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Spook Country Hardcover – August 7, 2007
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Now that the present has caught up with William Gibson's vision of the future, which made him the most influential science fiction writer of the past quarter century, he has started writing about a time--our time--in which everyday life feels like science fiction. With his previous novel, Pattern Recognition, the challenge of writing about the present-day world drove him to create perhaps his best novel yet, and in Spook Country he remains at the top of his game. It's a stripped-down thriller that reads like the best DeLillo (or the best Gibson), with the lives of a half-dozen evocative characters connected by a tightly converging plot and by the general senses of unease and wonder in our networked, post-9/11 time.
Across the Border to Spook Country
For the last few decades, William Gibson, who grew up in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States, has lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, just across the border from Amazon.com's Seattle headquarters, which made for a short drive for a lunchtime interview before the release of Spook Country. We met just a few miles from where the storylines of the new novel, in a rare scene set in Gibson's own city, converge. You can read the full transcript of the interview, in which we discussed, among other things, writing in the age of Google, visiting the Second Life virtual world, the possibilities of science fiction in an age of rapid change, and his original proposal for Spook Country, which we have available for viewing on our site. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Amazon.com: Could you start by telling us a little bit about the scenario of the new book?
William Gibson: It's a book in which shadowy and mysterious characters are using New York's smallest crime family, a sort of boutique operation of smugglers and so-called illegal facilitators, to get something into North America. And you have to hang around to the end of the book to find out what they're doing. So I guess it's a caper novel in that regard.
Amazon.com: The line on your last book, Pattern Recognition was that the present had caught up with William Gibson's future. So many of the things you imagined have come true that in a way it seems like we're all living in science fiction now. Is that the way you felt when you came to write that book, that the real world had caught up with your ideas?
Gibson: Well, I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up. And I found that to absolutely be the case. If I'm going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I'm going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. 'Cause I'm going to have to go beyond that. And I think over the course of these last two books--I don't think I'm done yet--I've been getting a yardstick together. But I don't know if I'll be able to do it again. I don't know if I'll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the '80s and '90s--as strange as it may seem to say this--we had such luxury of stability. Things weren't changing quite so quickly in the '80s and '90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don't have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.
Amazon.com: Now that you're writing about the present, do you consider yourself a science fiction writer these days? Because the marketplace still does.
Gibson: I never really believed in the separation. But science fiction is definitely where I'm from. Science fiction is my native literary culture. It's what I started reading, and I think the thing that actually makes me a bit different than some of the science fiction writers I've met who are my own age is that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Burroughs in the same week. And I started reading Beat poets a year later, and got that in the mix. That really changed the direction. But it seems like such an old-fashioned way of looking at things. And it's better not to be pinned down. It's a matter of where you're allowed to park. If you can park in the science fiction bookstore, that's good. If you can park in the other bookstore, that's really good. If people come and buy it at Amazon, that's really good.
I'm sure I must have readers from 20 years ago who are just despairing of the absence of cyberstuff, or girls with bionic fingernails. But that just the way it is. All of that stuff reads so differently now. I think nothing dates more quickly than science fiction. Nothing dates more quickly than an imaginary future. It's acquiring a patina of quaintness even before you've got it in the envelope to send to the publisher.
Amazon.com: So do you think that's your own career path, that you're less interested in imagining a future, or do you think that the world is changing?
Gibson: I think it's actually both. Until fairly recently, I had assumed that it was me, me being drawn to use this toolkit I'd acquired when I was a teenager, and using my old SF toolkit in some kind of attempt at naturalism, 21st-century naturalistic fiction. But over the last five to six years it's started to seem to me that there's something else going on as well, that maybe we're in what the characters in my novel Idoru call a "nodal point," or a series of them. We're in a place where things could just go anywhere. A couple of weeks ago I happened to read Charlie Stross's argument as to why he believes that there will never, ever be any manned space travel. It's not going to happen. We're not going to colonize Mars. All of that is just a big fantasy. And it's so convincing. I read that and I'm like, "My god, there goes so much of the fiction I read as a child."
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Set in the same high-tech present day as Pattern Recognition, Gibson's fine ninth novel offers startling insights into our paranoid and often fragmented, postmodern world. When a mysterious, not yet actual magazine, Node, hires former indie rocker–turned–journalist Hollis Henry to do a story on a new art form that exists only in virtual reality, Hollis finds herself investigating something considerably more dangerous. An operative named Brown, who may or may not work for the U.S. government, is tracking a young, Russian-speaking Cuban-Chinese criminal named Tito. Brown's goal is to follow Tito to yet another operative known only as the old man. Meanwhile, a mysterious cargo container with CIA connections repeatedly appears and disappears on the worldwide Global Positioning network, never quite coming to port. At the heart of the dark goings-on is Bobby Chombo, a talented but unbalanced specialist in Global Positioning software who refuses to sleep in the same spot two nights running. Compelling characters and crisp action sequences, plus the author's trademark metaphoric language, help make this one of Gibson's best. 8-city author tour. (Aug.)
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There is a goal the characters are working towards (well, some of them). I don't think I should state the goal though because it is kind of the main center of the plot and would give it away (I think. . . ). Other characters motives and drives seem largely enigmatic. Lots of questions raised about the nature of reality, but I wasn't quite sure what the questions were or what the novel had to say about them. My confusion could just be a lack of knowledge about technology and computers and their insidious insinuation into our lives (which is also a theme, I think).
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.