Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Techno-Novela: William Gibson's Spook Country

In a word: disappointing. William Gibson handles the conceptual aspects of Spook Country, his latest novel, with a surprising lack of deftness. Usually touted as a writer brimming with ideas, this book shows Gibson concerned more with name-checking pop culture ephemera and devices than anything else. More attention is given to the description of the insoles of Adidas GSG-9 boots and cesium bullets than actual story development. The "chapters" are anything but, and give the novel the feel of a technologically-mediated novela on Univision -- an episodic thiller ripe with stereotypes, characters drawn with the broadest brush strokes possible, and lukewarm ideas that leave the reader wanting more.

Unlike his critically-acclaimed previous effort, Pattern Recognition (2003), Gibson's latest founders in a sea of contemporariness vividly rendered through countless cultural references. But, more on the object-oriented aspects of Spook Country. The emphasis on locative media, visors, bullets, black coats, shoes, et cetera reads as a combination of Bruce Sterling, John Seabrook, and Naomi Klein. Gibson's objects act as part of a post-capitalist dingpolitik (to borrow Bruno Latour's borrowing of Martin Heidegger's idea). One would expect a anti-neo-liberal spin: the media übermogul should be the bad guy, yet is the unseen hand that manipulates the narrative's aprocryphal puppet strings. But once Hubertus Bigend's ideas and work is sanctioned, the narrative loses teeth. Once gets the sense of "Bigend is behind all of it ... ho hum."

The novel is also touted as an example of Gibson's new take on science fiction, a variation on the shibboleth that truth is stranger than fiction. Stranger indeed, but many of the ideas that Gibson presents have historical, artistic, and literary antecedents. These antecedents seem to deal with such ideas in more interesting ways than Gibson's. For example, the idea of Latourian dingpolitik reaches a chilling denouement in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Locative media find much more satisfying results in the work of Shimon Attie or Krzysztof Wodiczko. These artists' work questions the very meaning of, as well as the potentialities, of locative art.

Shimon Attie (American, b. 1957) At the Coliseum (Looking Towards the Arch of Titus), on location slide projection, Rome, Italy, Lambda Photograph, from The History of Another (2003) (via Jack Shainman Gallery)

Some of the "cooler" gadgets have also seen previous lives in the narratives of sci-fi classics. Take, for instance, Garreth's and Tito's guns. The use of a specially designed gun with vaporized (or pneumatic) projectiles is a nod to Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. Again, more instances of "Been there, done that."

But perhaps the most serious flaws in the book are the general lack of interest it generates in some of its more important concepts. The narrative's own fascination with locative media becomes undeveloped and uninteresting in the end. A wildly fascinating art form is rendered meaningless and fleeting in Gibson's narrative. In addition to creating some wholly unbelievable characters (read: Sarah Ferguson, who seems to know about Chombo mathematical software), Gibson always seems to lobotomize some of the best aspects of his stories. This is a repeat offense, for in Pattern Recognition, two of the book's most poignant moments are treated off-handedly. One involves a video rendering-cum-prison in northcentral Russia. The other, an excavation of an Operation Barbarossa-era Junkers Ju-87 dive bomber.

The total unbelievability of Spook Country runs counter to many reviews of the book. Such verbage claims that the book is an example of how "scary" the contemporary world is, et cetera. If this is the case, and it is, then how is Gibson positioning himself to illuminate this idea? My guess is that he isn't.


Adrian said...

I was a little bored by SC, but I loved PR

Joy said...

I was also disappointed in Spook Country. My response was less eloquent than yours, I just thought about getting old and what happens when one has been on a very nice cutting edge and then just becomes stale. Is this what happened to Cyberpunk? You're right that the book felt rather juvenile and the characters were a tad flat, more like fantasies of themselves than characters. I am not sure how fascinating locative media are, I can tell I am getting old when I am more concerned about the potential use of gps on my cell to totally inundate my life with targeted advertisements rather than any liberating artistic expression.

I didn't really understand his choice to emphasize the government in this book either, because, wasn't the government ultimately the bad guys? Wasn't the container being moved around by some Cheney-like character? That just seemed odd to me.

So, what would we have Gibson write? Or, if his time has passed, Gibson 2.0. Something more to do with the increasing stratification between the global rich and the global poor? The jet-setting dubai to houston haliburton types compared with those who can't afford to flee new orleans or darfur even in an emergency situation? Or perhaps, the tale of a google-like company who starts out as the anti-microsoft and ends up as the king of surveillance? You could call it, The Voluntary Prisoners of Facebook? I mean, I know that's dark, but the darkness of cyberpunk was a large part of its appeal, no? Or am I just old to be asking such questions?

Well, got to go camping now. But I look forward to chatting with you in the future! Hope your transition to Pton is going / goes well.

Juke said...

Unless you recognize the "8½" potential in the container-full-of-money which is, or becomes, the whole movie by the end of the book, I don't think you can come down on Gibson's ability to do what he set out to do, or even what that was.
Writing a book in which the protagonists and antagonists both are chasing a container-full-of-money has a fairly large slapstick component built right in. Elevating that chase to a get-it/destroy it conflict makes it more operatic but doesn't lose the light farce entirely.
Not that I thought Gibson's intent was comedy at all, but he's a complicated guy.
What's missing from Spook Country is that flow of magazine-ready techno-porn and gritty near-future hyper-realist texture that's, let's be honest, what makes a lot of his writing addictive. I miss it too.
But Gibson once described himself as more of a poet than a novelist. Maybe the poem isn't as clear as it seems at first reading.

Heather said...

so i must be missing something but what happens to the canister of money???