Can a thriller also anaesthetize? Spook Country tries to find out. It has all the trappings of a modern espionage story, with quasi—government agents and a mysterious shipping container being tracked by a paranoid GPS geohacker. Yet William Gibson seems strangely reticent to let the story or the characters off their leash and venture boundlessly into this world. Instead, he escorts the reader on a meandering tour of a possible present (or near-future) which ponders how recent technological innovations are changing the way people behind the scenes do their dirty business.
It’s all there in the title, though I didn’t really see that until about halfway through reading the book. Spook Country exists largely in the liminal spaces of law enforcement and business. The affiliations of the people interested in obtaining or tracking the MacGuffin shipping container are vague—and in some ways largely unimportant—but at no point does it seem that any actual law enforcement gets involved. Rather, we have freelancers and mercenaries working for people we never get to meet. And off to one side there is the mysterious Hubertus Bigend, familiar to readers of Pattern Recognition, who expertly manipulates Hollis Henry into being in the right place at the right time to observe the container’s arrival in Vancouver.
The curious thing about Spook Country is how little happens in the first two acts. Hollis is a musician-turned-journalist working her first freelance job for Bigend’s new Node magazine. She’s writing an article about locative art, which in turn leads her to Bobby Ferguson and the mystery of the shipping container and her fateful meetings with Bigend. Gibson keeps the particulars about this container’s origins and journey so vague, however, that it’s impossible for the reader to have a clear idea of the stakes. Does it have a bomb? Are people going to die if it ever reaches its intended destination?
For a long time, the parallel narratives of Tito the “illegal facilitator” and Milgrim/Brown, who surveille him, don’t seem to connect with Hollis in any way. And I can respect Gibson for doing it this way, because when everyone converges on Vancouver, the tension starts racheting up very quickly. Nevertheless, it means that for the better part of the book, there is very little in the way of suspense or intrigue for Hollis. She spends most of her time in transit or having unfulfilling conversations with Bigend, Odile, and Inchmale.
There’s some interesting commentary in the characters themselves. Hollis and Inchmale are formerly of The Curfew, some kind of alternative rock band that broke up in the 1990s during the crisis preceding the digital era of music distribution. They got out of “the game” and Inchmale has become a father and started a music production career while Hollis pursues journalism. This reinvention of oneself mirrors Spook Country’s premise that espionage and underhanded dealing is evolving in strange ways following the advent of GPS tracking and the Internet. The eponymous “spook” is no longer the strangely-accented person in shades and a trenchcoat, sitting on a park bench waiting for a dead drop.
As always, Gibson’s eloquent expression of the tension between modernist and postmodernist ideas about technology is on display here. Pattern Recognition and Spook Country both seem to fixate on the technological failure modes of capitalism as it suffocates beneath the weight of its own corruption. As governments and corporations continue to play dangerous shell games with their capital, the technology used to manage such power plays becomes more complicated and more essential. And what I like about Spook Country as opposed to, say, Neuromancer, is that the technology featured here already exists, and in most cases it is already being put to the uses described herein. Media like books and movies are very good at creating fictional versions of our past, and they are also very good at creating possible visions of the future. It is difficult, however, to accurately capture the mechanisms of the present, as strange as that might sound. It’s difficult, particulalry at this moment in time, because we have trouble understanding the magnitude of the connected world we inhabit. We live in a world where killer robots are a thing now—they aren’t science fiction but science fact. I know this, and it still seems strange and bizarre to me. (Maybe I’m just getting old.)
Perhaps, then, that’s the reason for the meditative quality of Spook Country: Gibson is attempting to put the reader in the “now” by forcing them to focus on the setting to the exclusion of character and plot. If so, it’s an interesting gamble that doesn’t necessarily pay off. I did like the ending. But I didn’t connect to Hollis the way I did with Cayce, and I never felt like she was in much danger, even when she fell in with the most dangerous characters. Although there are a few highlights, moments of gorgeous presence, for the most part Spook Country doesn’t showcase Gibson’s brilliance like some of his other works. Still worth a read, but not as special.