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Spook CountryFreerunning through cyberspace

Review by Corinna Lotz

William Gibson, the man who coined the term cyberspace, can be placed in a long line of politically-conscious thriller writers, going back to authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, inventors of the hard-boiled, film-noir style. 

Critics have described Cyberpunk as a metaphor for the ills of globalisation – the overweening power of corporations, corrupt and feeble governments, and oppressive surveillance societies. Gibson, along with other writers, is a leading exponent of the genre, which originally reached popular cinema screens with Blade Runner, followed by others like the Matrix trilogy and Spielberg’s Minority Report.

Having grown up in America, Gibson escaped to Canada in 1967 to avoid the Vietnam war draft. Ever since then he has lived in the Vancouver area, though still retaining his US citizenship. His first novel, Neuromancer, was a roaring success, selling over 6.5 million copies since it was published in 1985.  Some have interpreted his 2003 book, Pattern Recognition, as a shift from a gloomy post-humanist world to the discovery of a new source for hope and effective action in “embodied everyday experience”.

His latest thriller, Spook Country, is set in the spring of 2006, the same year in which it was written, thus fulfilling an aim he set out a decade ago: “I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction’s best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going… Earth is the alien planet now.”

For those who are not techno-geeks, many expressions in Spook Country may be unfamiliar, even daunting, as in: “If she moved the PowerBook, she’d lose the WiFi from across the street, though this page would still be cached.” On every page we inhabit a strange world of techno-babble. Not only WiFis and WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy, already superseded by WPA), but Locative Art, GPS grids, geohacking, Handspring Treo smartphones, Virgin RIFID and geo-spatial tagging systems, not to mention the more familiar iPod. All this is naturally par for the course in the hi-tech world of espionage and counter-surveillance, which is Gibson’s bread and butter.

Each short chapter shifts the action not only to a different character, but also to another location - Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires and Vancouver – in a bravado evocation of the Brave New World of today’s interconnected, globalised planet. A vision of the future coexisting with the present arises slowly and mysteriously out of the meshing of the four main characters in a complex web of intrigue.  Instead of a linear story line, the story is cinematically crafted out of the seemingly disparate worlds of Hollis Henry, Milgrim, Bobby Chombo and Tito.

Henry, a hard-up former member of the Curfew band, now turned freelance journalist, arrives at the Mondrian on Sunset Boulevard, one of Los Angeles’s most fashionable designer hotels. In a fluent riff, Gibson conjures up those rare but exhilarating moments when reality breaks through the surreal and polluted artifice of the modern metropolis:

“… she walked back to the Mondrian through that weird, evanescent moment that belongs to every sunny morning in West Hollywood, when some strange perpetual promise of chlorophyll and hidden, warming fruit graces the air, just before the hydrocarbon blanket settles in. That sense of some peripheral and prelapsarian beauty, of something a little more than a hundred years past, but in that moment achingly present, as though the city were something you could wipe from your glasses and forget.”

Eventually Henry realises that her boss, the smooth-talking advertising tycoon, Hubertus Bigend, is using her to track a cargo container. Though she was commissioned to research Locative Art, (which uses global positioning systems and WiFi to create forms of cyber-reality) Henry is increasingly drawn into a sinister John le Carrésque “world of people following and watching other people”, much against the advice of band member, Reg Inchmale.

It turns out that the same container is also being closely monitored by at least two other secret organisations. The shadowy thug Brown is an operative for an unknown agency, possibly the CIA or the Drug Enforcement Agency. Brown, who has a pathological hatred for humanity, controls an unsavoury dirty-tricks squad to counteract the efforts of a group of Cuban exiles trained in Russian “tradecraft”.  He has kidnapped a pill-popping junkie called Milgrim because he is fluent in Russian and its internet derivative, Volapuk. He thereby allows Brown to listen in to the Cubans, who pass iPods, loaded with data, to one another at secret rendezvous.

It is through Tito, described by Brown as an IF (Illegal Facilitor), that a notion of freedom from circumstances first makes its appearance, despite his lonely and impoverished existence as an exile, trapped by the legacy of his Cuban-Chinese intelligence Mafia background.

We are introduced obliquely to Santería, the Way of the Saints, an Afro-Caribbean religion developed as the slaves who were taken to the New World from Nigeria secretly held on to their forbidden Yoruba gods in the face of Catholicism.  As Tito moves through New York City, he is accompanied by his family gods, guerrero warriors and spirits, both real and imagined:

“And soon he was simply a man walking, the orishas spread through a seemingly ordinary awareness, invisible as drops of ink in a volume of water, his pulse steady, enjoying the look of the sun on the floral ironwork that supported many of these old buildings. This was, he knew, though he avoided directly considering it, a still higher state of readiness.”

Sharp details of the cityscape are set against Tito’s memory of black student freerunners, building up to an unforgettable chase through the New York streets and squares, conjuring a balletic spirit of freedom, and defiance - not only of gravity but of sinister controllers.

Los Angeles has long been a symbol of the huge contradictions of America - extraordinary wealth, cutting-edge technology and a vast chasm between rich and poor. Gibson surfs through this world effortlessly, contrasting the hype of corporate image making with the horror of drug taking.

But Spook Country’s web is cast wider to take in the intelligence agencies and their insane wars against humanity. It poses questions about the war against Iraq, intelligence, media, reality and cyber-reality, how technology is used and how musicians and creative people manage – or not – to exist in this kind of world. It is not by accident that the first Locative Art work to be viewed by Henry is the cyber-body of actor River Phoenix, a tragic victim of Tinsel Town’s lethal cocktail of religion, drugs and celebrity.

Gibson’s laid-back style perhaps disguises the complexity of his ideas.  For in essence, he goes beyond facile notions of pure subjectivity to affirm the existence of a world beyond the cyberworld. Technology is part of the way humans find their way through the material world, be it through the web of GPS systems or the Internet. Cyberspace, in the end, is created by ourselves as human beings as we extend knowledge, movement and communication in a complex material world in movement and change. As we confront this world, we distinguish focal points in its web, which help us to understand and change it.

Ultimately, perhaps, the style of Spook Country is more powerful than its content and the ultimate denouement, but it certainly keeps you reading. The author says that in writing, he does not know the outcome of a plot until he completes the book. There is indeed a powerful sense of edginess, of the genuine unknown.  It seems that Gibson has not lost his rebel roots.

2 August 2007

Spook Country by William Gibson is published in hardback by Viking at £18.99

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