A Fast-Paced Take on Familiar Motifs in William Gibson’s Latest

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Like cool-hunter Cayce Pollard of 2002’s “Pattern Recognition,” science-fiction author William Gibson has built a reputation for tapping into digital possibilities before they become tomorrow’s zeitgeist with unnervingly prophetic accuracy. For 1984’s “Neuromancer,” this entailed frightening projections of the potential of “cyberspace,” a term coined by the author years before the heyday of AOL, and a term which now feels worn into the cultural fabric, ringing with an amount of nostalgia akin to referring to the downtown multiplex as the “cinema.”

Writing the future may be rife with possibility, but when the eras they predict come to fruition, they run the risk of becoming dated commentaries of the time in which they were writtten. As such, it’s no surprise that Gibson’s newer work, “Pattern Recognition” and now “Spook Country,” aim precisely to revel in that zeitgeisty goodness of the present tense.

“Pattern Recognition” set itself in a post-9/11 Europe—essentially the complex if not hallucinogenic realization of the digital age that “Neuromancer” predicted: The Internet has become a vehicle of mass consumption and communication, and with it, the advent of digital subculture and “virtual reality” in the most literal sense. Many have noted that in it’s focus on viral video technology, the novel not only predicted the rise of YouTube, but the fetishistic tendencies it invited en masse, in instances such as the LonelyGirl15 phenomenon.

“Spook Country,” which takes place in world of “Pattern Recognition,” is an expansion upon its predecessor’s themes of the dubious concepts of digital reality and the ease at which its anonymity and exchange of information can be exploited.

The exploiters, in this case, are manifested in Hubertus Bigend, the phallic-named head of the Blue Ant advertising firm, and the only significant recurring character between the two novels. In “Spook Country,” Bigend is facilitating the launch of a magazine called Node—a European knock-off of Wired, as indie rocker-turned-reporter Hollis Henry tells inquirers, with endearing derision. Hollis is on the trail of a story about the real-life up and coming trend of locative art—three-dimensional, virtual renderings (including recreations of the death of River Phoenix and a heart attack suffered by F. Scott Fitzgerald) that create multi-layered quilts of perception that one of the artists compares to flipping through television channels.

The concept is vintage Gibson, while the execution is decidedly less so. When the facilitator of the wireless networks hosting the locative art disappears, Hollis suddenly finds herself in the midst of a larger narrative involving a specialist Cuban-Chinese crime family, drug addicts and possible

government agents—essentially two more narrative perspectives that Gibson rotates between in the novel’s short, crisp chapters. This certainly lends itself to intricate action sequences; “Spook Country” has a few more chase scenes than you might expect, though in going for quantity, the character depth of “Pattern Recognition” becomes missed. Some chapters feel intermediary. Character A follows Character B, who can’t find Character C, and at it’s worst, Gibson feels like he’s methodically moving chess pieces.

So maybe it’s not as memorable as its predecessor, but this is also a different kind of story, and to be fair, “Spook Country” is a pretty good caper—perhaps the first Gibson work that feels like it could translate to the big screen. Furthermore, some of the book’s most interesting aspects are its most subtle. By setting his tale in February 2006—a past that’s still fresh within living memory, Gibson taps into a rewarding commentary on the transient nature of technology: Tower Records is used as a geographical marker on Sunset, the characters all tote soon to be obsolete PowerBooks, and the iPod has started to become a medium for transporting stolen media (besides music).

It’s a wryly humorous side of Gibson that surfaces in “Spook Country,” one that seems to poke fun at his own legacy when characters use terms like “virtual reality” like it’s an artifact of a simpler time, before technology has evolved faster than its human architects.

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