Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: Spook Country by William Gibson

Perhaps, dear reader, you can help me to find the right metaphorical space here. I keep wanting to go with cooking--it had good ingredients, but didn't bake quite long enough; mixed nicely but the souffle fell; something along those lines--but that doesn't seem appropriate for a story about spycraft and secret lives and subterfuge. Maybe it was as artlessly manipulated as a CIA-sponsored foreign election? No, see, that kind of awareness needs to stay on the outskirts. It's not a bad novel, doesn't invite the word "bungled," and it's not, despite the forces that have developed and honed these various characters, about a great evil. Or rather, it's not about a great menacing evil, or [spoilers!] better still to say that it's more about the nonviolent side effects of a great evil, a colorful spinoff of a violent interventionist American foreign policy. And while the note is lightly played, Gibson doesn't let pass the nasty spookery that enabled the plot in the first place, and more than I recall with other of his novels, he shows a glimpse of the amoral ways that incredible wealth can drive the social inequities that so many of his characters have found themselves looking at from the underside. Spook Country probably owes more to spy novels than it does to actual espionage: I'm thinking of the incredibly high level of competence on display, the strange international and parallel-world existence of the characters, and this whole business of respected opponents clambering through the spook world for no net gain and with amazing budgets. As such, Gibson does bring an interesting, and I think by genre terms, unconventional humanity to these sorts of characters and a gratifyingly weird dynamic to their actions,* and he pens a quick observational wit in some places (but a couple of infelicitous phrases stuck out in others, and the barrage of brand names that Gibson likes to use is generally annoying). Not bad stuff here at all, and the problem is mostly that it needed a little more elaboration. How about "underplotted?" I knew I'd find a metaphor eventually.

The story trails three separate groups of characters in a more or less evenly shuffled series of very short chapters. The book suffers that the first, and primary, subplot is the weakest. Former rock star and now freelance journalist Hollis Henry is assigned to write about an interesting new cultural scene. Quickly, she's pushed toward shady characters that enable some of the "geohacking" technology the artists use, by equally mysterious benefactors and employers. Locative art (not sure how real an item it is), which uses computer viewers to paint in artistic comments onto real-world space, is a compelling way to imagine annotated reality creeping into the mainstream, and I liked how Gibson nabs a cultural element as an introduction. It's a stretch, however, to elevate the idea of geolocation (which I'm pretty sure that I was doing on my Blackberry, if not in 2007, then at least in2008) to the status of a terrifying cautionary tale about technology (and naming its practitioner after the transcendent beauty of some numerical integration package is dorky enough to make me to feel a little embarrassed). As a character, Hollis occasionally borders on interesting when her post-celebrity life is poked very hard, although mostly that's just provided for color. She is surprisingly quick to commit to dubious conspiracies, and while she doesn't much trust her benefactor, she expresses, to my mind, too little journalistic curiosity as to how this advertising giant, who doesn't appear to ever do any marketing, or anything at at all beyond setting up clients in obscenely wealthy trappings as he whispers hints to them from the shadows, has achieved this amazing commercial status. Hubertus Bigend's (that's his name) dangerous curiosity and Hollis's selective caution would have made for great television characters in the sort of fun drama that moves along faster than the viewer can spot the holes, but you get the feeling that the aspirations of Spook Country are a little higher than fridge logic. (I think the reader is meant to know that Bigend's marketing is the viral sort that also wasn't very convincing in Gibson's last novel, Pattern Recognition, and he may even be a crossover character. I no longer remember.)

The other two plot threads, showcasing life among the perpetually shadowy, were more fun and stocked with more compelling people. In one, young Tito (last name unknown) lives a quiet life but for his involvement in the family spy business, an unquestioned custom that has been steeped in Cold War era espionage and a little Caribbean magic culture just for fun. It's taken a few tolls on Tito (he lost his father, and the flight from Cuba was hard on his mother), but he comes off as a fundamentally nice, sincere kid, despite making such an impermanent footprint on the world, and despite his Bruce Lee level kung fu skills and James Bond level spycraft. It sounds like it should be cornball, but he's interesting and well done. Chasing Tito are Brown and Milgrim, the former a dickhead cop type, and the latter a translator of intercepted texts (how do you spell LOL in Russian, using an English key set?) who he's conscripted and kept in line with a managed drug addiction. This section is told entirely from Milgrim's point of view, and this is entertaining too, presenting a druggie's almost entertaining difficulty with resolve, childlike defiance and mental escapes. Milgrim's decency, humanity, and intelligence come through too, even though he's such a collossal fuckup.

Between Milgrim's benzedrine-inspired hallucinations, Tito's spirit riders, and the machine-produced ghosts that Hollis was reporting on, there was plenty of room here for thematic explorations of the title, but most of that is unfortunately left to the reader. Similarly, explaining the book's worth of mysterious motivations in a final unifying sequence is a fine way to put together a story, and I can imagine that Gibson thought one about the lives of the world's shadow operators naturally fit this sort of structure. But in this case, putting it off to the end delayed engagement with the characters. I don't think the story would have been any worse if the the good spooks and bad spooks were identified much earlier. That the authoritarian prick ended up as the bad guy is clear enough from his character, and is completely unsurprising to anyone who remembers cyberpunk. Or any kind of punk. (Writing Tito's people as good guys, against the war racket, inspired by example and loyalty, cautious of other people, is a bigger stretch considering the arena in which they had to develop those kinds of skills.) To be fair to my earlier description of Hubertus Bigend, he is seen doing a little actual business at the end of the novel too, and that may have been intended as part of the revelation, but man, the climactic twists weren't so mind-blowing that they couldn't have been added earlier as badly needed background.

*but I'll say, if you want to go here, go read Tim Powers' Declare .


Aaron said...

I haven't read Gibson in ages. I burned out somewhere in Idoru, and never got around to picking him up again. I kind of miss the Cyberpunk days, of only for the cool pseudo-science.

Keifus said...

I never really thought Neuromancer was so great, but I've liked some other ones. I picked Spook Country up on the discount rack, and it's been hanging around the house for a year or two. It's set in the present day--interesting, in some ways, to try to work in that skiffy coolness factor to something that's already pretty humdrum (like GPS). As a deviant art medium, it's clever. As a dangerous flirtation with the power of technology, a little harder to credit.

Ben There said...

I just posted my first book review since junior high over at my highly esteemed corner of the interwebs. You, sir, are the sensei of book reviews and I shall look to you as the golden standard-bearer of this genre. All I can say, dude, is "I'm not worthy".

(Ok - so I challenged myself to make a min. of two blog posts a week and throwing in an attempted book review here and there seemed like a reasonable idea.)

Keifus said...

I'll check it out.

Sensei? I suggest aiming higher, young Grasshopper.