Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



Spook Country by William Gibson








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William Gibson’s new novel, Spook Country, may increase whatever paranoia you feel. The plot is just confusing enough to keep you interested, but not so confusing as to create frustration. A virtual magazine called Node doesn’t quite exist, but its publisher hires a former rock star, protagonist Hollis Henry, to do a story on art that exists only in virtual reality. One thing leads to another as Henry the journalist investigates this genre, and she and readers bump into an artist who uses GPS to create art and to decide where he sleeps every night, a passel of criminals, and a flock of spies. The action intensifies in the interest in the contents of a mysterious cargo container. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 4, “Into the Locative,” pp. 20-24:


The Standard had an all-night restaurant off its lobby—a long, glass-fronted operation with wide booths upholstered in matte-black tuck-and-roll, punc­tuated by the gnarled phalli of half a dozen large San Pedro cacti.

Hollis watched Alberto slide his Pendeltoned mass along the bench opposite hers. Odile was between .Alberto and the window.

"See-bare-espace," Odile pronounced, gnomically, "it is everting."

"Everything'? What is?"

"See-bare-espace;' Odile reaffirmed, "everts." She made a gesture with her hands that reminded Hollis, in some dimly unsettling way, of the crocheted model uterus her Family Life Education teacher had used as an instruc­tional aid.

"Turns itself inside out;' offered Alberto, by way of clarification. "Cyber­space.' Fruit salad and a coffee." This last, Hollis realized after an instant's con­fusion, addressed to their waitress. Odile ordered cafe au lait, Hollis a bagel and coffee. The waitress left them.

"I guess you could say it started on the first of May, 2000' Alberto said. "What did?"

"Geohacking. Or the potential thereof. The government announced then that Selective Availability would be turned off, on what had been, until then, strictly a military system. Civilians could access the GPS geocoordinates for the first time."

Hollis had only vaguely understood from Philip Rausch that what she would be writing about would be various things artists were finding to do with longitude, latitude, and the Internet, so Alberto's virtual rendition of the death of River Phoenix had taken her by surprise. Now she had, she was hoping, the opening to her piece. "How many of those have you done, Alberto?" And were they all posthumous, though she didn't ask that.

"Nine," Alberto said. "At the Chateau Marmont"—he gestured across Sunset—"I've most recently completed a virtual shrine to Helmut Newton. On the site of his fatal crash, at the foot of the driveway. I'll show you that after breakfast?'

The waitress returned with their coffees. Hollis watched as a very young, very pale Englishman bought a yellow pack of American Spirit from the man at the till. The boy's thin beard reminded her of moss around a marble drain. "So the people staying at the Marmont," she asked, "they have no idea, no way of knowing what you've done there?" just as pedestrians had no way of knowing they stepped through the sleeping River, on his Sunset sidewalk.

"No," said Alberto, "none. Not yet?' He was digging through a canvas carryall on his lap. He produced a cell phone, married with silver tape to some other species of smallish consumer electronics. "With these, though . . ." he clicked something on one of the conjoined units, opened the phone, and began deftly thumbing its keypad. "When this is available as a package . ." He passed it to her. A phone, and something she recognized as a GPS unit, but the latter's casing had been partially cut away, with what felt like more electronics growing out of it, sealed under the silver tape.

"What does it do?"

"Look," he said.

She squinted at the small screen. Brought it closer. She saw Alberto's woolen chest, but confused somehow with ghostly verticals, horizontals, a semitransparent Cubist overlay. Pale crosses? She looked up at him.

"This isn't a locative piece," he said. "It's not spatially tagged. Try it on the street?”

She swung the duct-taped hybrid toward Sunset, seeing a crisply defined, perfectly level plane of white cruciforms, spaced as on an invisible grid, receding across the boulevard and into virtual distance. Their square white uprights, approximately level with the pavement, seemed to continue, in increasingly faint and somehow subterranean perspective, back under the rise of the Hollywood Hills.

"American fatalities in Iraq, Alberto said. "I had it connected to a site, originally, that added crosses as deaths were reported. You can take it any­where. I have a slide show of grabs from selected locations. I thought about sending it to Baghdad, but people would assume real grabs on the ground in Baghdad were Photoshopped:' She looked up at him as a black Range Rover drove through the field of crosses, in time to see him shrug.

Odile squinted over the rim of her white breakfast bowl of cafe au lait. "Cartographic attributes of the invisible;' she said, lowering the bowl. "Spa­tially tagged hypermedia:' This terminology seemed to increase her fluency by a factor of ten; she scarcely had an accent now. "The artist annotating every centimeter of a place, of every physical thing. Visible to all, on devices such as these." She indicated Alberto's phone, as if its swollen belly of silver tape were gravid with an entire future.

Hollis nodded, and passed the thing back to Alberto.

Fruit salad and toasted bagel arrived. "And you've been curating this kind of art, Odile, in Paris?"


Rausch was right, she decided. There was something to write about here, though she was still a long way from knowing what it was.

"May I ask you something?" Alberto had gotten through half of his fruit salad already. A methodical eater. He paused, fork in midair, looking at her. "Yes?"

"How did you know the Curfew was over?"

She looked him in the eye and saw deep otaku focus. Of course that tended to be the case, if anyone recognized her as the singer in an early-nineties cult unit. The Curfew's fans were virtually the only people who knew the band had existed, today, aside from radio programmers, pop historians, critics, and col­lectors. With the increasingly atemporal nature of music, though, the band had continued to acquire new fans. Those it did acquire, like Alberto, were often for­midably serious. She didn't know how old he might have been, when the Cur­few had broken up, but that might as well have been yesterday, as far as his fanboy module was concerned. Still having her own fangirl module quite cen­trally in place, for a wide variety of performers, she understood, and thus felt a responsibility to provide him with an honest answer, however unsatisfying.

"We didn't know, really. It just ended. It stopped happening, at some essential level, though I never knew exactly when that happened. It became painfully apparent. So we packed it in."

He looked about as satisfied with that as she'd expected him to be, but it was the truth, as far as she knew, and the best she could do for him. She'd never been able to come up with any clearer reason herself, though it certainly wasn't any­thing she continued to give much thought. `We'd just released that four-song CD, and that was it. We knew. It only took a little while to sink in." Hoping that would be that, she began to spread cream cheese on one half of her bagel.

"That was in New York?"


"Was there a particular moment, some particular place, where you'd say the Curfew broke up? Where the band made the decision to stop being a ' band?"

"I'd have to think about it," she said, knowing that was really not what she should be saying.

"I'd like to do a piece," he said. "You, Inchmale, Heidi, Jimmy. Wherever you were. Breaking up:'

Odile had started shifting on the tuck-and-roll, evidently in the dark as to what they were talking about, and not liking it. "Eenchmale?" She frowned.

"What are we going to see while I'm in town, Odile?" She smiled at Alberto, hoping she signaled Interview Over. "I need your suggestions. I need to ar­range time to interview you;' she said to Odile. "And you too, Alberto. Right now, though, I'm exhausted. I need sleep."

Odile knit her fingers, as well as she could, around the white china bowl. Her nails looked like something with very small teeth had been at them. "This evening, we will pick you up. We can visit a dozen pieces, easily."

"Scott Fitzgerald's heart attack," suggested Alberto. "It's down the street?'

She looked at the crowded, oversized, frantically ornate letters inked in jailhouse indigo down both his arms, and wondered what they spelled. "But he didn't die then, did he?"

"It's in Virgin," he said. "By the world music?”

After they’d had a look at Alberto's memorial to Helmut Newton, which involved a lot of vaguely Deco-styled monochrome nudity in honor of its sub­ject's body of work, she walked back to the Mondrian through that weird, evanescent moment that belongs to every sunny morning in West Hollywood, when some strange perpetual promise of chlorophyll and hidden, warming fruit graces the air, just before the hydrocarbon blanket settles in. .That sense of some peripheral and prelapsarian beauty, of something a little more than a hundred years past, but in that moment achingly present, as though the city were something you could wipe from your glasses and forget.

Sunglasses. She'd forgotten to bring any.

She looked down at the sidewalk's freckling of blackened gum. At the brown, beige, and fibrous debris of the storm. And felt that luminous instant pass, as it always must.


Spook Country is one of those post modern novels that will leave thoughtful readers pondering. The author has been prolific as a science fiction author, and as his time frame has become the present, the difference between science fiction and the daily news has almost disappeared.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2008 issue of Executive Times


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