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Review: William Gibson's 'Spook Country'
If you go
What William Gibson speaks and signs his work
When 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St.
Info 303-447-2074 or www.boulderbookstore.com
William Gibson's iconic 1984 novel, "Neuromancer," imagined a future world in which humans travel in "cyberspace" ( a term Gibson invented). His new novel is set February 2006, but the author maintains that every bit (and byte) of the credulity-stretching tech that gives "Spook Country" its near-futuristic feel exists today, even if it isn't in wide use.
In that regard, "Spook Country" is a sister to Gibson's 2003 bestseller, "Pattern Recognition." "Spook Country" is not as compelling as that novel, but the relatively simple cat-and-mouse plot allows Gibson's pure talent as a writer to shine through. His knack for detail, surprisingly beautiful language (given the constant subtext about the ways technology can reduce humanity even as it enhances) and ingenuity in creating quirky, believable characters make the novel well worth reading.
As he often does, Gibson works with multiple viewpoint characters.
Hollis Henry, former vocalist for the defunct band Curfew, has been hired by the hip, as-yet-unpublished European magazine Node to do a freelance story on "locative art," in which artists use GPS and virtual imaging technology to re-create iconic scenes — the death of actor River Phoenix, for example — for public viewing.
Another character, Milgrim, is addicted to prescription anti-anxiety pills and speaks fluent Russian. He essentially is being held hostage by a meat-headed cop, Brown, who keeps Milgrim on a leash by doling out the superior Japanese pill, Rize. Brown wants to make use of Milgrim's ability to translate Volapuk, a text-message code language that is "a visual approximation of Cyrillic" being used by ...
Tito, a Cuban-Asian teen, to whom Brown irritably refers as the "illegal facilitator," or IF. Tito's mysterious extended family dabbles in Santeria and seems to be involved in organized crime. In this case, Tito is serving as a courier for iPods "steganographically" packed with data (i.e. information buried in other data in such a way that only the recipient knows a message exists within), and Brown wants to know what the hell he's up to.
For side dishes — Gibson's characters, big or small, are full of complex flavor and texture — there are Bobby Chombo, who provides the GPS tech for locative artists and also works for the military tracking moving objects around the globe, mysterious P.R. magnate Hubertus Bigend (who also haunted "Pattern Recognition") and others.
And what's everybody up to? Basically, chasing a McGuffin ("A term devised by Alfred Hitchcock ... to designate an object whose loss — or rumors of whose existence — triggers the cast of a thriller ... into searching for it ... but has no intrinsic meaning," according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction), in this case, a cargo container that seems to appear and disappear as it travels around the globe.
Hollis' employer, Bigend, doesn't really care about locative art (and Node probably doesn't even exist); he just likes to know what's going on, and he's after Chombo. Milgrim and Brown are following Tito, who has no idea he's being used by an unnamed "old man" to pursue the container. Everybody collides in Vancouver (where Gibson lives), for a rousing climax that itself feels McGuffin-ish — not especially meaningful, but fun. The story, though never boring, feels aimless at times. But things pick up in the final 100 pages.
In the end, despite all the gee-whiz tech, the whole caper — and that's what it is, at heart — ties into our very troubled present.
This simple storyline actually allows Gibson's impish wisdom and talent as a writer to emerge. The novel is full of instant aphorisms that feel utterly true ("Secrets ... are the very roots of cool") and carefully wrought, sometimes bleakly comic prose:
"The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity, something volcanic aglow behind clouds that looked set to birth tornadoes."
"... Milgrim began to catch glimpses of spectral others, angels perhaps. The late-afternoon dressed the passing woods with a Maxfield Parrish foxfire, and perhaps it was that epileptic flicker generated by the train's motion that called these beings forth."
Gibson seems to write novels in threes, and "Spook Country," like the middle volumes of his previous sets, may not measure up to the bookends. But it's sharply written, full of rich detail, and the characters are not only believable, but likable in all their faults. With all that, who needs a super-intricate plot?