal is not so much the kinds of stories it tells, but how it tells them. Without the stark, charioscuro lighting and the world-weary cynicism and the jaded antiheroes, you really haven't got much to work with. Idolon is, similarly, more interesting for its backdrop and attitude than its plot. It grips the reader with its future in which everyone's bodies are sheathed in a synthetic nano "skin" upon which, thanks to different warez that can be bought, downloaded, or shared via p2p, any image you want can be "philmed". Want to look like your favorite movie or music star, or a hybrid of all of them? Want to be a gangster, or a samurai, or even a cartoon character? No problem. Even buildings and entire neighborhoods can be philmed to a specific aesthetic; 1930's art deco, Frank Lloyd Wright's futurism, you name it. Budz has created a future whose most advanced, indistinguishable-from-magic technology is all in the service of recapturing a romanticized past, and where no one wants to be themselves, nor does it even occur to them that they have a self to be. Individuality has become something to hide from, and the corporations who make the skins know just how to manipulate trends down to the second. (One of the story's more trenchant touches is the "smart mob," or smob, groups of people who cluster all at once in response to a stimulus acted upon by the warez in their skins.)
Talk about your world-weary cynicism! But Budz doesn't quite bring these sociological themes to their fullest potential. There's a rich vein of social commentary regarding a culture where escape is the most prevalent social movement, and has been enabed by technology to express itself in the most extreme manner possible. But Budz only taps into it in small doses. Mainly, he prefers to spin a combo murder mystery/corporate espionage thriller that redefines labyrinthine. I'm sure I didn't get a lot of it, though readers of a techier sensibility than I will probably have less trouble piecing all its elements together. Still, like Chandler, the more twisted it gets, it never loses its fascination. I enjoyed the fecundity of Budz' imagination so much that I was willing to work for the story.
Said story involves an ensemble cast drawn into a bewildering plot to develop a new skin with quantum properties, capable of linking all its wearers as if they were one organism. Pelayo earns extra money as a test subject for skins still in the beta stage, and the tech who applies the stuff is also bootlegging the ware to black market developers on the side. Pelayo has two cousins, Marta and Concetta; Concetta has vanished shortly after making the decision to become deskinned for good. Nadice is a young woman fleeing her indentured employment to one of the companies developing the new skin; she has become pregnant, somehow (not by the usual method), but doesn't want to give up the baby, which her contract would require. She is helped by a sleazy black marketer who promises to shield her if she smuggles some foreign illegal ware. Finally, there is Kasuo van Dijk, a detective (who neatly provides the novel's noir homage) searching for the identity of a young woman found dead in her apartment with an unidentifiable new skin, as well as a little girl who witnessed the crime but quickly vanishes under the cops' very noses.
Searching for Concetta, Marta is helped by what seems to be a bit of sentient ware, taking the form of little insects — part fly, part fish — that instantiate right out of philms. Both she and Nadice end up under the dubious protection of a quack religious cult called the Transcendental Vibrationists. These unexplained pregnancies are happening to a number of women, and it seems this strange new skin is causing it. (Marta learns she's pregnant too.) The TV's think that some kind of revelation is in the offing. But what the other characters are more concerned with is: what is the ultimate goal for the new skin? What exactly are its developers after? Did they actually intend for it to be bootlegged pre-release? Is this all some creepy exercise in social engineering?
Idolon is an odd one. It moves fast, but I read it slowly (slowly enough to effect my monthly reading schedule; I hate when that happens), because I felt I needed plenty of breaks to think about and absorb all the plot's bizarre intricacies. I admire the book, to be sure, but it's a demanding piece of work and one I'm still not certain I'm making complete sense of. But I'll be the first to praise Mark Budz' apparently bottomless well of ingenuity. Sure, he seems overly fond of concocting spiffy futuristic slang and techie neologisms, usually just by grafting together two or more existing concepts. (The fun even extends to food. Anyone for fajizza?) The reason I enjoyed the results better here than in, say, Crache, is that there's an ironic, witty edge to all this. Idolon has Budz' most substantive future yet, but it's one whose substance is obsessively devoted to the pursuit of superficiality. If Idolon sometimes feels like it doesn't make sense, that could be because, much of the time, people don't either.