William Gibson – Spook Country: meta-science-fiction

I posted a review of William Gibson’s Spook Country, in French, on the Xénobiophiles blog. Here is the English version of it.

“We’re all doing VR [Virtual Reality], every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it. We didn’t need the goggles, the gloves. It just happened. VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going.”

In Spook Country, William Gibson applies his usual insight to his own legacy, he who first illustrated, if not invented, cyberspace. By desacralizing the myth of virtual reality, he deconstructs the very basis of science fiction to justify his new novel, a perfect example of post-science-fiction.

After Pattern Recognition, Gibson once again translates into fiction his famous quote: “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” And Spook Country is thus not even situated in the present, but in a recent past, in 2006. A work of “speculative presentism”, in his own words, in which he “tries to extrapolate the surreal implications of the recent past”.

Free from the traditional science fiction assumptions, Gibson delivers an SF novel in its most abstract sense, in which the present is so surreal that it features, in its natural state, the quintessential feature of science fiction: the sense of wonder.

Here, just like in Pattern Recognition, the plot revolves around a mystery hidden in the shadows of everyday life, carved in the socio-techno-cultural fabric of the present: alternative works of art in augmented reality, an enigmatic untraceable container, the unclear ghost of American governmental agencies.

“Secrets are the very root of cool.”

When he doesn’t wield it in mind-blowing essays or postmodern documentaries, William Gibson applies his sharp perception of our cultural biotope to his fictions. Spook Country, more than ever, exacerbates his hypersensitivity to the mutations which formed the superposed layers of independent realities we live in.

“The pop star, as we knew her” —and here he bowed slightly, in her direction— “was actually an artifact of preubiquitous media.”
“Of a state in which ‘mass’ media existed, if you will, within the world.”
“As opposed to?”
“Comprising it.”

Under a veil of baudrillardian cynicism, Gibson reveals, methodically, the contradictions on top of which now lies our society. More fascinated than engaged, he links the loss of references, the cultural fracture, to politics and 9/11, as if that traumatic date had signified the final fusion of fiction with reality.

“Are you really so scared of terrorists that you’ll dismantle the structures that made America what it is? […] If you are, you let the terrorist win. Because that is exactly, specifically, his goal, his only goal: to frighten you into surrendering the rule of law. That’s why they call him ‘terrorist.’ He uses terrifying threats to induce you to degrade your own society.”

But terrorism is only of the many facets of Spook Country. The plot oscillates between three plotlines with such vivacity that it often seems to acquire a life of its own. Nevertheless, the actual protagonists are far from plain; on the contrary, they exhale a very realistic mix of doubt and maturity, which they wear with elegance.

Inchmale had always been balding and intense, and Inchmale had always been middle-aged—even when she first met him, when they were both nineteen.

In terms of style, Gibson has once more surpassed himself: the rhythm, the simplicity, the cynicism of adverbs, the singing of commas, and the unexpected, impossibly elegant phrasing. The mere delight of his writing suffices to justify this novel.

Beyond the box-pile were mountains. Beyond those, cloud. They made Milgrim uneasy, these mountains. They didn’t look as though they could be real. Too big, too close. Snowcapped. Like the logo at the start of a film.

A narrative richness also present in the hypercontemporary cultural memes that hold Gibson’s world — and ours — together: improbable multilingualism, a mixture of ancestral traditions and technological devices, the omnipresence of brands serving as cognitive references.

After stripping down both his style and his subject, nothing remains but the pure essence of a resolutely contemporary literature. Some might criticize the plot for being, in the end, not much more than an anecdote, but they would be missing the point.

For Spook Country is, before anything else, a brilliant testimony of the fundamentally unstable state of the present. As for the spooks of the title, they seem to reflect the worrying incompleteness of our perceptions, or our ever increasing incapacity to apprehend reality.

They were heading down Clark already, and there, through the Prius’s windshield, were the orange Constructivist arms of the port, differently arranged now, and, after last night, quite differently resonant.