28 May 2009

Review: Spook Country by William Gibson

My boss and I have often talked about William Gibson's books at work – he's a big fan of both cyberpunk and steampunk and though I know very little about either, I do have at least a passing interest in them and enough knowledge of Gibson's older books to have a conversation about them. He'd recently listened to an audiobook of Gibson's most recent novel, Spook Country, but hadn't really liked it. He didn't really articulate what he disliked about it, but since we had the book for sale in our store, I decided to pick it up and find out for myself.

Spook Country follows three characters who eventually come together on different sides of a plot involving spies and a secret cargo container that everyone seems to want and no one seems able to find. Hollis Henry, recently employed by a not-quite-existent magazine called Node, is writing a story about locative art, a kind of high-tech art form that requires goggles to can tap into and display the virtual art. While interviewing Bobby Chombo, a producer of sorts for the art movement, she accidentally discovers a piece of his own locative art, displaying a cargo container, which he very much did not want her to see.

Opening paragraph:
"Rausch," said the voice in Hollis Henry's cell. "Node," it said.
She turned on the bedside lamp, illuminating the previous evening's empty can of Asahi Draft, from the Pink Dot, and her sticker-encrusted PowerBook, closed and sleeping. She envied it.

This book really defied all my expectations. I came into it expecting what I expect when I think of William Gibson: futuristic science fiction. Instead, I found myself reading a thriller, a spy thriller I suppose, taking place more or less in the present day. (I don't recall if there's any specific dates mentioned, but it's post-September 11, 2001 and there are still PowerBooks and iPods and life seems more or less as we know it.) I found it disconcerting because the things I thought were going to be important – the locative art I mentioned before and the GPS technology used to position it – were of nearly no importance in the story. It's part of the framework of how Hollis Henry winds up in Vancouver on the trail of a mysterious cargo container, but it's ultimately not that important.

Still, I enjoyed the story once I could stop waiting for something strange and science fictiony to happen. The mystery of it was interesting – why does anyone care about that cargo box, why do so many people care about it, what's in it – and the ultimate reason Bobby Chombo's employers are seeking out the container and their response to finding it is simultaneously anti-climactic and entertaining. (I wish I could say what I think of their response, but I couldn't really without spoiling too much.) In any case, I found it an engaging story, and a fairly quick read.

William Gibson is probably best known for his novel Neuromancer, but he's also published several other novels and books of short stories, including Pattern Recognition and Burning Chrome. William Gibson's website and blog can be found here.

Gibson, William. Spook Country. Toronto: Berkley, 2009.
Finished: 04 May 09
Rating: 4 of 5 Mongolian Death Worms
This was my 1st book in May and my 15th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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