The Guardian: Sign Language - review by Stephen Poole of "Spook Country"

After its dismal effort on Tuesday, the Saturday edition of the The Guardian redeems itself somewhat, with a nice review of Spook Country by Stephen Poole, which revels in the "texture" of William Giibson's clever way with words, even though his review gets some of the plot details wrong.

Sign language

Steven Poole enjoys decoding William Gibson's latest offering, Spook Country

Saturday August 18, 2007
The Guardian

Spook Country
by William Gibson
371pp, Viking, £18.99

A woman moves through a forest of symbols, peopled by liminal obsessives, gathering clues to a conspiratorial mystery. So might you describe Thomas Pynchon's diabolically lean and funny The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps the most perfect American novel of its age. Fitting the same description is the new novel by William Gibson, whose own literary trajectory has seen him develop from noir prophet of cyberspace (the word he coined in Neuromancer, 1984) to a kind of wi-fi'd Pynchon for the present.

The heroine, Hollis, is a former singer for a cult early-1990s indie band, now a journalist. She accepts a commission from an obscure British magazine to interview some LA practitioners of "locative art": installations in public places that are invisible unless you have a VR headset, in which case the virtual performance is overlaid on physical reality. But the tech genius behind the locative installations is also involved in something weirder: arcane data, encoded into the music on iPods, is being smuggled to Cuba and back

The smuggling route is to San José in Costa Rica, not to Cuba, and the iPods do not return from the dead letter drop there.

through an old man who speaks Russian; and much ingenuity is being spent on trying to track a shipping container, flitting from boat to boat at sea for years, whose contents are unknown.

Hollis soon finds out that her magazine assignment is for a publication that may not even exist, but is bankrolled by a cosmically wealthy Swiss advertising mogul named Hubertus Bigend.

According to the fictional WikiPedia entry about Hubertus Bigend written by William Gibson into Spook Country he is Belgian, although, as later revealed in the novel, he does have contacts with Swiss bankers, which does imply a certain level of corporate or personal net worth.

Readers of Gibson's 2003 novel Pattern Recognition will already know and enjoy Bigend, a marvellously cynical personage, one of whose purposes is to demonstrate that limitless curiosity can be thoroughly amoral. He says things such as "Secrets are the very root of cool", and snacks on "what looked like sushi wrapped in raw meat".

Also somehow involved in the plot are a young Cuban-Chinese man called Tito, who plays keyboards and practises the Russian martial art Systema, whose phenomenology of action Gibson brilliantly delineates through the allegorical device of giving Tito several specialised gods to watch over him.

The use of the word "systema" in Spook Country does not directly invoke the Russian military martial art, but it is one aspect of the streetwise "Moscow Rules" type of "Illegal Facilitator" tradecraft practised by Tito's crime family.

Meanwhile, as Hollis gets mixed up in a crew chasing the shipping container, a merely physical MacGuffin, the novel offers a parallel fiesta of semiological detection through the eyes of Milgrim, a dope addict being used as a Russian translator by a federal agent.

Milgrim often seems to be a repository for Gibson's trademark reverse-engineered metaphors, whereby the physical is imaged as virtual. At one point, looking around a hotel room, he remarks: "The pixels in the cabinet's wood-grain veneer were too large ... you only got the high-resolution stuff in your better places." We are reminded of the first sentence of Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." But elsewhere, as though Gibson is deliberately playing with his own most famous line, he trades the device for one of melancholy oxidisation: "The world outside the restaurant's windows ... was the colour of a silver coin, misplaced for decades in a drawer."

No need to insist any longer, if, as one character argues, the whole world is already cyberspace. Maybe the past is too, as Milgrim thinks, looking at old photographs of the World Trade Centre: the towers "now seemed ... to have been photoshopped into every image he encountered them in". The novel also addresses aspects of post-9/11 politics: torture in secret prisons, corruption in Iraq spending. We are given to understand that certain ex-CIA types are not happy with developments. A further implication of the novel's title is that "spook country" is the one all Americans live in. As a modern Mephistopheles might have said: "Why, this is spook country, nor am I out of it."

Spooks are spies, but also the persistent dead. Another character thinks about "those ghost-signs, fading high on the windowless sides of blackened buildings, spelling out the names of products made meaningless by time". This is a novel about, and also full of, ghost-signs, or signs that may not be signs, and about the difficulty of telling the difference. Gibson delights in saturating the pages with data that may or may not encode clues for the reader. Does the hexadecimal code for a wi-fi station mean something?

The names of the WiFi access points (Service Set Identifier SSID) which are mentioned several times in the novel are more "leet speak" than hexadecimal. They are case sensitive mixtures of letters and numbers, shorter than the maximum 32 characters allowed. e.g. "BAntVanc1" or "CyndiNet"

There are no descriptions of Ad Hoc peer to peer WiFi connections between devices, which would hexadecimal numeric MAC address character strings, but some of the "locative art" installations could perhaps make use of them.

What about the phrase "East Van Halen" spraypainted on a dumpster? In this comedy of hermeneutics, the characters play too: "If you knew enough Greek, [Hollis] thought, you could assemble a word that meant divination via the pattern of grease left on a paper plate by broasted potatoes. But it would be a long word."

I do not know any Greek, except what has been absorbed by the English language. The suffix "-mancy" or "-mancer" could apply (as in Necromancer or Neuromancer), but using a few online resources:

chartomancy (kärt'ə-măn'sē): by things on paper (Greek khartēs, papyrus paper + manteia, prophecy)

eleomancy/elaeomancy: by oil (Greek elaion, olive oil + manteia, prophecy)

roast = ψήνω, ψήνομαι, ψητός - psino, psinomai, psitos

potato = πατάτα - patata

grease = γράσο - graso

Industrial Pressure Cooker Fried or Deep Fried Potatos ("broasted potatos") are not really part of modern or ancient Greek cuisine.

How about:

psino-patata-graso-charto-mancy ?

Gibson's prose continues to gleam with a vivid economy, as though he is trying to find the most suggestively unexpected angle. Here is a man with a "curiously nonreflective simulacrum of Kim Jong-il's jet-black haircut". Here is what it is like to suck on a pill: "He wanted to concentrate fully on that instant when the sublingual tablet phase-shifted from being to not-being." This novel is a political thriller that is also a satire on advertising, music and the geekocracy, a finely machined mystery whose main pleasures lie in its rich store of miniature aesthetic jolts and unexpected textures. Gibson country is still a terrain all its own.

Overall, another positive and sympathetic review of Spook Country.

It is still noticeable how few reviews of Spook Country there have been of any sort in mainstream United Kingdom publications

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

Alan Turnbull's - "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 -

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

Zero History


Zero History blog - - 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 blog - - 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):

UK cover art:

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, 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"

Campaign Buttons

Campaign for the Freedom of Information

Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.
Free Gary McKinnon, who lives in London, is accused of hacking in to over 90 US military computer systems, and is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.

FreeFarid_150.jpg - Kafkaesque extradition of Farid Hilali under the European Arrest Warrant to Spain

Watching Them, Watching Us, UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign
Spy Blog - UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign

NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card
NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card and National Identity Register centralised database.

Peaceful resistance to the curtailment of our rights to Free Assembly and Free Speech in the SOCPA Designated Area around Parliament Square and beyond Parliament Protest blog - resistance to the Designated Area restricting peaceful demonstrations or lobbying in the vicinity of Parliament.

Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans
Data Retention is No Solution Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans.

Open Rights Group
Open Rights Group

Tor - the onion routing network
Tor - the onion routing network - "Tor aims to defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers called onion routers, protecting you from websites that build profiles of your interests, local eavesdroppers that read your data or learn what sites you visit, and even the onion routers themselves." The project makes use of Tor as part of their anonymity infrastructure.

BlogSafer - wiki with multilingual guides to anonymous blogging

NGO in a box - Security Edition privacy and security software tools

Reporters Without Borders - Reporters Sans Frontières - campaign for journalists 'and bloggers' freedom in repressive countries and war zones.

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