Spook Country is the latest novel from the multiple award-winning William Gibson, know to the popular press as “the man who invented cyberspace”. Gibson burst onto the SF scene in 1984 with his novel, Neuromancer, which won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K Dick awards in 1985. It also won a Ditmar, a Seiun and the Science Fiction Chronicle readers’ poll. It was runner up for First Novel in the Locus Awards, and placed third in the Campbell Memorial Award. Oddly enough, although Gibson has been nominated for many awards since, all he has won have been a couple of Auroras. Will Spook Country put him back on top of the pile?
Notable reviews of Spook Country can be found online here:
- The New York Times (David Itzkoff)
- The Observer (Ian Beetlestone)
- Excessive Candour at scifi.com (John Clute)
- The Daily Telegraph (Tim Martin)
- The Times (Peter Millar)
- Strange Horizons (Graham Sleight)
- The Independent (Matt Thorne)
- Boing Boing (Cory Doctorow)
- SF Site (David Soyka)
- The Washington Post (Bill Sheehan)
- Village Voice (Nathan Lee)
- The Seattle Times (Nisi Shawl)
- The San Francisco Chronicle (Michael Berry)
- The Los Angeles Times (Ed Park)
- and many, many others
I think that Spook Country is possibly William Gibson’s most satisfying novel to date. His writing still thrills me as much as it did when I first read his short stories. It’s a clever, entertaining caper novel, constantly commenting on popular culture, and with darkness lurking at the edges.
Since his first flurry of stories, Gibson has been accused of not being political, which I think is absurd. He’s always taken a political stance, beginning from the anti-government outsiders he wrote about in his sprawl stories and novels to the references of the culture of fear promulgated by the US’s current administration in Spook Country.
I should start by saying that I thought Spook Country was fantastic. Although I have not read everything in Gibson’s backlist, with Pattern Recognition he became the only writer for which this busy editor will drop everything and dive in the minute he has a new book out. That work was my favorite novel the year it came out and this one is certainly one of my favorites (“one of” being as much as someone who is now enthusiastic about his own book line should be.) But rather than sing Spook Country‘s praises like the rest of everybody, I want to drill down into two specifics that really interest me.
Now, there is a passage on page 65 of Spook Country in which characters Bobby Chombo and Hollis Henry discuss locative art, the GPS tagged virtual art that is only visible with special headgear, and only in the locations to which it is assigned.
“We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it. We didn’t need the googles, the gloves. It just happened. VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going. Without scaring us too much, right? The locative, though, lots of us are already doing it. But you can’t just do the locative with your nervous system. One day, you will. We’ll have internalized the interface. It’ll have evolved to the point where we forget about it. Then you’ll just walk down the street….” He spread his arms and grinned at her.
“In Bobbyland,” she said.
“You got it.”
Now, Gibson’s been discussing locative art in all of his various podcasts, and in one of them (Boing Boing?), he mentions that he hits a wall when he tries to imagine the future of locative art, but that it is “probably” a city where 50% of everything is not physically present. This fascinates me for two reasons. The first is that this sort of totally immersive augmented reality is exactly what our own author, David Louis Edelman, projects in his novels Infoquake and the forthcoming MultiReal – a world where most long distance travel has been replaced by a technology that allows virtual bodies to interact with real ones via a system threated through the nervous system, just as Gibson describes above. In this world, most objects will be only virtually present, as a courtesy to the people who are as well, since both physical and virtual individuals can interact with virtual objects, but only physical people can interact with physical objects. So I’m rather proud to see Gibson detailing the beginnings of a technology whose endpoint one of my own writers mapped out a couple years ago.
Secondly, Gibson’s statement that he hits a wall when looking further into locative art fascinates me. It’s no big statement on my part to talk about how Gibson has always been writing about this present moment. His “Sprawl trilogy” of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, saw it from a far (and largely inspired the architects of our present day internet). His “Bridge trilogy” of Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Party, came closer to the present day. And these new works – Pattern Recognition and Spook Country (which may be prove to be the first two books of the “Bigend trilogy,”), are, as Cory Doctorow has said, takes “science fiction to an amazing, unseen world: the recent past.”
So, having seen us to this point in time, of which he’s always been writing, my question is – what happens when the future moves forward? Will Bill stay here in the 00s? When we hit 2011, will he still be setting things in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century? Could he be on the brink of being a historical writer?
I liked Spook Country quite a bit, though I have a few reservations about the book. For example, I found its basic premise less compelling than that of Pattern Recognition and I was a bit disappointed in the ending. On the plus side, I thought the novel’s action was very crisp, the style up to Gibson’s usual high standard, and the characters fascinating.
Indeed, I thought that character development was one of the book’s greatest strengths. Hollis Henry, the rocker turned journalist; Milgrim, the drug-addled translator; Tito, the Chinese/Cuban/Russian apprentice wise guy; Brown, the humorless government (?) operative; Bobby Chombo, the neurotic and recognizably “Gibsonian” console cowboy – these were all well-done characters, and there were a dozen other more briefly sketched but equally fascinating secondary figures as well. None were as well developed as Cayce Pollard of Pattern Recognition, of course, but it was a fine ensemble cast. The one character who seemed flat to me was Bigend, perhaps because Gibson, assuming that readers would already be cued in to him from having read Pattern Recognition, put less time into developing the Belgian entrepreneur.
Of course Gibson also did wonderful things with the concept of “virtuality”: the art form that can only be viewed in virtual reality and that enshrines dead celebrities; the on-line magazine that has a staff and commissions stories, but that doesn’t quite exist; the cargo container that keeps appearing and disappearing on the Global Positioning Network – these are all enormously cool ideas. I was also taken by the complex background Gibson developed for Tito and his people; the Cuban/Russian/Chinese ethnicity and culture at first seemed a bit far fetched but he made it work, and the Santerian material (which Gibson loves, of course) also enriched the novel. Still, I was a bit disappointed, as I’ve already mentioned, with the ending – Inchmale’s coming to Hollis’s rescue seemed forced and unlikely, the one false moment in the novel. Also, and perhaps inevitably considering how wonderful the build up was, the “fixing” of the cargo container at the end, although ingenious, felt like a bit of an anti-climax. Spook Country, in short is a fine novel, but perhaps not quite up to Gibson’s very best.
The smaller the world gets, the smaller all our technology makes the world, the smaller we get. Reduced to patterns of self-replicating behavior, we regard the landscapes that surround us, the landscapes we create with a sort of superstitious awe. William Gibson’s latest novel, Spook Country, evokes the desolation that we find ourselves immersed in with a skill that is clearly the work of his unconscious. And that unconscious has a rather odd reaction to its isolation; it laughs, or at least it wants to laugh. It wants to find the humor in the windswept empty streets, in the burgeoning crowds that anonymize themselves into moving sheets of humanity-as-desolation. That unconscious knows to tell a hell of a good joke.
Spook Country is filled with images of public places inhabited only by the wind and debris, of paces that should be bustling with humanity but instead are aching with emptiness. Of course, our public places are merely mirrors for our visions of ourselves. No surprise then, that Gibson finds a way to fill the emptiness with his locative art, a tiny shard of the future crammed back into our past as if it belonged there. Clearly something has to fill the emptiness; why not the future? The present isn’t doing a hell of a good job. Spook Country uses the science fiction toolset – invented gadgets, surreal descriptions – to evoke a cultural landscape in the present. Our technology has inured most of us to spiritual experiences as they were once understood. Now, the confused remnants have to make something up to fill the emptiness. Art. War. Pranks – what’s the difference?
There is none, really, not in Gibson’s world. And so, inspired, one thinks by the likes of the Yes Men, we get pranks writ large, pranks on a grand scale, pranks that don’t exactly evoke laughter, but do create a sort of sustained amusement. And that amusement may be just enough, just the key to fill those spaces. We can’t manufacture meaning. It either happens or it doesn’t. But Spook Country suggests at the very least we can keep ourselves vaguely happy, we can whirl through our shrinking lives by filling the emptiness with enough of a spark, enough of our hope to at least ensure our own amusement. Spook Country is much more than amusing; but it is amusing as well, deliberately so, at least as deliberately as one can expect of writing dredged from the unconscious. As a literary artifact, it hails from both the past and the future. Mash the two together and for just a moment, you get the present.
To me the locative art aspect of the novel is the least interesting (Hollis Henry seems to agree, as she’s never very enthusiastic about it). It IS a dead end. At least the way Bobby Chombo uses it. It’s not creative – it merely cannibalizes history — similarly to Ballard’s auto wrecks tableaux that are fetishized in CRASH (but less sexy). And the idea of real people in virtual environments interacting with each other is hardly new — Pat Cadigan was writing about it almost ten years ago in Tea in an Empty Cup and later Dervish is Digital.
I too love the prankster aspect of the novel that Rick talks about. Pranksters who are totally serious in their pranks. Also the thrum of paranoia that runs through the novel, reflecting the paranoia of our government.
First, I am utterly struck by the elegance of Rick’s analysis, and so don’t have anything to add on that. I was familiar, going in, with the theme of “ghosts” but hadn’t connected the emptiness of should-be crowded locales like Los Angeles. Beautifully done, sir.
Second, Michael, I agree that Bigend felt underutilized. At first, I felt his absence at the end suggested Gibson had lost interest in him, in the way Ellen suggests he lost interest in locative art, and I certainly had a hard time accepting – after Pattern Recognition – that Bigend would abandon one of his priority projects short of an answer. However, given the constant layers of surveillance that weave through this narrative, as well as the multiple tracking methods Hollis discovers Bigend employing, I think it’s a more than fair assumption that Bigend has yet-undisclosed taps going on, and was probably privy to everything the Old Man told Hollis at the novel’s resolution – hence his ability to bow out. Of course, when Gibson was recently asked if the old man was Cayce Pollard’s father (from Pattern Recognition, also described as looking like William Burroughs), he replied that he honestly didn’t know, that his writing could be viewed as “attempts to trick his readers into investigating his novels for him.” Again with Rick’s claim that the novel was written from the unconscious, or the zeitgeist. So my assumption that Bigend was listening in may not be confirmable, at least by the author.
As to the locative being done before, yes, true – but what I like about it is that it’s a bridge between here and there. Sure, immersive virtual environments are nothing new, but a lot of deep future SF jumps the transition, and I like that this is tracking the step-by-steps that will take us from our present day reality to the SFnal future Gibson envisioned in his earlier works (plus cell phones). Again, his books have been zeroing in on this present moment for decades now, getting closer to now from the other side as we approached the limits of his vision.
Odd that the prank at the end is a trope from James Bond’s Goldfinger (film not novel), especially given that Bigend is a total Bond character, reinterpreted for the 21st century, corporate-not-government espionage.
I dunno, the use to which the locative art is put here isn’t all that interesting, but the virtual reality presentation is just a form. A brilliant artist could use it to make brilliant art, it seems to me. I wonder what George Segal might have done with it, what Judy Chicago might do with it.
This “losing interest” thing bothers me. Good writers shouldn’t lose interest in something half way through the book. If they do isn’t it their duty (to their readers or their art or something) to go back to the beginning and rewrite things until they work? Gibson is a superb writer, but even superb writers shouldn’t get free passes. Aren’t we talking about two actual weaknesses in the book? A major element in the novel and a major character more or less disappear. The fact that there may be a sequel in the works in two or three years doesn’t change things. A writer working at the level Gibson customarily works on should have found a way to tie the locative art back in and bring Bigend back as well. As with Inchmale’s deus ex machina appearance at the end, I feel that t here’s some sloppiness here.
Please note, though, that I make these criticisms within the context of having really liked the book. I gave it a starred review.
I agree with you and Lou that Bigend was underutilized. In fact, I completely forgot him from Pattern Recognition and because of that he felt like a very minor character.
I’m not convinced the “locative art” thing was ever meant to be more than the mechanism for us and Hollis to meet Bobby Chombo–who is the crucial element in the plot. And Bigend is the mechanism to get Hollis onto the scene. So are they flaws or weaknesses? Possibly. They’re two of several strands that get everything going.
I’m hesitant to call them flaws, because I don’t read Gibson for plot. I read Gibson for the small moments, the articulate prose that lets me see my own world through his gloss. I think I read him differently from everyone else actually.
I always speed through Gibson’s books and this to me is his most satisfying. I don’t usually feel the need/desire to analyze what he’s doing. I just enjoy it. But since were here to analyze, surely you can see things that could have been done differently.
I understand that, but I also think Gibson writes more from his subconscious than most, and as a result, his process needs to be taken into account, and that’s not a plot-centric process whereas these are plot-centric complaints.
My take on this would be that you’re right about Gibson not being plot centered and about his plots not being the primary reason we read his books–we read Gibson for the incredibly beautiful language, his brilliant ability to interpret contemporary culture, the fascinating things that he pulls up out of his subconscious–but that doesn’t change the fact that something is a weakness, or that some of his books (Pattern Recognition, for example) are better plotted than others. Similarly, we read van Vogt (to the extent that we still do–I’ve just re-read Slan for a different project) for the really off the wall ideas and gonzo energy, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a terrible stylist, developer of characters, or constructor of plots.
I seem to be coming across as awfully negative, which I don’t want to because, as I’ve said before, I do like the book. Lou, what makes you say that Gibson writes more from his subconscious than other writers?
Well, I’ve suspected it since Idoru. But hearing him say the same thing in podcasts around Spook Country‘s release cinched it. He talks (to Rick, I believe) about “inviting the zeitgeist in for tea” and how he considers himself a Fortean writer – mixing disparate elements to see what emerges, being unwilling to analyze what he means, to even know consciously what some elements are (is Cayce’s father the “Old Man”? I think Gibson himself is actually – he says Cayce’s dad and the old man both look like Burroughs, but Gibson is now starting to look like Burroughs himself!) He says he didn’t even know what was in the box until deep into the novel and that his “outlines” – delivered when he pitches books – are pretty imaginary constructs that he and his editor knows will bear little resemblance to the final.
It also occurs to me that the average (recent) Gibson book contains about as much plot as a regular novellete or short story. I was struck with this in Idoru, but in Spook Country, where Hollis seems almost irrelevant to the plot (she is given the contact, taken by the French woman to Chombo, taken by the French woman to Chombo’s sister). Hollis’s value is in being a “witness to secret history” – Cayce at least did some real digging. Hollis is more a witness to the book itself than a protagonist. Not that I’m counting this as a negative – I loved Spook Country, and I couldn’t say whether I liked it or Pattern Recognition more. They are tightly bound in my mind, like China’s Bas Lag novels. Iron Council is probably the best, but Perdido Street Station will always be the first. So in that regard, Pattern Recognition might be my favorite. The more I consider it though; Bigend’s lack of interest at the resolution must be deliberate. Gibson has commented that YouTube obsolete’s Pattern Recognition. I wonder what will obsolete Spook Country between now and book three.
Actually, he told me as much in our last interview. He deliberately avoids conscious thought when writing.
It’s not like I know something and I’m trying to express it to you in fiction… The part of me that’s able to write a novel is not a part of me that I have any real conscious access to. And the part of me I have conscious access to really has to be kept away from the text at all costs, because the conscious part of me is not really good… with things novelistic.
He said that Spook Country was “mining the Zeitgeist”. I suppose that’s what I enjoy about his novels. There’s a sort of through-line that allows the reader to avoid thinking about the inconsistencies and vagueness of plot and character that one might otherwise fixate on.
That said, I did feel the Bigend was a bit too James-Bondian for the narrative at hand. Of course, this calls to mind Stross and one begins to wonder about the influence of Ian Fleming on science fiction. Or Ian Fleming as science fiction.
Gibson has commented that YouTube obsolete’s Pattern Recognition. I wonder what will obsolete Spook Country between now and book three.
I find the above statement fascinating. One of the things that I tell my students is that even though were all reading the same words, we’re actually reading different stories because our backgrounds differ. I’m not a heavy consumer of YouTube but if I went back and read Pattern Recognition now, would I be aware that I was reading a different book this time? Would it have the creepy feeling of reading Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time Slip, which is set on a widely settled Mars in the 1980s?
Perhaps by the time the next Gibson novel comes out everyone will have the ability to do Locative Art in Virtual Reality in their cell phone.
Well, Pattern Recognition was about the dissemination of a film in tiny bits online, and Bigend was fascinated by the marketing genius of that. Now, everyone does it. In fact, YouTube’s LonelyGirl15 (Wikipedia link) is often conflated with Pattern Recognition in discussions. The future distributes faster than it ever did before, which might help explain the rash of near future (and even historical) SF from writers like Gibson, Stephenson, MacLeod, McDonald, et al. And yes, I think Locative Art (maybe not with that title) will be everywhere in five years. Gibson himself commented that the word “cyber” is going to go away under the expectation that everything will be “cyber” and thus the tag will be redundant.
Does anyone have any ideas why why Milgrim is reading Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of The Millennium. (Not that I know either, but it is one of my favorite history books so I recognized it as soon as Gibson started describing it.)
I’m fond of the Cohn book too. I assumed it was just a throw away tidbit designed to send off a few fairly obvious symbolic implications. Do you think there is more to it?
In one podcast, Gibson says he remembered the book but not the authors name.
When I read Pattern Recognition, I was convinced that Gibson had read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. I asked him and he hadn’t, but it sure felt like he had. (I also tried to get Gladwell to read Pattern Recognition. No luck.)
Reading Spook Country, I would be convinced he’d read an author I saw recently on the Daily Show talking about the mechanics of the transportation of goods (I don’t think it was John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, but it was something in a very similar space) except that the books came out at the same time.
I remember Gibson said that Cayce was partly inspired by the book No Logo, which he never read, but whose cover struck him oddly.
Again with the zeitgeist and being a “Fortean” writer.
There may be more. There may not be more. There may be more that emerges without conscious intention on the part of the author.
Dorothy Tutin once told me that, while being directed by Harold Pinter in his own play and asking him about the meaning of a particular scene he wrote, that Pinter replied “It is impossible for us to know the author’s intention at this point.”
This reminds me of an interview with Gibson that I read at the start of his UK tour. In response to a question about the themes of Spook Country he responded:
In the process of doing the tour I will be informed by interviewers of what the broad themes are. I haven’t been interviewed sufficiently to be able to tell you.
Perhaps by having this discussion we too have added to the meaning of the book.