Spook Country

By William Gibson

Putnam. 371 pp. $25.95

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Even the most poetic authors tend to sound like corporate tech-manual writers when describing activity on message boards, social networks, or BlackBerry screens. Only William Gibson knows how to do it in such a way that a character's just-received message seems as exciting as one you've been waiting for yourself. Then again, this is the writer who coined the term


in 1982.

In his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, Gibson abandoned future speculation for a stranger-than-science-fiction present day. His follow up, Spook Country, is a high-resolution screen capture of our technology-saturated culture. It is the better novel of the two, less slick and written with greater clarity.

Both novels take place the year before they hit the shelves. Sept. 11 casts a shadow over the "cool-hunting" world of advertising in Pattern Recognition, set in 2002. Spook Country, beginning in February 2006, is steeped in Iraq-war disdain and apathy. Gibson's focus on globalization has shifted from the corporate to political: Right-brained hipsters are as likely to work for the government as they are for a major corporation. Everyone is potentially a spy.

Gibson's characters seek to break codes, unravel conspiracies, and enter secret networks. This can be as benign as joining "trusted" network "SpaDeLItes47," with a PowerBook propped by the window. One character creates artwork visible only to those knowing an exact location and wearing the correct virtual reality-enabling helmet. A subplot revolves around cracking Volapuk, the Cyrillic parody of Esperanto. Everyone wants to know what is in a mysterious cargo container - and where it is heading. It is the liminal state of acquiring knowledge that seems to interest Gibson more than the actual outcome of this series of events.

"Secrets," Hubertus Bigend tells Hollis Henry, "are the very root of cool." Hollis is a 30-ish, creative-class New Yorker almost indistinguishable from Pattern Recognition's Cayce Pollard. A rock star on '90s college radio, Hollis now works as a freelance journalist.

She is assigned a story on Los Angeles-based "locative" artists for Bigend's new media venture, Node - ostensibly a "European version of Wired" yet to debut.

These artists construct virtual reality re-creations of celebrity deaths - such as River Phoenix's outside the Viper Room and Helmut Newton's car crash at the Chateau Marmont. The neurotic, tech-head Bobby Chombo is the GPS genius who helps bring these ideas to life.

Chombo is the man Hollis is instructed to trail, but it's hard to tell whether hers is a legitimate journalism assignment or just a way to feed Bigend's obsession with secrets. "Intelligence," Bigend explains to Hollis, "is advertising turned inside out."

Chombo is the prototypical "wonk-hipster," what Hollis considers, "basically, a DJ. Or DJ-like, in any case, which was what counted. His day job, troubleshooting navigational systems or whatever it was, made a sort of sense too. It was, often as not, the wonk side of being DJ-like, and often as not the side that paid the rent."

When someone is asked if Chombo DJs, one of the artists responds, "He podcasts."

Naturally. He also has a side job shipping confidential data-encoded iPods through a tightly operating network involving ex-spooks, pirates, and a Cuban-Chinese mafia family.

A minor character is described as archaically commanding in appearance, like someone "who would've been in charge of something, in America, when grown-ups still ran things." Digital culture created new gatekeepers: the novelty-seekers, the quickly bored. Chombo and Bigend, who also appeared in Pattern Recognition, are indicative of this generational shift. They are the Masters of the Universe at the cash-cow intersection of culture and technology. As Chombo explains, "the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery."

Gibson's science fiction was never of the sterile hallways and white space suits variety. The surreal multicultural landscape on display here at times seems like a hologram of his cyberpunk early novels. As for his focus on GPS data and diminishing privacy, it is already successfully prophetic, as the Google Maps Street View controversy and continuing paranoia over NSA wiretapping demonstrate.

Lack of a gripping denouement might disappoint some readers, but Spook Country is likely a bridge novel, the second of a trilogy, with the grand finale yet to come. While waiting for that, readers seeking understanding of the zeitgeist's subconscious should be thrilled with Spook Country from start to finish.

Joanne McNeil is a freelance writer.