This is the latest novel by William Gibson. It’s set in early 2006; there is some overlap with the penultimate Pattern Recognition. It doesn’t depart substantially from the Gibson idiom. I liked it a whole lot, but I was cheating.
Just the Facts · The central plot device is, as in almost every other Gibson work, three small groups of characters pursuing story-threads in parallel (very close parallel in one case). Hubertus Bigend and Blue Ant are back, and the enigmatic magnate retains the services of a troubled woman to pursue a poorly-defined goal. Gibson’s done this before, twice; but Hollis Henry is stronger and less fucked-up than either Marly Kruschkova or Cayce Pollard, which makes her (for me anyhow) more empathetic. Also Bigend has become less menacing and oblique; it becomes evident fairly early on what he’s trying to do, and he acts sometimes like a merely-human marketing pro. “Spook” in the title refers to espionage trade-craft, very much, I thought, in the Le Carré style, which is good. But the spooks come from somewhere else entirely; entirely surprising, but plausible. Kind of like, um, good sci-fi is supposed to be.
There’s a new and perfectly believable art-form proposed. Impressive.
There’s some clinical-yet-heartfelt taking-down of the Republican maggot-brains currently raping the United States’ civic landscape; an easy target, granted, but still pleasurable to read, and well-done.
The plot is kind of ridiculous, actually. I could go on for pages nit-picking, particularly the Brown party: why he keeps Milgrim around to the end, why he’s so easily fooled by Tito’s gang, and there’s more. Who cares? It moves right along and the language is beautiful and the characters are interesting, which is what ought to matter in a book. Also, this plot does not involve any particularly cosmic consequences for history or the Internet; there are no “nodal points”. Which I appreciated; it makes for a more human scale.
Cheating · You might perhaps not want to rely too heavily on my opinion of Gibson’s books in general and this one in particular. First of all, the texture of his writing has always slid smoothly and pleasurably over the texture of my mind, so I’m predisposed to like anything he writes. As with a zillion other Eighties geeks, the Sprawl series set off fireworks in my head; they still do when I re-read ’em once every decade or so.
And this book in particular, well, the last quarter or so happens right here in Vancouver, right now. Gibson and I live in different neighborhoods; we work out at the same place about halfway between and, while we haven’t met, it seems that we enjoy the same parts of town. One of the nice things about his writing is the almost-hallucinatory vividness of the descriptions, the sense of place. When he was doing sci-fi, a scene would occur in a derelict space station or a robot car or a ruined landmark and the sense would be overwhelming that, yes, this is exactly what it would feel like to be in that place.
And I’ve actually been in pretty well all of the Vancouver spaces in this book; obviously some are not literal, but I’ve been where he got the ingredients from. And I’ve actually thought that parts of Strathcona and the Terminal Avenue wasteland and north Clark Drive had a kind of postmodern cyberpunky feel.
I don’t know, maybe for someone who doesn’t live here, that last quarter of the book might feel different, maybe less intense, than your typical Gibson denouement. For me, of course, it was twice as intense.
And then, like quite a few other subscribers, I was reading his writing about writing, and the little early-draft fragments, on his blog while Spook Country was under construction. It makes you feel bought-into the book before it even hits the shelves. Is there a lesson here for other authors?
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: David Smith (Aug 16 2007, at 07:33)
Used to read all of Gibson's books since he was another expat-Vancouverite and my sister-in-law sold him a house.
In my dotage, my maggot-brain seems to have a hard time telling the recent novels apart. Sounds like I'll have the same problem with this one.
Thanks, now I don't have to read it.
From: Brent Rockwood (Aug 16 2007, at 08:34)
I bought this book last Saturday after hearing about it on this blog. I enjoyed it so much I was finished by nightfall. I'm also a fan of Gibson's and a spy novel geek so it's no surprise I enjoyed it.
When a friend asked me about it, I told her that Gibson was a sci-fi author, but that we'd caught up to the future so this novel was set in the present.
Thanks for the pointer.
From: Austin (Aug 16 2007, at 10:40)
Tim, that sounds like how I feel when I read Robert Sawyer, because I know many of the places that he talks about when he's talking about Toronto and parts of southern Ontario.
From: Adrian (Aug 16 2007, at 14:50)
For those short on time, the digested read here:
From: Mark (Aug 16 2007, at 20:07)
I really enjoyed Gibson's first three books. By four and five they were getting repetitive, and the "central plot device," as you put it, started to get boring.
He doesn't seem to be aging gracefully. His desperate need to seem hip is unbecoming. He reminds me of David Byrne here. I have visions of a legion of young e-mail minions being mined for "the latest thing."
Neal Stephenson, on the other hand, is moving and changing. Unfortunately, he's moving right off a cliff with his self indulgence.
Is Charles Stross an alternative? I enjoyed about half of Singularity Sky and most of Iron Sunrise, but I'm 80 pages into Accelerando, and ... nothing has happened yet. It's just an overly clever travelogue into the future, sans plot. I expect I won't be finishing this book.
From: Claire (Aug 17 2007, at 00:55)
I feel pretty much the same as Tim on Gibson -- it's all about the feel. The plots may be silly (or not), the ideas not all that amazing, but the books flow, and it's fun to watch them move.
Also like Tim, I really liked the bits in Vancouver. Having moved from there to southern California, I find myself really missing Vancouver when I come across evocative images or descriptions. (Hey, only 100 degrees today....)
@Mark, <cite>Spook Country</cite> was okay, but not great. I liked <cite>Pattern Recognition</cite> better. The three books set in San Francisco kind of left me cold. But I've really enjoyed all the Charlie Stross I've read, although his American characters in the Merchants series don't seem all that American to me sometimes. The Cthulhu Mythos meets computer geek stories are particularly fun.
Also worth a look is Ken MacLeod. His last book, <cite>The Execution Channel</cite>, is a bit like the last couple of Gibsons -- near future in a world that's not quite ours, but close. And while I'm plugging authors, Elizabeth Bear has some really good SF (<cite>Carnival</cite>, but also the Jenny Casey books), and I've been a huge Ian McDonald fan since <cite>Out on Blue Six</cite>. His most recent two (<cite>Brasyl</cite> and <cite>River of Gods</cite>) are both cyberpunky looks at two up-and-coming developing nations.
From: Sam Pratt (Aug 20 2007, at 03:58)
I have been a wildly enthusiastic fan of all of Gibson's previous novels, and got my hands on Spook Country as soon as humanly possible while working on a documentary in Alaska. I devoured it in 24 hours.
And it gave me a stomachache. And a headache. After about 10 days, I finally banged out a review, which probably too pissy. But I was sorely disappointed:
I found Hollis' character (and indeed most of them, except Milgrim) terribly flat, the namechecking and brand references just annoying, and the profound implications of "locative art" left largely unexplored.
Unlike his other masterpieces, I also felt that the disparate threads were not woven together except superficially, on a plot level. Each was potentially interesting, but the denouement which brings them all to Vancouver did not blow my mind in ways that the endings of Neuromancer, Mona Lisa, Idoru, and Pattern Recognition did.
The connections and implications of the intersection of between high art, global commerce and military/industrial spookery were raised, but not plumbed.
I suspect Gibson's next book may involve many of the same characters, and still am hopeful that it will be more than a generic WG product, which is what this promising premise was for me in the end. Sorry to be a downer.