SPOOK COUNTRY by William Gibson (GP Putnam), 371 pages, $32.50 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Claims that William Gibson has abandoned science fiction to write novels about the contemporary world might be accurate had the real world not caught up with the fictional universes of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Okay, we don't physically jack into "cyberspace" (a term coined by Gibson, by the way), but a world that was once reliably real has been replaced by one where at times almost everything seems conditional, reversible and utterly dependent on context. The real is now negotiable.
If you can remember the world before Neuromancer, then you're living in a science fiction world. Just look at your cellphone: 25 years ago, a phone with a built-in camera, instant messaging and GPS locator was what Q built for James Bond, not a bit of cheap disposable tech.
In Spook Country, freelance journalist Hollis Henry finds herself working for Node, a magazine that doesn't exist yet. (Think Wired, but European, as Gibson puts it.) Her initial assignment subject, an artist doing virtual GPS installation art (don't ask), leads her to a world of money laundering, murder and exotic drug addictions.
These could be the ingredients of a standard thriller, devoured on a long flight and abandoned in 17C, but Spook Country is more.
What makes any thriller more than pulp fiction isn't the paranoia or the plotting, but the elegance of the writing.
Gibson's prose is slippery, and the "reality" of his modern world is made up of images that escape our attempts to assign them meaning even as we look at them. He details locations with such precision that you could draw them from memory, and captures precisely the panicky anxiety of crowds in the post-9/11 era.
But he doesn't give us meaning. We have to work to find it, and it's worth the hunt.