Blurry Vision In The New Millennium: “Spook Country” by William Gibson

Copyright © 2007 by William Gibson.

“Would it all be like this, in Alberto’s new world of the locative?  Would it mean that the untagged, unscripted world would gradually fill with virtual things, as beautiful or ugly or banal as anything once encountered on the web already?  Was there any reason to expect it to be any better than that, any worse?” (Gibson 142)

Last year, I reviewed Pattern Recognition, a novel by William Gibson that left his usual cyberpunk, sci-fi style in favor of a gritty and tech-savvy modern perspective.  This novel was the first of what’s been called his “Bigend Books,” so now I’m looking into the first sequel, Spook Country, a story about the ever-changing paradigms in the twenty-first century.

The Story: Virtual Meets The Real, Meets Guys In Covert Ops

There are three storylines that occur simultaneously throughout the novel, all of which tie together at the end:

  • A former rock star-turned-journalist does a story for a fictional magazine called Node on “locative art” and pursues a shifty specialist on GPS tracking;
  • A young man from a Cuban Chinese crime family has to arrange a deal with a strange old man who has a connection to his deceased father; and
  • A Rize addict is held in custody by suspicious private contractors who want him to translate intercepted Russian text messages from said Cuban Chinese crime family.
All of this relates to a mysterious shipping container that the CIA was ordered to leave alone, whose signal disappears and reappears infrequently and whose location is ever-changing.  The contents of this container are apparently valuable enough to bring in these ordinary people into the middle of an intense struggle between two sets of retired government operatives.

The Cast: Cubans, Spies, And Rock Stars, Oh My!

Hollis Henry is our protagonist, a former singer for the rock band Curfew and the most recent journalist to be on assignment for the enigmatic media magnate Hubertus Bigend.  Much like Cayce Pollard from the last book, Hollis is a sharp-minded woman who has to deal with both the frustrations of her current assignment and her many hangups about her past (in this case, as a onetime celebrity).

Our deuteragonist is Tito, a young man whose family lives on the shadier side of the law in New York City.  He’s just as alienated as Hollis, having grown up in Cuba and done everything his relatives ask of him, including learning the martial art of Systema and practicing Santería.  In the meantime, he wants to know more about his family’s past and why he can’t feel a sense of home in either Cuba or the US.

And then comes our tritagonist, Milgrim, who I swear I thought was Russian at first, but turns out not to be.  He does, however, speak and read Russian (more specifically, Volapuk-style texting), which makes him an asset to malevolent guys like Brown.  However, Milgrim is not a malicious person.  He’s mild, to put it plainly.  When he’s not under the effects of Rize, he’s reading a worn-out paperback on twelfth-century Russian heretics, asking questions that get on his captors’ nerves, and wandering around to give the reader more insight into the mysterious villains in this story.

The Style: Oh, What We Can Do With The Web These Days!

This book really knows how to make the most of modern technology: virtual reality helmets for locative art pieces, iPods that can be used for data storage, texting interception devices as used by covert ops teams, and GPS tracking as done by amateur enthusiasts.  To paraphrase one character, the digital world is no longer a separate entity from the “real world,” but rather the distinction between the two is getting more blurry with each passing year.

There’s also an emphasis on the nature of security in a post-9/11 world.  It seems to go hand-in-hand with the emphasis on the Web: an encompassing network of agents and observation points, all sharing and encoding data at lightning speed.  In some ways, there’s a subtle distinction between the heroes of the story, who use technology to confuse or conceal, and the villains, who use electronics for surveillance.  The heroes are those who can live with the uncertainty of the new era, while the antagonists can’t accept a world that doesn’t revolve around them and their worldview (neoconservatism, much?).

Final Verdict: A Strong Follow-Up

In my mind, I can’t help but compare Spook Country to another Gibson sequel, Count Zero.  There’s a similar three-POV structure to the story, all centered around a constantly moving target.  And much like how I liked Neuromancer over Count Zero, I also prefer the first book Pattern Recognition to this one, but that doesn’t make this story bad.  Honestly, if there was a bit less of, say, the rather useless character Milgrim, I might have liked it more, especially since Hollis Henry reminds me so much of Cayce Pollard.  But regardless, the story is good for what it delivers, keeping us immersed in a fascinating new view of our present day condition.

Bibliography: Gibson, William.  Spook Country.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007.

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