Book Review: Spook Country

March 29, 2009

Spook Country: A Novel

spook-countryBy William Gibson

Published August 7, 2007

Berkley Trade

384 pp.

ISBN 0-425-22141-5

Reviewed March 28, 20o9

There aren’t many writers alive today who are credited with creating an entire genre of literature, but the realm of cyberpunk still has its founder in William Gibson. He didn’t invent the term – author Bruce Bethke coined it in 1980 with the eponymous short story – and authors such as Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan also made significant contributions, but it’s Gibson who made it mainstream and earned the title of “noir prophet.” 1984’s “Neuromancer” was an imaginative epic, seeing ideas of cyberspace and virtual reality before personal computers were even mainstream.

After following “Neuromancer” with a series of equally speculative novels, Gibson has turned his vision into the modern world, where advancements in technology has caught up with several of his innovations – but also verified his predictions of control and paranoia. “Spook Country” is the second of these novels, and it proves everything readers have come to expect from him: tense, innovative and superbly written.

Set in February 2006, “Spook Country” centers on the activities of three very different individuals. Hollis Henry, former lead singer of punk band The Curfew, is now a music journalist assigned to cover the elusive technical genius Bobby Chombo, a pioneer of creating virtual reality artwork. Tito, a musician and member of a Cuban criminal family, is contracted to deliver coded iPods to an old man with intelligence background. And Milgrim, a drug addict with a penchant for stolen coats, is abducted by a government official and forced to translate Russian code in exchange for continual drug doses.

All three of these characters find themselves involved in a strange plot, involving a “phantom” shipping container that seems to pop up in various locations. Eccentric entrepreneur Hubertus Bigend (first seen in Gibson’s earlier “Pattern Recognition”) simply wants to know what it is, the old man wants to get Tito close to it and a shady maybe-government operative wants Milgrim to help him learn what Tito knows. It’s a constantly vague tale, with the true intent and content never clear to the players even when they think their lives could be in danger.

Even with an overarching conspiracy the book could easily become fragmented, but it’s held together by the same fact that made “Neuromancer” so popular 25 years ago: Gibson is a writer of remarkable skill. His phrasing is descriptive without being overwhelming, and creates a sense of immersion in both the grime of New York City and the unsettling modernity of Los Angeles. On the character side the dialogue is terse and realistic, conversations feeling natural and each character’s voice defined.

With the exception of Chombo’s virtual reality art (images broadcast in public places, only visible with VR helmets) Gibson doesn’t spend his time speculating on future technology. Rather, his focus is on how current technology infiltrates our lives and changes the order of business, ranging from iPods encoded with secret data to portable door alarms to tracking devices in cell phone scramblers. The feeling established is one of paranoia and disconnect, a sense that you’re never quite sure if you’re being watched or if it even matters.

And dealing with this paranoia is “Spook Country’s” strength. Hollis, Tito and Milgrim aren’t even featured in the same chapter until two-thirds of the way in (and even then only share one scene) but each one deals with their strange circumstances in their own solitary way, be it faith or drugs or attempting to apply reason. Each character fixates on certain objects throughout the course of the book – envelopes of money, blue vases and books on European religion – and this adds to the feeling each is trying to stay grounded in unfamiliar circumstances.

There are many other threads – the threat of government control after 9/11, information lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy, celebrity gone by and the oddities of the rich – and the tension in each goes to make our own world as immersive as “Neuromancer’s” cyberspace. It’s to Gibson’s credit that he can not only perceive the way these influences have shaped us, but express it in such a dark, eminently readable piece of literature as “Spook Country.”