Mediating the Immediate: William Gibson’s Spook Country

I once spent several years accidentally stalking William Gibson. I would wander into a bookstore, and that hauntingly familiar nasal drawl would fill my ears once again: him reading, live and in person, on tour with a new book. Virtual Light in the House of Speculative Fiction in Ottawa; Idoru in Cody’s Books in Berkeley; All Tomorrow’s Parties in the Union Square B&N in New York. I managed to escape the Pattern Recognition tour only by the extreme expedient of moving to a new country every few months in 2003/04.

But me ‘n’ Bill, we go even further back. In 1987, at the tender age of 14, I was exiled from Canada to France for a month, sans my family. I wound up with only five minutes to buy a book for the flight, so I grabbed one with a weirdly pixellated blue-and-white cover and a blurb that proclaimed it, “The book of the year! Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards!” I still have that paperback copy of Neuromancer, and every time I see it, I am reminded, on some faint atavistic level, of just how thoroughly it blew my mind.

I used to call him my only buy-on-sight author. But while I liked Pattern Recognition, it didn’t leave me wanting more, so I didn’t buy Spook Country until I picked up a remaindered hardcover just a few weeks ago. (Sorry, Bill.) And for fifty pages I was disappointed. Oh, its sentences were superb, its humour barbed, its notions interesting; but in toto it felt like one of those intricately designed, perfectly machined, and ultimately soulless clockwork devices that so frequently obsess Gibson’s characters. The author seemed consumed by his own metastasizing tropes. But a funny thing happened on the way to Vancouver.

I’m not sure when exactly I got drawn through the story mechanisms into the story, but I know it was the people who dragged me there. Even back in his cyberpunk-prophet days, I found Gibson’s people as interesting as his ideas; and to this day, beneath the shimmering chitinous sheen of his prose, his characters are far more real and alive than most. Particularly Tito and Hollis, in Spook Country. I think what put me off at the first was the theme of the book: mediation.

Three stories converge. Hollis Henry (an echo of the Sally Stanley brand in Count Zero?) is a journalist assigned by a nonexistent magazine to write about “locative art”; GPS-triggered augmented-reality headsets that allow you to see River Phoenix’s corpse superimposed on the L.A. street where he died, or fields of flowers in your hotel room. Milgrim is a translator kidnapped by a mysterious thug and kept less by force than the thug’s ready supply of the drug Rize to which Milgrim is addicted. Tito is a Cuban refugee, scion of generations of spies, whose tradecraft is expressed as possession by Santerian spirits. Art, drugs, religion; filters that mediate reality. Books, too—and few are as self-aware of this as Spook Country.

Its only major character who has wholly real, immediate, and unmediated experiences is Hollis—but she’s the former singer of The Curfew, a Pixies-esque once-cult now-famous rock band; and so everyone’s experience of her is filtered through her fame, and the iconic Anton Corbijn photo of her in a tweed miniskirt. (Corbijn gets a reality-blurring mention in the book’s acknowledgments.) She soon discovers that she’s really working for Hubertus Bigend, the fixer and shit-stirrer from Pattern Recognition, a man who sleeps on a magnetically levitated bed and mediates his world with his obscene wealth. Meanwhile, Tito spreads disinformation with judiciously misplaced iPods while Milgrim’s kidnapper tries to use Tito to find a bigger prize.

The MacGuffin that everyone wants is a shipping container full of … something … first discovered by pirates in the Straits of Malacca. It has since been continually airlifted from one vessel to another, always staying in international waters, never reaching port; an echo of the garbage ship from DeLillo’s Underworld. (And container shipping too is a form of mediation; the filtering and packetization of trade.) But this Flying Dutchman of containers is making its way to land at last. Hollis, Milgrim, and Tito converge on its destination. There’s a radioactive briefcase—a sniper rifle—an attempted murder…

…and a thorough anticlimax. Story has never been that important to Gibson, and in Spook Country he expertly constructs a suspense-laden, pulse-pounding thriller narrative around an event that is ultimately little more than an elaborate prank, puckish vengeance fuelled by a rage that already seems dated. (The book is set in 2006.) But I suppose a less indirect climax would have been inappropriate in a novel that is in large part about how we filter and mediate the world’s endless raucous streams of data and events. It’s a stunning novel nonetheless, gripping and haunting and thought-provoking, the work of a grandmaster at the top of his game. I can promise you that I will buy his next book Zero History on sight. That is, if he doesn’t find me first.


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