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Originally published August 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 3, 2007 at 2:01 AM


Book review

"Spook Country" an engaging mix of spies, cyberspace and über coolness

"Spook Country" by William Gibson Putnam, 371 pp., $25.95 "Secrets," Hubertus Bigend tells us in William Gibson's latest novel, "are the...

Special to The Seattle Times

Book review

"Spook Country"

by William Gibson

Putnam, 371 pp., $25.95

Author appearance

William Gibson will read from "Spook Country" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble in University Village, 2675 N.E. University Village St., Seattle (206-517-4107).

"Secrets," Hubertus Bigend tells us in William Gibson's latest novel, "are the very root of cool."

"Spook Country" is full of secrets.

Gibson was one of the founders of the "cyberpunk" movement, the '80s literature of romanticized hackers and virtual reality that heralded today's wired world. Now more an impresario than a prognosticator, Gibson, a Vancouver, B.C. resident, continues to offer the thrill found in his earlier science fiction, that of learning what's around the next corner.

Though "Spook Country" and "Pattern Recognition" (his previous, closely related novel) take place in the recent past rather than the future, they deal with milieus unfamiliar to most readers: Net-based communities of specialized obsessions in "Pattern Recognition," and the machinations of renegade spies and bureaucrats in "Spook Country."

Three engaging narratives twist their way through the novel's tricky, post-Sept. 11 landscape. Hollis Henry, retired minor rock star and would-be journalist, receives a writing assignment from Bigend's nonexistent magazine "Node." Supposedly her article will explore a new Internet trend, "locative art" (viewing historical happenings and contemporary artistic images in situ through virtual-reality devices), but she finds herself drawn to another, stranger story.

Tito, a 22-year-old half-Chinese keyboardist from Havana, now a New York City resident, does his bit for his family's espionage business, passing iPods full of encrypted data to a Russian-speaking American man who reminds Tito of a fading ad painted on the side of a windowless old hotel. Then this old man calls in a favor, and the family sends Tito on a dangerous new mission.

Milgrim, a well-read addict kidnapped and pressed into service as a translator by a U.S. intelligence officer who takes himself far too seriously, reluctantly provides his handler with the information needed to track Tito, the old man and the hidden focus of Hollis' pseudo-assignment.

Everything Gibson writes about in "Spook Country" is — or could be — real. Today. Locative art exists; it's possible to Google the term and learn about projects such as "Light From Tomorrow," an exhibit that uses cameras and the Internet to subvert the authority of the international date line. As a French artist Hollis interviews opines, cyberspace is turning itself inside out, connecting itself to the latitude and longitude of the real world. Its privileged secrets are making themselves public. Hollis herself, witness to what she calls "the single strangest thing I imagine I'll ever see," becomes part of the process, and so do Gibson's readers.

Even without the high cool quotient of the novel's contents, the pleasure of Gibson's prose would be enough inducement for most of us to immerse ourselves in this book the way Tito longs to immerse himself in the rich warmth of a bowl of duck soup.

The writing's not exactly transparent — Gibson's word choices demand attention at times, but in ways that don't obscure the story. Instead they add translucent layers of meaning, as when the world outside a restaurant's window becomes "the color of a silver coin, misplaced for decades in a drawer."

There's pleasure also in noticing where "Spook Country" and "Pattern Recognition" overlap. In both, Bigend and his apparently bottomless bank account are sinister gray eminences. And the nameless old man Tito risks his life for may well be the lost father of Cayce, heroine of "Pattern Recognition."

But where that earlier book centered on rootlessness and placelessness, "Spook Country" is more concerned with timelessness: insider accounts of important events omitted from history; the atemporal fame Hollis still has years after her band has broken up; the strangeness that is all around us, endlessly, every moment of every day, revealing itself only if someone shows us where to look.

Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction

for The Seattle Times. She is co-author

of "Writing the Other: A Practical Approach," with Cynthia Ward.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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