Spook Country

Spook Country
William Gibson

When I first read William Gibson (the Sprawl books in reverse order about twenty years ago), I thought his books were fun, but a bit light. Even after Neuromancer exploded my brain, I wasn’t totally sold on him as being anything more than entertainment. Long years and several books later, I wonder if William Gibson isn’t one of the most important SF writers at work today. Spook Country in particular has forced me to reconsider some long held opinions and is tempting me toward some serious rereading.

Many readers no doubt question Gibson’s status as an actual SF writer now, as his trilogies creep steadily backward in time. Indeed, Spook Country is specifically set in 2006, now several years behind us. Gibson is on record several times saying things like, “The present is crazy enough without me going and making up any more weirdness.” Spook certainly reflects this, coming off as a hallucinatory cross between John le Carre and Vernor Vinge, but it was not written in a vacuum. Holding steady throughout the trilogies is the re-creation of the noir aesthetic, updated each time for a new now. If the Sprawl was noir filtered through Blade Runner and Max Headroom, and The Bridge through Japan’s pop cultural exports and the early dot-com boom, then the Blue Ant books are noir in the post-9/11 world.

Like classic noir, Spook Country is wholly urban, playing out mostly in New York and LA. The characters are in pursuit of a MacGuffin-driven mystery, finding their answers in the underworld from various sketchy and bohemian types. Mysterious powers are moving behind the scenes. All of the basic elements of a Chandler or Elroy novel are present, just as they are in cyberpunk. This time, however, the mystery involves container ships, the “detective” is a one-time indie rocker turned tech journalist, she meets avant-garde artists who work in an augmented reality medium, and the manipulating powers include Iraq War racketeers and shadowy operatives who may or may not be connected to the US government. All this and we have yet to meet Tito, the Cuban-born, ethnic Chinese, Bronx resident member of an immigrant spy clan, or Bigend himself, the very archetype of the post-modern super rich.

This may seem dizzying. Taken in isolation, any single part of the plot elicits a “yeah, right” response. Together though, the reaction is closer to, “this is crazy, but it just might work!” Holding everything together is Gibson’s prose, which, to sound utterly obsequious, is how I wish I could write. All the unexpected turns of phrase, the dry as toast wit, and the vague sense that everything is weirder and more sinister than it seems is at its crackling best. Without ever descending into screed or tirades, Gibson smoothly blows up everything in his path, sparing little of 2006 America but always maintaining plausible deniability. This pushes right through to the end, with a conclusion that some might think a letdown, but I see as an appropriately quirky resolution to a plot that was never conventional anyway.

Several themes will be familiar to long time Gibson fans: the vague paranoia, the inscrutable motives of the insanely wealthy, and the nods to pop culture and pervasive branding. Gibson remains unique among SF writers with his scrupulous attention to details of clothing and trademarks, enough that we generally know everything from color to style to brand name that the characters wear. He also tosses a bone to cyberspace lovers with the locational art scene, driven by the virtual layers that said artists create over real world locations with their pirated bandwidth and concealed routers. This is the only book I know of that details the early beginnings of augmented reality, a trope that is now commonplace in most near future SF. This bit is of special interest to me, working as I do in an industry that is slowly putting this into action.

Taken together, this is a cocktail of technology, spy tradecraft, and pop culture that only Gibson can blend into his customary sinister cool. I’m don’t think any other SF writer has a finger on the pulse of modern America like Gibson does, nor am I convinced that any mainstream writer has the tech knowledge to understand it either. We ostensibly read SF to peer into the future; William Gibson instead gives us a clearer view of the present.

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2 thoughts on “Spook Country

  1. I’ve just read the sequel to this (Zero History), so it was interesting to be reminded of some stuff from earlier. Thanks for that. Not sure I’d agree with the characterization of the Bigend books as noir, exactly, but if you take one of the defining aspects of noir as a pervasive paranoia and claustrophobia I can see what you’re getting at.

    As for focussing on the present, I really can’t decide if this is a brave move or just wilfully annoying. It’s like he’s almost deliberately building cultural obsolescence into his works. Whether I like that or not seem to change from day to day, which probably says more about me than anything else…

    • Thanks for the comment. My reply was delayed by a dead power supply and Christmas, but I haven’t forgotten it!
      Noir to me is defined primarily by the protagonist’s search for answers among the underground, be it criminal or cultural, by shadowy forces working in the background, and by a sense of insignificance in the face of the politically and financially powerful. That may not be the Officially Approved Definition, but it works for me. In this sense, Gibson has never abandoned noir, even as his chosen time period moves closer to our own.
      I love Neuromancer-esque cyberpunk and wish he would do it again, but understand his befuddlement at our current society.
      (Mardock Scramble is a great place to get a cyberpunk fix, if one craves such a thing.)

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