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Book review: <i>Spook Country</i> by William Gibson

the cover of the book

If this was written before anyone had heard of the author, it would get a pretty patchy reception.


A vector image of mirror-black skyscrapers crowding a stormy sky. The text isn't much, either. Pleasantly glossy, though, and won't embarrass you on a train.


The story unfolds from three parallel perspectives, which braid together more and more tightly as the climax approaches. We have Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese courier for his family firm who perform the more cranial functions of organised crime: document fraud, smuggling, counterfeiting, and so on. We have Milgrim, a Russian-speaking junkie and walking hostage of ambiguous intelligence agent Brown. And we have Hollis Henry, ex-member of cult band The Curfew, charged to write an article on a new form of virtual art. All three threads soon surround the lacuna of one lost shipping container and its mysterious but evidently valuable contents.

The good

Gibson's prose style began as a unique, take-it-or-leave-it form of hyper-cool script, which stressed technology, urban environments and borderline fetishisation of industrial design to such an extent that these things literally merged with the characters' bodies, and were as much an expression of the author's intent as any of the clipped phrases which emerged from their unsmiling mouths. It was the only possible way to deliver this nerd's fantasy of post-human stylishness - imagine The Matrix minus black clothes, computer text and air-rippling bullets and you've got some idea how intrinsic it was to the meat of his stories.

In fact, the Wachowski brothers, being the self-confessed nerds they are, were hugely influenced by Gibson's work. In his first book Neuromancer, Gibson actually coined the term "the matrix" to describe his vision of a figurative, virtual reality internet. He often gets credit for "predicting" the modern internet although obviously his vision was quite different, a fact he actually touches on in Spook Country. He makes a clever point, however, by saying that, although the traditional ideas of "virtual reality" never came to fruition (viz, a large plastic hat, or his slicker but even less plausible original vision of chrome plugs clicking smoothly into your skull), anytime you use a computer you are, in fact, entering a virtual reality. Even the dull old desktop is a virtual space - a representative environment with its own rules which we inhabit at one remove and explore and manipulate to our own ends. To be honest, I think Gibson gets credit for this half-baked piece of prescience because it reflects his writing and audience in a more worthy light than that of his far more influential and (I think) worthwhile invention, which was a particular style of science fiction known as cyberpunk. (In one of those inexplicably common pieces of resonance, cyberpunk was visually portrayed down to the neon letter, at the same time Neuromancer was published, by Ridley Scott in the movie Blade Runner.) This dystopian future enslaved/enthralled by technology, multiculturalism, urban domains and globe-spanning corporations more powerful than sorta came true. So good work, messers Scott and Gibson, you depressing bastards. I'll swap my iPod for a skulljack as soon as I'm instructed to buy one.

ANYWAY. This tangent has some relevance, because in his more recent books Gibson has been travelling backwards in time, from orbital mansions and websites which melt your brain to GPS tracking, viral marketing and the branding fetishes of our present day. This makes him a far more accessible writer, and it also brings his vision to the everyday surroundings of modern Western life, with interesting results. If nothing else, it serves to remind you that, flying cars and cyborgs aside, we really ARE living in The Future, and it's only going to get weirder, faster, from here on in.

Suitably, Gibson's style has evolved to deal with his newer focus. Nowadays it's lighter, more organic, and willing to toy with things entirely absent from his early work such as a sense of humour and political comment. The daylight passages actually manage to feel squinty, as though the author's been cloistered in the basement of fantasy for a long time, and is now emerging into the light of a summer streetscape, each plane and corner stingingly crisp and bright. The fact is, for all their affected grimness and grittitude, cyberpunk fantasies are every bit as escapist as the xeroxed dragons and princes of fantasy novels; in fact, the striving for verisimilitude is a particularly adolescent way of overcompensating for their own trifling nature. Take The Matrix. Clever plotting and gorgeous design lead the audience to a place which feels like a guerrilla battle of the underdog forces of light and humanity against merciless technological masters of our own creation. But the core conceit (and, I suspect, greatest success) of the film is its deep, cathartic indulgence of universal teenage tropes: I am real but everybody else is either a robot, or a worthless, sleepwalking sell-out, therefore it doesn't matter how I behave, I am the most important person on the planet because I am the only person in the world who realises this, my thoughts create the reality around me, my body is less important than my mind, my mind is as readily manageable as my computer, and my partner is a very attractive goth who wears skin-tight PVC trousers.

This is at the heart of what makes Gibson's work such a love-hate thing. His willingness to inhabit the same world as the rest of us and to deal with its issues in his plots can't help but garner him some new fans, but it all still hinges on the style and tone. Which is to say, one man's idea of what constitutes stylishness. If you really couldn't give a crap about what kind of cars the characters drive, what flavour of interior design fills their houses, or what the most promising technological gadget of the week is, then you're probably not A- a man, or B- going to like this much. There is, though, a perverse bravery in a nebbish writer like Mr. Gibson putting his sense of taste on the line in a present-day setting (though it would be braver still if he could bleach it out of his characters), and for most old fans and some new readers he will continue to convince.

The bad

And for some, he won't. These naysayers will probably split into two groups - people who look straight through his slick facades to the minimal story and impenetrably stolid characters beneath, and people (Tom puts his hand up) who think his original brand of futurist uber-cool defines an inimitable technique which Gibson could evolve into something truly perfect; Wodehouse wrote the same story all his life, but, as he was the only person who could write it, this was the way it had to be. Countless writers (myself shamefully included) tried to emulate Gibson's style and failed, partly because he does such a good job of convincing the right kind of reader that the style is indivisible from the content. You could argue the case for this, but it would be a much harder sell to convince anyone that his original style, with its shoe-gazy embrace of manufacture at the expense of character, fits into a current-day setting. The fairly obvious issue then becomes - if Gibson reins in his stylistic excesses and switches to a familiar setting, is there enough left to build a novel?

In my opinion, in Spook Country, the answer is no. I enjoyed Pattern Recognition, but in terms of style-V-substance it was borderline. The climactic scenes had a peculiar beauty, but I would struggle to tell you exactly what they added up to. Oddly, Spook Country, despite using Mr. Gibson's standard plot structure, actually features a story which is firmly grounded in the real world, and one which had/has real potential for his more minimal prose style. Unfortunately, here, for me, plotting simply fails to effectively partner with structure and style. I feel as if Mr. Gibson's writing is at, to borrow a word he likes, a liminal stage. There are fascinating hints here at what could be an entirely new direction for his books - the bone-dry humour, greater emphasis on characterisations, but primarily the political slant. I won't give the whole plot away, but there's a fantastic paragraph where he touches on the current US administration's disregard for the tenets of their hallowed constitution - it runs something like: "An individual with conditional morals has no morality. A country with conditional laws has no laws, and, soon, no country." This passage fits perfectly with the basic story, which, as the title suggests, involves a lot people who may or not be spies for entities which may or may not represent countries surveilling each other. What doesn't fit, as I said, is Gibson's stock plot approach. Who the fuck ARE all these people? More importantly, WHY the fuck are all these people? We simply don't require his old-school tripartite narrative here, and even the sense of mystery seems pat and unnecessary. In Pattern Recognition (his first book set in the present) he focuses, wisely, on a single central female character with an unusual curse/gift. The Hollis character in Spook Country is so similar that they could be sisters, and is the strongest person in the book, yet perversely she is little more than an observer - the book's events would take place with or without her, and her inclusion in Gibson's stock "everyone in a room finally" finale couldn't be more arbitrary. The only characters who really perform meaningful functions are the peripheral characters - Agent Brown and his opposite numbers.

OK, so the characters aren't very good, but in an older book Gibson would have saved it with some fascinating MacGuffins and an edible atmosphere. Yeah, well, there are two main MacGuffins, the mystery box and the VR art, and, while fun in themselves, both add up to precisely dick. The atmosphere is more suburban than urban; if we've been to downtown L.A once, blah blah blah.

This is a frustrating read for a Gibson fan. He teases us with suggestions of a fresh meld of today's headlines and his unique style, but then shackles himself to a creaky old structure, non-existent pacing, and characters who spend far too much of OUR time in THEIR heads because they have nothing better to do while Gibson shunts them into position for the anticlimactic climax. I hate to say it, but, in Spook Country, Gibson seems a little lost in the present.

Spook Country's biggest plus is what it suggests Gibson can do in the future. In my not-very-humble opinion, if he wants to stay in the present he needs to come to terms with the fact that he conveys characters best through their actions, not their words, and certainly not, heaven help us, through internal monologues. Show us, Bill, don't tell us. Get your characters out of their own arses and down the street earning their pay.

What I learnt

A great concept for the potential artistic possibility of very accurate GPS tracking.

In short

Title: Spook Country
Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Putnam Adult
ISBN: 0399154302
Year published: 2007
Pages: 384
Genre(s): Fiction, Sci-Fi
Review Type: