It’s hard to find a sense of justice these days. Certain people seem immune to consequences of their actions, and those consequences often devolve onto people lower down on the food chain. CEOs and bank presidents are briefly vilified in the media for their actions, then collect their bonuses and go on, while thousands live without jobs or even shelter because of those actions. A prominent college has a long string of championships “expunged,” scholarships reduced, and is banned from bowl games because of child sexual abuse, while the upper echelon of the college, who were told about the issue by the coach years earlier, are, except for some fund-raising difficulties, untouched. Second-tier political aides fall on their swords and resign, while the responsible elected officials remain untouched.
It can be disheartening. This is why re-reading Spook Country, by William Gibson, is so emotionally fulfilling. Admittedly the book is largely fantasy-wish-fulfillment, but it’s good fantasy-wish-fulfillment, as a trio of strange men plan and implement a “prank” of large proportions on a group of people who are usually untouchable. One bemused woman, Hollis Henry, is allowed entre to their audacious plan. The story is wholly satisfying.
If this book were nothing more than fantasy wish fulfillment, with a strange and plucky band of rebels challenging the entrenched wealth machine and winning – like The A Team, in other words – and William Gibson wrote it, it would still be worth a read. Because Spook Country is written by Gibson, though, it is so much more than that. So much more insightful, so much stranger, and so much more fantastical. In one way, the objective of the secret group almost gets overlooked because of the gems Gibson’s scatters along the way.
The book weaves together seemingly-unrelated stories of three unusual characters:
Hollis Henry, lead singer and songwriter of a cult band called The Curfew that broke up a few years earlier. Needing money, Hollis has accepted a freelance assignment from a European-based magazine to write about “locative” art. The article seems a little strange, and the magazine even stranger. Soon Hollis discovers that there is more going on that VR three-dimensional art installations in Los Angeles.
Tito, a young man who was born in Havana, is living in New York and ends up in Vancouver. Tito is one of a large extended family, filled with uncles and cousins, all of whom, it seems, emigrated from Cuba. Tito is working for a mysterious old man who knew his father in Cuba. Tito’s father was in Cuban secret intelligence; the old man is believed to have been with the CIA. Tito is athletic, and his gymnastic skills are enhanced by the orishas, the deities of Santeria, who help him when he needs it.
Milgrim, a gifted linguist who can translate Russian and has an addiction problem. Milgrim has been grabbed and is being held captive, basically, by a man named Brown. At first Milgrim thought Brown was DEA or police. Then he decided he must be part of a government security agency. Now, he’s not so sure.
There is another character whose gravitational pull affects the orbits of these three characters and that is Hubertus Bigend. It’s supposed to be pronounced “bee-jond,” but Gibson makes sure we all see it as Big End first. Bigend is a mystery, a man of deep wealth, unlimited power and low profile, whose only appetite, it seems, is that of curiosity. It isn’t long before Hollis figures out that she is working for him, and not long after that, Bigend arranges a meeting and reveals a little bit more about the “story” Hollis is allegedly covering. This takes her on a quest that introduces her to one of Gibson’s tech wizards, a man with a grasp of the Global Positioning System that is unmatched, who is so paranoid that he marks out a GPS grid on the floor of his warehouse and sleeps in a different square each night. VR “art,” wartime corruption, government contractors, and parkour all meet in a swirling eddy of story in Vancouver.
Spook Country was published in 2005, which means Gibson probably wrote it in 2003-2004. I read it when it first came out. Like most people, I was struggling with indignation over how badly our government had responded to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and the “objective” of the old man (and Tito’s parkour stunts) held center stage for me. This time, I found myself captivated by something else entirely; Gibson’s casual assumption, expressed by three different characters during the course of the book, that the NSA monitors domestic conversation and e-mail exchanges. At one point, Milgrim wonders why his captor, Brown, doesn’t just have the NSA do the spying that they are doing. Bigend and Hollis both worry about it at least once. Bigend is not an American, as such he would be fair game to the NSA, but Hollis is an American born citizen, who can’t overcome the trickle of paranoia she feels. This isn’t news; thriller writers have been using “The NSA is listening!” for a few years now, and Gibson doesn’t even bother to make it part of the plot, it’s so basic.
I was more interested in the fact that this was an “everybody knows that” kind of thing in 2005, given the big whoop-di-do about it in 2012 and 2013.
That’s a digression, though. At the end of the book, some justice is meted out to people who enriched themselves at the cost of young American lives. Bigend does not get his question answered, directly, but he makes a small fortune in another way. Milgrim embarks on a life of scholarship and Tito joins a band. All of these ending are the right ones. Hollis may have a new career, and she has had an adventure that changes how she views the world.
Along the way, the book shares moments of Gibson’s rock-star style. His attention to objects, like the small blue vase Tito found and dedicated to the orisha Oshun, the Blue Ant figurine Hollis gets, and a set of magnetic disks, makes the reader stop and experience those items. His flights of fancy, such as the eat-standing-up drive-in restaurant Hollis knows of in LA, where everyone is welcome, make us think about cities, neighborhoods, and pockets of connection that happen around us every day.
Writing/reading was the first virtual reality, and Gibson is its god. This is still true; Spook Country is an immersive and refreshing now as it was in 2005.