The Future is Now: William Gibson unplugged. Kinda.
“See-bare-espace... it is everting,” William Gibson speaks through a French art dealer early in Spook Country. Enunciated so cutely, the phrase simultaneously establishes Gibson’s premise, casts a sweet nostalgia on the term he coined in 1984’s Neuromancer, partially repudiates his original usage, and hints at his ninth novel’s greatest flaw.
The 59-year-old post-cyberpunk visionary predicted the future accurately in his Nebula/Hugo/Dick-winning debut. In it, however, a good deal of the dramatic tension was created when data jockeys rushed to find ports to jack in. Spook Country, set in a specifically dated present (starting February 2006, to be exact), is a bit more wireless. In reality, cyberspace is everywhere, “everting,” users on-grid even if they flee the screen to curl up somewhere and read words printed on tree meat.
Gibson’s plot uses this notion of geo-locative representation to tap into the core paranoia of the American mood. There is international techno-intrigue involving money laundering, a family of Russian-speaking Chinese-Cuban émigrés, a scholarly pill popper, a shadowy operative from a nebulous government agency, and a few chases during which guns are fired. The gadgets are reduced to talismanic props. Really, it’s a thriller, albeit wicked smart and way funny. “Virtual reality?” asks protagonist Hollis Henry, “she hadn’t heard the term spoken aloud in years, she thought, as she pronounced it.”
The plot, bundled beneath layers of conspiracy and withheld back-story, is an excuse for Gibson to do what he does second best: be a cultural observer. He compares Elvis sightings to Tibetan mysticism, for example, and notes that a set of office furniture “had the down-at-heels look that came of having been purchased for some subsequently failed start-up, seized by deputies, auctioned, resold.” As a chronicler of the new, weird America, Gibson is peerless.
But the means Gibson uses to access these observations feel either too deliberate, or too little of a stretch: a protagonist/journalist writing for “a European version of Wired,” owned by an organization (the same that funded coolhunting Cayce Pollard in 2003’s Pattern Recognition) with a bottomless bank account and access to the absolute cutting edge.
“The street finds its own uses for things,” Gibson wrote in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome,” defining the gritty noir that occupied most of his work through Pattern Recognition. While the street still has its say in Spook Country, Gibson now proclaims, “something that tends to happen with new technologies generally [is that] the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery.” (Convincing characters to make fascinating observations isn’t difficult when one is a reporter and the other a conceptual artist.)
Art and technology have always collided in Gibson’s work. Often, though, it has been as an accidental byproduct of “progress”: a rogue super-intelligence generating cosmic Joseph Cornell boxes in 1986’s Count Zero; a damaged Russian autodidactic making mysterious movies in Pattern Recognition. In Spook Country, though, it is merely semi-pretentious/moody artistes. (Or is it? the plot asks, its alternating lines finally entwining.) Combined with Hollis Henry’s perspective as the ex-keyboardist in an indie rock band everybody seems to have heard of, the big reveal is decidedly less exotic than usual.
Though still gear-heavy, the technology at play in Spook Country, which includes iPods, Google and text messaging, doesn’t have the same resonance as the tripped-out slang Gibson wielded so liberally in his Sprawl trilogy and beyond. Gone are the media-constructed idols, broken holograph roses and tricked-out shantytowns. Gone, in other words, is what made Gibson’s properly speculative books—and even Pattern Recognition—so magical: world-within-world submersion, be it a temporary autonomous zone on the Bay Bridge or the visual there of the cybergrid. Instead, there are laundromats, cups of coffee in brown paper bags and takeout Chinese food.
Without a tech-world to toggle into, Gibson is all but prevented from doing what he really does best: inventing new technology and making it sing. It is a natural inclination for an artist to become less stylized as he grows older in an effort to find his true voice, though Spook Country’s landscape is sadly denuded for it. Thankfully, it has no effect on Gibson’s ability to tell a story.
On the ground, Spook Country is a page-turner. Its core is almost literally labyrinthine, so full of crossed-up by betrayals and secrecy that the story’s very significance is called into question. But this seems part of Gibson’s program. There is not one Spook Country but dozens, maybe hundreds, operating as parallel cells. Like cyberspace, it is everything.
Considered with Pattern Recognition, however, Spook Country becomes even more satisfying. There was no overt need for Gibson to have trickster millionaire Hubertus Bigend serve like some James Bond assignment-master in both books, except to unify them into a broader work: Gibson’s take on the post-9/11 world.
What seems digressive by itself fits into a larger vision. “Organized religion, he saw, back in the day, had been a purely signal-to-noise proposition, at once the medium and the message, a one-channel universe. For Europe, that channel was Christian, and broadcasting from Rome, but nothing could be broadcast faster than a man could travel on horseback. There was a hierarchy in place, and a highly organized methodology of top-down signal dissemination, but the time lag enforced by tech-lack imposed a near-disastrous ratio, the noise of heresy constantly threatening to overwhelm the signal” (Milgrim, the pill popper, pondering, but he’s just the messenger).
Perhaps Gibson is not locating himself in the present at all, but locating the present in history. “Worldbuilding is dull,” sci-fi novelist M. John Harrison blogged recently, listing the offenses of his genre’s impulse to invent new realities. “Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfill their part of the bargain, because it believes that is has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.” Spook Country approaches the world from the opposite angle: disassembly.
Given Gibson’s two other loosely bound trilogies, The Sprawl (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) and The Bridge (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties), it would seem natural for Gibson to continue. After all, that’s what the United States is doing: going back to the future now would just be a form of surrender—especially when it’s arriving so rapidly anyway.