Pre-publication review of Spook Country by Thomas M. Wagner

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As the official publication date for William Gibson's Spook Country approaches, there is still no sign of any publicity in old fashioned bookshop and publishing industry in the UK.

Since I do not have access to an pre-publication review copy of Spook Country, I shall be commenting on any such reviews I come across.

Here are a few comments on an online review of Spook Country by Thomas M. Wagner at SFReviews.net.

Overall Thomas Wagner seems to award Spook Country a middling 3 star rating (using a peculiar rating system involving up to 5 stars, in steps of half stars. i.e. effectively a 1 to 10 rating scheme).

To put this in context, his reviews of previous books by WIlliam Gibson , have rated

  • Count Zero - 4 stars
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive - 3 stars
  • Neuromancer - 3 and a half stars
  • Pattern Recognition - 3 and a half stars
  • Spook Country - 3 stars

These are relatively high ratings from a highly competent reviewer, but one whose science fiction tastes obviously resonate more with other sub-genres of science fiction e.g. he has not reviewed Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, even though he rates a couple of the later Baroque Cycle novels more highly than any by William Gibson and only reviews one work by Bruce Sterling - see also his listing of 5 starred titles

This is especially weird, as some of his reviews of other authors' works make direct comparisons with William Gibson's novels.

His review of Charlie Stross's Glasshouse (which he gives 4 and a half stars)

By now, comparing Stross to Gibson and Sterling and the 80's cyberpunks is passé to the point of pure laziness, especially as Stross long ago established his own voice. But where the comparison still holds is in how Stross's best work gives that old SF sensawunda the same extreme makeover that books like Neuromancer and Schismatrix did in 1984-85. If you weren't around back then, it's hard to convey just how much of a "Wow!" feeling surrounded those books; the sense that, at long last, here was something fresh. At the time, it was a feeling SF hadn't offered readers since the late-60's New Wave. Now, after a similar passage of years, writers like Stross, Iain M. Banks, Greg Egan, Alastair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod have brought it back.

Also the only Bruce Sterling novel in his list of reviews, The Zenith Angle (3 and a half stars)

It's interesting how, as they enter the third decades of their careers, veterans of the '80s cyberpunk craze are turning their attention to the here-and-now rather than any wildly speculative future to hone the cutting edge of their storytelling.

Thomas Wagner seems to have missed the point - William Gibson et al, were always writing about the here and now and perhaps only a short time into the future.

Like William Gibson in Pattern Recognition, Bruce Sterling is all too aware that real life — particularly since 9/11 — has taken so many bizarre turns in recent years that the idea of guys walking around in cheap sunglasses and spiky haircuts with SCSI ports in their necks is so 20 years ago.

Errr... no ! This is actually much closer to today's reality than back in 1984 ! Spiky hair is more prevalent than ever, and sunglasses are even cheaper, but better quality. There are evil corporations selling systems of repression, such as sub-dermally implanted RFID chips insecurely linked to credit card payment systems, and idiots willing to sign up to this technology.

And tapping into the zeitgeist has always been a hobby of Sterling's, who's even used the hip Teutonic catchphrase as the title of one of his books. As his nonfiction bestseller The Hacker Crackdown has made clear, Sterling fully understands that the omnipresence of computers in our society today has had a cultural and political significance far beyond spotty schoolkids downloading porn and pirated MP3s all day.

That is a huge cultural shift from the 1984 timeframe, and one which has not yet been fully assimilated by the wider society.

And it's this that lies at the core of The Zenith Angle, a briskly paced slipstream thriller that will be the summer beach novel — assuming they go to beaches — for the geek elite.

It is almost as if Thomas Wagner reluctantly has to acknowledge the importance of cyberpunk both as a literary genre and for its influence on society, but he seems to resent it. He seems to be looking for some sort of "Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything" religious explanation of "post-911, post Iraq" society, which is probably something well beyond the remit or abilities of any novelist.

In that context, his review of Spook Country, in which he pays tribute to William Gibson's page turning story telling ability and witty mastery of language, is a positive endorsement of the forthcoming book.

The more of his reviews you read, the more at variance with the content of the actual reviews his "star" rating system seems to be e.g. only 3 and a half stars for a glowing review of Douglas Adam's The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Some notes on the review, which reveals some plot and character details:

Spook Country is a strange book, in that I enjoyed it despite the fact I never felt much of a sense of danger or nail-biting suspense. The fate of the world isn't exactly at stake. Mom and apple pie are not really threatened in any meaningful way. In the end it feels like much ado about nothing.

Good ! If the fate of the world is threatened now, in a novel set within the last year, that would surely be dismissed as paranoia.

But I gleaned some real pleasure from the treatment Gibson gives his characters here, many of whom literally stumble into the plot's unfolding drama and have to figure out what's going on by the seat of their pants.

That is positive.

The book's title promises all manner of spy-vs-spy goodness, but that isn't really what we get.

That may be a bit of a disappointment to some people.

Nor does Gibson have much new to say about the way in which the world has changed — its political and moral landscapes — in the years after 9/11.

Was the reviewer expecting William Gibson to produce some sort of contemporary version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four ?

It's an entertaining yarn, but by Gibson's standards, one that feels featherweight. Given its subject matter, you'd expect it to have a greater sense of consequence.

Why is the reviewer holding William Gibson to higher standards than his favourite authors ?

As he's done before, Gibson brings together disparate groups of people with conflicting agendas, whose multiple narrative threads are tied together strand by strand as the tale progresses. He pulls it off here with much greater clarity than in, say, Mona Lisa Overdrive. Some of his players have backgrounds in intelligence and counter-intelligence, and are motivated by powerful moral imperatives. Others are complete dilletantes. (As one puts it almost flippantly, "Secrets are cool.") One character is the story's requisite thug, but you get the impression he's a complete poser. But — and this is key — no one is operating in any kind of official capacity, either in law enforcement or on behalf of any government or military body (with one possible exception, and we never learn who he's working for at all). Everyone's in it either for personal reasons, or because they've been forced into it. It's perhaps the most colorful rogue's gallery Gibson's imagined since the heady days of the Sprawl.

The story begins when Hollis Henry, a young woman formerly in a cult indie rock band who's now freelancing as a journalist, is commissioned by some startup Eurotrash mag to do a piece on a growing art trend in LA. (This "locative" art, involving VR helmets and GPS gizmos to create virtual art installations in real locations that you can't see without the proper equipment, is actually a stroke of genius as SFnal concepts go. It's so compelling and convincing in the book that I decided to Google it to see if it's something people are actually doing. Apparently, it is, though not yet quite at the scale Gibson envisions.) It turns out that what Hollis's tycoon employer is really after is one specific individual who's a key figure, through no fault of his own, in some shady business involving a missing mystery package, a shipping canister that's also sought by a small-time crime family in New York with loose ties to Castro and the old KGB, a former CIA man gone rogue, and others whose origins are far more nebulous. What's in the package? WMD's? Drugs? How could it have gone missing? Who's it for? Where is it now?

This "spoiler" blurb detail is very positive and interesting !

If the resolution to the whole thing seems disappointingly trivial, I never got the impression the resolution was Gibson's point. For the most part, the missing canister is a traditional Hitchcock McGuffin (though Gibson does eventually tell us what's in it). Mainly Gibson's goal is to examine the secret world beneath the surface of the one we inhabit daily. It's overtly symbolized here by the locative art; travel to a specific destination labeled on your GPS tracker, pop on your VR goggles, and you'll see something that isn't there.

What is wrong with the time honoured, and very effective story telling technique of the "traditional Hitchcock McGuffin" ?

Likewise, all around us, wheels are being turned, economies and governments influenced by powerful people whom we never see, or whom we may see while remaining blissfully unaware of what they're actually up to.

That sounds very true to life, but it is an age old theme of history.

One clever stroke is the way Gibson has characters using today's most ubiquitous tech toy, the iPod, to pass along secret coded information. If there were a better way to hide in plain sight in this day and age, I can't think of it.

You could use a subliminal channel, such as the endless deluge of junk and spam emails to send real messages to people.

You could use short range radio devices e.g. mobile phone, personal digital assistant etc using WiFi or BlueTooth, to communicate in a "store and forward" manner with a disguised "dead letter drop" , as was alleged by the Russian FSB authorities citing alleged British MI6 agents in Moscow in the "spy rock in the park" affair in January 2006.

Ultimately, though, Spook Country amounts to little more than thinking-person's escapism.

Is that not true of all novels, especially science fiction ones ?

You keep expecting something profound to be said about The State of Things in our post-9/11, post-Iraq world, but the book never does so.

Why ? The mainstream media and the blogosphere is full of this sort of speculation every day.

What can any novelist say about contemporary history which is too recent to have access to the relevant (still secret) historical prime sources ?

Yet as a page-turner, Gibson executes the book with panache.

Another positive comment in this review.

The mature Gibson is far less inclined towards the stylistic indulgences of his earlier work. But those indulgences did make his name, and longtime fans who were disappointed in Pattern Recognition because they felt it lacked that Gibsonian edge might feel let down by this one too.

Who cares about that small minority of longtime fans ? There are plenty of longtiome fans who were not so disappointed. Pattern Recognition gained William Gibson whole new categories of fans, and had plenty of William Gibson's piercing observations and descriptions of contemporary urban cities and street locations.

If Spook Country is up to this standard, and bearing in mind this reviewer's ambivalence towards William Gibson and other cyberpunk authors, this is still a very positive book review.

I admired the lucidity of Gibson's uncluttered prose, which still shows a gift for inspired and witty turns of phrase.

Yet another favourable comment.

But I also can't get around the feeling the story ought to have amounted to more than it does. Gibson's cyberpunk in the 80's made readers think, and Spook Country — which could have had a lot to say about the notion of a surveillance society and governments that overstep their bounds and step on civil liberties in the name of security and fighting terrorism — doesn't.

I wonder if I will share this reviewer's feelings when I get to read the book ?

There is no logical reason to expect this novel to be a contemporary version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was written as a dire warning, but which seems to have been used as manual or blue print, by authoritarian "we know best" politicians and bureaucrats, ever since it was published in 1948.

Overall, bearing in mind the reviewer Thomas M. Wagner's other reviews, and illogical "star rating" system, which show his ambivalent mixture of respect for, and resentment of William Gibson, this is a positive review of the forthcoming Spook Country novel.


2 Comments

Wow! This is an amazing review of a review by a true Gibson afficionado! My compliments to a passionate post on a superb site!

- sean [patternboy]

@ sean [patternboy] - thanks for the compliments.

As I said on the official William Gibson discussion board thread, there are several of Thomas M. Wagner's nearly 500 online reviews, with which I almost totally agree with, just not entirely his reviews of the (post) cyberpunk genre.

Since he has reviewed several of William Gibson's novels, and since those reviews are readily online, it is much easier to see where this reviewer is coming from, than from an arbitrary mainstream media reviewer or academic.

I hope that I have been fair in my review of Thomas's review.

How is Node Magazine coming along ?

About this blog

This blog is discusses and analyses the new book Spook Country by cyberpunk author William Gibson, published in August 2007.

This will be primarily from a United Kingdom perspective, as some of the themes of espionage and surveillance and hidden forces really do resonate in our endemic Surveillance Society.

This blog has been described, quite fairly, as "otaku-worthy immersion"

Email Contact

email: blog @ SpookCountry [dot] co [dot] uk

Here is our PGP public encryption key or download it via a PGP Keyserver.

Hints and Tips for Whistleblowers

Please take the appropriate precautions if you are planning to blow the whistle on shadowy and powerful people in Government or commerce, and their dubious policies. The mainstream media and bloggers also need to take simple precautions to help preserve the anonymity of their sources e.g.

Spook Country Links

William Gibson Books discussion bulletin board Spook Country *NO SPOILERS* forum

William Gibson Books discussion bulletin board Spook Country - *SPOILERS OK* forum

William Gibson video about "Spook Country" on YouTube and on the official website.

William Gibson Links

William Gibson blog - written by the author himself, on which he has test marketed fragments of his novel Spook Country whilst writing it.

William Gibson Books discussion bulletin board

www.williamgibson.de - William Gibson book promtion website in Germany

William Gibson aleph - lots of resources about William Gibson's works.

The Cyberpunk Project - some online texts of some of William Gibson's writings hosted in Russia.

Wikipedia Links

Wikipedia entry for "Spook Country"

Wikipedia "Spook Country" page edit history RSS feed or Atom feed

The character "Hubertus Bigend" has his own fictional Wikipedia entry in "Spook Country", which has now become now a real one.

Node Magazine

  • Node Magazine - a fictional magazine which "seems to be actively preventing the kind of buzz that magazines normally cultivate before they begin to exist" mentioned in the hints given about the Spook Country book, which has already been created online by a fan (patternboy), before the book has been published.
  • node.tumblr.com - Node Magazine is publishing 2 Chapter Summaries and Quotations each day in the 42 day countdown to the official publication of Spook Country
  • Spook Country blog's "cloud of hyperlinks" in numerical chapter order - commentary and annotations on the node.tumblr.com annotations to Spook Country.

Fictional British TV Spooks

James Bond 007

Stylish, if somewhat far fetched, BBC TV drama based on MI5 the Security Service - Spooks

BBC children's TV series M.I.High

2008 spin off TV series from Spooks [spooks] code 9 , set a few years into the future in 2013, in the Orwellian Police State which has emerged after a nuclear bomb attack on London.

Fictional Spooks

The Spy Wise Blog by Wesley Britton

Real Spooks

MI5 - the Security Service - counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, domestic surveilance

GCHQ - the Government Communications Head Quarters - intercepting and deciphering enemy communications, and protecting UK ones.

MI6 - SIS - the Secret Intelligence Service - mostly foreign intelligence - not quite like depicted in James Bond films.

Ex - Spooks

RichardTomlinson.org - Richard Tomlinson - still being harassed by his former employer MI6. There are also links to Cryptome's archives of articles and alleged, unproven, lists of names of former or mcurrent MI6 agents (including, improbably, some UK Ambassadors), which caused lots of controversy. Tomlinson denies publishing anything not already in the public domain.

Martin Ingram, Welcome To The Dark Side - former British Army Intelligence operative in Northern Ireland.

Operation Billiards - Mitrokhin or Oshchenko ? Michael John Smith - seeking to overturn his Official Secrets Act conviction in the GEC case.

The Dirty Secrets of MI5 & MI6 - Tony Holland, Michael John Smith and John Symond - stories and chronologies.

Naked Spygirl - Olivia Frank

Spooky Info

Cryptome.org - including various spooky documents which some Government agencies would prefer not to be online.

Alan Turnbull's www.secret-bases.co.uk - "An entertaining guide to using Internet-based research tools – Ordnance Survey's maps, Getmapping's aerial photos and Google Earth! to reveal the UK's "hidden" MoD facilities and military sites"

Eye Spy Magazine - " The world's leading newsstand magazine on intelligence and espionage" - photos, articles, book reviews, private sector surveillance equipment and services adverts etc. N.B. Sometimes uncritical articles on various anti-terrorism and espionage topics, presumably in order to keep in favour with their anonymous sources.

Historical Spooks

Science Museum, London - Science of Spying Exhibition - for Spy Kids of all ages until September 2007.

Bletchley Park - "Historic site of secret British codebreaking activities during WWII and birthplace of the modern computer."

Imperial War Museum. London

Spooky CyberPunks and CyberGoths

The Dose is a "free, downloadable PDF zine ranging from industrial and gothic music to indie game development, Japanese visual kei, eyecandy, cyberpunkness" produced in Hungary.The three (so far annual) issues so far, with another promised in July 2007 contain plenty of CyberPunk and CyberGoth images and reviews, with the occasional reference back to William Gibson or other cyberpunk fiction authors.

Spy / Surveillance Art Projects

Spy Box - "A digital camera inside a parcel looks out through a small hole and captures images of its journey through the postal system. The Spy Box was sent from my studio to the gallery taking an image every 10 seconds recording a total of 6994 images these were then edited together to create an animated slideshow." - by artist Tim Knowles

Benjamin Males - "Face Targeting and Analysis System (2008) - Software designed to find and analyse faces in a video stream. First stage in an ongoing project looking at the potential misuse of technology"

London CyberPunk Tourist Guide

As part of the preparations for William Gibson book signing and lecture event promoting Spook Country in London, during August 2007, this "local knowledge" guide to places of interest to cyberpunk fans was compiled, and has been subsequently expanded.

London CyberPunk Tourist Guide - http://CyberPunk.org.uk

Please feel free to add comments or send emails, to keep it up to date.

Zero History

Zero_History_amazon_150.jpg

Zero History blog - ZeroHistory.net - discussion and hyper link cloud enhanced literary criticism of William Gibson's forthcoming novel, entitled Zero History, which is due to be published on 7th September 2010.

See the Fragments of a Hologram Bill thread on the William Gibson Books discussion forum for the snippets of writing which have been released for discussion to the public so far.

Syndicate this site (XML):

Zero History

Zero_History_amazon_150.jpg

Zero History blog - ZeroHistory.net - discussion and hyper link cloud enhanced literary criticism of William Gibson's forthcoming novel, entitled Zero History, which is due to be published on 7th September 2010.

See the Fragments of a Hologram Bill thread on the William Gibson Books discussion forum for the snippets of writing which have been released for discussion to the public so far.

Cover Artwork

US cover art (the design we prefer):
US_cover_April_150.jpg

UK cover art:
UK_cover_February_150.jpg

See how the cover artwork designs have changed slightly over time in the Cover Artwork category archive

"Spook Country" hyperlink cloud annotation

Our "Spook Country" hyperlink cloud annotation - re-orderd into numerical Chapter sequence

The Node Magazine node.tumblr.com, which this was a collaborative online contribution to, was online even before the official publication date of the first hardback edition of the book in August 2007.

This has been commented on by the author William Gibson, and described by Emeritus Professor of English Literature John Sutherland as "the future of literary crticism"

Recent Comments

  • Memetic Engineer: @ sean [patternboy] - thanks for the compliments. As I read more
  • patternboy: Wow! This is an amazing review of a review by read more

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