William Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina and raised in the Virginia portion of Appalachia. His initial claim to fame is coining the term “cyberspace” in his novel Neuromancer eight years before the internet came into existence. The book is a complex discourse on the clash between humanity and technology. His latest books have continued to tackle this existential crisis by setting it in a modern, post 9/11 America. To describe our modern world, Gibson does not tap into science fiction so much as his own background and the familiar themes of Southern Literature.
Gibson’s books all share several basic characteristics. A large but innocuous conspiracy is underway between various rich, disinterested people. Rarely is the world at stake, but rather the protagonists only serve as pawns in a larger corporate game. There is almost never a villain only the occasional asshole. Gibson rarely starts out with a plan when he is writing instead letting the story and characters develop as he writes in quick, staccato bursts. Abandoning science fiction in 1997, he now acutely observes people as they use computers and technology then explains what he is seeing through the critical lens of pop culture. He is quoted in a Wikipedia article as having said, “I felt that I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction’s best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going…The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now.”
His first book to address the world of post 9/11 America, Pattern Recognition, chronicles a protagonist being manipulated by very powerful parties that are trying to keep a relatively innocuous secret. Predicting the Lonelygirl15 phenomenon well before it occurred, the protagonist seeks the origins of the work of an anonymous filmmaker or a kind of “garage Kubrick.” One essay on the book explains that it is “a small micro-genre of literary fiction that could be called Paranoid Existentialism. These are novels which pursue a metaphor for humanity’s search for meaning by using conspiracy, apoheina, and other peculiar pathos singular to recent history.” As Gibson notes in the book, 9/11 was something that occurred through a TV screen for so many people. Serving as one of the most important events in history and yet for millions, it was consumed in the same manner as the sad videos that the book’s hero is attempting to track down. Representing the nation’s loss of identity and security, the protagonist’s father goes missing on the day of 9/11 in New York. For the rest of the book she is unable to find him, constantly seeking meaning in the identity crisis and paranoia of the world she now lives in.
In Spook Country, the narrative revolves around three basic view points: those of a journalist, a junkie, and a spy. Whereas Pattern Recognition dealt with confusion and trying to find meaning, Spook Country is instead the exploration of how extensively our relationship with security and the paternalism of government has changed after 9/11. Each of the view points is a subverted vision of a pop culture authority figure. A journalist, named Hollis Henry, is the former lead singer of a popular band that broke up in the 1980s. All around her are the reminders and questions of a past glory that is now only half there (people still recognize her) and half not (the band members hardly speak to one another now). The junkie, Milgrim, is a washed out academic who is fluent in several languages and is abducted by the government to work in exchange for drugs. Intelligent and philosophical, none of these trappings amount to the respect or competence that would normally be assigned such a person. The spy, a Cuban-Chinese immigrant named Tito, is also fluent in numerous languages, acrobatics, and the ability to craft his own music. Rather than being a confident and capable spy with these abilities, Tito’s insecurities arise from a difficult family life and an intense fear of flying, keeping him a vulnerable character. None of these once familiar staple characters behave as they normally would.
As Hollis pursues an assignment for the same advertising company that sponsored the hero from Pattern Recognition, the theme of technology merging with everyday life adds to the confusion of what has become plausible in our world. Her assignment is to study a group of artists who use GPS systems and video game technology to recreate real life events that can be observed with a Virtual Reality mask. Some artists create programs that cover the world in flowers; others recreate Iraq war casualties that appear right in the street when you’re wearing the mask. One artist explains that they are all effectively “everting“ cyberspace. They are trying to allow for a perspective on reality that is normally communicated through words on the internet by making those words into something literal.
A blog, they explain, is a product of context. It’s no longer important what the blog is saying; it’s how it fits into a greater whole. By looking at what bloggers link to and who is linking back to the blog, the experience of blogging becomes not so much an exercise in what you’re writing about as it is one that creates connections between a larger mass of people. The virtual reality art or what Gibson refers to as “Spatially Tagged Hypermedia” is just an extension of that philosophy. Placing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dead body in a Virgin Record Store (as one artist does) is no longer simply a tribute to the author or some macabre comment on capitalism, it is the linking of the real world with a digital interpretation of it by merging the real and the virtual. The tech artist responsible for the display explains, “We’re all doing VR, 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. Virtual Reality was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going.”
Placed alongside these technological themes and international trappings are images and writing styles that draw heavily on certain Southern traditions of writing. Having been raised in Appalachia, Gibson was heavily influenced by a culture still affected by the economic and social collapse following the Civil War. At the core of that particular vein of Southern writing is the constant theme of a fallen empire and talking about the loss of self-image. Gibson admits to this influence in an interview with The A.V. Club, “The thing about growing up in the South in the 1950s and early ‘60s was that it produced memories that look like the 1930s and 1940s. It wasn’t the South of today. It was this old, old, old, backward, weird, isolated kind of South, the pre-television South. I think that contributed a lot to my worldview, and the way I look at things as a writer. I could simultaneously see this ancient Cormac McCarthy kind of reality in this Southern mountain world, plus Sputnik and Twilight Zone on television.”
Examples of this particular brand of Southern Literature and their perspective can be seen in several other authors. In Faulkner’s The Mansion, the Civil War has destroyed most of the infrastructure of Yoknapatawpha County. The community reels and adjusts as the Snopes family slowly take over the area through a combination of sheer determination and ruthless business methods. The old Caucasian families lose what little wealth they have left while the disenfranchisement of the Africa-Americans continues with new laws despite the end of slavery. In Cormac MacCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, McCarthy symbolizes the death of the culture of the Old South through the loss of an old gathering place for moonshiners.
Representing the old South as a tavern sitting on the edge of a beautiful mountain, the first signs of decay are shown when the porch collapses followed by the tavern burning down. The loss of the tavern signals the slow encroachment of the government with taxation and heavy policing in the Appalchian region. Nothing is ever the same in the community after the fire. In William Gay’s superb collection of short stories I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, each story revolves around catastrophe and the subsequent attempts of these stories’ characters to cope with such catastrophe. A woman killing a man for abandoning her after she becomes pregnant, a murderer reconciling himself with the mother of the child he killed, and the death of an adopted child all become symbols of the collapse and change that the South experienced after the Civil War. At the core of the Southern story is the discussion of what to do and think after the entire way a society works has changed.
This theme of loss and change is the chief preoccupation of Spook Country. The world has changed and a way of seeing the world has ended in the wake of 9/11. Gibson chooses to demonstrate this shift by changing our relationship with everyday aspects of life. The I-pod, once simply a device for playing music, is used by spy groups to transfer intelligence data. Hollis, as a kind of low key celebrity, realizes that even her own fame is the product of a temporary situation in which companies controlled the means of producing music. Tito composes his own techno trance music as religious sermons for a Cuban Saint. His musical independence from both corporate music and religious groups serves as an example of no longer needing rock stars like Hollis. The ultra wealthy advertising executive, Bigend, explains that in the age of the internet secrets are now the real commodity. He owns a magazine no one has heard of and maintains offices in cities where his company declares that they have no offices. In an era where anyone can Google you and find out almost everything about you, being unknown is the new source of power. Hollis, as a quasi-celebrity, is a relic of the past.
Gibson comments that even our own relationship with the government has changed into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Rather than resisting our overpowering government, we are desperately endeared towards them for protection. While savoring the effects of anxiety medication, the junkie Milgrim comments to his captors, “A nation consists of its laws. A nation does not consist of its situation at a given time. If an individual’s morals are situational, that individual is without morals. If a nation’s law is situational, that nation has no laws, and soon isn’t a nation.” The extensive damage done to the Constitution, wire tapping, and other civil rights violations during the post-9/11 era are thus being explained as a kind of wrap-around existential crisis. According to Milgrim, the statistical odds of a terrorist attack killing you are about as likely as winning the lottery. Yet we now identify ourselves by the possibility of what might occur instead of what we know to have happened. In the chapter that the book takes its name from, Gibson depicts this idea while Hollis is talking on her cell phone. Sitting in a Starbucks and drinking coffee, she freezes mid-sentence with the sudden fear that someone might be listening to her.
Southern Literature, particularly the books based in Appalachia, have always revolved around the struggle of how to see and remember a lifestyle that has ceased to exist. Some writers attempted to glorify slavery and plantation culture, rewriting history until they created a fantasy that fitted what they wish that the South had been. Others discussed the hypocrisy and racism that were always present. But for many writers, it just means writing about life after the war and being stuck between the dueling ways of remembering a past that can no longer be explained in absolutes.
Flannery O’Connor wrote in an essay called “The Regional Writer” in Mystery & Manners:
When Walker Percy won the National Book Award, newsmen asked him why there were so many good Southern writers and he said, “Because we lost the War.” He didn’t mean by that simply that a lost war makes good subject matter. What he was saying was that we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have been developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.
Spook Country is about America’s loss of innocence, its various ways of remembering the past, and an attempt to find a way of reconciling those memories with the present. Each character is haunted by old ideologies that no longer work and constantly searches for the familiar in a new technologically driven world. Hollis returning to her favorite fastfood joint, Tito searching for clues about his father, or Milgrim’s captor’s political ideas coupled with his obsession with Papaya Hotdogs, all show these characters grappling with nostalgia. These are characters that try to find the familiar in a world that is distinctly after the fact. One of the striking shifts in Spook Country from other Gibson books is to a focus on America away from the broader international emphasis of his usual globetrotting stories. The end of the book ventures into Canada, but it only takes us there to resolve a few details. Despite the emphasis on technology, spying, and paranoia throughout the book, the ultimate irony for the characters is that the entire plot that they are investigating was perpetrated to pull off the world’s most sophisticated prank. Much like the everting of cyberspace through locative art, the everyday dispute has melded with the fiction of spy thrillers into our reality to create a new “spook country.”
When Hollis is asking the curator of the virtual reality art exhibit about the inspiration for the work, the curator explains that the artist believes that history is a kind of internalized space, suggesting the idea that a historical change for a person, even a nation, is defined by the beginning of an absence. The curator notes, “He sees this internalized space emerge from trauma. Always, from trauma.”