As our i-This, e-That reality edges ever nearer to the tightly wound digital world that William Gibson forecasted in 1984’s seminal cyberpunk epic Neuromancer, it seems the author himself is enthusiastically working his way back from the future. His ninth novel, only his second set in the present day, finds the man who coined the word cyberspace as clearly enamored with the manifestations of technology in our time as he ever was with the distant, neon-lit horizon.
Spook Country is ostensibly concerned with espionage. Three uniquely skilled individuals are drafted by competing covert organizations to cross the North American continent in search of a mysterious bulk-freight container. The box’s contents — WMDs, perhaps? — remain a puzzle until the climax and reflect the author’s hypersensitivity to post-9/11 security issues. What pops from the narrative, though, is Gibson’s fascination with cool contemporary stuff. As his protagonists begin their extravagantly pricey search, he painstakingly contrasts the Philippe Starck decor in L.A.’s Mondrian hotel to the more bombastic interior of the Standard. He liberally name-checks PowerBooks, iPods, Wikipedia, Volkswagen Phaetons, and hip clothing brands Paul Stuart and A.P.C. And he lavishes extra attention on Wired-inspired goodies like magnetic levitating beds, luxurious customized Maybachs, and Adidas GSG9 boots. (Google all three; they exist.) If this book gets optioned for the big screen, somebody’s going to clean up on product placement.
Disturbingly, Gibson’s characters often just feel like higher-tech automatons with useful features: Tito is a Cuban-Chinese smuggler with catlike agility. Milgrim is a benzodiazepine addict who’s also an expert Russian translator. Hollis Henry is a former member of a Nirvana-like rock band turned journalist. (Details like age, background, and appearance are either omitted or left oddly vague.) These people-bots, albeit flowing with wry thoughts about their increasingly unlikely situations, don’t seem to make many actual choices. Rather, external forces and cagey operatives push and pull them along. Tito even imagines ancient spirits fuel his backflips.
Powerful ad agency founder Hubertus Bigend — a holdover from Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition — hires Hollis to locate the container. As larger-than-life a player as his name suggests, Bigend purports to be more string-puller than puppet, but his involvement is never satisfactorily explained beyond his voracious appetite for ”intelligence.” ”I’ve learned to value anomalous phenomena,” he tells Hollis. ”Very peculiar things that people do, often secretly, have come to interest me.” If only Gibson studied human behavior as closely, his characters might exceed their gadgets.