by William Gibson
Cover Artist: Nichole LaRoche
Review by Ernest Lilley
Putnam Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780399154300
Date: 07 August 2007 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
With Spook Country, Gibson has looked at the future from the vantage points of prescience and reminiscence, as well as that of blissful ignorance and the constraint of being an insider. Ironically, where his irreverent lack of computer knowledge allowed him to create Neuromancer in 1984, his subsequent adoption by all manner of geekdom robbed him of the freshness of that writing. As a result, Spook Country feels dated, even though it's set in the indeterminate now. Of course, if this is SF, the "S" stands more for "spy" than for "science" but even so, it feels more like a recent yesterday than the day after tomorrow.
The story, such as it is, follows a post-rock-star girl trying on the role of journalist for a trendy new magazine that may or may not exist. She's not quite sure herself, but she knows she's on the trail of some sort of story which has to do with GPS hackers and mysterious international plots. That's all you need to know about the plot. Honest. The rest is a random walk through the author's favorite haunts, virtual reality, hypertexted reality, high-thread-count sheets, irony, and snippets of beautiful, if more than a little self-conscious, prose.
Gibson's preoccupation with icons of the '80s leaks through in the frequent odes to Japan and the importance of plasma TVs to his characters. Plasma is so 10 minutes ago with flat screen LCDs kicking its butt. Tomorrow we may all be tossing the LCDs out the window for OLEDs (Organic LED), or not ... which just shows how technology can date a piece.
He's also big on superimposed imagery. Hollis views hyper-art superimposed on Hollywood, and Tito sees the empty shop-fronts of Havana superimposed on glitzy storefronts in NYC. Gibson's postmodern sensibility equates making digital art with drying socks as he treats both with the same emotional dullness.
This is both a reflection on his earlier work and the antithesis of it. Where Gibson originally wrote Neuromancer on the blank cyber-slate before there essentially was an Internet or virtual reality, writing in blissful ignorance on a manual typewriter and not expecting to be taken seriously, he now knows much too much about where his dream came true and where it didn't, and the world he creates here feels more like 2001 than the day after tomorrow, which one does not think is the author's plan.
One of the results is that whatever it is that's creeping Hollis out about the overlay of VR on reality that Alberto, the artist she's interviewing, is on about just doesn't seem all that odd to me, or most likely anyone who's spent any time on computer gaming or using location-based services.
The first big thought I ran into was when Hollis meets up with the mage of GPS hacking, the reclusive Bobby Chombo. Imagine that the world is overlain with virtual annotation tied to GPS coordinates. Fine, and pretty much old hat. But the interesting idea is that there might be any number of information networks, databases, with different information about the same location, and how you saw the world could be a function of the channel you were tuned to. That's a worthwhile insight.
What I like in this book, far more than watching post-rock girl to and fro from an expensive hotel, is the mundane feel of the spy-craft in the other storyline. It could be that I just like the NYC vibe of it, as that's where it starts off and hangs out for a while.
Like Bruce Sterling, Gibson is a brilliant short story writer, but only a fair novelist. Still, within the bigger work you get some nice short pieces. There is a two-page vignette of the agents following the ex-Cuban Intel character at Gray's Papaya that is just about perfect short fiction. Gibson paints a multitude of images in sharp detail, from the grilled beef franks to the description of the Jewish intellectual invasion following WWII.
The story's main character, Hollis, needs a second career, and the one she longs for is to be a journalist. She's been a rock star, and the residuals can pay the rent, but she likes to write and see where that goes. So, what does this say about the author? He's been both journalist and (cyberpunk) rock star already. Can he escape himself, or is hiding in a darkened hotel room the best he can hope for? I remember an interview with one of the Beatles, John Lennon I think, where he was stuck in a hotel room in Hong Kong, or Tokyo, I forget which, with nothing to do for several days. So he took baths and rediscovered his inner self.
I'm hoping that Bill has enough money to kick back and do the same. He's an unquestionably brilliant writer, but turning out popular novels about tech-trauma isn't his best destiny. What he needs to do is get back to his muse, and write what he feels.