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Gibson’s Spook Country a rhapsody on our world

Originally published July 2009.

WE LIVE in the future but it’s not evenly distributed yet. Was it Gibson, the author of Spook Country, who said that? Whoever, it’s a new way to think about our place in the time/human history continuum. This book is set in that future-now. It is a thought-provoking read for the open of mind, those who think about where our civilisation is headed.

After I finished reading willian Gibson’s Spook Country I put it aside to gather my thoughts about it. That’s a largely incomplete project. Scenes from the book continue to buzz around my head in a largely random way.

Gibson is noted as a writer of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre and this book continues that tradition. It is a follow-on from his previous work, Pattern Recognition, and is a mashup of science fiction, digital culture and detective story without detectives, with a hint of post-9/11 paranoia and a side dish of mystery.

Gibson brings together a mix of characters — a wealthy businessman, a journalist-once-a-rock-singer, a shady character from a Cuban emigre family, a mysterious person who may or may not work for some dark governmental agency and others. Mashing all of these together is the pursuit of a shipping container, a pursuit facilitated by a digital artist, a specialist in locative art and locational tracking. I won’t mention the content of the container in case you read the novel, but it is true that it is connected to the war in Iraq.

The now future

We are living the future. It’s not my idea but it is true. It is the meaning embedded in Gibson’s book.

What I mean is this. It is only 22 years ago that the Worldwide Web became accessible to the public after it escaped the restrictive corridors of its foundation in academia and the military. That was thanks to the Mosaic browser, a for-its-time clever exercise in designing a graphic user interface for the transfer of digital information. Among the digerati of the era there was quite a buzz about it — a buzz that grew louder as people started to join the dots and to realise what was being created in front of their eyes.

the future has started to catch up with the present…

From that grew the online world we are now immersed in. We moved into it by way of the letter—a simple technology reliant upon making marks on processed celluose (how long is it since you’ve written a letter, put a stamp on it and inserted it into the dark, narrow slot of one of those large, red boxes out on the footpath… like you were making an offering to some ancient diety?)—and on to the telephone, a simple device that carried only narrow band, poor quality audio.

That was Web 1.0, the one-way web. Now we are into Web 2.0, the interactive web. And Web 3? That is the ubiquitous web, the embedded, mobile web, the everywhere web embedded into things. The point of mentioning this is to reiterate what Gibson said in an interview. He said that he chose to write about the present in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country because the future has started to catch up with the present. They weren’t his exact words but that was their meaning.

I know what he was getting at. Before Spook Country I started to read an early 1950s science fiction book by the noted Arthur C Clark — The Sands of Mars. In its day it must have been astounding, but today, well, it’s almost laughable in some places, and the characters and their language are so mid-Twentieth Century British. Not a US or Russian citizen to be found on that expedition, let along a Chinese or Indian, the two likely contenders for future space exploration. I didn’t finish that book but I had a thought or two about the worlds portrayed in Clarke’s novel and Gibson’s. One never came to pass. The other is all around us.

What this says about writing science fiction is that it is perhaps more difficult today because the futures described by so many of its past writers have come and gone. Maybe that is why imaginative writers have retreated into the children’s worlds of fantasy, full of with its wizards, dragons and worlds so improbable that they are safe from the intrusion of future/present reality. As such, fantasy writers have little to offer us apart from escapism.

It’s as if he wanted to make the point about the the world as a converged digital/physical realm…

Critical to understanding Gibson’s recent work is to recognise how technologies have reshaped our lives… and how those technologies are now built into our lives. The ordinary, everyday tools we use now were dreamstuff just 25 years ago. Mobile phones? Mobile phones that send text messages? Mobile phones that play music and video and that collect your email and access the web and show you a map of how to get where you’re going and give you the latitide and longitude of the space your feet are standing on? And who would have dreamed that we would live in a world shaped in part by Moore’s Law?

This is what comes across in Spook Country. The infosphere has combined with the physical sphere and this hybrid, recombinant system is our everyday world. Thus the link between locational art, GPS navigation systems and shipping containers that make up the road along which Gibson’s story travels and around which he weaves the movements, the characters and the goals of a disperate bunch of humans.

A literature of reflection

One of the greatest uses of science fiction has been to reflect on the present and to discuss possible futures that, perhaps, we could choose to make real. Arthur C Clark did this, as does Kim Stanley Robinson today, especially in his Washington trilogy developed around the theme of climate change and the possible futures of his California trilogy that are based on different scenarios for that particular piece of geography.

And Gibson? Well, as I said above, his two most recent books are more to do with the present and are a reflection on that. It’s as if he wanted to make the point about the the world as a converged digital/physical realm.

Spook Country is a dialogue-rich rap on how digital culture, political culture and the greater culture we live within are inextricable mixed.



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.