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.”


Book Review: 42

January 25, 2009

42: A Novel

42By M. Thomas Cooper

Published June 1, 2008

Ooligan Press

325 pp.

ISBN 1-932-01024-4

Reviewed January 25, 2009

Of the many wonderful things that Douglas Adams provided the world in his five-part trilogy “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the significance he bestowed on the number 42 is probably the most famous. He presents it as the calculation by Deep Thought, the most advanced computer in the galaxy, in answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Unfortunately, no one thought to ask what the question actually was, and as a result peace and harmony continue to elude all intelligent beings.

As a result of Adams’ seemingly random selection, the number 42 has taken on a heavy significance in popular culture, subject to a variety of interpretations and speculation – and many of those find a home in M. Thomas Cooper’s first novel “42.” Cooper’s take on the number however resembles the films “The Number 23” or “π” more than it does Douglas Adams, an unnerving and constantly aggravating novel where one number seems to hold the significance of an ordinary man’s spiral into madness.

The ordinary man in question is George Olson, a resident of Portland, Oregon who finds his comfortable routine of work and family upended when his wife and daughter disappear. As he tries to decipher the cryptic note they left behind while at the same time denying they have disappearance, he finds himself not only wrapped up in accusations of arson and murder but obsessed with the seemingly random connections the number 42 seems to have with everything happening around him.

“42” is written in a journal format of first-person present tense, breaking chapters up by each day and chronicling every single one of George’s actions and thoughts. It provides a complete view of how his life is unraveling, dodging phone calls and frantically looking around every time his pets disappear. The journal format also allows the book to make some interesting design changes, simulating sticky notes for George’s questions and blacking out the name of the woman he had an affair with like the crucial information in a CIA report.

But its style is also one of its most frustrating attributes. Never breaking from George’s inner monologue means no other voices come in, beyond his interpretations of others’ conversations, and his interpretations are hit-or-miss. He brushes over his inability to answer cryptic references to author Haruki Murakami (a point that begs for expansion) and dwells too much on being alone in an empty house. Also some passages – particularly the prologue – are so overwrought that it evokes an urge to throw the book against a wall just to make him lighten up.

The breaking of Olson’s mind takes a more interesting tone once his fixation on 42 enters, after overhearing a random conversation between two engineering students. Once it arrives his mind is seized, and Cooper has a breathtaking amount of examples he can weave in – birthdates and license plates fill his daily life, but historical connotations such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Miami Dolphins and the film “Elf” all have a place as well. However, since it takes almost 200 pages for it to even be mentioned, the 42 argument doesn’t take root firmly enough to warrant reviewing previous chapters for references.

Perhaps fittingly for a novel that depicts a slide into madness, “42” has a very hard time coming to a conclusion. As more characters begin paying attention to his oddities the contrast between him and the world is more apparent, and attempts to connect are well done – including a total breakdown on the witness stand. George’s obsession with 42 does lead him to surprising discoveries, but those discoveries are made at the expense of discarding the questions of arson/murder/Murakami/location of his pets/why his family left him in the first place.

All in all, “42” is a book that depends more on the reader’s connection to the narrator more than any other factor. Hints of conspiracy and supernaturalism are scattered through the book, but we never learn if they exist or are merely symptoms of paranoia. It replicates the mental deterioration after losing one’s family very well, but as a coherent narrative it doesn’t add up – to 42 or any other sum.