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Spook Country
William Gibson
Putnam, 373 pages

Spook Country
William Gibson
William Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina, spent his childhood in southwestern Virginia, and left the United States for Canada when he was 19. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife and their two children. His first novel, Neuromancer, won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1984. He is also the author of Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Burning Chrome, and Virtual Light.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Idoru
SF Site Review: All Tomorrow's Parties
SF Site Review: Idoru

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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At a time when so-called literary writers are employing science fiction tropes, one of the granddads of cyberpunk seemingly becomes mainstream, setting his last two novels in the present tense of post-9/11 America. This is usually one of the first things mentioned (indeed, it just was) about William Gibson's latest novel, Spook Country. Not exactly a sequel, but rather a companion piece to the widely regarded Pattern Recognition, it explores moral behavior within an impersonal society of global corporate and government interests saturated by advanced technology and mass media.

In other words, this is what Gibson has been writing about since Case jacked in to cyberspace. Not repeating himself, but adding nuance to evolving, and even weirder, changes in the condition of Western civilization. (Consider Gibson's riff on his famous first line of Neuromancer -- "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" -- in Spook Country's "The world outside the restaurant's windows, beyond words in a red plastic Cantonese neither of them could read, was the color of a silver coin, misplaced for decades in a drawer.") The title is both descriptive -- a story about various "spooks," a colloqualism for spies as well as ghosts -- and analytical -- a depiction of a nation "spooked" by a devastating attack on its shores while shadowy government entitie ally with corporate privateers to profit and an oblivious mass media is enthralled to the spectral projections of celebrity news.

The difference between the science fiction Gibson wrote in the then ominous (but, looking back, more innocent) year of 1984 and that of today is that reality has caught up with him. But not in the good way the science fiction writers of old enjoyed, what with rockets and satellites and cell phones and other "gee whiz" gizmos that have transitioned from wondrous imagination to humdrum commodities, As Gibson himself recently put it in the The New York Times Sunday Magazine (August 19, 2007, p.13), "If I had gone into a publisher in New York in 1981 and told them I wanted to write a novel that is set in a world where the climate is out of whack and Mideast terrorists have hijacked airplanes and in response the U.S. has invaded the wrong country -- it's too much. Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios."

When Neal Stephenson came out with his Baroque Cycle of historical novels, commentators said his writing style remained "science-fictional" in approach. I was never really sure what that meant (though the style remains "Stephensonian"). Similarly, the narrative structure of Spook Country is what you'd expect from Gibson. Various characters in at first disparate situations are compelled to obtain information (both physical data and intellectual knowledge) towards an event horizon that causes personal transformation. Add to that a mix of rock and roll, a strong female protagonist, product branding, celebrityhood, substance abuse and theological speculation, and you've got a "Gibsonian" novel underpinned by science fictional elements, whether real or speculative, about the use of technology to disperse or hide information, and, consequently, gain and exert power.

Hollis Henry is a former rock star, a member of the demised cult band "The Curfew" (a play, perhaps, on "The Cure" and/or a signifier of a necessary end), starting a new career as a journalist for the not-as-yet launched Node, a magazine supposed to be like Wired, but that no one has heard of. The purported publication is a product of Blue Ant, a shady guerrilla marketing concern owned by Hubertus Bigend (a character who also appears in Pattern Recognition). Bigend (another hint of coming catastrophe?) is interested in finding out more about "locative art" -- a virtual reality depiction of an event, frequently a famous person's demise, that can only be viewed through a headset and is linked via a global positioning system (GPS) to a specific geographic spot, hence "locative." More specifically, Bigend is less interested in the art than the reclusive GPS programmer, Bobby Chombo, who is doing side work for renegade interests. It is unclear, however, whether these renegades are from the government or criminal organizations, or if there is a difference.

Bigend is not the only one looking for Bobby, or what Bobby has located. Brown, who might be a government agent (or maybe another renegade, or maybe, once again, they're the same thing) is tracking the activities of Tito, a Cuban-Chinese immigrant, who is regularly transporting to an old man iPods thought to contain data related to what Bobby is tracking. Brown has pressed a homeless drug addict, Milgrim, who in better times was a cryptographer, to decrypt messages sent to Tito in Volapuk, which employs the Russian alphabet. To while away the time when he isn't needed, Milgrim reads about European messianism, which suggests how history may be repeating itself.

All of these people are ultimately interested in a container that is arriving in Vancouver. What each needs to do with it is the mystery, though the resolution of that mystery is largely besides the point. The point is that in an increasingly autocratic society, when do overriding interests for good require obedience, and when does such obedience lead to evil? How long do you continue to obey merely out of trust? How can you know whom to trust? And what circumstances can lead to -- and justify -- the betrayal of that trust?

Certainly relevant to ponder in today's world of foreign wars and fear mongering perpetrated by both sides of the ideological divide. Given Gibson's habit of grouping his novels in loosely related thematic trilogies that share some characters and situations, another volume in this mediation can be expected. How pessimistic its viewpoint of the next installment may depend on how things work out in our present time in the real world here. The concluding image of this particular novel, in which a particular piece of locative art depicts a building enveloped by a Mongolian Death Worm, would suggest Gibson is not overly optimistic, at least based on events in recent history.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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