Monday, July 06, 2009


Just wrapped up "Spook Country," a recent novel from William Gibson.  Gibson has gone through a bit of a transformation lately.  He's considered the father of cyberpunk (somewhat misleadingly so - Bruce Sterling probably did more to define the genre, Neuromancer notwithstanding), but his books this decade have a firmly different purpose and tone.  Instead of the far-off future, they are set in the present day.  What's interesting is that they feel like present-day sci-fi... he retains a focus on technology and science, but it's more explanatory than speculative.

I really enjoyed "Pattern Recognition," the earlier book he wrote in this new mode.  That book dealt with a lot of things, but mainly the soft social sciences of branding, intellectual property, consumption.  "Spook Country" shakes things up a bit, retaining an influential character from the first book and the overall tone, while moving its thematic focus.  SC is much more politically aware, and sort of broods over The United States as it existed in the early part of Bush's second term.  It's a book about fear, about strife between agencies, about the lack of port security, about problems coming home to roost in America.  It also deals more directly with technology, particularly GPS, and plays around with an interesting idea that Gibson dubs locative art.  I believe that this is an invention, much like the logo allergy in "PR", but it's a well thought-through and intriguing one.

Unfortunately, despite the move from imaginary technology to real technology, Gibson still just doesn't know much about tech.  This isn't that unusual; very few sci-fi authors really do know what they're writing about.  It becomes much more obvious when you're dealing with real things in the present day, though.  For example, throughout the book Gibson describes the various wireless networks that a character attempts to join.  He talks about how the security conscious will use WEP encryption.  Fine, except that's totally bogus.  WEP is still around, but it's largely considered obsolete among the technorati; no admin worth a darn would seriously consider using anything less than WPA.  Granted, this is a mistake that many people won't pick up on, and it's more of a color piece than anything central to the book.  Still, though... when a five-second Wikipedia search can prove you wrong, it's a little embarrassing.


Gibson fares better on the character front.  He has a collection in this book, and while some of them never feel like they really get flushed out, there are a few winners.  The most intriguing is Tito, a young Cuban/Chinese exile who speaks Russian and works with a family with long-standing CIA ties.  He's almost overloaded with interesting things, most especially the way that (as far as I can tell) in times of great stress he becomes possessed by spirits who guide his actions.  You don't get that strong an idea of what he's thinking, but his actions are consistently fascinating.

The most sympathetic character is probably Milgrim, a sad tranquilizer junkie who is recruited and abusively led around by a quasi-rogue government agent.  Milgrim has very highly developed coping skills, and retreats into fantasies about 14th-century religious movements.  His captor is hands-down the most despicable character in the book, which makes liking Milgrim even easier.

Also, Hubertus Bigend makes a return appearance from PR.  As is only fitting - he's such a larger-than-life character that he could not be contained within a single novel.  I do wonder if he will show up in all of Gibson's future novels.  As long as he continues to write in this style, I imagine that he will.


All in all, "SC" is interesting, but hard to recommend.  It doesn't cohere as nicely as "PR" did, and while its aimlessness seems to be at least somewhat deliberate, that doesn't make it more compelling to read.  People who've read and loved "PR" should enjoy this book, though probably less so than that first one.  Others can take a pass, at least until after they've tasted the new Gibson and decided whether they like him.

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