Spook Country by William Gibson – review

Spook Country by William Gibson has been on my to read list for quite a while, but it kept getting pipped at the post by other books. I recently decided that enough was enough and that I needed to get it and Mr Gibson’s latest (Zero History) read.

Spook Country and Zero History form a loose trilogy with one of Mr Gibson’s earlier works Pattern Recognition, which I read long enough ago to have completely forgotten the plot to. Fortunately each book seems to stand fairly independently.

Spook Country is told from the perspective of three main characters:

  • Hollis Henry, a former rock star down on her luck after a series of poor investments and giving investigative journalism for a somewhat nebulous new magazine a go.
  • Tito, a young member of a Cuban-American crime family (literally a family)
  • Milgrim, a Russian speaking and somewhat mellow drug addict being held by an agent of an unspecified government or quasi-government agency so he can provide translation services.

Each of the quite short chapters is told from a different main character’s point of view, and the three character’s stories slowly come together over the course of the book. I liked the short chapters in concept, but I did find in practice my reading of the novel was a little choppy. I was reading a few chapters each evening before going to sleep, and sometimes it would take me a little while to get back into the rhythm of the book. I would probably recommend trying to read the book in a fewer number of longer reading sessions – the few times when I got a longer read going I enjoyed the experience a lot more.

There is not a lot of science fiction in Spook Country. The book was first published in 2007 and the setting and technology reflect that era. The only thing even slightly fantastical is one of the characters, Tito, and his use of “systema” (a sort of Russian martial arts) in combination with the Santeria religion (I only worked out that these were separate things when I was looking up systema on Wikipedia afterwards). Tito lets the (real or imagined) spirits of his religion inhabit him, allowing him to perform different tasks more instinctively e.g. a form of free running, fighting etc. Given the tone of the rest of the book, I suspect the religion provides a means for the character to enter an advantageous mental state rather than Mr Gibson meaning us to take it literally as a form of magic, but it does provide a fantastical feel to parts of the book.

The story comes together nicely and I enjoyed the main characters, each of which was written very differently. It is interesting reading a book that is so explicitly of its time – the blatant use of 2007 technology (including naming specific brands) means the book is somewhat dated even only four years later, but I found what is done with the technology so interesting that I tended to forget about the time lag (e.g. locative art, using wireless devices and headsets to see digital art tied to a particular physical location). However, at the end I did wonder whether I would feel the same way reading the book in say 10 years time. Still, it certainly does capture a slice in time and may remain interesting for that reason.

While I found the writing excellent, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling – I certainly wasn’t staying up until three o’clock in the morning because I absolutely had to know what happened next. Still, it did evoke a beautifully realised world populated with characters that all felt vaguely cooler than I’ll ever be, and I enjoyed reading the book from that perspective if nothing else.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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