William Gibson is justifiably renowned as one of the key founders of the now vast realm of cyberpunk. His 1984 novel Neuromancer was a foundation stone for a new style of futuristic fiction; high tech but gritty. The opening line of the novel said it all: “The sky above the port was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel.”
In Gibson’s world voodoo met with artificial intelligence. It was a dark realm of worrisome virtual realities. It was a soaring burst of imagination that, at the time, had no equivalent.
Since that time Gibson has gradually been re-inventing himself, coming closer to the present day with each book. His latest, Spook Country (Penguin/Viking), is very much placed in the here and now, resonant with references to 9/11, the Iraq war and corruption within the current American administration. At heart it is a thriller, without the flourishes of remarkable futurism that marked Gibson’s earlier works and as such it will be a disappointment to those hoping for the surreal leaps of vision in his earlier works. But Spook Country remains resolutely a Gibson book, replete with references to the gods and goddesses of voodoo belief. Here the iPod meets the goddess Ochun and a drug called RIZE clashes with the muscular, athletic god Oshosi.
The promotional blurb for Spook Country claims that the novel is “J.G. Ballard meets John Le Carré”, but the novel is far too American for it to fit into such a bizarre English context. One suspects that the Canadian-born Gibson is more influenced by the paranoiac sci-fi of Philip K. Dick and the stylistic tropes of Raymond Chandler, both denizens of Los Angeles where much of the novel is set.
Sense of place is a major aspect of Spook Country. Elements of LA and New York City are captured brilliantly. As one of the key protagonists, the youthful Cuban exile Tito, sprints through Canal Street in New York one can envisage the setting immediately. But although this is New York post-9/11 – a fact that is central to the story – Gibson fails to capture the sense of displacement many New Yorkers still feel, a sensation rendered palpable in Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Falling Man.
Like DeLillo, Gibson uses an artist as one of his triggers to get the action rolling, in this case an artist who uses a kind of virtual reality recreation of past events such as the death of River Pheonix. The artwork is the ostensible subject of a feature story for a not-yet existent magazine called Node to be written by a former indie-rock singer Hollis Henry. It rapidly becomes apparent that Node will probably never exist and its’ supposed publisher is seeking something else entirely. Running parallel to this story are the mysterious goings on of a group of Cubans, especially the athletic Tito who summons the aid of Ochun and Oshosi when necessary, a CIA-type thug and a drug addled character called Milgrim.
Central to the book is the “producer” Bobby Chombo, a paranoid and reclusive troubleshooter for manufacturers of military navigation equipment who refuses to sleep in the same place twice. Hollis Henry has been told by her editor to find him but not told why.
With his sprawling matrix of characters the narrative moves along at break-neck pace. Mis-information transfer run by the Cubans – often via iPod – constantly misleads shadow-agents of the government. Also central is the fortune of American cash set aside to help re-build Iraq that has been pirated away for other, unspecified, but clearly corrupt, uses.
At times Gibson’s narrative soars, at others it is dogged down by slightly lame character development. It is ideal Winter reading but fails to claim anything like the cultural potency of Neuromancer.