Spook Country

2007-09-02

in Books and literature, Canada, Geek stuff

Ottawa War Museum entrance

William Gibson is an author who burst into the world with a brilliant first novel, then never did anything equivalent again. Neuromancer is a remarkable piece of science fiction and marked the starting point of the cyberpunk sub-genre. Unfortunately, Gibson’s further forays into that terrain – which extended across about twenty years – never produced something of even moderately comparable quality.

Recently, he has moved on to writing technology-centred books set in the present. Spook Country, which I finished today, is his latest such work. It follows Pattern Recognition, his first novel of this type, and improves on it to a certain extent. As such, it is probably the best thing he has written since Neuromancer. Like Pattern Recognition, it is better at setting up a mystery than it is at revealing an interesting solution at the end. Part of what made Neuromancer so remarkable was the strength of the characters. There was no danger of confusing them or having them become blank nothings. Spook Country‘s most significant flaw is that, for all but a few characters, there is no such definition, and thus no such interest.

If you have never read Gibson, and have any appreciation for science fiction, I recommend reading Neuromancer. If you have read it already, you would be well advised to give Spook Country a try. If you are a technologically inclined Vancouverite, you are likely to find every page addressing you directly.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Memetic Engineer September 2, 2007 at 7:50 pm

“Unfortunately, Gibson’s further forays into that terrain – which extended across about twenty years – never produced something of even moderately comparable quality.”

Perhaps you missed Count Zero the immediate sequel to Neuromancer which is better written. William Gibson said last week that he was far more satisfied with it than with his first novel.

Do you think that Spook Country captured William Gibson’s “invitation of the zeitgeist around for tea” ?

Milan September 3, 2007 at 12:45 am

I read Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and All Tomorrow’s Parties and didn’t find them overly satisfying. Gibson may be more satisfied with Count Zero than with Neuromancer, but that certainly isn’t the general consensus.

Are you commercially associated with Gibson or his publishers?

Do you think that Spook Country captured William Gibson’s “invitation of the zeitgeist around for tea” ?

I am not really sure what this means. Spook Country certainly mentions a lot of specific contemporary events and technologies. People who pick it up in twenty years will probably find that it has a retro flavour.

Spoilers below, hence ROT13

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. September 3, 2007 at 1:57 am
Memetic Engineer September 3, 2007 at 12:15 pm

Are you commercially associated with Gibson or his publishers?

Not in any way, just a fan.

Spook Country certainly mentions a lot of specific contemporary events and technologies. People who pick it up in twenty years will probably find that it has a retro flavour.

The same will be true of anything else which depicts contemporary technology or events. Everything from 1986 has a retro flavour today.

See Response to Milan Ilnyckyj’s blog comments on William Gibson’s “Spook Country” for my response to the ROT-13 protected comments.

sasha September 3, 2007 at 1:59 pm

One really oughtn’t read All Tomorrow’s Parties without first reading Virtual Light, which precedes it. They perhaps don’t quite stand alone as well as they should, but taken together they are quite good and an interesting exploration of the human relationship with urban and controlled spaces. I wasn’t terribly impressed by Mona Lisa Overdrive, but Idoru is quite good.

I’m not sure I’d view Gibson’s work as character driven. Instead, I think part of what makes it unique is that it is technology driven. That is, the conflicts focus on the clash between humanity and technology – how we live with technology, relate to it, use and are used by it, how technology changes our perceptions of intelligence and geography, and so forth. It’s like grappling with ideas about how we can live with ourselves in a world we increasingly dehumanize, if that makes any sense. But that’s just my opinion.

Also, I really like the idea behind Pattern Recognition that, as we move into the future (which is now, which is why the book is set in roughly the present), the ways we understand the world have to change. We can no longer seek the truth, the cause, or what is right since the world is not that clear cut, and hence pattern recognition (like a big game of go) becomes the most important mode of intelligence.

Okay, I’m *such* a sci-fi nerd.

Milan September 3, 2007 at 2:04 pm

I’m not sure I’d view Gibson’s work as character driven.

All I meant was that, in Neuromancer, you didn’t find yourself frequently confronted with characters who seemed to have no content to them. Several characters in Spook Country were so undifferentiated that they felt like placeholders.

sasha September 4, 2007 at 12:20 pm

oh. That’s unfortunate. And here I’ve been looking forward to getting a chance to read it for weeks now.

Milan September 4, 2007 at 1:29 pm

That’s unfortunate. And here I’ve been looking forward to getting a chance to read it for weeks now.

If you like Gibson’s work, you should enjoy this book. I think it is his second best, after Neuromancer.

Rob September 18, 2007 at 8:27 am

I can’t understand how anyone could like Neuromancer and not like the other cyber-punk Gibsons. The only thing I could possibly think it might be is that the increasing slickness of Gibson’s writing style turns you off, but the allegation of character disappearance just seems bizarre to me; the other two Sprawl novels have their fair share of decent characters, while the Bridge trilogy, but particularly Virtual Light, is filled with them.

Milan September 18, 2007 at 8:38 am

Rob,

Other that Neuromancer, there aren’t really any cyberpunk books I like. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash starts out well enough, but degenerates badly.

I do like Orson Scott Card’s cyberpunk short story “Dogwalker.”

PD Jones October 2, 2007 at 5:16 am

The problem with spook country is that you might as well call it pattern recognition. Gibson merely shook the frame and all but two characters fell out. He then just repopulated it with new characters and locales but otherwise it is the same.

. July 25, 2008 at 12:17 pm

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

—William Gibson, quoted in The Economist, December 4, 2003

. September 16, 2010 at 4:03 pm

“The plot comprises the intersecting tales of three protagonists: Hollis Henry, a musician-turned-journalist researching a story on locative art; Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese operative whose family is on occasion in the employ of a renegade ex-CIA agent; and Milgrim, a drug-addled translator held captive by Brown, a strangely authoritative and secretive man. Themes explored include the ubiquity of locative technology, the eversion of cyberspace and the political climate of the United States in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The critical consensus was that while the plot was underwhelming and the characters unconvincing, the novel was a virtuoso exhibition of Gibson’s formidable prose and captured the zeitgeist of post-9/11 American society. Spook Country quickly reached mainstream North American bestseller lists and was nominated for British Science Fiction Association and Locus Awards.”

. October 1, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Gibson: One of the things that I’ve found poignant, particularly poignant about that, and it’s kind of a spooky thing, is that most people alive today are never going to see the inside of a Gulfstream. They’re never going to be inside one of those and go for a ride on it. And somehow, I don’t know, that seems heartbreaking to me. Not that it’s that big a deal, but it’s one of those things where you go, okay, this is a divide. We have all of these details about all these lives: which of these people get to go on the private jet? You have this really small subset of people, most of whom do it all the time, which is even stranger.

There’s something I was aware of when I was writing this book, because I had cause to go back and look at parts of Neuromancer, is that the thing about the world of Neuromancer is that there is no middle class. There are only very, very wealthy people and desperately poor, mostly criminal people. It’s a very Victorian world, and when I was writing Spook Country I kept running up against that feeling that the world I’m actually trying to predict is becoming more Victorian, not less. Less middle class, more like Mexico, more like Mexico City. And I think that’s probably not a good direction.

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