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Spook Country
by William Gibson

Penguin Putnam
384 pages, $32.50

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted August 23, 2007

William Gibson has done it again. The 59-year-old Vancouver author's complex and riveting new novel, Spook Country, is both entertaining and visionary, solidifying Gibson's position as the 21 st Century's primary literary soothsayer. More than any other contemporary writer, he is able to identify where the next intersection of technology, politics, and culture will occur.

Spook Country is an effective follow-up to his last novel, Pattern Recognition (2003), which helped Gibson break through with mainstream audiences after 20 years as one of science fiction's top writers, starting with Neuromancer (1984), in which he coined the term "cyberspace" and predicted the rise of the internet and hacker culture. His first six novels were set in a technologically advanced, near-future version of our world where globalization and consumerism have run rampant, and corporate/economic entities have replaced nations. Writing in a film-noir, pulp-thriller style, Gibson showcased an uncanny ability to take seemingly innocuous technological advances and explode them out to their maximum potential.

Pattern Recognition read like science fiction, but was set in the real world, or as the author put it himself, "more or less the one we live in now." American critics lauded it for both its prescience and the fact that it was one of the first books that addressed the 9-11 terrorist attacks; its protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is preoccupied with the loss of her father, who disappeared in Lower Manhattan on the morning of the attacks.

Although not a sequel, Spook Country continues in a similar vein. It also centres on a solitary, conflicted, female protagonist, fighting with her past even as she is buffeted by circumstances in the present. In this case, it is Hollis Henry, the one-time lead singer for a band called The Curfew who still enjoy a cult following ten years after their breakup. Solitary, skeptical, and curious, she is trying to reinvent herself as a freelance journalist.

Hollis has been hired by a mysterious start-up magazine called Node, a European version of Wired that may or may not actually exist, to investigate an unusual internet-based phenomenon--geospatial art: virtual art installations that are tied to specific GPS coordinates and visible only through special goggles using transient wireless internet connections. Don't worry--she's as confused about it as you and I.

Of course, in typical Gibson fashion, there is much more going on here than is immediately apparent, and the primary enjoyment of this book is following along with its characters as they move through the layers of deception in search of clarity.

Alongside Hollis, Gibson offers two other seemingly separate but inevitably convergent storylines. One involves Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese man living in Lower Manhattan, whose memories of the 9-11 attacks still shake him to this day. Tito is an expert in "the protocol," a sort of martial arts that allows him to evade capture by sprinting and jumping through an urban environment, using obstacles to his advantage. The protocol bears more than a passing resemblance to a real-life sport known as free running or "parkour." Defined in 1998, it has recently entered the mainstream, with parkour experts playing bad guys performing impossible-looking acrobatic feats in movies such as last year's Casino Royale (the opening chase sequence is a good example) and the more recent Live Free or Die Hard. Official parkour clubs exist in most cities--the City of West Vancouver even offers officially sanctioned parkour classes.

Tito is a member of a large, organized family of Cuban immigrants that resembles a mafia clan, although they act more like spies than gangsters. They speak Spanish and Russian, and trace their roots to the upper levels of the Cuban intelligence community in the heyday of the Soviet Union's involvement in Havana. At the start of the book, he is little more than a delivery boy, dropping off iPods containing information hidden among the usual MP3s to an old man in Washington Square. As events escalate, however, his acrobatic skills become integral to the success of his family's chosen cause, whatever that is.

The other thread focuses on Milgrim, a Russian-language translator who is being held hostage by Brown, a government agent--or so he says--who is spying on Tito's family. Milgrim is addicted to prescription anti-anxiety pills, and Brown keeps him in check with a steady stream of a Japanese pharmaceutical called Rize.

The "spook" in Spook Country refers to spies. Everybody seems to be spying on everybody else in this novel; even Hollis finds herself inadvertently adopting tactics of espionage in her attempt to find the story she's been assigned to write. Ultimately, the point seems to be that as technology continues to break down barriers between us, spying will become less a specialized skill confined to government agencies, but rather something that we all do on some level. And what sort of world do we live in when privacy is obliterated?

Gibson alternates between the three storylines often, employing short chapters that move events forward quickly. Although the plotlines eventually intersect, the early stages of this book are somewhat enigmatic. In exchange for this disorientation, Gibson offers up a bonus assortment of sharp-eyed aphorisms and trenchant cultural observations. His descriptions are often both abstractly bizarre and elegant in their accuracy, as in the following example, describing an L.A. windstorm. "Six floors below, she saw the palms along Sunset thrashing, like dancers miming the final throes of some sci-fi plague." And later, Hollis stands "in the evening hydrocarbon," rather than smog.

Near the end of the book all three storylines converge in Vancouver, the first time Gibson has written about his home city in a novel even though he has lived here since 1972 after coming north to evade the Vietnam draft. His description of the Vancouver Art Gallery café is worth the cover price alone:

"Inside, an upscale cafeteria line that for some reason made Hollis feel they were in Copenhagen. The people ahead of them looked as though they could each identify a dozen classic modern chairs by the designer's name."

What makes Gibson's 21 st Century writing work so well is that he is describing the real world through the same stylistic prism he employed as a science fiction author. Or perhaps a magnifying glass is more accurate because right now, he seems to see the world more clearly than anyone else.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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