It would appear that the man who gave us culturally ubiquitous terms "Cyberspace" and "The Matrix" (both from his landscape-shattering breakout novel "Neuromancer") has been blown over by Google, the iPod and locative art.
"Spook Country" is an accidental sequel to William Gibson’s post-911 requiem "Pattern Recognition," according to a video on his website. It reads like the cultural exploration of a man so immersed in the future (remember: when 1984 came out, the idea that we’d have avatars running around inside computers was science fiction. Now, we have Second Life) that he forgot to notice, until one probably sunny morning, that we are living in a science fiction world.
At its core, the novel states the following: the future didn’t turn out to be one of flying cars and magic pill hamburgers, but of works of art that you can only see if you’re wearing virtual reality goggles, standing on a particular street corner. The idea is almost the response to the call-out of "Neuromancer": Information is all around us, rather than a thing into which we insert ourselves.
Like all of Gibson’s work, it’s a science-fiction escapist piece for readers who meditate on what their world is up to, what it’s becoming.
"Spook Country" introduces us to the weird world of information immersion through the eyes of Hollis Henry, the former frontwoman of progressive-rock band The Curfew, trying to make a break into journalism with a mysterious assignment from emerging magazine Node. Henry’s assignment is to interview locative art specialist Bobby Chombo, who took his last name from a computer program which, according to the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, "provides a set of tools for implementing finite difference methods for the solution of partial differential equations on block-structured adaptively refined rectangular grids." Don’t expect that to make senseâ€”the point is, Bobby is a computer geek with a fascination for the intersection of virtual space and real space.
He specializes in geospatial technologies. He got into locative art after a career working navigational systems for the US military, and uses his expertise to place works of art on a VR grid mapped over real cities and towns. Think Google Streetview, only, with giant squids or F. Scott Fitzgerald Tableaus in the middle of record stores. The point is, Chombo is Gibson’s metaphor for the ubiquity of information, and Hollis is the late-20th or early-21st century n00b who has to figure out what it all means.
Gibson’s story is not only about locative art and how weird our world is becoming: he also has the good graces to give us a spy story, which deals with the ubiquity of information in a different way. Agent Brown and his captive junkie Russian translator, Milgrim, are on the tail of a Cuban-Chinese Spetsnaz-trained ninja believed (rightly) by the US government to be smuggling information to an unknown entity for an unknown purpose. Brown relies on satellite information to track him, another nod to the ubiquity of information, and keeps Milgrim in the dark about his actual affiliation and intent. Milgrim, an Ativan addict, constantly battles Stockholm’s syndrome. He is a prisoner of that world of information.
In "Spook Country," Gibson takes his time weaving these three storylines together, letting the story of Tito the ninja, Brown and Milgrim, and Hollis build to a conclusion which amounts to a great big middle finger to the war in Iraq. Gibson has crafted a book full of characters looking, literally, for their place in the world, and has shown readers that the world didn’t turn out to be the futurist paradise we might have wanted, validating our inevitable escape into the digital.