:: Article

Spook Country


William Gibson, Spook Country, Viking, 2007

Talking to a magazine on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s brilliant interpretation of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, William Gibson said:

“About ten minutes in..I reeled out of the theater in complete despair over its visual brilliance and its similarity to the “look” of Neuromancer, my [then] largely unwritten first novel. Not only had I been beaten to the semiotic punch, but this damned movie looked better than the images in my head! With time, as I got over that, I started to take a certain delight in the way the film began to affect the way the world looked. Club fashions, at first, then rock videos, finally even architecture. Amazing! A science fiction movie affecting reality!”

”A science fiction movie affecting reality.” Never mind the medium, Gibson is all too familiar with science-fiction becoming science-fact: in that first novel Gibson is credited with inventing cyberspace, a Sprawl sustained by the “world’s computers and communication lines…The tablet become a page become a screen become a world, a virtual world . . . A common mental geography, built, in turn, by consensus and revolution, canon and experiment . . . Its corridors form wherever electricity runs with intelligence . . . The realm of pure information . . . ” [Michael Benedikt, Cyberspace: First Steps, 1994]

Littered with terms like “netsurfing”, “jacking in” and “the matrix”, Neuromancer, though horribly dated now, kick-started the future, whether Gibson cares to acknowledge it or not. Yet, seven books in and 23 years later, Gibson seemed to turn his back on pure sci-fi with Pattern Recognition, setting it in the present world. Gibson, writing, through Hubertus Bigend’s voice, in Pattern Recognition said:

“Of course,” he says, “we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

In Spook Country, his eighth novel (ninth, if you count The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling), Gibson writes: “The old man reminded Tito of those ghost-signs, fading high on the windowless sides of blackened buildings, spelling out the names of products made meaningless by time. If Tito were to see one of those announcing the very latest, the most recent and terrible news, yet could know that it had always been there, fading, through every kind of weather, unnoticed until today, that might feel something like meeting the old man in Washington Square…” And this is the essence of Spook Country, a timelessness; science-fiction no longer about the future (“we have no future”), but the recent past.

Spook Country, billed as a dystopic political thriller, mashes technologies together: “Virtual reality?” She hadn’t heard the term spoken aloud in years, she thought as she pronounced it,” though later on he says, “We’re all doing VR, every time we look at a screen”. Geohacking nestles alongside GPS systems and “locative art”. One character says, “see-bare-espace…is everting.”

Hollis Henry, former member of the band Curfew, is hired by the same Hubertus Bigend of Pattern Reocgnition to explore what artists were “finding to do with longtitude, latitude, and the Internet”, “cartographic attributes of the invisible..spatially tagged hypermedia” (virtual invisible monuments to dead celebrities) for Node, a “technology magazine with a cultural twist (a technology magazine, as she thought of it, with interesting trousers).” In the course of her assignment she meets “wonk-hipster” Bobby Chombo, the brains behind the technology, and crosses paths with Brown, a spook who “looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate (or perhaps the methadone)”, who may or may not be still working for the US government.

Three compelling narratives thread their way through Spook Country’s post-9/11 landscape toward one common goal: a mysterious container headed toward an unknown destination. “The closer to a truth one gets, the more complicated things become,” Gibson writes. And yet, despite the wonderful descriptive passages told in Gibson’s blunt prose, and the nods to Borges and Pynchon, Gibson loses it somewhat in the page-turning rush to the book’s conclusion. Still, with Spook Country William Gibson proves he is ahead of the game. To paraphrase Gibson, “The novel is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.”

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika and is Comics Co-Editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 12th, 2007.