August 30, 2007

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Spook Country, by William Gibson (384 pages, Putnam Adult, August 7 2007)
Reviewed by Glenn Given production@hippopress.com

Sci-fi’s elder statesman delivers a mortal blow to cyber-punk, the very sub-genre he propelled to fame, with Spook Country; a novel so futuristic that it all happens last year. In case you didn’t notice, though, we’ve been living the sci-fi for about a decade now. Sure, we never hit the ’50s futurism, or even the grim technological dystopia of Philip K. Dick. But consider that our world has sexually transmitted super viruses running rampant over entire continents, youth cultures intimately interconnected via computers and the noxious belching of industry that threatens to cataclysmicly flood then stir fry humanity. Would a few cybernetic accoutrements really be that noticeable? Oh yeah, actually, we do have cybernetic accoutrements and Arnold Schwarzenegger rules California with an iron fist. I’d call that sci-fi enough, thank you very much.

Spook Country pans down into the yesterday of Hollis Henry, former grunge/cult rocker maturing out of her musical heyday to freelance write for Node, a not-yet-published tech/culture magazine — akin to Wired and possessing suspiciously deep pockets — of possibly Belgian origin. Hollis is tasked to recount and muse on the burgeoning discipline of locative art (i.e. Blended Reality sculpture viewable via VR goggles, WiFi access and GPS coordinates) and — further down the rabbit hole — the maneuverings of the scene’s tech guru Bobby Chombo as he tracks a mysterious cargo container across the globe.

Tito, a Chinese-Cuban Voodun/Santeria-ist, parkour runner and trusted gopher for a elder network of former KGB spies delivers iPods of ciphered data to an old man. The data might be completely worthless and serve only to decoy and divert Brown field agent for some quasi-governmental vaguely-legal security unit. Brown holds Milgrim, a prescription anti-anxiety pill addict, hostage, using him to translate Tito’s text messaged Russian-cum-133t-speak so that he can go all Ahab on the aforementioned iPods.

There are more tertiary characters involved (some returning from 2003’s Pattern Recognition), all of whom in true Gibson form, have never even seen a kilter on which to be. It’s a delicate weave of plots and characters that twine into a funnel. Alone, each of these strands would snap, their complexities too fragile to withstand the tumult of an entire novel. But, bolstered by Gibson’s unerring sense of place and his knack for neologisms that tersely communicate while his metaphors intuit the world, it bears a weight eerily out of magnitude with it’s apparent strength.

There are niggling aspects sneaking about though. Brown’s obsessive militarism and his Stockholmed Odd Couple relationship with Milgrim occasionally serve as transparent commentary, often explicitly so, on American politics. In fact, nearly every character has something to say about the current war in Iraq — about its necessity or lack thereof and those who are responsible for it. This sometimes distracting line of dialog all plays out as the global war on terror and the war in Iraq each drive and sculpt the story as undeniably as the weather shapes the crops. They are lived in layers of reality that tint every action, yet they may not require the blunted debates and abrupt monologues that Gibson offers them.

In total, Spook Country is a remarkable work of fiction and design. It’s characters are never all-quirkiness and it is often their similitude to the modern reader that connects us to their story in a manner beyond mere investigation. Spook Country’s L.A., Manhattan and Vancouver smell true and the actions unfolding therein benefit from the authenticity of Gibson’s sense of environment. So deeply resonant is that aspect that possibly Gibson will be seen first as one of the great writers of place and not just the coiner of “Cyberspace.”

Spook Country may never be Gibson’s flagship novel, but hopefully it will be recognized as his best. A+ — Glenn Given