William Gibson Maps Mediated World in New Novel

A new William Gibson book is a state-of-the-union address on the mediated world. “I think we’ve been growing a prosthetic extended nervous system for the last hundred years or so, and it’s really starting to take,” he said in the documentary No Maps for These Territories (2001). “We’re dealing with something that has penetrated virtually every corner of the human universe now. It’s increasingly difficult to find people who have not been affected by media. It’s very difficult to find non-mediated human beings.

Next month he begins touring in support of Spook Country. As befits a book with a plot bound up in the world of espionage, where surveillance is a theme, he wrote it while being watched. This time last year segments from the book started to appear on his website, unheralded, and until he’d finished the book they remained unexplained.

On his blog he defined ‘Spook Country’ as a place inside the mind as well as a real territory, where the spectres of an old world, the edgy paranoia of the intelligence agents, and ideas about where we live, join together. “Spook Country is the place where we have all landed, few by choice, and where we are learning to live,” he wrote. “The country inside and outside of the skull. The soul, haunted by the past, of what was, of what might have been. The realization that not all forking paths are equal, some go down in value.”

William Gibson was a fan of the blog by Salam Pax, a young man in Bagdhad writing about the city around him in the lead-up to the current war. Salam Pax was a William Gibson fan. The blog itself is no longer accessible but ghosts of its content still appear in cached Google searches: “The streets markets look like something out of a William Gibson novel” Pax wrote. The listing for Spook Country on Amazon.com has Gibson’s first outline and proposal for the book, which featured a blog that might have been loosely inspired by Salam Pax’s writings.

‘Warchalker’ is one of the more obscure and peculiar of the many warblogs and news-filters that sprang up on the Web in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Obscure because it generally offers little more than the apparent result of some news-junkie sitting in a basement, endlessly splicing in links to the latest-breaking from AP, Reuters or other standard sources. Peculiar because the thread of routine news is occasionally interrupted by some deeply strange dispatch from Warchalker himself as, for instance, his first-person account of the looting of the Baghdad museum, involving any number of international art-mercenaries andat least two supposedly extraterrestrial artifacts. Or his earlier report from a secret US facility in which a gifted remote viewer is sometimes able to describe, in minute quotidian detail but with a complete lack of imaginative understanding, the doings of the fugitive Osama though without being able to hear what OBL might be saying, or know where he is. ‘They’re having that spicy lentil thing again.’ ‘Now he’s flossing his teeth.’ ‘It looks like a room in a really bad motel in New Mexico, but there’s no glass in the window, no television, and he keeps peeing into this hole in the floor.’ “

In the final version of the book one of the characters, Hollis Henry, is an investigative journalist, researching a report on a surveillance-based art project for a start-up magazine called Node. “Node doesn’t exist yet, which is fine; she’s used to that,” Gibson explains. “But it seems to be actively blocking the kind of buzz that magazines normally cultivate before they start up. Really actively blocking it. It’s odd, even a little scary, if Hollis lets herself think about it much. Which she doesn’t; she can’t afford to.”

The ‘node’ is a concept that permeated Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy: Virtual Light (1991), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). “It is a dark business,” thinks Shinya Yamazaki, the Japanese existential sociologist, in All Tomorrow’s Parties, “taking the stairs to the cardboard city, what exactly Laney is about here. Speaking of nodal points of history, of some emerging pattern in the shape of things. Of everything changing.” Laney perceives all the world’s data, in some sense has all the world’s data flowing through him. The nodal point, for him, is “a place where metaphor collapses, a descriptive black hole.”

In June of 2003 Gibson wrote an editorial for the New York Times called ‘The Road To Oceania’, comparing George Orwell’s portrait of 1948 as 1984, with the survellience technology of our own time. If Orwell had known that computers were coming the tools Big Brother used might have been different, he thinks, but the story would have been much the same. “Orwell’s projections come from the era of information broadcasting, and are not applicable to our own,” he writes. “Had Orwell been able to equip Big Brother with all the tools of artificial intelligence, he would still have been writing from an older paradigm, and the result could never have described our situation today, nor suggested where we might be heading.”

Of our own time he writes: “Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one agenda or another. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to see what’s going on more quickly, but that doesn’t mean we’ll agree about it any more readily.”

Lately the New York Times has seemed as if it’s being published from a landmark building in Spook Country. In his column in the Times Select subscription section, Global Affairs correspondent Thomas Friedman addresses Gibson’s notion that there’s no longer “truth” any more, but “truths”. He recalls an incident where a woman pushed in front of him at a magazine stand, and says that now, instead of asserting that he was there first, he’d stand aside and be obsequiously polite. “When everyone has a blog, a MySpace page or Facebook entry, everyone is a publisher,” Friedman wrote. “When everyone has a cellphone with a camera in it, everyone is a paparazzo. When everyone can upload video on YouTube, everyone is filmmaker. When everyone is a publisher, paparazzo or filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. We’re all public figures now. The blogosphere has made the global discussion so much richer and each of us so much more transparent.”

A New York Times ’Science Section’ story by Dennis Overbye confirms Gibson’s prescience in seeing the human element in advances in technology, by suggesting that Laney could, literally, have had all the world’s information flowing through him. Using the same code that computer keyboards use, a group of Japanese scientists wrote four copies of Einstein’s formula E=mc2 and 1905, the year his ‘Special Theory of Relativity’ was published, into the DNA sequence of a bacterium. “The point was not to celebrate Einstein,” explained Overbye. “The feat, they said in a paper published in the journal Biotechnology Progress, was a demonstration of DNA as the ultimate information storage material, able to withstand floods, terrorism, time and the changing fashions in technology, on the ability to be imprinted with little unobtrusive trademark labels little ‘Made by Monsanto’ tags, say.”

The unmediated world is a country we can’t return to, Gibson said in No Maps For These Territories. We can’t hope to explain what’s happening to us, all that we can do is live in the moment. He sees the role of his books as trying to make this present moment coherent.

Spook Country by William Gibson. Published by Putnam. Released 7.8.2007