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Spook Country, US cover

Spook Country, UK cover

Here is a famous passage from the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic:

—And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

—I see.

—And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

—You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

—Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

And here is a paragraph from the first chapter of William Gibson’s Spook Country. One of its protagonists, Hollis Henry, is waking up in a Los Angeles hotel.

She sat up, a very high thread count sliding to her thighs. Outside, wind found her windows from a new angle. They thrummed scarily. Any very pronounced weather, here, worried her. It got written up, she knew, in the next day’s papers, like some lesser species of earthquake. Fifteen minutes of rain and the lower reaches of the Beverly Center pancaked; house-sized boulders coasted majestically down hillsides, into busy intersections. She’d been here for that, once. (pp. 2-3)

Plato’s argument is that we humans, chained in the cave, cannot perceive the Real directly, only its shadows on the wall. (The Real might burn us out, as in Tiptree’s "A Momentary Taste of Being," or it might defy storying, as in Clarke’s Childhood’s End.) I know of no SF author who (consciously or unconsciously) adheres more closely to this aesthetic, that what can be described is only what can be perceived, than William Gibson.

Take the paragraph of Hollis’s waking that I quoted. Every piece of description in there is something that she is perceiving directly or remembering; no authorial omniscience intervenes here. Gibson almost always writes in the third person—early short work like "Burning Chrome" and "The Winter Market" being the exception—but he places his camera, as it were, exceptionally close to his protagonists. It’s in this sense, I’d suggest, that the common criticism of him as an author only interested in surfaces is misplaced. What he’s interested in is how the world presents itself. For this reason, he tends to protagonists who are professional observers, and to describing activities like advertising, which are a highly adapted way of manipulating presentations. It’s for this reason, too, that judged by the lights of mimetic fiction, where innerness of character is prized over depiction of the world they find themselves in, Gibson’s fiction will look like it fails. But we can’t (Gibson seems to say) see inside the heads of characters as Tolstoy or Shakespeare thought they could. The condition of being in the world is the condition of knowing only one’s own mind, others’ deeds, and objects.

So it’s shadows all the way along. Gibson’s career to date, at least in his solo novels, consists of the so-called "Sprawl trilogy," Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), seemingly set in a post nuclear war mid-21st century; the "Bridge trilogy," Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), datable by internal evidence to the early 21st century; and the contemporary-set Pattern Recognition (2003) and now Spook Country. It’s a career that, so far, very much resembles that of J. G. Ballard: beginning in pure SF territory, Gibson has slowly homed in on the present as his subject, while retaining the same tone of voice—the same angle of attack—in describing the world.

The good and bad news is that Spook Country is what you might expect. Gibson sounds characteristically like Gibson, albeit even more stripped down than before: short paragraphs, short chapters, a sense of the difficulty of knowledge (and so of what one can describe) in the contemporary world. The pieces of the book are somewhat predictable, almost to the point of self-parody. Observer-figure enmeshed unwillingly in the cogs of the world-machine? Check: Hollis Henry, who’s a dead ringer for Pattern Recognition’s Cayce Pollard. Interventions by a plot-revealing hyper-rich magus figure? Check: Hubertus Bigend again, playing a very similar role to the one he had in Pattern Recognition. Large amounts of time spent in, and describing, hotels? Check. A heart of darkness not quite describable but circling around money, power, and the military-industrial complex? Check, and indeed even more present here than in previous books.

This last point is maybe the place to start talking about what’s new in Spook Country. In Virtual Light, one of the characters explains about expensive hotels: "There’s only but two kinds of people. People can afford hotels like that, they’re one kind. We’re the other. Used to be, like, a middle class, people in between. But not anymore." (p. 146). In the science fiction frame of the Bridge trilogy, that assertion has the force of an axiom, and every character of significance falls on one side or other of the divide. In Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Gibson does give us characters (like Cayce and Hollis) who are recognisably middle-class; but they’re also, he makes clear, special cases, highly adapted niche-clingers.

When we first meet Hollis, she’s in Los Angeles to write an article on "locative art": site-specific virtual reality illusions of, say, River Phoenix’s death or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s heart attack. But she’s soon sidetracked by Bigend (who owns the magazine she’s writing for) into a search for a shipping container whose contents, though unspecified, he wants to see. (The novel only really clicks into focus when Bigend shows up. It’s pure speculation, but Spook Country at least feels like a novel that was tricky to write, that was wandering a little aimlessly until Gibson threw in this plot-generator.) A second thread concerns a Cuban-American family living in Manhattan who are somehow connected to the container. And a third thread follows the ill-matched pair of ex-government agents now tasked with tracking the family. (In this last thread, I at least was constantly reminded of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece about urban surveillance, The Conversation.)

The title, of course, is a pointer to Gibson’s real subject. Spooks are intelligence agents, and Spook Country (says the over-explaining blurb on my proof copy) is the country where we all find ourselves living. Under surveillance, tied down by the web of data we create, always potentially vulnerable to some huge and violent incursion on our condition. But, even more than most things, the nature and motivations of the military or intelligence community cannot be perceived directly. Gibson characters, unlike their science fiction predecessors, don't build the atom bomb or any other gizmo; they just hear rumors, straws in the wind. Which is fine, as far as it goes, and Gibson is of course extremely good at delineating the tensions we all live with these days. Once in a while, he permits himself a piece of more abstract thinking, such as a mini-sermon about the effectiveness or otherwise of torture (p. 274). But most of the book is devoted to advancing the plot, as the three threads converge with each other and with the mysterious container.

If there’s one specific criticism I’d make of the book, it’s that it seems less readable, less driven, than any Gibson novel I can remember—which is odd, given how closely it flirts with the spy thriller genre. One of Gibson’s acknowledged influences is John le Carré, who also produces novels that only inch towards their conclusions with trepidation (and a great deal of talk.) But Le Carré—to return to my original point—is far freer about showing characters’ internal states, and far more willing to stick with a scene. So there’s always an emotional line (however melodramatic, and however convoluted) running through his books. Because of Gibson’s ferocious restraint, because of the way his narratives swerve towards fragmentation, his books tend to have local power more obviously than cumulative effect. (There are exceptions: Pattern Recognition, I find, is a genuinely affecting book because it sticks with one character all the way through; and All Tomorrow’s Parties, though hugely fragmented, has a ferocious narrative urgency that Gibson has never equalled elsewhere.) It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ending of Spook Country, but suffice it to say that it’s one of those books where the journey is more important than the destination. The container itself is that which is desired by some characters in Spook Country, and no more.

But the local pleasures, the things that Gibson is uniquely good at, are present and correct. The surveillance duo, in particular, are a darkly funny double act, the sort of characters you can’t help mentally casting for the movie version. Gibson’s larger aesthetic project, that of trying to get a hold on how the post-9/11 world operates and feels, is enormously important, and one that few enough novels are tackling in any genre. (The question of whether Spook Country is SF or not is one that I don’t want to delve into. It’s no more or less SF, let’s say, than Pattern Recognition; and both are the sort of boundary-case novels that make a yes-no labelling of works as science fiction or not increasingly irrelevant.) But it feels like an enormously constrained vision, one achieved with great difficulty and within huge self-imposed limitations. In describing the shadows on the wall, Gibson finds himself, as I said earlier, able only to talk about the visible. And so, for instance, he refuses the SF consolation—the positivism—of providing total explanations. Bad things are done in the world (he says), but we can only hear rumours, second- or third-hand reports. That’s especially true in the U.S.A., where Spook Country is set. It’s by far Gibson’s most American book, not just in setting, but also in tone and concern. (Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties were hugely Californian books, but that’s another country entirely.) A lot of it is set in iconic parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles, and the issues it deals with are peculiarly American ones too. It’s a far cry from the Gibson who said, when he wrote Neuromancer, that he was setting out to write a book that didn’t mention America once. Perhaps he’s asserting that that’s where there’s most to talk about these days, that the shadows of what’s happened are densest and most intricate there.

The point about America leads to one final observation. In the paragraph I quoted from the book at the start of this review, I was struck by the choice of words used to describe the sheets. Not that they were comfortable, or cool, or whatever, but that they had a very high thread count. The information conveyed by this is that Hollis is staying in an expensive hotel, one where such things are registered closely by guests. It’s the axis, as it were, on which Gibson’s most responsive: wealth versus poverty, and how each presents itself. (Hence, perhaps also, his tendency to extremes there, as suggested in the lines from Virtual Light.) He never raises his voice, but the difference between the two is experienced in the text more intensely than in any of his previous novels. It’s almost as if, closing on 60, William Gibson might step out from behind the curtain and declare himself, his politics, and his beliefs. Spook Country is not that book, but it edges towards something new; as we all do.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Locus, and SF Studies, and will become editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

5 comments on “Spook Country by William Gibson”
Jeff VanderMeer

Re this--
"Take the paragraph of Hollis’s waking that I quoted. Every piece of description in there is something that she is perceiving directly or remembering; no authorial omniscience intervenes here."
That's so false, so false to writing. Every bit of information Gibson chooses is still *his choice*. In having Hollis mention "high thread count" for example, instead of just "sheets"--that's Gibson controlling how he characterizes Hollis. Getting "close in" to a character does not mean the author is no longer "editorializing" about character. In fact, "high thread count" exemplifies a sophisticated form of characterization that *does* give you an idea of Hollis' inner life. (Third person doesn't mean you're no longer getting the character's view of the world, *especially* close in.)
I think this is close to the point you're trying to make, but you get so snarled up in your own sentences, it's unclear.
I also am not sure of the point here with regard to Gibson, since this is a very common approach in fiction.
Then there's this gross generalization:
"...judged by the lights of mimetic fiction, where innerness of character is prized over depiction of the world they find themselves in..."
What brand of mimetic fiction are you referring to? Because there are about a thousand. Seems to me you're setting up a straw man, or at least a phantom.
Not to mention subjecting us to such a long quote from Plato that you *must* use it to greater effect than you do. Or, perhaps, resist the urge to quote at such great length in future.
Honestly, I haven't read the book myself, but I wasn't convinced you had, either. You seem content to grapple with its outline rather than its guts. It was honestly aggravating to read this.

Several things here. Firstly, Gibson's very close-to-the-character third person is his choice? Yup, absolutely. Indeed, I spend a significant amount of time in my review talking about other choices he makes: the classes of the people he depicts, the types of jobs he has them do, the sorts of plots he puts them through, and how this latest volume marks a kind of exemplification of those. Perhaps my conclusion would have been more amenable to you if I'd made it more lawyerly: "no authorial omniscience *is seen* to intervene here". Gibson wants to seem as if he's making himself invisible, and that the thread count observation is part of how he's characterising Hollis. But the cumulative effect of him doing this with every character is that he winds up with all of them seeming like Gibson surrogates and (as I say) with many of them being professional observers. I'm aware that limited third person is a common approach in fiction; my point, made a couple of times, is that Gibson's is so enormously limited that it tends to box him into a corner.
Secondly, "mimetic fiction". Well, sure, there are many mansions to it (as there are to the fantastic, or wherever else.) But I take, say, James Wood as certainly one of the half-dozen most influential literary critics around and that his contrasting responses to Pynchon and Chekhov are about precisely what I was asserting: the valuation of works mainly in accordance to how fully lifelike their characterisation is. My larger point is that the failure by "the mainstream" to parse Gibson's work (and Pynchon's) properly has, I think, a lot to do with attempting to apply a set of aesthetic criteria that aren't much use here.
Thirdly, I keep coming back to the Plato idea of shadows of the real throughout the review, and of its particular applicability to the world of intelligence where this book is set. But I note your dislike for long pieces of digressive quotation from other works, and I'm sure you would never indulge the same habit yourself...
Lastly you say without evidence, other than your feeling from my review, that you weren't convinced that I read the book. I did. I'm sure you were just saying that you didn't get that communicated to you rather than alleging anything more serious. If I didn't venture too far into spoiler territory for what is, after all, a new book with a thriller plot, then that was my choice. I do say that it's a book whose ending isn't as important as the process of getting there; to be rather more spoiler-ish, it's a Mcguffin plot, and a relatively empty one. (The eventual revelation of what's in the shipping container is extremely mundane.) And if there's a central point I'd want people to take away from the review, it's how continuous this book is with what Gibson's done in the past.


Graham, just want to say, that I very much had the sense that you'd read the novel--and that you were working hard, and effectively, to put it into a context and progression of all of Gibson's work.
I enjoyed reading the analysis, and I'm glad you didn't put in a big long plot synopsis. When I get around to reading the book I'll see if I agree with you. Gibson's way with surfaces has generally seemed a strength to me, but it may be that it also boxes him in.

After reading the first three (brief) chapters, I largely felt that I didn't quite need to read Spook Country, as I could already taste the cool distance of the whole book. This was peculiarly re-inforced by the layout - at least in the British edition, where the ratio of text size to white space makes the book almost double-spaced. It is quite literally full of emptiness.

A point blank review of Spook Country by William Gibson
Posted in Uncategorized by chrisbradley on the October 4th, 2007
Let’s get started on the best note possible. William Gibson stated yesterday in the California Literary Review that Spook Country was a “contractual obligation” and that he started with a “blank page” and found himself in “varying degrees of distress” during the task of publishing it.
For every reason stated above, and the fact that it is a dry uninspired read at best, it is not worth spending one red cent on. His work has become no better than Steven King’s work since the release of Pattern Recognition in 2003, and he is willing to admit, that he is no longer interested in writing about the future.
If I were tied to a “contractual obligation” I don’t think I would feel that inspired to write anything particularly new or different either. Especially if I were aware the Publishers were screwing me out of a good portion of the profits.
So, with these things in mind, lets talk about the story and the characters. Brown is a psychopathic failed government agent who is holding Milgrim hostage. Milgrim is addicted to psychotropic speed analogs. They are in New York at the start of the work. Hollis Henry, a pop singer from a band called the Curfew (not far from Curve or the Cure in name) has had a failed career and is making a last ditch effort as a Journalist for an Internet rag called the node. Except that she never writes a single significant word in the entire novel. The container she ends up searching for is ultimately filled with U.S. Government Money (literally 100.00 bills) and it is a ruse that makes her a possible target for a Chinese / Cuban group intent on tagging the money with Cesium. She starts in Los Angeles and Everyone ends up in Vancouver at the conclusion. The Cubans main characters are a kid named Tito and a guy with the Gun to tag the money inside the Shipping Container.
There is a bit about stealing a Glock from a drug dealer, and that’s about as much action as takes place in the book. The sequence in New York where Brown is madly trying to procure an Ipod containing data from Tito is a miserable, uninventive look at Union Square, and involves automobiles very rarely.
The big excitement in Milgrim’s life is getting a haircut and a Makeover paid for in Washington D.C. by Brown’s attache’s before boarding a Jetstream to Vancouver where he appears to lose his mind completely. Crashing a car in an attempt to kill Tito. At which point Milgrim escapes, snatches Hollis Henry’s purse which contains 5000.00 given to her by proxy from a dead band mate, heroin overdose, who could have figured? Which lands him in a bed and breakfast having a nice egg breakfast on his way out to roam the streets.
That about sums it up. There’s nothing more to it. It was the most uninteresting, formula driven work that Gibson has ever written. And the Locative art and GPS opening sequences with Bobby Chombo are so lost in the gratuitous waste of language that they are hardly worth reflecting on. It leaves a big “So what?” in my mind.
I am glad Gibson is admitting that his publishing company is doing him no good, and I suggest that he continue to do so, and “dropkick the chihuawa’s into the soup.” Because they are just like PRADA bags, trendy, hollow, purchased by vindictive people, and generally bred for all the wrong reasons.
I am glad I bought the book, but maybe Penguin Putnam should rethink their marketing strategy before alienating their customers with tripe that isn’t worth the toilet paper it was manufactured on. In today’s world, now that he is the Godfather of Cyberpunk, Gibson could have as easily signed his name on a bag of old tomatoes, and they would sell for $17.00.
And he knows it. And he will do it again.
10 Reasons Not To Buy Into Gibson Mythos
Posted in Uncategorized by chrisbradley on the October 3rd, 2007
1) While Gibson May Have Coined The Word Cyberspace, He Did Not Construct It. DARPA Did.
2) Cyberspace was good for all of 3 Books. Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Every subsequent work dealt with other subjects - which were based solely on the trendiness of the times. Virtual Light (Virtual Reality), Idoru (artificial intelligence turned pop-star), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (the homeless problem). Pattern Recognition (Modern Marketing). Spook Country (Paranoia of the Government).
3.) I wrote a review of Pattern Recognition that was widely available to people seeking Gibson’s work. A few thousand people probably bought the work because of it. I didn’t receive a single thank you note from the Publisher of the work. Instead - I have repeatedly been asked to either stop publishing my own work, or leave their forum altogether.
4.) When I made my best efforts over the course of years from 2003 - 2007 to participate in the Gibson Forum, yes that is 4 years, I was ultimately harassed, shunned, insulted, and instigated into arguing with its members. They are a HOSTILE, Unpleasant, Self Righteous Bunch, With No Valid Intent to Read REAL meaningful posts and respond in a Non Hostile way.
5. The proprietors had me REMOVED from the forum for responding in kind. After having spent Several Hundred Dollars on Gibson Merchandise over the years and invested COUNTLESS hours studying Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence as a result of his works, you would think I would have something of a place there discussing the subjects.
6. Their forum patrons, PERSIST in posting hostile materials against my person, after I have left the forum. I know this because the forum has no measure in place from me ANONYMOUSLY viewing its content.
7. William Gibson, is not at the heart of the real matter at hand. The real matter at hand is that he probably signed a contract with Putnam that prohibits him from doing anything but writing Bestsellers. Therefore his work is Toned Down and not worth reading at all. It is Formula Work designed to shift units. He has little or no creative control over the end result as he did with Neuromancer.
8. A Publishing Company that has No Adequate Oversight over its own resources and the people that uses them has no business being a Publishing Company at all in today’s world. If they cannot prohibit users from behaving badly to one another on their website, because they do not interact with it to a significant degree, then they have no business running the website.
9. The Pattern Recognition Movie will probably sell a lot of tickets. Good for the Executive Producer. Bad for Gibson. Good for the publishers of the book - who hold sway over the Copyrights to it through contracts, bad for Gibson. Good for DVD sales and Wal-Mart, bad for Gibson. Good for Leather Jackets, bad for Gibson. Because he knows its not a real story. Its a story that took advantage of the 9-11 event, just like World Trade Center, which was a cheaply made story with a terribly mundane plot.
10. If you have any ambitions of being a writer, stay away from allowing a Publishing Company like Penguin Publishing to contract you. They only pay a few cents per copy sold, while with self publishing, not only are you your own boss, but the book is instantly available internationally, and you get paid up to 2 or 3 dollars a copy. Working the slave life isn’t anything anyone should aspire to.
An open letter to Penguin Putnam Group
Posted in Uncategorized by chrisbradley on the October 3rd, 2007
#1. I am not going to ask you to reconsider lifting your ip ban because it doesn’t matter anyway. I have more than 1 ip.
#2. If I had not been threatened by your members first, I would not have chosen to respond as I did.
#3. No one enjoys being a) called mentally unstable b) being outright cursed at c) called a self promoting “troll”
#4. To the people that were supposedly “injured” by my remarks, let me make this comment, they deserved it.
#5. If Gibson wants to Host a Forum about the US Intelligence Services aka Spook Country maybe it should be considered that people DO actively participate by making regular reports to them on regular issues.
#6. I attempted to generate 2 threads, that were of practical use. 1 called 21 Gun Salute, which was a fiction thread designed for that purpose only. The content was no more volitile than any other collection or anthology of short stories published in the last Decade. You chose to suppress it. 2nd - A seasonal / autumn thread - which had NO volitile content whatsoever, and was actually beginning to make progress. You chose to suppress it also.
#7. It doesn’t matter that you have done these things, the most important of my posts have been copied to my blog. And WILL BE PUBLISHED in a future book. You can bank on that.
#8. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. A member on the William Gibson board literally took my face and attached it to a sign that said “Narcissitic Personality Disorder.” If he thinks its funny, its not. If anyone has it, it is the entire makeup of your board who think they are a) self important b) infallible c) allowed to push drugs through your forum d) allowed to manipulate foreigners in illegal ways. They fit their own description. Using my personal photograph without my permission and without my posting it EVER on the forum, is a) illegal b) an obscene affront to decency c) lawsuit worthy.
#9.William Gibson’s future products will not be on my shopping list if I am not re-admitted to the board. I will take no future action to purchase any of his endorsed products, enjoy his literature, or give him any sort of positive review with my peers, limited as they are. I may even write a negative review of Spook Country and make it prominently viewable. Because I know it isn’t his best work, and I know it was a tactic to sell books for your company rather than produce anything genuine or creative.
#10. A word to the wise: Losing me means losing everyone like me - including newcomers to the community who see it as an open forum, rather than a CENSORED, ILL PLANNED, POORLY HOSTED, attempt at selling products and manipulating a market that should have dried up with All Tomorrow’s Parties.
#11. I will not spend Movie theater or DVD money on Pattern Recognition either, and I will start telling my friends it is a waste of time. And that it has nothing to do with cyberspace, which is the God’s Honest Truth. From the OUTSET, PR has to do with Marketing, and I’m sad to say that in writing my review which appreared in VoidSpace and probably sold at least 10,000 copies of PR - I fell for it Hook Line and Sinker. Never again.
#12. You don’t want to deal with people talking about politics, tell your author not to write about them. I think Gibson is too far away from America now to make any sincere comment on what goes on here. And I don’t see him catalyzing a single sincere thought on the subject from his home in Canada which has become an Anethma to any American crossing into its borders. Canadians come to our country and criticize us in our own stores while we stand there and listen to how they are superior to us. Maybe we should close the borders and cut our trade to them, and see how the Canadian Dollar Fares, when we stop spending money to support them. Canadians seem to think that America is going to protect them eternally and they have it carte blanche to step on our ideas. I’m here, and I’ll say it, we probably won’t. And if something horrible happens in either of your two media centers now, I’ll be laughing from my Border Town which is well secured and doesn’t have any real potential targets.
#13 To think I actually thought I might use Toronto or Montreal for a site for a future film is now virtually entirely off. I’ll have to rethink the entire strategy. Hollywood has its magic, and so does New York. Two places I can see laughing very hard when Pattern Recognition doesn’t sell enough tickets to pay back the investors.
#14 You can forget I said any of this - laugh me off - or not even read it for all I care. But keep this in mind, that aborted thought you skipped when a) either you didn’t reply or b) you replied negatively will cost you. This draft will be copied to my blog which gets a considerable number of Keywords into Google, as will any of your responses, legal threats, or scoldings. I implore you, give it a chance. Because your company really doesn’t need a gaping wound to be its #6 NY Times best seller.
#15 In case you wondered - Yes I still enjoy gibson, but as I said - I won’t buy another thing, and I will turn on his work like a bad penny in an instant, if you don’t do something about controlling your internal problems with your community. And from an ANONYMOUS perch, I will be watching.

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