"Spook Country" takes place in the same universe as Gibson's excellent Pattern Recognition, and the Blue Ant agency with its mover and shaker Hubertus Bigend who moved stealthily behind scenes in that novel figures prominently in this one as well. Thus, comparisons are almost inevitable. I have to say that I liked the new offering significantly less, although it's still a very enjoyable read, especially for a fan.
"Spook Country" brings the virtual reality (or something closely resembling that) out of the confines of the cyber and into the realspace. Instead of VR there is a seamless blend of digital images and physical space, anchored using Internet and the GPS grid. It seems like the real life caught up: Gibson stopped writing future fantasies as what is actually happening (or just about to happen, anyway) is more interesting than the s-f visions.
In the plot of "Spook Country" Hollis Henry is researching locative art for an European version of Wired (but nobody has heard of that title at all). The art in question is brought to life by a hacker Bobby Chombo, sought by the artists who want their digital images to appear in exact positions to recreate old events or bring fantasy into the reality. Bobby never sleeps in the same GPS grid square twice and apart from suspending (digital) images of flying squids in (real) Tokyo streets, he has a hand in tracking a mysterious container that has been travelling on the high seas for months.
Tito's family have been trained as spies and forgers in Cuba, and make good use of these skills and protocols, mixed with Yoruba spirituality mixed with Zen-like systema for controlling the body. Tito's been recently handing over data-carrying iPods to a mysterious American who can speak Russian.
Milgrim is a benzo-addict who has been pulled out of his milieu by a certain Brown (possibly an agent, possibly a criminal) in order to translate text messages sent in Volapuk.
All three main characters of the Spook Country start off ignorant: for various reasons they just do their part and either don't want to or don't have the opportunity to inquire about the bigger picture. It's Hollis, spurred on by Hubertus Bigend that will, eventually, see this picture, but even her knowledge will remain private - in the realm of the Spook Country - until the right time comes to reveal it.
Hollis Henry is, to an extent, also a celebrity: at the minimum a face that people tend to recognise, and, some people, relate to on a level deeper than one would normally do to a stranger. Despite the narration being balanced between the three points of view, to me "Spook Country" was very much Hollis's book; perhaps because hers was the first and the last word. Hers was also the story that was most strongly anchored to the traditional Gibsonian lands where the cyber and physical reality meld and intertwine.
I enjoyed Tito's point of view very much, with its alien (and occasionally otherworldly) blend of spy techniques, martial arts philosophy and Yoruban orishas, it was a compelling and convincing vision. I think "Spook Country" would have been a better novel without Milgrim's narration, though. Yes, it was a well done study of a benzo-addicted mind, but I didn't feel it had any necessary connection to the whole.
The setting is firmly North American (USA and Canada) and the language taken from marketing speech, IT and neuroscience is less striking than it was in "Pattern Recognition" and almost commonplace. It's still well written, with moments of heart-stopping clarity of vision and this special brand of perception that's at the same time detached and emotional that seems to often characterise Gibson's characters.
What "Spook Country" lacks most, perhaps, in comparison with "Pattern Recognition", is a feeling of touching the pulse of here-and-now (or even tomorrow), smelling the spirit of the day which I had very strongly when reading Gibson's previous. Nevertheless, as a stylish entertainment with an IT bent and an attempt to comment on the nature of secrecy, celebrity and fame in the modern world, "Spook Country" works very well.
Viking hardback, 384 pages, paperback out in June 2008
This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk.
The review copy was sent by the publisher - thank you!