By William Gibson
Penguin, NZ$37 | Reviewed by Sam Bradford

IT MUST be tough being William Gibson. Having invented the word ‘cyberspace’ and predicted the rise of the Internet, he may feel a certain pressure to keep writing from ahead of the curve, rather than, for example, trying his hand at romantic historical fiction for a bit of a breather. He’s stuck to his strengths, and Spook Country will do nothing to harm his reputation as a writer with an unmatched sensitivity to the mysterious and changeable currents of culture and technology.

The back cover of Spook Country describes it as ‘J G Ballard meets John le Carre’. The le Carre reference is valid, because this novel is ripe with intrigue, spies, double-crossing and deception, but in tone and style, Ballard is a much better comparison. Gibson’s prose isn’t as conventionally elegant as le Carre’s, and at first comes across as ugly, but it’s a style that soon enough becomes unobtrusive. There’s an almost autistic attention to detail, to surfaces and to brands, that I suppose on a metaphorical level says something about the way we think in the 21st century. Spook Country is packed with iPods, Phaetons, Adidas and Casio. When a character’s shoes are anonymous, brandless, that too is noted, and our emotional reaction to it. It feels clumsy and painful and difficult to read at first, but comfortable enough by the end of the first chapter. This is after all the world many of us live in.

Gibson didn’t make his reputation by being in tune with the times though, he made it by being a few years ahead of them. Reading Spook Country is like diving into those slightly disreputable corners of the Internet where conspiracy theorists hang out, sounding both moderately crazy and alarmingly well-informed. Most of the time, those people are adding two and two together and getting purple, but occasionally they’re right and the rest of us don’t know it until years later. Spook Country nails the sense of open-ended intrigue and infinite capacity for deception that makes spy novels addictive, and once the story’s had a chance to get underway, this book is great fun.

Gibson’s characters are as contemporary as the brands he carefully lists: there’s a young Cuban living in New York, a Belgian mogul of ‘viral marketing’, a sedative addict kidnapped by a rogue CIA agent, and a female journalist who once sang in a 90s grunge band. The plot, which is a good one, perhaps without the ingenious trapdoors of a spy classic but good and knotty nonetheless, hinges on circumstances that are bang-up-to-date. It involves a missing shipping container, a journalist’s mysterious assignment to a non-existent magazine, hundreds of millions of dollars mislaid en route to Iraq, and a new form of art utilising wi-fi and headsets. Spook Country feels like science fiction, revelling in the landscape and technology of a brand new world, but it is science fiction of the very near future – perhaps of now, for those in the know. This thriller makes our current era feel as warped and fascinating and full of potential for fiction as the Cold War that inspired Gibson’s predecessors.