We like to think we know the world around us, after a fashion. One event
triggers another, we respond or do not respond as suits our perception.
But that clarity, that transparency is an illusion. There's more
that we can see, more than our minds can possibly hold, unfolding
around us. William Gibson's 'Spook Country' goes a long way towards
giving us the opacity that we deserve with a smile and a shrug. No,
as it happens, we do not know the world around us. But occasionally
we get handed enough pieces of the puzzle to pout together at least
part of the picture.
In a series of seemingly disconnected blackout-style scenes, Gibson introduces
a diverse group of characters. Hollis Henry is a journalist working for
a shadowy Wired-wannabe clone, Tito is an expatriate Cuban twenty-something
smuggler, and Milgrim is a prescription-drug junkie under the dubious
supervision of an obsessive CIA-or-worse spook named Brown. Hollis has
been assigned to investigate something called "Locative art",
an overlay of VR on real locations. Tito and his family are in the process
of doing something with an iPod. Probably something illegal. Milgrim
and Brown are watching somebody, and everyone is unknowingly circling
around the same drain. Sooner or laterkl they'll all wind up in the same
whirlpool, headed down.
Gibson has a grand time in his latest novel, infusing it with an almost
whimsical sense of humor and absurdity. His prose is indeed as opaque
as the lives he reveals, poetic and yet with startlingly direct observations
that are often very funny. There's a sense of understatement that permeates
every sentence, a feeling that Gibson is throttling the information overload.
The focus is always tight, and the humor that enlivens the prose is as
dry as the dust blowing down the deserted streets of Los Angeles in a
Santa Ana monsoon. Chapter by short chapter, reading 'Spook Country'
is like reading someone else's postcards. The pieces are picture-perfect,
while the big picture remains just beyond ken.
To be sure, there are lots of great specifics in 'Spook Country;' that
give the novel the feel of a science fiction novel without seeming to
belong to the genre. Gibson's explication of "locative art" is
superb, and his visions of government investigations in a post-9/11 era
are – not surprisingly – spooky. Gibson has always given
his high-tech visions the feel if not the substance of the supernatural.
He knows that our current level of technology has progressed to the point
where it is indeed indistinguishable from magic, and that knowledge informs
his writing. As with 'Pattern Recognition', he manages to make the recent
past seem like a surreal science future, because, in fact, it is a surreal
science fiction future, especially to readers of science fiction. We're
all aware of the dystopian forces at work around us, but Gibson's gift
is to make them seem unfamiliar and vaguely threatening. When they're
not either bumbling and mumbling.
Gibson's in no hurry to reveal the hole in reality around which all these
losers, users and cruisers are circling, but there's enough novelty in
each segment that the plot never seems to drag. And he's an ace mystery
writer, tantalizing the reader with possibilities. He's smart enough
to let the reader do just enough work so that the "Aha!" moments
retain their power and the reading experience is extremely enjoyable.
Sure, there's always something happening at the edges of the picture
that seems to be in soft focus. That's what makes the novels not just
readable, but re-readable. There's not a single, simple solution to this
puzzle, though there is most certainly a fantastically enjoyable resolution.
Fans of Gibson's science fiction will find that 'Spook Country' seems
like SF even though every genre trapping has been stripped away. Oh,
there's a nice bit of techno-kit, but it's strictly within the realm
of the possible. You might think so, at least, when you read 'Spook Country'.
Once you're outside of the novel regarding your own life again, you might
think differently. The power of 'Spook Country' is that it works to let
the reader accommodate opposing viewpoints, to allow the magical and
the technological to mingle once again. To make it clear that the world
is not clear, and that the most opaque aspects of government and culture
should damn well be transparent. To see the emperor's invisible new clothes,
the full regalia and splendor of subterfuge – and get a good laugh.