Novel Writing 101, surely, includes the injunction that if you have only one narrative voice, then you might consider steering away from multiple points of view.
William Gibson, possibly the most influential science-fiction writer of the past 30 years, seems to have missed class that day, if his ninth novel, Spook Country, is any indication.
As the leading founder of “cyberpunk,” the 1980s subgenre that was the first to imagine the enormous changes in human life soon to be wrought by the onrushing digital age, Gibson finds himself in the same fix that stymied spymaster John LeCarre after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Events in the real world have overtaken those in his novels.
We all have personal computers now — not to mention iPods, and Blackberries, and Bluetooth. Indeed, we’re so wired the world we live in has become indistinguishable from science fiction, thereby rendering obsolete the kind of near-future sci-fi favored by Gibson.
Why read sci-fi when you can log onto YouTube at your local Starbucks, via wireless Internet, and watch the future swallowing us up in real time?
Alas, these developments serve not only to demonstrate Gibson’s perspicacity as an idea man, but also to expose his shortcomings as a novelist. Let me quickly add, though, the man is not stupid. Like his previous novel, Pattern Recognition, with which Spook Country shares some characters and themes, the new one is set in the present day. The future is now.
That’s only one of the Big Ideas in Spook Country. Gibson remains good with ideas, which, after all, is the hallmark of science fiction. We may not be entering into the digital landscape of our computers, as Gibson and others imagined back around 1986, by plugging into virtual reality via electronic visors or data ports implanted into our necks. The digital world has, instead, entered us, via our electronic tools, so that reality itself has become virtual. This is another of the big ideas in Spook Country, and while it’s a pretty obvious observation, it’s an important one, too, and it’s nice Gibson acknowledges it.
The plot of Spook Country is not easy to summarize, because the book doesn’t seem to be about much of anything but ideas, especially the central conceit that in the post 9-11 world everything is subservient to the process of intelligence gathering. The “narrative” is chockablock with incident, but it can’t really be said to add up to a plot, or even much of a story.
Sure, the book has “characters,” or at least collections of vague personality traits that have been assigned names, although they seldom exhibit consistent human behavior. If anything, they behave more like “avatars,” the digital constructs that represent players in online video games.
The putative central character is a has-been indie rock star trying to reinvent herself as a journalist. Hollis Henry has been hired by a shadowy Belgian magnate to do a story on “locative art” for his start-up magazine, Node. Locative art actually exists — I Googled it to find out — but not quite to the glamorously sophisticated degree Gibson describes, which is something about using geosynchronous satellites to project virtual art works that can only be seen on the ground using VR goggles.
But what Hollis’ employer really wants her to learn is the location and contents of a mysterious cargo container, which seems to be jumping from one ship to another in the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, a high-end junkie named Milgrim is dragooned into some unspecified service by a shadowy spy named Brown, likewise interested in the container. So is Tito, a young Chinese-Cuban immigrant, the son of a leading spy, who speaks Spanish, English and Russian.
One of the many problems with this novel is that as Gibson jumps from one story line to another, there is no sense of gathering narrative momentum, no real suspense, no sense that anything much is at stake for the characters. And, as it turns out in the shockingly mawkish conclusion, nothing much ever really was.
Not even in science fiction do people credibly go to this much trouble for so little return.
This absence of dramatic unity, coupled with the sketchiness of the characters, makes it impossible to care about what happens to any of them. Live, die — they’re all so boring, what’s the difference?
Gibson is being compared these days to big-time serious novelists like Don DeLillo, but what this really means is that he doesn’t bother to deliver the strong story usually associated with pulp genres like sci-fi. Apparently some critics look at Gibson’s work and think, “Mmm, no coherent story, big reputation — that must mean it’s lit’rature!”