Spook Country

Winter 2007 CSANews Issue 65  |  Posted date : May 22, 2008.Back to list

William Gibson is an acclaimed Canadian science fiction novelist who is credited with actually inventing the terms "cyberspace" and "cyberpunk" in the 1980s. In a change of pace, his latest release, Spook Country, is set in the near past, rather than the misty distant future. It's a political thriller reacting to the events of 9/11, and includes a satirical overview of current music, advertising and "geekology."

Gibson brings together three intriguing groups of individuals with different agendas, but all directed at one mysterious shipping container, "the Flying Dutchman of shipping containers," which had been flitting from boat to boat, at sea for years, with an important cargo not revealed to us.

The main narrator is Hollis, a former singer for a cult indie band, who's now freelancing as a journalist. Her first assignment is to write a story about some L.A. practitioners of "locative art."

Gibson describes this trendy locative art so vividly that if it doesn't exist yet, it soon will. It involves VR helmets and GPS gizmos to create virtual art in real locations that you can't see without the proper equipment.

The first thing Hollis saw was the "virtual" body of River Phoenix, as he lay dead on Halloween night 1993 in downtown L.A. Macabre, but evocative!

Hollis has been given this investigative assignment by a Euro-trash magazine – "Node" – so new that it hasn't actually been published yet. Gibson fans will recognize the "publisher" of Node, the charismatic Hubertus Bigend, hero of Gibson's novel "Pattern Recognition."

Hubertus is still searching for the newest online gadgets to sell to his international clients. He is particularly anxious that Hollis meet Bobby Chombo, the main tech assistant to the L.A. locative artists. While she's getting the art story, Hubertus tells Hollis to be alert for anything that might reference patterns of global shipping, and to look for evidence that Bobby is using the ubiquitous iPod to disseminate information (or misinformation).

The second group involves a Cuban-American family with vague ties to Castro and the KGB, but now living in Manhattan and also very focused on the mystery container. Their activities centre around young Tito, an amazing contortionist who speaks fluent Russian.

The Cubans are, in turn, shadowed by an ex-government agent, the intimidating Mr. Brown, who coerces Milgrim, a high-end junkie, to be his Russian translator. Milgrim is hooked on prescription anti-anxiety drugs, which Brown provides. Gibson has Milgrim give us his druggy, blurry, distorted version of all events involving the Cubans and that container.


There is no violent, shoot-em-up climax to Spook Country, but it does reach a very satisfactory conclusion, after a thoughtful, page-turning journey. It's written Hemingway-style, with short chapters and short paragraphs, but full of Gibson's trademark irony and irreverence.


One example is a chapter titled, "Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch" after an old Jewish joke.

Reading Spook Country is a real growth experience for someone as cyber-challenged as I am. I had no idea how to WEP my wifi, until I had it explained by my web-savvy niece. Then I went on to learn about "darknets" and "wardriving." Gibson reveals a whole parallel universe to the techno luddite.**

In a recent interview, Gibson remarked that "contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios." He is certain that he would have been laughed out of any publisher's office in 1981, if he had suggested writing a novel set in a world in which the climate is out of whack and Mideastern terrorists have destroyed the Twin Towers in hijacked airplanes. To make things more unbelievable, the U.S. then responds by invading the wrong country.

That being said, Spook Country ends on a vaguely optimistic note. One of the disillusioned ex-intelligence agents comments that…"Things are winding down for these people (the military industrial complex). There's less to be made, and the wind begins to blow from a potentially cleaner direction."

We can only hope!

Willa McLean is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Kitchener.