Putnam, 2007, 371 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-399-15430-0
By now, saying that William Gibson is writing ever-closer to the present isn’t much of a revelation. Each of his three-book cycles so far have moved closer to the present, and after the roughly-contemporary Pattern Recognition, Spook Country is now gently historical fiction, back in the woolly old days of early 2006. It is also part of the same universe than Pattern Recognition; a third volume is not impossible at this point.
It’s perhaps more useful to say that Gibson has always wanted to write about a certain type of universe, and that the universe has caught up to him. The “real year” of Gibson may end up being 2002 forever. He is now more comfortable writing about the weirdness of the present, what with its post-911 homeland insecurity, emergent cyberspace and terminally hip designer labels.
And so from a deck jockey named Case, we end up with a rock star turned journalist, a junkie with Russian/English translation skills and an ex-Cuban freelance intelligence agent. The common thread between all three is a mysterious shipping container making its way around the world’s oceans, with vague rumours concerning its content. iPods containing information are exchanged, non-existent magazines may end up being a front for a private intelligence-gathering operation and “the world’s smallest organized crime family” is up for hire by the highest bidder. Welcome to the winter of 2006. Whatever little science-fictional content left here is something about the virtual space invading the physical world.
But if Gibson has deserted science-fiction, it’s not true that he’s moved on to thrillers. Much like Pattern Recognition was a thrill-free thriller, Spook Country is a spy story with a shaggy dog ending where the stakes are actually much lower than what they may initially appear. Gibson, we sense, is not interested in thrills, maybe not even interested in plot (if he ever was). Gibson is about feel and texture, atmosphere and the feeling of being bewildered by what surrounds us. It makes him less of a genre writer (though his sensibilities are pretty much those of a genre fan), and more of a hip writer-of-the-now.
The problem with defining such a niche is that the resulting books leave the vapid impression of a dream: the prose is exceptional, but not a lot happens to those characters. As even one character complains…
“I though it was going to be terrorism, or crime in some more traditional sense, but it wasn’t. I think that it was actually… A prank. A prank you’d have to be crazy to be able to afford.” [P.351]
The upside of being a hip writer without much regard to plot is that the books become spoiler-proof: The Gibson audience is winnowing itself to a bunch of readers who want to experience his prose, not be shocked or surprised by a bold new take on the future, or even the present. Spook Country, despite the ominous title, is a descriptive novel of the present by someone who has given up on making sense of it. It’s a profoundly passive book, as all characters are manipulated and re-manipulated by people who may not even be doing anything important.
There’s a message there about the seductive superficiality of the world and how it can lead one to refuse to engage with any deeper meaning. But in his own review of Spook Country , John Clute has called the book a comedy, and he may be on to something. Not only are the stakes revealed to be ridiculously low, with little if any practical consequences for the characters, you can almost feel Gibson dangle an Important Plot in front of his readers before yanking it away with a “just kidding” smile. Another writer, faced with the same elements, would have been able to plot a thrill-packed action thriller with his eyes closed. But Gibson refuses to go there, refuses to play with the money, enjoy the power of his characters, refuses to delve into the minds of the bored powerful men that lurk off-screen in Spook Country. You would think that anyone couldn’t resist the allure of private intelligence operatives as it takes place in the real world, but that’s exactly what Gibson does with a smirk and a “Please don’t bother me” doorknob sign.
It’s been a long way since Neuromancer, and there’s no going back for Gibson or his readers. He’s become a Writer of Our Times, and as such has escaped the easy protocols of genre. Reading him today appeals to completely different skills. A few more novels, and he’ll be writing historical novels about the eighties that are going to be indistinguishable from Douglas Copeland’s work.