Spies and spirits haunt Gibson's 'Spook Country'
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
By William Gibson
G.P. Putnam's Sons
384 pp, 25.95 dollars
Both spies and the spirits of the dead are thick on the ground in William Gibson's latest novel, Spook Country. While the novel has no literal supernatural element, its protagonists spend much of their time chasing spooks of one sort or another.
Gibson, who made his bones as a science fiction writer in the 1980s and '90s--he virtually invented the cyberpunk subgenre and famously coined the term "cyberspace"--has moved away from the genre's focus on the future, but keeps technology in the forefront in this, his ninth novel, while also weaving in some subtle satirical commentary on the post-9/11 national security state and the U.S. "cold civil war."
Set in February 2006, the story follows an outline familiar to readers of Gibson's previous works such as Pattern Recognition and Neuromancer: A specialist is set on a quest to find some sort of mysterious technological grail unrelated to their area of expertise by shadowy, powerful figures while in a parallel plotline other shadowy figures set other specialists on a collision course.
In Spook Country, rock-singer-turned-journalist Hollis Henry has been hired by Node, a magazine touted as "a European version of Wired, it seemed, though of course they never put it that way." The magazine may or may not actually exist, though it apparently has big money behind it. Her assignment is to write a feature on the new field of locative art--virtual reality (VR) installations tied to particular locations via GPS coordinates.
After interviewing a locative artist in Los Angeles who specializes in celebrity death scenes--a VR rendering of River Phoenix dying outside the Viper Room, a virtual shrine to Helmut Newton at the scene of his fatal crash outside the Chateau Marmont--Henry is told to track down the artist's technical advisor, a slightly paranoid GPS whiz kid who refuses to sleep in the same place twice. The journalist is also told to pay special attention if anything involving global shipping or iPods comes up.
Unsurprisingly, both the artist and his technical adviser just happen to be big fans of Henry's old band. On an unannounced visit to the techie's workspace, she catches a glimpse of a VR rendering of a shipping container that the GPS expert definitely did not mean for her to see, and the chase is on.
Meanwhile, Gibson introduces us to Tito, a Chinese-Cuban from Havana whose entire family has relocated to United States where they have continued the family espionage business on a freelance basis. Tito has been delivering iPods full of data to an old man in New York's Washington Square and communicating with his extended family of spies in Volapuk, a Russian-based "universal language" that uses Western keyboard characters to mimic the cyrillic alphabet. He is being watched by Brown, another spy who may or may not work for the U.S. government. Brown has abducted Milgrim, a hapless Ativan junkie and Russian scholar, to translate intercepted text messages.
Clearly, those aforementioned collision courses are full of twists and turns. Spook Country has fewer straight lines than a spilled bowl of ramen. The plot tends to be a bit baffling for the first part of the book, but when the pieces start to fit together Spook Country draws the reader in like a black hole.
Gibson provides plenty of spooks of both sorts. In addition to the VR ghosts of the locative artists, Henry is haunted in her own mind by the memory of her former band's bassist, dead of a heroin overdose. Tito is consumed with questions about the death of his father and constantly influenced by the spirits that make up his deeply held belief in Santeria.
On the more corporeal side of the coin are Tito's clan of clandestine operatives; the clearly-connected-but-not-necessarily-legitimate Brown, who is occasionally cartoonishly right-wing and not quite as capable as he thinks he is; and the nameless old man from Washington Square, a former senior U.S. intelligence agent with a serious hate of the neo-conservatives and war profiteers who have taken over the U.S. government and its agencies. Somewhere between the two lies the unorthodox billionaire Belgian advertising genius Hubertus Bigend, and his minions, who first appeared in Pattern Recognition.
Gibson uses the various secret agents and operatives both to poke fun at America's obsession with security and to ask some pertinent questions about the country that has, as one character puts it, "developed Stockholm syndrome toward its own government, post 9/11." After ratcheting up the tension as the competing factions seek out the mysterious shipping container, Gibson's climax turns out to be more of an elaborate practical joke than an epoch-making transformation, though it is hardly a letdown.
In addition to a familiar plot structure, Gibson also leans on some his favorite themes, including the notion of subcultures and smaller social groups serving as tribes and substitute families. Locative artists, Bigend and his employees, and fans of Henry's indie rock band are all discrete, self-sustaining phylums of humanity with their own social rules and goals. Henry never mentions her biological family, but her ex-bandmates behave like siblings despite their acrimonious break-up, willing to advise her, admonish her and bail her out of trouble with an axe handle as needed.
In his early work, one of Gibson's stylistic touchstones was the use of familiar brand names for futuristic, far-fetched or ironic products he invented for the sake of the story. The future has now caught up with the futurist and left him behind. What is the use of inventing ironic or iconic brand-name gadgets in world where magnetic levitation beds exist and Adidas really does make a boot named after a German antiterrorist squad?
As always, Gibson's greatest strengths as a writer remain his ability to conjure up realistic, gritty, urban settings and create an atmosphere from subtle changes in tone. His previously muted dry humor is more in evidence here, but his tight prose still sings like a high-tension wire and his characterization is as original and exact as ever.
(The Daily Yomiuri, Aug. 18, 2007)
"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"