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.
—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.