spook country

William Gibson started out way ahead of everyone, both in terms of the time period he was writing about — a fictional future in which cybernetics and space travel are commonplace, and artificial intelligences are sentient and nearly omnipotent — and in terms of style — a mashup of hard-boiled picaresque crime fiction and ultrasleek sci-fi that had been done before (Blade Runner predated Neuromancer by two years) but seldom as well. Gibson famously invented the term “cyberspace” and the genre of “cyberpunk.”

Since that moment his novels have been slowly traveling back through time. After Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive finished off the trilogy begun with Neuromancer, his next three novels (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) seemed to move to a nearer future, a grungier world of crumbling architecture, the old giving way to the new. Wealth still seemed consumer-derived, goods weren’t entirely disposable, jobs and profit schemes seemed more desperate and difficult. To be honest, I found those books duller; they seemed less urgent and more interested in the scenery than the road. It wasn’t a change in nature so much as degree, and while I enjoyed the scenery I didn’t find it nearly as spectacular, just well-observed and clever.

Then came Pattern Recognition, which was set (like the quintessentially Gibsonian TV series Max Headroom) 20 minutes into the future. Despite the plot turning on a particularly silly MacGuffin — in this case, a set of short video clips released randomly on the internet, leading to an underground craze for piecing them together and analyzing them — I really enjoyed that one. My favorite element was the protagonist’s hypersensitivity to branding, which left her unable to wear anything but the most generic, monochromatic clothing and then only after cutting out the tags and logos.

I expected his latest novel, Spook Country, to be just as appealing. It’s set in the same universe, ours, but in the portion of it run by the very rich and cosmopolitan and culturally au courant. It’s got the same structure, in which a skilled freelancer (in this case, a rock star turned journalist) is employed to seek a MacGuffin so MacGuffiny it’s cited as an example in the Wikipedia article on MacGuffins.

This time Gibson seems less interested in internet memes and more interested in geocoding and post-9/11 sociopolitics, so really a lateral move in terms of lameness (just typing the phrase “post-9/11” makes me want to throw up). Luckily this is William Gibson, so if anybody can make these topics seem freshly interesting, he can.

Apparently nobody can. An overt political statement would have been gauche and out of character, but apart from a character’s casual, astute thought that another character seemed to have stepped out of a past era when the world was “run by grownups,” any direct observations are too subtle to register. We have a DEA agent dragging an addict around with him to do translation work and help him steal firearms from drug dealers when necessary, but if this plotline went somewhere I missed it when I looked away for a second. The geocoding/”locative art” stuff is cute for a second or two (example: with the headset on, you can stand outside the Viper Room and see River Phoenix’s body in virtual reality) but mostly serves as a bridge to the MacGuffin for the rather dull rockstar protagonist. Then there’s a family of Cuban-Chinese urban guerillas smuggling iPods loaded with secret information and doing Russian martial arts and channeling some sort of voodoo loa as they dance ever closer to the MacGuffin. It’s colorful, but what does it all mean?

No one really changes over the course of the story, except perhaps the addict, who finds some clarity and a new life. The rocker/journalist is basically just a camera (the way I suspected a certain object she kept carrying around with her would turn out to be, but it was never clearly explained) and people improbably take her along on missions they have little reason to trust her with. There’s no real payoff even with the MacGuffin. It’s a finely written novel, but if it goes anywhere at all, it does so with way too much subtlety for me to detect. It’s frustrating and a bit of a letdown.

Gibson has always combined a sense of razor-sharp cultural observation with an elegant understatement, and when he was writing about the future it always seemed sufficient for us to ride along with him, face pressed to the windows, marveling at the sights without caring where the train took us in the end. Now that he’s concerned with the present, and is largely showing us what we know or know of, I find myself yearning for a destination or even just a more informative tour guide.