Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

General, Reckons, Reviews

Everyone who read Gibson’s earlier work, and isn’t a blinkered fanboy, knows that he wrote some fun dark future scifi, with little regard for any sort of reality. Which is fine I guess, it’s not an encyclopedia, but I’ve read an interview with Gibson in which he was quite blunt about being wilfully ignorant about technology – saying that reality would restrict his imagination. This was pretty much bullshit, let’s be honest. Gibson made his name, his reputation, and no doubt a small pile of money from that crap – completely obsessed with “virtual reality” when that was well past it’s use-by date. (Which I enjoyed, so don’t think I’m saying it’s awful damn rubbish when I use the shorthand term ‘crap’.)

In 2003 Gibson reinvented himself with the release of his novel Pattern Recognition, which was set in the then distant future of the previous year, 2002. He completely nailed it and wrote a vastly more accessible story which was still entertaining for SF fans (if I can use myself as the yardstick, which perhaps is risky). If I recall correctly, even Claire liked it enough to read it through – though I don’t think she liked it much more than that.

This year, Gibson has continued with the new modus operandi with the release of Spook Country, set in the distant future of 2006. It plays out in the same universe as Pattern Recognition, there is even a limited amount of character overlap – for instance Belgian PR/marketing/media guy and all around cloak & dagger impressario Hubertus Bigend plays rather a large role in both. Gibson has allowed a degree of the old virtual reality stuff to feature – in the form of augmented reality stuff, but I think we can for the most part ignore that.

The thing about virtual reality is this: a lot of people occupy ‘virtual’ 3D spaces on the internet today – and have done for years – but none of them use head mounted displays or goggles or anything of that nature. They do it on their monitor, on their TV, or on their laptop. It’s been possible to get display goggles for a decade at least, but nobody does because not only do they look unbelievably stupid but they really don’t make the experience significantly different from just using a decent monitor.

So, with that in mind, perhaps it’s time to move on from featuring ‘virtual reality’ as part of any of these stories. If you’re not in the remote future, VR sucks. Also, if you make a movie that features VR you’ve got to avoid, like AIDS up the bum, having your characters making hand gestures in mid air. That shit is ridiculous. Don’t do it in the movies, and don’t do it in the books either, OK?

So, Spook Country. The story is a former minor music starlet and now wannabe journalist bumps her way to the truth of a story that Bigend has sent her on. Of course, along the way she has to discover first that Bigend is even involved, and then just who he is, and then what he really wants. She also meets the other players involved, old school politicos, hipster artists and the psychologically damaged technophile that enables them to create their ‘locative art’ (computer generated 3d models that only exist in a specific geographic location, visible only when used with particular apparatus – that’s right, VR goggles), and a Cuban/Chinese kid who practices a made up version of Systema that makes him almost superhuman.

Incidentally, what Gibson calls Systema isn’t what the rest of the world calls Systema. The Gibson Systema is awesomely cool, incorporating free running/parquar, martial arts, and a hyper paranoid Cold-War style tradecraft. While the “real” Systema is complete bullshit, including bull shit martial art favourite: the no touch knock out. When the number one practitioner on YouTube is a fat guy in a jersey… you can guess the rest.

It’s a reasonably gentle, highly accessible, and well crafted story – not much really happens, but it’s fun getting there, wherever there is. I recommend you to get a copy next time you find yourself in a bookshop.