Book Review 41: Spook Country

William Gibson has a long history writing CyberPunk novels. He deftly creates dystopian worlds with technology and network connectivity that we can barely dream about today. His futurescapes of Japan and San Francisco are terrifying and fascinating places to live.

In his groundbreaking Neuromancer, Gibson coined the term "Cyberspace" long before most people had even conceived of the Internet.

In recent years, though, his interests have taken him in a different direction. Now he writes about the shadowy realms of today. His latest novel, Spook Country, continues in that vein.

If you like Gibson for his take on technology, you should read it. It's not as fantastical as the technology in his earlier novels; it's deals more the technology we encounter today, or will encounter in the next 5 years.

Also unlike his previous novels, Gibson ends this one well. The book ends over several chapters, as opposed to a rabid attempt to close the plot in the final 10 pages, like he usually does. I know what happened at the end of this book and I can't always say that about Gibson stories.

Gibson does a great job of creating and image and feeling of place.

AFTER THEY'D HAD a look at Alberto's memorial to Helmut Newton, which involved a lot of vaguely Deco-styled monochrome nudity in honor of its subject's body of work, she walked back to the Mondrian through that weird, evanescent moment that belongs to every sunny morning in West Hollywood, when some strange perpetual promise of chlorophyll and hidden, warming fruit graces the air, just before the hydrocarbon blanket settles in. That sense of some peripheral and prelapsarian beauty, of something a little more than a hundred years past, but in that moment achingly present, as though the city were something you could wipe from your glasses and forget.

Page 24

In my various trip to SoCal, I have the sense in the morning that it is a place full of potential and a place that actually seems nice. It's not until around 11:00 AM that I remember why I dislike it.

At various points in the book, he comments on the music business, since the main character is a former pop star.

"In the early 1920s," Bigend said, "there were still some people in this country who hadn't yet heard recorded music. Not many, but a few. That's less than a hundred years ago. Your career as a 'recording artist'"—making the quotes with his hands—"took place toward the end of a technological window that lasted less than a hundred years, a window during which consumers of recorded music lacked the means of producing that which they consumed. They could buy recordings, but they couldn't reproduce them. The Curfew came in as that monopoly on the means of production was starting to erode. Prior to that monopoly, musicians were paid for performing, published and sold sheet music, or had patrons. The pop star, as we knew her"—and here he bowed slightly, in her direction—"was actually an artifact of preubiquitous media."

Page 103

There are pacing issues with the book. An editor could chop off the first 100 pages of it and have little impact on the story. Some of the sections are interesting pieces, but they could easily be handled elsewhere. Mostly is a game of patience.

One could argue he is building the tension, and it keeps the reader waiting to see what happen. For me though, it wasn't a suspenseful period of, "Ooh. I wonder what's going to happen next." It was more a case of, "Oh, come on. Won't something happen already?"

Gibson fans should read the book. And those who like to see novels as an expression of technology should read the book. And after the first 100 pages, it gets better. I find it difficult to recommend it for the casual reader, though.

There are a few more things I want to comment on, but here is the SPOILER warning. If you haven't read the book and want to keep it a mystery (it is a spy thriller after all) you may want to stop reading. I won't go into details of the plot, but some of my commentary may reveal things about the characters you would rather discover on your own.
Still with me? Okay.

My biggest frustration with this book, is that the neither the protagonist nor the antagonist is a main character. We follow former pop star turned reporter Hollis Henry as she writes for some mysterious new publication that might or might not exist, as she begins work on a story about locative art. We follow Tito, a young man of complex ethnicity as he straddles the world of organized crime, espionage, and elaborate practical jokes. We follow Russian translator Milgram as he is led about the city (he's not fond of more rural areas) by his captor.

Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. Just too much of it. That whole vista thing. Particularly if there was relatively little within it, within sight, that was man-made.

Page 262

And for the most part, even though the characters all eventually converge on Vancouver, BC, they don't really do anything. They have small parts to play in the story, but don't have a definitive role. They don't advance the plot. They don't do something at a pivotal moment that changes the outcome.

As readers, we are observers observing observers. The main characters are all witnesses to parts of the story, but that's all they are.

At any point, the characters could have done something to change the story. They could have taken action that would alter the outcome or just generally muck things up. But they don't. And it's not like they opt out of having an impact at a particular decision point. There is no one fork in the road they could have taken. Rather, they followed the actual antagonists around a large parking lot. They could have ambled off in their own directions but it never occurred to them to do that. They don't even question their paths.

And perhaps that's the point. It could be that Gibson is saying we are all just witnesses to the real games being played by shadowy figures in the underworld. The characters the reader identifies with are just there to do their job, and see everything else unfold around them.

Early on, the book is about locative art.

Odile squinted over the rim of her white breakfast bowl of café au lait. 'Cartographic attributes of the invisible," she said, lowering the bowl. "Spatially tagged hypermedia." This terminology seemed to increase her fluency by factor of ten; she scarcely had an accent now. "The artist annotating every centimeter of a place, of every physical thing. Visible to all, on devices such as these."

Page 22

Gibson does a nice job in exploring this concept. Artists work with programmers to create virtual reality overlays of the world relying on GPS technology. The art allows a viewer to look at a scene though a helmet and see what the artist has done to the world. For example, you look at the a normal street without the viewer, but if you put the viewer on you may see it overlaid with the scene of a celebrity's death.

"A projected thought-form. A term from Tibetan mysticism. The celebrity self has a life of its own. It can, under the right circumstances, indefinitely survive the death of its subject. That's what every Elvis sighting is about, literally."

All of which reminded her very much of how Inchmale looked at these things, though really she believed it too.

"What happens," she asked him, "if the celebrity self dies first?"

"Very little," he said. "That's usually the problem. But images of this caliber serve as a hedge against that. And music is the most purely atemporal of media.'

"'The past isn't dead. It's not even past,'" quoting Inchmale quoting Faulkner. "Would you mind changing channels?'

Page 102

This is compelling because while it seem a bit out there, we are already doing that today. Gibson likens all immersion in digital worlds to virtual reality.

"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 goggles, 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.

Page 65

"The artist Beth Barker is here, her apartment. You will come, you will experience the apartment, this environment. This is an annotated environment,Do you know it?"

"Annotated how?"

"Each object is hyperspatially tagged with Beth Barker's description, with Beth Barker's narrative of this object. One simple water glass has twenty tags."

Page 131

Websites like Flickr allow you to upload your photos and Tag them with searchable information and key words about the scene. Depending on your settings, other people can also tag those photos and even make notes on them.

You can also GeoTag your pictures and tie them to a location on a map where you took them.

It gets interesting when you start looking at it the other way. Take a look at the map on Flickr, and you can then choose a street and see all the photos people tagged as being associated with that street. People are now tagging and marking up the world in their casual internet use.

Google Maps supports its own initiatives. Most people know you can use Google Maps for directions, and see them from the traditional map perspective, from a Satellite perspective, and increasingly from a street level photographic perspective.

A lesser know feature is the ability to markup your maps. You can take Google Maps, pinpoint your favorite locations or directions, and make that available to others.

Everyone from news media to iPhone App developers are using this technology to highlight crime trends or to help you find all of the public restrooms in the area based on where you are at the moment. Google Maps mashups are popping up all the time.

This new era of locative computing, enabled by GPS, Smart Phone, and increasing common WiFi access opens up a world of powerful tools.

Spook Country swims in this world and spends a good deal of time on it, but ultimately, it has little to do with the story.

It's almost like Gibson already had the story in mind, but he also wanted to explore this new world. So he tacked it into the book because there wasn't a better place for him to explore it.

So instead of a book about some fascinating main characters, where new technologies and shifting paradigms of thought about location, art, and reality play a key role in the story, we get a decidedly low stakes tale of shadowy figures messing with one another.

And the results would have been no different had our main characters not even existed.

Gibson's strength is in writing about technology and explaining its potential in the world. He brings life to mundane topics of coordinates and servers and new types of art.

Unlike past novels, he does a great job bringing this novel to a close. The last 50 pages is paced well and cleanly. While the action happens quickly, the writing itself does not feel rushed.

My criticisms about the novel center of the first 100 pages, the lack of action by the main characters, and the large distraction of the locative art meditation. There may have been room for two separate books here, rather than squeezing all the disparate stuff between two covers.

Or I missed the point, and Gibson was actually using this structure intentionally to comment on the voluntary powerlessness of much of the population.


Book Calendar said...

This is a new class of novel called "The Near Future Thriller". Halting State by Charles Stross is another one, very possible technology in a near future in a thriller setting. It is a neat way to escape the science fiction jungle.

Cromely said...

@Book Calendar: It's an interesting genre concept. Is that the evolution of the Urban Fantasy genre?