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Articles > Impressions
Gambler / 2009.08.25

Spook Country

Some say that cyberpunk is dead, outdated. But really, it simply became reality. The western society has reached the same technological level that was described in many books of the genre. It reached that level in its own way, of course, diverging from fiction in many important aspects. But there is Internet, online banking, online shopping, data mining, cell phones, WiFi, Tesla cars. Some time ago, William Gibson said that the technology today changes at such a rate that you can no longer predict its development in a novel. So his last two books are set in our time. They still retain his characteristic style, however. Very terse prose, “technological” themes, multiple semi-parallel storylines occasionally intertwining and converging at some pivotal point. Stylistically, they are still cyberpunk. That's probably the biggest problem with Spook Country.

The narration follows three “main” characters. One, Hollis Henry. She works as a journalist for The Node, which is a European magazine start-up. In the past, she was a singer in a semi-indie rock band. Her current assignment is to investigate and write an article about the phenomenon of locative art (virtual sculptures stuck to coordinates via GPS). Two, Tito, second name unknown. He is a member of a Cuban family, which was somehow connected to Castro's intelligence service in the past. Makes certain deliveries for his family's business, speaks Russian, plays keyboard, gets visited by gods or spirits of some religion [which I'm not going to look up online]. Three, Milgrim, first name unknown. Thief addicted to tranquilizers. Also speaks Russian. Currently kidnapped by Brown, a member of some paramilitary organization, to help spy on Tito.

Granted, they are normal people compared to, say, katana-wielding samurai-hacker-pizza-delivery-boy Hiro Protagonist from Snowcrash, but they lack personalities, traits that would define them as real people. And it's not just those three. It says a lot about the book that the only character there who has a normal day job is some episodic guy on a gas station. The actual problem, of course, is not their jobs, but the fact they are not truly a part of the setting than surrounds them. They glide over its surface as water striders glide over a pond.

Of course, somewhat synthetic character are a common problem in science fiction and the related genres. However, in good science fiction they are a result of the author focusing attention on something else, like exploring an interesting situation, where character personalities are secondary. In cyberpunk novels, the main thing of interest is usually the society of the future, which is vastly different from our own. Spook Country doesn't do either. It's not about the world of today, it merely takes place there. Getting info about the weather of an early morning in Los Angeles, or the nature of the foyer in some expensive hotel is not exactly enlightening.

It would be all right if the book had any heavy-duty storytelling going on, but that doesn't happen either. The narrative is full of events, but they mostly lack significance and continuity. Hollis flies from LA to Vancouver to speak to a GPS hacker. Milgrim spends a day in a coin laundry, where he nicks a cell phone. Things like that. There are a lot of events, but no interesting situations. Partly, that goes back to the problem of isolated, surreal characters. While they are quite unusual, and have unusual objectives, their personalities have very little influence on the unfolding narrative. Everyone follows the flow, so to say. Tito works for people who want to do a certain thing (which is not revealed till the end), while Milgrim's kidnapper works for the opposing side. Hollis and her employers remains passive observers. This is how it starts, and this is how it stays till the end. The books is mostly deprived of a real storyline, and while it is entertaining to read short-term, it's not very interesting overall.

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That was the review. Yes, that was it. I simply don't know what else to write. I could recite some more events from the book, but it wouldn't add much to the description. Besides, too many things in there are just “stuff”, details that don't connect to anything and aren't part of the big picture. Is there a big picture? I'm not sure even about that.

The main problem with Spook Country is that Gibson uses the style of writing developed for predictive and unusual settings, yet writes about the present, which we are all well familiar with. Yes, it's true that we live in the time when cyberpunk became reality in a way, but writing about this “real-life cyberpunk” demands a different approach, and perhaps a different selection of themes. Gibson deals with government programs, weird art trends and technologies that are either trite or unimportant. He could use more traditional cyberpunk themes, that found their way into reality: hackers, fishy corporate dealings, currently obscure yet pivotal techno-social phenomena... but it's not something that mixes well with the subjects of last year's NPR news broadcasts. The book uses several of those, plus names a lot of brands, plus references a lot of consumer technologies. Overall, it is heavily anchored in the present, and I doubt many people will be interested in reading it 20 years from now, either like they read Neuromancer or like they read All Quiet on the Western Front. It's too grounded for science fiction, while being too shallow to work as a “social” novel. Ideally, of course, it would be both at the same time.

This article would look more balanced if I plugged something positive in here; however, there isn't much I can do on this account. William Gibson (and I think I've read all his published books up to this date) always balanced between being mere “futuristic adventure” writer and a sort of visionary. To his credit, Spook Country has none of the usual sex, violence, or insane plot twists that characterize modern trash literature. But it doesn't have any quality that could make recommend it (to anyone) either.

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Among other things, I'm currently reading Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It's a great example of what Spook Country misses. Here is a small excerpt from a conversation between Kathy an Jason Turner:

“You're all lit up in some phony way,” she said half to herself. “You're glowing in some phony way.” “Publicity stills,” Jason said.”Eight-by-ten glossy—” “These aren't. These are to keep you out of a forced-labor camp for the rest of your life. Don't smile.”

There are so many things that went into this short exchange. If you read closely, it will tell you a little but about the characters, their habits, their attitudes toward one another and the setting. A lot of fiction, especially fantasy and the lower end SF, manage to have entire pages of dialogs and reflections that tell you much less.


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