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Book Review: Spook Country by William Gibson

William Gibson’s name first crops up attached to Neuromancer, which is held by many to be the genesis of the cyberpunk genre. Back in 1984, Gibson imagined a VR-Internet, coining the term ‘cyberspace’, extending contempary technologies to create a view of the future that was entirely possible. Neuromancer was set well into the future, imagining a world somewhat like Blade Runner, space stations and all, and one of its key premises of humans interfacing with computers directly, along with AI, served as inspiration for The Matrix.

While Neuromancer’s sequels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (yep, Matrix again) were set along the same timeline inevitably, Gibson’s next major work moved backwards, coming closer to the present, with the Bridge series. Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties were set in a future just around the corner, a post-modern world where earthquakes had struck Tokyo and San Francisco. There was still an element of Gibson’s defining science-fiction in these, but other than stylistically, they may as well have been written by a completely different author to those of the cyberpunk stories.

Post-2001, post-9/11, it would appear that Gibson left the science fiction genre entirely, his novels now set in a contempary world that is entirely recognisable. Pattern Recognition dealt with the story of a “cool hunter” chasing an unusual film being released peicemeal over the net – apart from one or two details, there was little in Pattern Recognition that was science fiction. Cayce Pollard, protagonist, uses a G4 Cube, catches entirely normal flights, and does yoga in a yoga studio in north London – no Boston-Atlanta conurbation here.

Spook Country takes this one step further. Gibson removes any element of the unknown, and refers to real-world events with an attached timeline, where Neuromancer had nary a reference to a year or date in it. 9/11 figures again, though not as prominently as in Pattern Recognition, and it’s clear Gibson has taken that date as a turning point. The story starts with three seperate threads, each interleaving their way to a finish that feels almost anti-climatic.

One, we ride along with Hollis Henry, former rocker turned journalist, as she investigates the new phenomenon of locative art – virtual art tagged with GPS co-ordinates. Two, we are in the shoes of Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese of unusual background, as he moves around New York. Three, we are alongside Milgrim, drug addict and Russian translator, under the thumb of Brown, a hard man and agent of an unknown, unnamed authority.

Gibson weaves the stories together with an expertise that keeps events moving in step, switching contexts fast enough to ensure all three stories stay in the reader’s head at the same time. While his descriptions have become more spare and minimalist over time, being in the contempary frame makes it easy to imagine his world – where the characters use Powerbooks, Motorolas, Phaetons and even – ok, a little sci-fi – the magnetically-floating bed. There’s little need to suspend your disbelief here, as you could just walk through a city and imagine the very events of this novel happening around you.

It’s a pity then, perhaps, that the book is so specific about the timeline. While you could still pick up Neuromancer today and imagine it some time in the future, caveats of today’s technology such as ubiqutous mobile phones unimagined then aside, this feels more like a historical record. For a nominally sci-fi book (likely only because of Gibson’s reputation) released last year, that’s got to be an achievement.

Perhaps that’s only due to the references to technology – already the Powerbook has been superseeded, the GPS technology a common thing in people’s lives, Motorola RAZRs no longer the flavour of the month. Pattern Recognition‘s premise of a video being uploaded piecemeal to various locations around the net was utterly obliterated with the advent of YouTube; perhaps something similar yet to come will do much the same to Spook Country.

When the Iraq war, President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”, Googling, and Wikipedia are referred to in a novel, you know it’s certainly contemporary, but I can’t help but think of what it would be like 20 years from now, when a new, younger reader might have to look up the references to find out what it was about, that feels like a little bit of a let down. It’s very visceral, very now – but now is so fleeting.

I suppose if you’d read this in 1984, it would have been sci-fi, albeit more immediate than Neuromancer. Such is contempary technology, and inevitably, any novels which refer explicitly to the here-and-now will age fast. Perhaps that’s a more immediate recommendation for this book – if you’re a Gibson fan, or have read Pattern Recognition, go read Spook Country before it becomes outdated.

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