Review: “Spook Country”

It’s interesting to watch William Gibson’s efforts to reinvent the cyberpunk genre, even if they’re not always rewarding. The problem, of course, is that nothing dates faster than a book about the near future. (Gibson himself has pointed out that no one in Neuromancer has a cell phone.) By bringing his setting closer and closer to the present day, he can stick to writing what he knows while still giving it a touch of his patented futurist color.

This is a fine enough idea, but unfortunately Gibson’s execution lacks whatever spark might make it work in practice. His own personal zeitgeist is just a little too eager, a little too agog with the possibilities of modern technology for my tastes. He has a bad habit of repeating himself, going over and over the same old ideas. And worst of all, in the case of Spook Country, he’s not above delivering a dull, flat little book.

Readers heaped praise on Pattern Recognition, Gibson’s last novel, and indeed it was all right enough. Nobody seemed to notice, though, that the main plot device — a search for the origin of some mysterious art — was the same one Gibson used in Count Zero.

Spook Country doesn’t borrow so blatantly from Gibson’s back catalog, but it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, either. The only prominent piece of not-invented-yet technology is, you guessed it, a helmet that lets the wearer visualize digital graphics in 3-D space. Among the characters, you’ve got your mysterious ex-government combat agent types. Some of them seem to channel voodoo loa as a form of meditation (Count Zero again). Just as Pattern Recognition’s protagonist was named Cayce (rhymes with Case, a character from Neuromancer), here we meet a homeless hacker named Bobby — a name Gibson used for characters in Burning Chrome and Count Zero, both. Hollis Henry, our heroine, may not have mirrored lenses implanted into her eyes, but she is a former rock musician. This in turn gives her a reason to be hanging out with characters with clever names like Inchmale and Odile.

It’s as if Gibson wants to mine all his best ideas from his Neuromancer trilogy notebooks, only then paint them over with a veneer of banal modernity, to make them seem less “scifi” and more “modern and relevant.” And it doesn’t work. What we’re left with is a dull mishmash, full to bursting with ideas that go nowhere and plots threads that deliver nothing.

In Pattern Recognition, Cayce was literally allergic to branding. This was an interesting idea: What are we to make of it? But Gibson just acted as if it was a perfectly normal allergy for someone to have. Instead of using it as a plot device, he just tossed it into the mix and kept going. Similarly, in Spook Country Gibson posits an entire subculture dedicated to creating 3-D artwork in virtual spaces that can only be viewed with the magic helmets, but this also has little if anything to do with the plot. Toss and go.

Gibson’s characters are nothing if not cool, but in Spook Country they seem to have been boiled down to their final essence, so cool that they’re practically faceless. Among all the characters in the three different plot threads Gibson tangles together, only Hollis Henry seems to have any kind of recognizable inner life. What’s more, Gibson wants to keep the outcome of the plot a secret, so the reader is incapable of fathoming the characters’ motivations.

As for that plot, much of it remains a mystery even after finishing the book. We are told, at last, what the characters are doing. It’s left for us to puzzle out why they should bother. Without giving too much away, it has something to do with Iraq war profiteering — something. We’re never really told what.

It’s all so terribly serious. And yet, I found I couldn’t take it seriously. The whole thing is a little bit like being a spectator of a Victorian intrigue, seen from the vantage point of the court furniture maker. Not only are you not privy to the details, but you half suspect you wouldn’t even be interested.

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