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Spook Country by William Gibson

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Spook Country follows complex path of post-9/11 mentality.

Spook Country

Publisher: Putnam Adult
ISBN: 0399154302
Author: William Gibson
Price: $25.95
Length: 371
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-08

William Gibson inspects the present, and it is just as weird and wired as you suspect. He sees into the future, and it looks somewhat like the present, except the technology and the paranoia are cranked up even higher.

Spook Country, like Pattern Recognition in 2005, takes on our Sept. 11 attitudes and woes. You have to pay attention when reading Gibson, and if you do, you will find Spook Country an up-to-the-second thriller that also encompasses a fine joke about our unrelenting fear of the rest of the world (when what we should most fear is ourselves).

Hollis Henry, a former rock star with the Curfew, is trying to make a living as a free-lance journalist. She has been invited to write about virtual artwork for Node, a magazine that does not yet exist (and might not ever).

Alberto, the first artist she interviews, is "concerned with history as internalized space. He sees this internalized space emerge from trauma." Alberto depicts the famous and dead, visible only in virtual reality: River Phoenix in front of the Viper Room, Helmut Newton in the driveway of the Chateau Marmont.

Hollis has been chosen for this task by Hubertus Bigend, a very, very, very rich man who appeared as a marketing guru in "Pattern Recognition." Hubertus reveals the actual task is pursuing Bobby Chombo, an oddball who assists the virtual artists.

Bobby once worked on GPS technology and now uses his high-level skills to assist artists, but also to track a container with something in it, likely headed America's way.

Bigend wants to know who and what and where and when. Paranoid readers are sure to be sure they know the what: something very bad.

Gibson jerks the readers around initially, as very short chapters dart to and fro among Hollis and other mysterious characters: Tito, a Cuban grandson of a Communist Santeria priest, an athletic genius who delivers to someone known only as the old man; uptight Brown, who is trying to catch Tito in a delivery; Milgram, hooked on anti-anxiety drugs and kidnapped by Brown to translate Tito's somewhat-Russian secret code; the elusive old man, who is very quick and very sly; and Inchmale, from the Curfew and still Hollis's good friend.

Along the way Gibson, as always, astutely sums up our state of affairs:

Hubertus tells Hollis that she, as pop star, was an "artifact of preubiquitous media," or a state in which mass media existed in the world, rather than, as now, are the world.

Milgram lectures Brown that a terrorist "uses terrifying threats to induce you to degrade your own society," the tactic based on "the same glitch in human psychology that allows people to believe they can win the lottery. ... Statistically, terrorist attacks almost never happen."

Inchmale tells Hollis "America had developed Stockholm syndrome toward its own government, post 9/11." (Stockholm syndrome describes the identification, even fondness, a captive develops toward the captor.)

It takes quite awhile for the characters to begin converging in a meaningful way; it takes the entire book to answer those basic questions or explain the title, which, like all Gibson does, operates on multiple levels.

But that's one reason we keep reading, isn't it?

Gibson is almost genial and therapeutic as he takes us there.

In a Q&A on his Web site, Gibson explains his decision to write about our present times. He notes that books previous to Pattern Recognition felt "more like `alternate presents' than imaginary futures," and that he believes, "Science fiction is always, really, about the period it's written in, though most people don't seem to understand that."

Born in Conway, S.C., Gibson grew up in the South and an Arizona boys' school, but has spent much of his adult life in Canada, interpreting what in this book he refers to as the "secret history."

It might all make more sense -- what's known and suspicion of secrets -- if you sit down with a Gibson book or two.

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