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Spook Country by Gibson, William (2009) Mass Market Paperback Mass Market Paperback – March 31, 2009
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Spook Country, while good, was not his best work by a long shot.
In other books, I feel that cyberpunk "edge," be it in the characters, in the technology or topics discussed, etc. In this one, the technology aspect revolves around GPS and "locative art." Locative art was a new concept to me, just as some of the other concepts were new to me when I read the other books, but with the others, I came out caring and interested - with this one, I didn't care about locative art. It just didn't add anything or bring that edge with it that I expected.
The characters in the book were decent, though I felt like maybe there were too many, or the ones that were there didn't have enough depth. The main character I cared about, but the others I just didn't. Some were intriguing and I wanted to know more, but it just wasn't delivered.
The plot was reminiscent of something from a Robert Ludlum novel, but without the page-turning action. There were spies, people with no names doing dead-drops of information for other folks to pick up, and tailing people, but you didn't get the action that it felt like the plot warranted.
The three key things that bugged me:
1) Gibson's writing style has changed such that, you'll see, he writes in very long, winding, complex sentences with lots of adjectives and commas, and maybe an odd metaphor thrown in, so that, by the time you reach the end of the sentence, which is really a paragraph in-and-of-itself, you'll have forgotten what he was talking about at the beginning. (Just like that.)
2) By the time the climax comes, you're expecting something really cool to happen, but it doesn't. You work all the way through the book to get to this one particular event, it happens, and... poof. It's done, nothing comes of it, and you don't care. It's like the event never happened at all. (Which, admittedly, is sort of a theme here - it's spies doing things under the radar, so you don't notice. But the climax? Come on, throw me a bone!)
3) In many of his other books, Gibson throws in references to vodou-based religions and gods. Sometimes it's just an aspect of a character, sometimes it has to do directly with the plot, but in all cases it weaves in reasonably well with the story. This time, too, there are vodou references, but they don't make any sense. They stick out there as a distraction, like an afterthought - "Oh, crap, I finished the book but didn't throw any vodou in there!" I kept wondering where it was going, just to find out that it didn't have anything to do with anything.
In the end, I did like the book, but if you haven't read any Gibson before, start with Neuromancer instead.
Spook Country follows three characters -- Hollis, the former lead singer of a semi-successful indie rock band, Tito, the young member of a Cuban "boutique" crime family, and Milgrim, an addict who has somehow fallen in with a mysterious intelligence agent called Brown. All are swept up into the search for a cargo container that keeps shuffling around the GPS grid, a search that will eventually lead them to converge in a single place.
McGuffins are nothing new to Gibson's novels, used primarily as a vehicle for exploring societal shifts, and the shipping container in Spook Country is no exception. In this case, however, he uses a McGuffin to examine the impact of computer-generated worlds on our own perception of reality, the atemporal nature of celebrity (including an interesting mediation on the trust that people are willing to invest in celebrities, who would otherwise be strangers to them), Iraq war profiteering, Bush-era paranoia and the infusion of pagan religion into contemporary Catholicism.
There is a startling array of threads and ideas spun out of Gibson's mystery shipping container, and although the ending is not as satisfying as his past works, the ideas he brings up are definite worth exploring.
This may not be Gibson's best book (I'm still partial to Virtual Light), but it's certainly an entertaining and thought-provoking of life in the mid-oughties. Definitely recommended to both old fans and novices alike.
Top international reviews
I loved it, especially having enjoyed 'Pattern Recognition' shortly before. I'd recommend 'Pattern Recognition' first to give added depth, but it's by no means essential: 'Spook Country' can stand on its own merits perfectly well. I'm looking forward to moving on to 'Mona Lisa Overdrive' next as a return to the original sci-fi series (it's in my Kindle already).
Compared to earlier works though, possibly a bit lower-key : less fantastical and more in the real world, near-present-day.
Actually it's more like three different worlds, which only gradually connect.
I actually rather missed his stronger SF content though : Although revolutionary social implications of technology are referenced, they aren't delivered, and that isn't at all what the book is really about : Its a more standard novel with character-based purpose : A beautifully described, cunningly interwoven story about different cultures and people.
If nominally it's a thriller, then the actual plot is a bit of an anticlimax IMHO. Again, maybe not what it is really for.
The somewhat weary and jaded atmosphere, and uncertainty of values and purpose are probably the real point, which it where it connects with "Pattern Recognition" for me.
The "style over substance" label others have applied probably sticks, but I still found it enjoyable and it will stick in my memory.
I will surely read it again, but that will be a quite different experience.
I love William Gibson's writing, so anything I put here would be biased. I could recommend it but it may not be to your taste at all - how would I know?
Some of the old Gibson is still there in this book, like separate characters converging at the end. However, the plot is thin & weak, and characters are just wandering in and out of rooms and cities without much to do or even say.
All we learn in the first 300 pages is that there is a container on a ship somewhere that interests a lot of people. It is only in the last 30 pages or so that things develop from there, when one of the shady characters decides to confide in our heroine (whom he has never seen before - huh?) and finally tells her (and us) what is going on. So now we know what is in the container and why these guys are after it, and the book ends soon afterwards. OK then.
The only character that is remotely interesting is the junkie, whose contribution to the plot is translating several sentences from a form of written Russian in latin alphabet. He is the only one with a credible inner world, thoughts and ideas. Gibson actually uses him on several occasions to voice his own thoughts on US stance on torture (blurted out when he was high), war on Iraq, etc.
In all, a disappointing book for those of us who know about Gibson's masterpieces. Perhaps he is getting old. Or maybe he should go back to writing about the future.
Is there nothing William Gibson can't bring life to? It seems not. I've been reading his books since I read Count Zero out of sequence in 1990, and I've been hooked ever since. Amazing stuff, as always.
Buy the paperback, not the Kindle edition. At least all the words will be Gibson's, rather than a dopey OCR robot's.