"Spook Country" by William Gibson; Putnam; 371 pages; $26.
The opening lines of William Gibson's "Neuromancer" (1984), the hyperspaced novel-rocket that launched cyberpunk, mention, not quite casually, a paper-thin fragment of rusted-out metal. For Gibson, physical objects are at best transitory - placeholders, maybe, will-o'-the-wisp suggestions that an idea once coalesced at a certain time (subjective) and place (ditto).
The cyberpunk literary movement has gone its own way pretty much without Gibson, whose fiction, which began Out There Somewhere, has been carving out an asymptotic approach to the here (see parenthetical, above) and now (ditto ditto). He even made a Great Leap Backward in "The Difference Engine" (1991), co-written with Bruce Sterling, which postulated a Victorian England run not by paper-pushing scriveners but by proto computer geeks manning a Difference Engine, a mechanical computer designed by mathematician Charles Babbage, but never actually built.
|TIME HAS COME - William Gibson bends time and much more in 'Spook Country.' CNS Photo. |
"Spook Country," his ninth novel, takes place mostly in Los Angeles and New York sometime in the early years of the 21st century. (When is that no longer going to sound futuristic?) Hollis Henry had her 13 or 14 minutes of fame in the 1990s, fronting an avant-garde band that has since become a cult fave. It's a very small cult, though, and she's now a freelance journalist, just arrived in L.A. to interview artist Alberto Corrales, whose work - he re-creates famous death scenes, in situ - can only be viewed in virtual reality: On the sidewalk outside the Viper Room, wearing Corrales' specially adapted visor, Hollis sees his re-creation of the overdosed River Phoenix.
Corrales is somewhat elusive, but not nearly as elusive as his "producer," Bobby Chombo, who fashions the software that allows Corrales' installations to manifest themselves in the correct location. GPS is somehow involved, and also involves and entwines Chombo, whose computer-littered warehouse is divided into precise grids; he sleeps in a different grid every night. Why? Can it have anything to do with the mysterious - and dangerous? - cargo container he's been tracking through the South China Sea? Before Hollis can find out, Chombo changes locations altogether, and vanishes.
But Hollis is skating on thin electrons herself. She's been given the assignment, and a healthy advance and expense account, by Node, soon to be an online magazine that seems to aspire to becoming a European version of Wired. But it's been keeping so low a profile that no one, not even Hollis' in-the-know contacts, has ever heard of it.
Meanwhile, on the right coast, there's Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese fluent in Russian, a foot soldier in a shady family organization with roots deep in Castro's Cuba. Their business is facilitating others' crimes, which brings him smack up against Brown, who's some kind of cop ... maybe. Brown and his cohorts, whoever they might be, are tracking Tito with the grudging help of the pitiful Milgrim, who's adept at translating the Russian phone-messaging codes used by Tito's family. Milgrim, addicted to Rize, a drug only Brown seems to able to supply, is hauled around Manhattan like a zoned-out rag doll, until he starts to come to what's left of his senses. There's something about a cargo container that means big money and big trouble ...
But what's in it? And, oddly more to the point, where - whatever that means - is it?
Gibson is a kind of meteorological prose wizard; he conjures atmosphere out of thin you-know-what. Setting his opening scene in late night/early morning Santa Ana-ish L.A.: "The air was full of the dry and stinging detritus of the palms. ...
"The street was empty as that moment in the film just prior to Godzilla's first footfall. Palms straining, the very air shuddering, and Hollis, now hooded blackly, striding determinedly on. Sheets of newspaper and handouts from clubs tumbled past her ankles."
Not that he can't sling zinger dialogue: "Secrets are cool. Secrets are the very essence of cool."
"Spook Country" is a thriller discernible only by its thin vapor trails; determining the precise paths followed by its various threads is probably impossible and most assuredly beside the point. What Gibson has in fact zeroed in on - in four dimensions and counting - is this instant in our species' geometrically accelerating history, a chilly flashpoint intersection of mind, body, place, time and (say it) cyberspace. Quite a boon, that this novel, this high-speed, high-res ethnography, has appeared here and now. Whatever, remember, that means.
- Arthur Salm