Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Spook Country by William Gibson

I am into my second reading of William Gibson’s new novel Spook Country. Well may you ask why I am re-reading a book I recently finished, again so soon. Was it because the initial reading left me with unanswered questions? No. Was it because I read the book in a less than absorbed fashion first time round? Not really, though it was fragmented by interference from outside sources.

The true reason I am reading Spook Country again is because I loved it so much on first reading that I just had to. I wanted to catch all the refracted inferences from the first page onwards.

Spook Country is the most contemporaneous novel I have ever read. Gibson’s style renders that contemporaneity in vivid detail - it is zeitgeist to such an extent that the book reads like it happened yesterday. It dazzles the reader with immediacy from the first page and imbues commonplace objects with significance and glamour.

William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 novel Neuromancer and became known as the godfather of “cyberpunk”. His work has been called prophetic, but Gibson states in a very good interview in Salon Magazine “All science fiction is in one way or another about the moment in which it's written, even if the people who write it don't know that.”

Pattern Recognition, the forerunner to Spook Country was set in 2002, the first of Gibson’s contemporary novels. Spook Country is related to Pattern Recognition, through the commonality of some characters that briefly appeared in the earlier novel, but can be read as a separate novel.

In Spook Country, there are three plotlines that at first appear to have no relevance each other, but it soon becomes obvious that all the plot paths will meet later in the book.

The major story lines involve the following characters:

Hollis Henry former member of Curfew, a cult Indie band, turned journalist, is hired by a mysterious magazine “Node” to write an article on locative art (a sort of Virtual Reality only viewable through VR equipment). Her brief expands into a quest to find hacker Bobby Chombo who has, as well as creating virtual locations for locative art works, been tracking a mysterious shipping container.

Tito is a 22-year-old Cuban Chinese immigrant, member of a family experienced in espionage with links to Soviet Russia. His aunt Juana is a master forger and Tito himself is expert in a method of martial arts that combines a Russian form of martial arts called “systema” and the Santiera religion of Cuba. He runs errands for the family who are under an obligation to a mysterious old man.

The third main character is Benzodiazepine junky, Milgrim, who has specialised knowledge of Volapuk, the Russian method of rendering the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet on Roman keyboards. Milgrim is a prisoner of Brown. It is unclear if Brown is a policeman or a federal agent. Brown is very interested in the activities of Tito , whom he refers to consistently as the IF, an acronym for Illegal Facilitator, and he needs Milgrim’s special skill, for which he is prepared to supply his habit.

The three plot lines are handled with precision and draw together in a satisfying thrilling ending. The past lives of the characters provide a glimpse of their inner self and also have a bearing on their current attitudes and abilities. They are all endearing in one way or another.

William Gibson is another of my all time favourite writers. I came to Neuromancer quite late (in 1990), some years after it was published, and have subsequently read all his books several times.

Gibson's writing style is smart, graceful, dry and ironic and he writes amazing analogies that make you pause in awe at their vivid aptness. Take this analogy for instance:

"The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity, something volcanic aglow behind the clouds that looked set to birth tornadoes"
Or, this one:

"Six floors below, she saw the palms along Sunset thrashing, like dancers miming the final throes of some sci-fi plague.”
Ostensibly set in 2006, the novel embraces the post 9/11 world, the war on terror and even references the inundation of New Orleans. The time setting is apposite to the action of the novel where the characters carry laptop computers and consult Google, guide vehicles via GPS and use Ipods as data storage carriers. It’s a techno thriller-cum-adventure novel of the first order, full of ideas that make you look anew at the world around you and urges you to consult Google for more information on things like Volapuk, steganography, and other such cool stuff mentioned throughout the novel.

Spook Country is one of the best novels I have read this year. I recommend it unreservedly.


chiefbiscuit said...

I enjoyed 'Neuromancer'(read it earlier this year for the first time) I read it all in one go without stopping to try and figure out what the heck it was all about! Maybe the best way ... 'Spook Country' sounds even better ...

Anne S said...

CB: It really surprises me that you have delved into cyberpunk novels, at least 'Neuromancer'.

I would recommend reading 'Pattern Recognition' before you read 'Spook Country' though it is not in the least essential to understanding the latter novel. 'Pattern Recognition' is a great book in its own right, but it is the first book Gibson's to explore the current times and therefore relates to Spook Country. Who knows, these two may be part of a trilogy yet to be concluded. Gibson tends to write trilogies in so far as he generally writes three consecutive books that inhabit the same time, though not necessarily the same place and have characters in common.