Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spook Country

by William Gibson

William Gibson’s previous novel, 2003’s ‘Pattern Recognition,’ constituted something of a break-through, if not an actual break, for the Vancouver-based science fiction writer primarily associated with the cyberpunk subgenre. ‘Pattern Recognition’ found Gibson supplanting the linguistic fission of speculative fiction into a record of our tangential presents. He’d been moving in this direction, towards the present, with his Bridge trilogy, but Gibson finally arrives there in ‘Pattern Recognition.’ It’s a brilliant book, despite its flaws. The writing is masterful when taken sentence by sentence; this is language crafted with exactitude and a clarity to its imagery. Which is the issue. Is Gibson’s sharp, image-centric prose in danger of subsuming itself to the worship of the product itself? Is there a common ground to the contemporary copy ad and mimetic prose? Science Fiction is an object-based medium as much as it is a medium of ideas. Do the two intersect? Blur? The space rockets and zip guns of science fiction are seductive ideas in and of themselves. Mind you, they are also imaginary objects, even if they do exist. ‘Pattern Recognition’ looses sight of itself in its boundless enthusiasm for our gadgets and gizmos, iPhones and Wi-Fis. It is also sabotaged by Gibson’s concern for the well-crafted form, for the ‘tight’ narrative, but still, ‘Pattern Recognition’ remains a powerful book, as prescient as it is timely.

But we’re not going to talk about ‘Pattern Recognition,’ I already did that in a previous post. William Gibson’s latest novel, 2007’s ‘Spook Country,’ occupies much of the same narrative space as ‘Pattern Recognition,’ only moreso. That is, how much of ‘Spook Country’ is Gibson co-opting the form of the thriller, and how much is basically just the components of another mass market, perfect for plane travel? But then, anyone who’s read the Bridge trilogy is familiar with the empty climaxes and tidy conclusions that end-cap most of Gibson’s novels. But why linger on resolutions? Gibson as craftsman takes over the last couple hundred pages of ‘Spook Country. The second half of the book is an entertaining read, but it’s the first half where we find the meat. What’s really important here is the set-up. It doesn’t matter where the chips fall, so much as what colors they come in.

‘Spook Country’ returns to Gibson’s familiar device of triangulated narrative. We know the three apparently divergent narratives will dovetail, and the pleasures are in seeing the initial brushes of contact mount to a full-on collision. The focal narrative is that of Hollis Henry, former member of the Curfew, a Goth band that broke up in the wake of drug-related death, and now a freelance journalist on assignment for Node magazine. But “Hollis had yet to meet anyone from Node, or anyone else who was writing for them. A European version of Wired, it seemed, though of course they never put it that way. Belgian money, via Dublin, offices in London…” Hollis is assigned to cover the emergence of locative art. In L.A. she meets Alberto Corrales, a young artist utilizing GPS technology to create virtual shrines to dead celebrities. The future, as readers of Gibson’s novels should know, lies in architecture, whether it be locative or purely information-based, “Alberto is concerned with history as internalized space…He sees this internalized space emerge from trauma. Always, from trauma.” In that regard, the trauma of space investigated in ‘Spook Country’ is not too far from the undulating Tokyo of nanotechnology and spatial violence seen in Gibson’s earlier novel, ‘Idoru.’ The book also follows Milgrim, a junkie captured by dangerous spook agents, and Tito, a Cuban-transplant in New York who lives amongst the ‘ghosts’ of our political-technological space.

The contemporary is understood as code recognition. Things, constellations of information, are divined and organized. People are, to paraphrase Hal Foster, manipulators of signs more than producers of art objects. Gibson’s ‘heroes’ are the individuals who negotiate information identity. Milgrim is kidnapped by an aggressive spook, Brown, to translate the Russian communications of IF, or Illegal Facilitators. Brown is tracking a family of ghost operators who text each other in Volapuk, a strange language of jumbled letters. Milgrim explains that “when they text, they’re keying in a visual approximation of Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet. They use our alphabet, and some numerals, but only according to the Cyrillic letters they most closely resemble.” Volapuk is similar to Esperanto, “…an artificial language, a scheme for universal communication. Volapuk was another. When the Russians got themselves computers, the keyboards and screen displays were Roman, not Cyrillic. They faked up something that looked like Cyrillic, out of our characters... I guess you could say it was a joke.” Volapuk, then, is a perfect metaphor for Gibson of the reappropriation and innovation symptomatic of globalization. The recontextualized gesture is the contemporary gesture. A reorientation.

‘Spook Country’ explores the nexus of an orientation and its subsequent, even its inevitable, reorientation. This is grounded in place. GPS was conceived to perform a particular function – a sort of virtual geo-mapping via satellite feed. But innovation and diversity only truly occur when an object is recontextualized for a function other than that originally conceived. Chris Anderson, in his book “Free: the Future of a Radical Press,” writes, in reference to computer technology, that “Engineers both built the computers and decided how to use them – no wonder they couldn’t think of non-engineering applications…the real transformation would come when those regular folks found new ways to use computers, revealing their true potential.” Come to think of it, that is basically what occurs in both of Gibson’s earlier trilogies, the Sprawl trilogy and the Bridge trilogy. In the former, Artificial Intelligence is originally conceived of as a security mechanism, while in the latter nanotechnology eventually leads to Idoru’s transcendence. In ‘Spook Country,’ tech-maven Bobby Chombo recontextualizes GPS technology for locative artists like Alberto.

This is all a matter of space, or as Alberto says, “I start with a sense of place…With event, place. Then I research. I compile photographs.” When a detailed virtual atmosphere is completed, its actual ‘space’ remains ambiguous, despite its reliance on place. Alberto tells Hollis that “The original only exists on the server, when I’m done, in virtual dimensions of depth, width, height. Sometimes I think that even if the server went down, and took my model with it, that that space would still exist, at least as a mathematical possibility, and that the space we live in… might work the same way.” The virtual and the actual have become negligible qualifiers. What’s the difference.

JG Ballard famously wrote that “Technology + sex = the future.” Technology is, ultimately, based more in culture than in hard science. Gibson writes within this dissolve of technology in the cultural moment – that movement towards. New applications of extant technology occur, as Bobby Chombo explains, in two places. He found that “the most interesting ways of looking at the GPS grid, what it is, what we do with it, what we might be able to do with it, all seemed to be being put forward by artists. Artists or the military. That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery.”

Gibson investigates technology as a grid. He turns towards the application of internet technology, of reality-affecting technology. This culminates, or perhaps only truly surfaces, when a bleed or integration occurs. Hollis is told “…that cyberspace was ‘everting’… And once it everts, then there isn’t any cyberspace, is there? There never was, if you want to look at it that way. It was a way of looking where we were headed, a direction. With the grid, we’re here.” Locative art facilitates a new way of looking, or better yet, a new method of moving. When looking for Chombo’s locative presences, “Right now, if you hadn’t been told it was here, there’d be no way for you to find it, unless you had its URL and its GPS coordinates… That’s changing, thought, because there are an increasing number of sites to post this sort of work on. If you’re logged in to one of those, have an interface device… a laptop and wifi, you’re cruising.” The contemporary moment becomes a matter of choices of simultaneous contemporary moments. Plural. Always plural.

This reminds me of Robert Creeley’s observation that there are American ‘poetries,’ plural, and no longer an American poetry. It also reminds me of that moment in the anime, ‘Akira,’ where a scientist watches the psycho-biological shape of test subject Tetsuo’s psychic powers spill over the boundaries of the measuring grid. A GPS allows us, then, to see all the possibilities of simultaneous place, instead of linear destination. “The world we walk around in would be channels.” Possibilities for contemporary spaces stacked on top of each other – or simply coexisting upon diverse frequencies. Gibson compares this to blogs, “… how each one is actually trying to describe reality… But when you look at blogs, where you’re most likely to find the real info is in the links. It’s contextual, and not only who the blog’s linked to, but who’s linked to the blog…” Hollis asks why everyone, then, isn’t blogging, why aren’t our modular grids of realities visible? It’s like how my friend Mike often asks, if so many cultural theorists, scientists and artists are discussing nanotechnology as the ‘future,’ that is, the present –where is it? Actually?

Gibson answers that maybe these modular, constructive realties are already here. When Hollis asks “How’s it different from virtual reality? Remember when we were all going to be doing that?,” Chombo replies “We’re all doing VR; every time we look at a screen. We have been for decades now. We just do it. We didn’t need the goggles, the gloves. It just happened. VR was an even more specific way we had of telling us where we were going. Without scaring us too much, right? The locative, though, lots of us are doing it. But you can’t just do the locative with your nervous system. One day, you will. We’ll have internalized the interface. It’ll have evolved to the point where we forget about it. Then you’ll just walk down the street.” That is, after all, Gibson’s point, that technology only really activates when it dissolves into culture. How many of us think twice before Googling something? How many of us think about how foreign an idea it seemed twenty years ago?

The grand climax of the novel involves the irradiation of a large sum of bills. Whether this act functions successfully as a narrative climax is debatable – as I said earlier, Gibson’s conclusions are often little more than ephemera. But on a metaphorical level, the level on which Gibson is most interesting, this act succeeds in signaling the future of paper money, of the doggedly physical sum, as obsolete. There is something pulsing all around us, without a body, just waiting for us to develop methods to touch it.

NEXT: Vanessa Place & Robert Fitterman's Notes on Conceptualisms