Bill Gibson is cooler than you

But he’s not cooler than me. Which is one of the things I thought of several times while reading Spook Country, his new novel. If you don’t want the long version, here’s the gist: it’s decent, he’s still pretty good, buy it in hardcover, move to Vancouver, buy a Powerbook, learn Mandarin, get hooked on benzos, run a startup involving art, and find yourself some new cocktails to drink.

Minor spoilers ahead, but no big ones.


I really wanted to love this one. Gibson’s of course been a big part of my life since I was a wee one; Neuromancer is one of the few books I’ve been rereading at every stage of my life since middle school, and getting more out of it each time. In fact, I’ve reread everything of his but the Difference Engine, which is no knock on it. I guess I continually expect big things from the fella.

In case you had been under a rock, his last book, Pattern Recognition, broke out of his near-future mold and set a book in the recent past; effectively present-day. I don’t know whether he’s trying to broaden his toolkit, or whether he found the conventions of genre too binding; regardless, he did well. Pattern Recognition was an paranoid ride through the hypercommercial fully-connected post-90s world. If he struck any false notes, it was that the world of the internets moves quick enough to make his web communities seem…outdated.

And that’s not what’s wrong with Spook Country. He’s made a specific effort to identify a particular vision of 2006, which may or may not age well, but it didn’t bother me. His story is compelling, linking a former rockstar who’s trying out life as a culture writer, a junkie sucked into some spy work of unknown provenance, and a Cuban-trained cloak-and-dagger prodigy thrown into the mix. There’s a macguffin, but it’s a good one.

So why am I feeling sour? First of all, any delight I had when figuring out for myself what was going on when the plot threads all began to merge was ruined when it was explained to me. Not cool. Gibson’s power is in mystery, and in just giving you enough information to think you know what’s going on, and no more. To boot, there’s a constant sense (particularly as he’s introducing side characters) that he’s trying a little too hard to generate edge. This edge was there in Pattern Recognition, but was genuine. Here, I’m not so sure. But maybe he’s not writing for me anymore.

I was also peeved when a character from Pattern Recognition returned (which is fine, although I thought he was trying to break out of genre, and shared-universe novels?) and referred to the events in that book in a very annoying as-you-know nod to the reader. I’m a big fan of Gibson’s creation Hubertus Bigend, and the things he does, but some subtlety would be appreciated.

What can you do, though? There’s moments of wonder, and Gibson’s still good at building a mystery, and I’ll still buy him in hardcover. If I’ve got too much instinct to poke behind the curtain, it’s probably my fault.

(This post was written as if I was in his novel: on my OS X laptop, listening to post-something on my iPod, flying the Monday-night business connection from Newark to Reagan: a plane filled with spooks, salarymen, and students. All I needed would have been a briefcase full of data and maybe a video artist paramour and it would really have gotten eerie. )

Comments

  1. #1 Alex
    August 29, 2007

    I don’t know whether he’s trying to broaden his toolkit, or whether he found the conventions of genre too binding;

    Actually, he’s said this during Pattern Recognition interviews, and continues to do so… He decided that the present is so science-fiction-weird, and in such a state of flux, that he not only didn’t need to try to peer into the future anymore, but that doing so would be pointless and silly.

    I think he’s on to something there.

    Regarding the book: I really like it. It’s a funny book. That’s not something you can really say about his previous work. Is it as good as Pattern Recognition (which is my favorite of his books, though Neuromancer is obviously The Classic that wil be Remembered)? No, not quite. But it is enjoyable, and it will be re-read again at some point.

    I was not at all surprised when Bigend showed up. Partially because advance stuff about the book said it was set in the same universe as PR, but also because, well… This book’s particular thing seems a very Bigend-ian sort of project. So why invent a whole new character when you’ve got one that would totally be doing this already there?

    I didn’t read the one reference to Pattern Recognition‘s events as merely a nod to the readers, really. It seemed a perfectly natural bit of conversation in the context of the book. The Footage had gotten press coverage. Bigend had been a big part in finding out who was making it. So that it was discovered, and that he had a hand in discovering it probably would’ve gotten coverage too, and so it seemed natural that Hollis might have a vague memory of the two being connected in some way.

  2. #2 Nathan
    August 29, 2007

    I think he’s on to something there.

    Agreed. I’d been avoiding interviews with him out of some weird neurotic desire to remain pure before I read the book. I’ts interesting catching up with them.

  3. #3 Alex
    August 29, 2007

    Direct quote from a recent NYT interview:

    If I had gone into a publisher in New York in 1981 and told them I wanted to write a novel that is set in a world where the climate is out of whack and Mideast terrorists have hijacked airplanes and in response the U.S. has invaded the wrong country — it’s too much. Contemporary reality is like an overlapping set of dire science-fictional scenarios.

    He said as much at one or both of the readings I went to on his current book tour.

  4. #4 Nathan Williams
    August 29, 2007

    Huh. I’ve been pretty lazy about reading fiction over the last, oh, decade, and so I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Pattern Recognition. Whatever events in that book he refers to, it fit in well enough for me into the flow of the dialogue that I didn’t notice it as anything but background material.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    August 29, 2007

    Just finished it this morning, and I have to say, it’s a great book to read in luxury hotels in Japan. I basically agree with the comments here (which may well save me writing my own review later).

    One thing that occurred to me, though– is it possible that there are actually two characters who appear in Pattern Recognition in this one? I haven’t had time to re-check all the references, but it seems to me that the background of the old man might fit the description of a certain important but absent figure from the earlier book.

    Or maybe I’m just paranoid.

  6. #6 Alex
    August 29, 2007

    I haven’t had time to re-check all the references, but it seems to me that the background of the old man might fit the description of a certain important but absent figure from the earlier book.

    Pamela Mainwaring, Blueant’s travel ninja, appears in both. So technically that’s two.

    Regarding the old man… As much has been speculated by people on the Gibson board.

    While I don’t seem to have written it down, I could swear someone asked him about this pretty point blank at the first of the two readings I went to. I remember him indicating that they were two separate people as far as he knew. I don’t think he was being cagey there either, given what he’s been saying recently about how unplanned his writing process is.

    However, this is a rather fuzzy memory. Perhaps it was an interview, not a question asked while signing someone’s book (which I didn’t write down, just the general Q&A).

    Myself… I don’t think it’s the case.

    The only point of commonality I can think of is that both are described as looking like Burroughs. But while the character you refer to is described as a youngish Burroughs, I don’t remember the Old Man being described as youngish anything. In addition, I don’t think reasonable guesses as to the age of the Old Man match up with reasonable guesses as to the age of the character you refer to.

  7. #7 Nathan
    August 29, 2007

    I do agree that Blueant and Hubertus are awesome enough to be used in several books. I think there was something weird about its occurrence in SC that rubbed me the wrong way; perhaps I just wasn’t comfortable with explicit reference to PR.

    Wish I had gone to a reading.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 30, 2007

    I’ve been a big fan of Bill Gibson ever since I first read him in “Unearth” and then in 1979 he used to come down from Vancouver to pick hackers’ brains, mine included, in Seattle. Beyond that, we mostly discussed Hemingway, Nabokov, Noir — he is a Writer’s Writer. Also, I was regularly writing cover articles of Omni, so he got inside info fro me on their editors, which paid off for him. His new novel is his funniest, and wonderful.

    “Newark to Reagan” — I had the weird experience once of flying from John Wayne to Ronald Reagan.

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