If you keyword search "Hubertus Bigend," you'll get some idea of how far the meta-spirals of William Gibson's latest novel, Spook Country, have ramified. Even so, the book suffers from unavoidable comparison with its immediate predecessor, 2003's Pattern Recognition. Both are tightly written literary thrillers set in the same recognizably contemporary world. They share a couple of minor characters and Bigend's viral ad agency, Blue Ant. Most significantly, each novel's protagonist is a culturally acute, transatlantically displaced, and somewhat eccentric woman who finds herself immersed in a conspiratorial world where art, espionage, technology, and fashion mingle.
When it comes to human interaction with technology, Gibson is on the money. This is the contemporary American novel in which we read, "She froze, out of some sort of primeval fear that he'd caught her Googling him, peering into his Wiki"-which is destined to become a charming period detail, akin to Graham Greene's characters struggling to place trunk calls from foreign climes. The novel is peppered with a lavish nostalgia for current and recent tech.
In the earlier novel, Cayce Pollard is a "cool hunter" consulting for brand identity, and Gibson nailed the details with authority. She is more convincing as an American in London than Spook Country's Hollis Henry is as a Brit adrift in Los Angeles. Hollis is a former art-rocker turned journalist; her old band, the Curfew-great name-is supposedly a cult item from the 1990s, but it's hard not to read the band as more of an early-'80s Bauhaus/Gang of Four hybrid, which is the kind of texture Gibson would usually lock down.
She has (perhaps) been hired by a magazine that doesn't yet exist, her unlimited expense account funding her alleged assignment. She's to write a piece on virtual, locative art-holographic sculptures viewable only through special headsets-which depend on GPS technology and generous server space. The same technology is used by intelligence agencies and Hubertus Bigend, with his vast wealth and unfettered curiosity to track a mystery shipping container. Hollis' cult celebrity, rather than her journalistic instinct, is what opens doors and hearts to her; and the Curfew's fans all seem to have grown up to be artists, spies, and tech geeks. Useful.
Hollis, unlike Cayce, shares the novel's limelight with two co-stars, Tito and Milgrim. Tito, a young, keyboard playing Chinese/Cuban martial artist from an old-school spy family, is among Gibson's most sympathetic creations. Many of the Tito-centric passages are described as the actions of his Santerian gods, which works well despite the nonfantastical context.
Milgrim is addicted to prescription anti-anxiety meds. He's also an adept translator of Volapuk, the bastardized Cyrillic the Cubans use to send each other Russian text messages. Obsessed by medieval heresies and how theological memes are dispersed through cultures with slow media, Milgrim finds that his Russian is fading, along with his personality. Not for nothing has Gibson given him a name so nearly, yet not quite, "pilgrim."
All three are tangled in the machinations of people with a hold over them, but the split focus lends the novel an unfortunate, diffuse air. If it hadn't followed Pattern Recognition, Spook Country would be Gibson's most accomplished novel, and his most innovative since Neuromancer broke the cyberpunk mold. As it is, this adept thriller is overshadowed by its more tightly focused and keenly felt predecessor. (Richard Vernon)