Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

  • Neuromancer (1984)
  • Count Zero (1986)
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

  • Virtual Light (1993)
  • Idoru (1996)
  • All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techy ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

  • Pattern Recognition (2003)
  • Spook Country (2007)
  • Zero History (2010)

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Idoru by William Gibson (1996)

Arleigh’s van smelled of long-chain monomers and warm electronics.
(Idoru page 201)

Virtual Light, the first novel in William Gibson’s ‘Bridge trilogy’, made me fall out of love with Gibson. Once I’d realised the tough ex-cop hero of the book, Berry Rydell was, underneath all the sci-fi add-ons, basically an avatar of John McClane from the Die Hard movies or Jack Reacher, i.e. a rough, tough hero of the type found in all airport thrillers, I found myself noticing on every page, barely disguised by Gibson’s gee-whizz, cyberpunk style and settings, all the clichés of the American thriller genre.

However, I think Idoru is by way of being a return to form, combining Gibson’s street-smart, cyberpunk attitude and jive prose style, with passages of genuinely visionary writing about the experience of cyberspace and virtual reality, passages as strange and poetic and haunting as anything in Neuromancer. I liked it, though with a few reservations, which I’ll explain at the end.

Plot summary

It’s a few decades into what was then the future, maybe about 2010, after a fictional mega-earthquake has devastated Tokyo and San Francisco, leading to the abandonment of the Golden Gate Bridge to thousands of squatters who’ve built a shanty town on it (which is why these three books are known as the Bridge trilogy).

Colin Laney has a natural talent for spotting patterns and nodes in information. He gets a job at Slitscan, a downmarket scandal TV channel, ‘descended from reality programming’. His boss is an intense woman named Kathy Torrance, who has jaded views about celebrity, namely that celebrities deserve to be made famous then crushed by media outlets like hers. A typical Slitscan ‘story’ is the revelation that a popular band, the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, uses Iraqi fetal tissue to remain youthful looking, supposedly a shock-horror revelation although, in this cynical world, the story leads only to a surge in the band’s record sales and a bout of hangings and executions in Iraq among the officials responsible.

Laney is employed to scour DatAmerica (which appears to be the corporate version of the internet) for links, connections, ‘nodal points’, assembling clusters out of the vast oceans of data which hint towards news and gossip which the TV channel can use.

But Laney quits the job at Slitscan after a job wrecking someone’s reputation goes too far, and he finds himself staying in an expensive hotel, ‘the Chateau’. Here the security guard, Rydell (who we recognise as the hero of Idoru‘s predecessor, Virtual Light), recommends an opening he knows about out in Tokyo, which turns out to be a tip he heard from another character from Virtual Light, the Japanese sociologist Shinya Yamazaki (still making notes in his electronic notebook with a lightpen as he did in the earlier novel) who’s now working for a new employer.

So, on this recommendation, Laney the node detector flies out to Tokyo and is met by Keith Alan Blackwell, an enormous Australian with one ear missing and a body criss-crossed by scars. Laney is tired, jet-lagged and wants to know what the job is about.

Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, a teenage girl, Chia Mackenzie from Seattle (page 85) also flies out to Tokyo. She is an advanced user of plug-in digital reality programs, a favourite being ‘the sandbenders’ (the hand-made product of a commune she describes on page 138) which she plugs in, then puts on the eyephones and whoosh! she’s walking around Venice in the moments before dawn, accompanied by her ‘Music Master’, a thinly disguised digital David Bowie. So she’s a teenage pop music fan.

Mackenzie is a big fan of the band Lo/Rez which appears to consist of two people, Lo the Chinese guitarist and Rez, the half-Irish singer (page 94), famous for their album, Dog Soup. Lo/Rez have a worldwide fanclub among pubescent girls and Chia is a member of the Seattle fan club. In the opening chapter we find her and a couple of girlfriends all jacked into cyberspace and discussing the scandalous news that singer Rez has declared he wants to marry a virtual woman, nothing more than a system of programs. One of the girls, Kelsey, has access to her dad’s frequent flyer account and so she buys Chia a plane ticket to Tokyo so she can go over there and find out what is going on and report back to the rest of the teenage Lo/Rez fans.

On the plane to Tokyo Chia is befriended by a suspicious-looking woman, a fake blonde with hair implants, one of which she pulls out and inserts in the DNA control which is now common at these airports of the future.

The blonde calls herself Maryalice (page 47), hands Chia a suitcase to take through passport control for her, and then disappears: clearly there’s something dodgy in the case, clearly Chia is very naive. Without her realising it, Maryalice also slipped something into Chia’s hand luggage, a cigarette carton-sized metal object

The narrative is carefully structured. The Laney and Chia plotlines alternate neatly like a tennis rally throughout the book. But there’s also extensive use of flashback to fill in backstory. It is a nicely engineered text.

Laney has barely unpacked before he’s met and is taken out for drinks and sushi by the enormous Blackwell, with skinny little sociologist Yamazaki in attendance and so, in a series of flashbacks, Laney tells his backstory i.e. the job at Slitscan and why he quit.

We learn Laney quit because he was tasked with finding out about a young woman, Alison Shires, who was having an affair with a famous movie star, and so was a ripe target for a Slitscan scandal program. But Laney’s supernatural ability to scope data had made him increasingly fearful that Shires was going to kill herself, till one feverish night he went round to her apartment, let himself in (being a data hacker he knows all her security numbers) only to find her slitting her wrists. Laney stops her, patches the wrists up, but trips and bangs his head which stuns him long enough for her to get up, walk into the kitchen and shoot herself.

The cops come quickly, but more importantly so do representatives of a media outlet called ‘Out of Control’ which makes TV programmes about TV programmes and want to screw Laney’s employers, Slitscan.

Upset by how they set him onto Alison Shires but gave the poor woman no help, Laney agrees to stiff his old employers. So the Out of Control people put him on a contract, give him lawyers to help with the cops, and put him up at the luxury hotel, ‘the Chateau’, packed with their staffers and lawyers and producers. So this is how he comes to meet Rydell, the hero of Virtual LIght, now reduced to working as a security guard there (page 69) and who, when he learns Laney is a digital whizz, gives him the tipoff about the job in Japan.

On the plane flight Maryalice had told Chia about her boyfriend Eddie, and he meets them at the airport and they offer Chia a lift into town and then invite her up to their apartment. From the whole treatment, I’d be astonished if Chia doesn’t get caught up in some criminal scam… and indeed, it’s only at this point, about a quarter into the book, that we discover that Chia is, indeed, only 14-years-old, not a young woman at all, but genuinely a naive child (p.86).

Back in the bar, Blackwell finally explains who he is to Laney. Blackwell is chief of security for the world-famous band Lo/Rez which we’ve heard so much about (page 72). Somebody has ‘got at’ Rez (maybe the Russian ‘Kombinat’, which appears to be a name for Russian organised crime) and Blackwell wants Laney to use his node analysis skills to find out who (page 73).

Meanwhile, Eddie and Maryalice take Chia up to their apartment above a bar, which turns out to be more like a warehouse, stuffed with cartons and a bank of monitors managed by a Japanese named Calvin. When Eddie and Maryalice lock themselves into the office and start having a row, Calvin whispers to Chia asking if she’s ‘part of it’ and when she says, ‘No, part of what?’, he hustles her out of the apartment, into a talking elevator, tells her how to get to the nearest tube station and the hell away before it’s too late.

So off scoots Chia and uses a public digital docking port to contact a Tokyo member of the international fan club for Lo/Rez (like the Bay City Rollers of my youth, like the Take That fans of a few decades ago). She hooks up with a local member and goes to her house. This local fan is Mitsuko, aged 13. Hmmm. So this plotline is about teenyboppers, about gushy teenage girls. The two girls pop on earclips which translate from English to Japanese and the reverse so they can talk to each other.

We learn more about ‘the Sandbenders’, virtual tech built by a commune in Oregon: to use it, you slip silver thimbles over your finger and thumb tips and affix wrist straps, put on eyephones and then you are in the virtual reality program of your choice, in Chia’s case, a beautified version of Venice, empty of tourists, just before dawn (page 89).

Idoru On page 92 we discover what an idoru is. It means ‘idol-singer’ in Japanese. This particular idoru is a virtual woman. A digital creation. Unreal. She is named Rei Toei. She is a ‘personality construct’, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers (as Yamazaki explains it on page 92).

Chia is invited to a meeting of the Tokyo chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub, which confirms more than ever that it is a fanclub of teenage girls, linked in hyperspace, dedicated to revering Lo/Rez. There is some cultural relativity stuff comparing American and Japanese fans i.e. the Japanese, even though schoolgirls, are formal and considered and first of all give Chia a thorough history of the creation of their ‘chapter’, then politely turn to her to give a similar history of the Seattle ‘chapter’. However, being a crude Yank, Chia ignores all that and blurts out her question about Rez – ‘Is it true he wants to marry a virtual woman?’

By this stage it is crystal clear that the Chia storyline and the Laney storyline are both about Rez and the virtual woman, and the reader can see that they will, at some point, converge.

It’s worth noting that the characters jack into cyberspace more in the first fifty pages of this novel than in all of Virtual Light put together (one of the weaknesses of that book) and that when they do, the descriptions of their cyber-experiences are brilliant, in a way Gibson patented and excels at. The description of the haunting empty cyber-Venice; or the meeting place the Tokyo chapter have created (since none of them are physically in the same room), a pagoda created from digital data; and the way the half dozen teenage girls in it have created their digital avatars, all this is vividly and brilliantly done.

After Chia’s left the Tokyo fanclub meeting, she has has a separate online meeting with a friend from the Seattle chapter, Zona Rosa, who lives in Mexico City and is famous for her bad temper and for the vast private cyber-program she’s created, an Arizona desert-type environment complete with lizards and cacti.

Anyway, this Zona tells Chia that someone is snooping after her data and has contacted their mutual friend Kelsey, the girl who used her dad’s frequent flyer points to buy Chia’s plane ticket. I.e. the standard thriller trope ‘Someone’s after you!’.

But the cyber-environment is brilliantly described: it’s cool how Zona’s encryption program is represented by a lizard she at first is holding, then places on the lapel of her jacket to signify that she’s turning up the security settings. That’s the kind of vivid realisation of the codes and protocols people create in this cyberworld which Gibson really excels at, which he made his own.

Back to Laney who now understands who’s hired him and why. Blackwell takes him back to an office full of other digital techs and monitors etc, introduces him round, then asks him to jack into the system, being DatAmerica, the world’s largest set of cyberdata, and look for Rez’s personal data.

With his eyephones on, Laney sees random artefacts, binoculars, a palm tree by the sea, a link fence around a stone fort. He’s been sent in to find digital traces of Rez, but can see nothing. In fact it’s eerily void of digital traces…

Meanwhile, Chia meets Mitsuko’s 17-year-old brother Masahiko. He is a digital denizen, an otaku (‘a Japanese term for people with consuming interests, particularly in anime and manga’, in Masahiko’s case a consuming interest in virtual reality hacking) who spends most of his time curating ‘the Walled City‘ a secretive digital community.

Laney returns to his hotel to find a fax (a fax!) from Rydell telling Laney a bunch of techs and staff from Slitscan came to the Chateau searching for Laney, seem have discovered that Rydell has rung him a few times in Japan, so they left and told one of the garage attendants they were going to Tokyo, presumably after Laney, it’s not really clear why.

I.e. more or less the same thriller trope as we just saw applied to Chia, namely ‘They’re coming to get you!’

Meanwhile, Matsoku takes Chia on a subway ride, then through umpteen streets, past hi-tech Tokyo buildings and adverts to track down ‘the Monkey Boxing Club’. Why? because it was in this club that Rez grabbed the DJ’s mic and announced to the world that he intended to marry an idoru, a virtual reality woman. They interview the disgruntled wiry DJ (Jun) who tells them that Lo/Rez’s people promptly bought up the club and closed it down, making all employees sign non-disclosure agreements.

Remember the roomful of techs Blackwell introduced Laney to, before he put on the eyephones and entered the matrix and tried to find traces of Rez? Well, one of them now turns up at his hotel, a slender young woman named Arleigh McCrae (page 129).

In line with the book’s extensive use of flashbacks, Laney proceeds to tell her the story of why he was dropped like a hot potato by Out of Control. He was lazing by the pool at the Chateau when his minder, Rice Daniels, arrived with a wise old lawyer, Aaron Pursley, who gets Laney to confirm that when he was at a federal orphanage in Gainesville from age 12 to 17 the authorities experimented on him with an experimental new behaviour drug, 5-SB. Well, long-term studies of this drug now show it is connected to male patients becoming psychotic stalkers. I.e. if it comes to a lawsuit between Slitscreen and Out of Control, the latter’s lawyers will be able to assert that Laney didn’t go to see Alison Shires to protect her but because he is a fame-obsessed psychotic due to his early drug experience.

Laney has to admit that all these facts are correct, at which point the lawyer packs up his bag and leaves – and within hours Laney, his evidence now worthless for the TV show, finds his contract with Out Of Control has been terminated and the company ceases to pick up his hotel bills (pages 131 to 134). He’d been dumped. He’s on his own. It was at this point that Rydell, knowing the situation and having, in fact, experienced something similar himself, made the suggestion about the job in Tokyo…

Back in the present, Arleigh takes Laney out for a drink (to a downstairs bar themed after American chewing gum) and gives him the backstory of Blackwell. Turns out Blackwell rescued Rez when he gave a concert at a high-security Australian gaol and was kidnapped by Italian inmates. Blackwell, also an inmate, got into the cell where Rez was being held and killed three of the Italians with a tomahawk before the other two fled, Blackwell released Rez and handed him over to the authorities. Rez’s lawyers got Blackwell released from prison a few months later and he’s been Rez’s bodyguard ever since.

Remember how Maryalice, as well as making Chia take her bag through customs, slipped a hard rectangular object into her hand luggage? When she rediscovers this, Chia is in two minds about whether to dump it at the various locations she visits, but doesn’t… The reader rightly suspects a lot of the plot is going to be about this mystery object…

Now Chia and Masahiko are on a tube train going to meet someone at a restaurant when Masahiko receives a message on his tablet warning him that Russians are at the restaurant (above which he and his sister live) asking after them. Masahiko suspects it’s the Kombinat, the Russian criminal underworld who have been mentioned off and on throughout the novel.

In a gaming arcade they meet a mate of Masahiko’s, Gomi Boy. Gomi Boy explains that he and Masahiko have both got responsibilities to maintain ‘the Walled City’, and that, when they heard enquiries were being made about Chia’s cashcard, Gomi Boy went to Masahiko’s and removed his computer, for protection.

Gomi Boy says that a bit later Eddie and Maryalice’s car turned up at the restaurant where they were going to meet (Chia remembers the description of the car, it’s a Daihatsu Graceland). Gomi Boy asked some nearby skaterboys to report if anything else unusual happened and they phoned 20 minutes later to report a smaller car turning up and three bulky Russians getting out and going into the restaurant.

To summarise the story so far

We now know that Eddie and Maryalice are after Chia and the Russian mafia are also asking after her. By now Chia is really, really scared and wants to go home. But she can’t ‘port’ or call her friends from a public portal, she’ll be traced, similarly she cannot now buy anything with her cashcard, which has also been traced and tagged. She’s stuck.

Rock bands with teenybopper fan clubs, bars with silly themes (right at the start there’d been a Kafka-themed bar, then the one plastered with bubblegum brands), noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets and showing off smoking. Brilliant though the cyberspace descriptions are, many aspects of the plot strike me as not really being fiction for adults. Surely it’s teen fiction? Young adult fiction?

More plot developments

This dawning suspicion was reinforced by the next scene, in which Masahiko and Gomi Boy decide it’s a smart move to check into a Tokyo love (i.e. sex) hotel, because it’s a good place to port and or use cashcards anonymously.

(The hotel is humorously named the Hotel Di, presumably after Princess Diana, but with the same kind of tuppenny pun on the verb ‘die’ that you get in James Bond movie titles.) This prompts a passage about a 14-year-old girl (Chia) opening various cupboards and discovering various sex aids, dildos and rubber vaginas, sitting on the bed and it starts to move up and down etc. All this, I imagine, was intended to be comic, but in 2021’s neo-Victorian moral climate, came over as distinctly dubious.

Meanwhile, Blackwell takes Laney and Arleigh to a club which was created within days of the catastrophic Tokyo earthquake, atop a ruined building, with the lights turned out, and ironically titled ‘The Western World’. And it is here that Laney, Blackwell and Arleigh sit down with half a dozen Japanese minders and finally meet Rez himself and, even more impressively, his hologram girlfriend, THE idoru of the title.

The descriptions of virtual reality are more frequent and vivid in this than the previous novel and now we discover that a particularly disconcerting aspect of the idoru is that, when Laney looks at it, just looks, he feels like he’s falling into a vast bottomless pit of pure information: the idoru has a hypnotic, vertigo-inducing effect on the digitally sensitive like Laney. THis is weird and strange and imaginatively persuasive.

Back to Chia and Masahiko in the love hotel. Chia is plugged into the net and we get more super-vivid descriptions of Chia moving through a number of virtual realities, including Masahiko’s room, Zona Rosa’s huge desert landscape, then back to the Venice which is her own personal playground. But she senses something is wrong and when she takes off the eyephones, discovers Maryalice sitting on the bed pointing a gun at her. Oops. They’ve tracked her down.

Cut back to the party at the ‘Western World’ nightclub. Laney goes for a pee, sees a hulk he thinks must be Russian mafia combing his hair in the men’s loo, and has only just returned to the dining room when all the lights go out, there’s screaming, people are knocked over, Laney falls down, is picked up by a member of Lo/Rez – drummer Blind Willy Jude. Jude turns out to have a handy pair of infrared goggles which he pops on and guides Laney through the stampeding crowds and broken glass to the concrete steps, down the thirteen flights of stairs back down to ground level.

On the way they collect Arleigh and Yamazaki and, as they emerge into the street to find cops surrounding the building and phoning for helicopters, they are joined by Rez. So he’s alright, hasn’t been kidnapped or anything. Arleigh gets her hands on the TV crew van and they all jump in.

Cut back to Chia in the room at the love hotel, who has a perfectly civilised conversation with Maryalice who puts down the gun – and it turns out it was a joke cigarette lighter, anyway. Maryalice lights a cigarette, rustles around in the fridge looking for margarita and explains what she got Chia to smuggle through customs in her bag for Eddie.

It is a ‘nanotech assembler’, the thing they program to make all the nanotech skyscrapers sprouting up all over earthquake-damaged Tokyo. To be precise, it is a ‘Rodel-van Erp primary molecular programming module C/7a’ (page 211).

Usually, these things are tightly controlled, but Eddie bought this one and wanted it smuggled into Tokyo so he can sell it to the Russian Kombinat. Chia realises this is the thing in the carrybag she’s been toting all over Tokyo and begs Maryalice to take it please – but Maryalice says it’s too late, the Russians are coming for it and Eddie will stand back and let them kill everyone who knows about it. Sorry, babes.

Meanwhile, Arleigh is still driving the crew van with the guys who escaped from the fight at the Western World. She takes them back to the hotel where she and Laney are staying. Laney, Arleigh, Rez, Yamazaki go to her room and wait for Blackwell to arrive, which he soon does, telling Rez he’s dumb to marry a hologram, but Rez insists she is the future. Exhausted, Laney slips out their room and slopes off to his one, opens it only to discover… bloody Kathy Torrance from Slitscan TV sitting at the end of his bed watching a porno. What the devil is she doing in Tokyo?

Cut to Chia in the love hotel, where she and Masahiko jack into cyberspace and meet people from ‘the Walled City’ which turns out to be a community of very advanced hackers. One, ‘the Etruscan’, gets money for Chia from her father’s secret bank account.

Zona arrives (online). Chia reveals to all of them what she hadn’t so far mentioned, namely that she has this contraband in her bag. Masahiko whips out the nanotech assembler, scans it and confirms that it is the latest version of nanotech assembler, very illegal, automatic life sentence for all of them.

There follows a detailed explanation of the origin of ‘the Walled City’ as a place whose denizens wanted to preserve the freedom and anarchy of the original internet before governments started putting up restrictions, ‘an outlaw place’ (page 221). The descriptions of Chia floating through random surreal hyperspace, and investigating the canyons and rooftops of the Walled City are brilliantly evocative.

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room. Kathy Torrance explains that Slitscan TV have cut and spliced Laney’s face onto the body in the porno, which is of a man who appears to be raping a girl. She says they’ll make it public and also publicise the notion that the 5-SB drug made him a psychotic stalker i.e. destroy his reputation, unless he agrees to spy on Rez for Out of Control. He’s trapped.

Cut back to Chia in cyberspace. Zona, with typical aggression, tells Masahiko and Gomi Boy they must attack, also mentions she’s sensed some intruder in her desertworld. Chia says she also has glimpsed the same in Venice, and takes them all into her Venice recreation. She sees her Music Man walking towards them, but then the Venice scenery slowly gets blanked out with snow and they see that the figure walking towards them is… the idoru!

Cut back to Laney in his hotel room with blackmailer Kathy Torrance. Yamazaki phones him repeatedly from down in the car park, they’ve got things set up for him to go into cyberspace and explore Rez’s files with the addition of the fandom data, hundreds of thousands of teen girl thoughts, ideas, observations.

Laney tells Kathy he’ll think about her offer but she says there’s nothing to think about. So, deeply troubled, Laney catches the lift down to the car park, limps to the van where the techies are fixing things up, jacks into cyberspace and… encounters the idoru.

She was there before him. She shows him a small gig Lo/Rez did when Rez lectured the audience about ‘new modes of being‘. This phrase has been repeated several times throughout the novel, it is a leitmotif.

Cut back to Chia, as she talks to the idoru in Venice while Zona sulks. (It’s a joke among the Seattle chapter of the Lo/Rez fanclub that Zona Rosa, based in Mexico City, is wildly aggressive, but Chia has told her to shut up and so she shrinks to the size of a burping frog.) All this is weird and brilliantly described and jogging along nicely when someone takes Chia’s eyephones off and she discovers that Eddie the scary crim has got into the love hotel room. He stuns Masahiko with a stun gun, then turns and asks her, ‘Where is it?’

Cut back to Laney in the car in the underground car park. He has only just starting exploring cyberspace with the idoru when he is tapped on the shoulder by Yamazaki, removes his eyephones and is introduced to Michio Kuwayama, Chief Executive Officer of Famous Aspect corporation, who developed the idoru program.

Kuwayama invites Laney into his Land Rover in the car park, close the doors so the others can’t overhear and the idoru appears between them, a shimmering phantom. The idoru explains that she is already united with Rez, they are becoming a new mode of being. Kuwayama-san explains that this is about Futurity, they are creating futurity.

Cut back to Chia in the hotel bedroom with Eddie and an evil Russian named Yevgeny. From their conversation we learn that the Russian mafia guys knew that the teenage girl who Maryalice picked up on the plane and used as a mule (Chia) was involved with some rock band, so they’d only gone along to the party at the Western World to find out more. It certainly wasn’t some sinister kidnap plot, as Blackwell had feared, and they hadn’t expected it to turn into a huge fight and incident. As a result of all this confusion Yevgeny doesn’t trust Eddie at all.

In the middle of all this exposition, Maryalice (who had been passed out on the bed, having drunk the hotel fridge’s entire supply of miniatures) sways up off the bed gripping her little toy gun, pointing at Eddie who thinks it’s real and forcing him and the Russian back into the bathroom.

But Maryalice makes the mistake of firing it and, since it is a toy, all that happens is a little cigarette lighter flame comes out – at which point Eddie goes ballistic and grabs her and starts hitting her. So Chia grabs the stun gun Eddie had used on Masahiko and stuns him, with the result that both Eddie and Maryalice start shaking with electric shock.

Masahiko had slammed the bathroom door on the Russian, but the latter is very strong and starts to turn the metal doorhandle, so Masahiko lets go and Chia zaps the doorhandle with the stun gun, too. Very exciting fast action!

Masahiko and Chia are debating what to do when the doorknob turns again and the Russian emerges, having used one of the rubber vagina sex toys stored in the bathroom to insulate his hand (incongruous comedy). Just as he steps menacingly towards the two kids, the main door opens and Blackwell arrives, accompanied – to Chia’s delight – by Rez himself! Blackwell takes out his trademark tomahawk (the one he murdered the Italian kidnappers in prison with and has carried ever since) and we suspect the Russian is not long for this world.

But what follows is not the massacre gunfight you might have expected, but a civilised negotiation. All sides establish that the thing in Chia’s bag is the nanotech assembler. The Russian reluctantly admits his people were hoping to use it for expensive buildings and factory creation in Russia. Blackwell tells Rez not to believe it, that they only want to build drug factories.

But at this point there is a surreal development. The characters inside the room become aware that someone has announced on social media that Rez has died in the love hotel and has told all Tokyo’s teen nymphet Lo/Rez fans to go and pay tribute, light candles and hold a vigil. Looking out the window Blackwell et al see it’s true. There’s now a vast concourse of teenage girls outside the hotel and growing by the minute.

At the self-same moment, Laney, plugged into cyberspace from the car park of his hotel gets the same message. He tears off his eyephones and yells to Arleigh that they must drive to the Hotel Di as quickly as possible, so Arleigh yells at the other techs and team members to guard all the kit and she and Laney set off on an exciting high-speed drive across Tokyo.

What had happened is that Zona, back in Mexico but tuned into the cybercall with Chia, so that when Eddie tore off Chia’s eyephones the call continued and Zona saw everything that happened. Zona was previously legendary for her high cybersecurity and had kept her identity totally secret but, seeing her friends in big trouble, she had taken the risk of revealing her identity by contacting the Tokyo branch of the Lo/Rez fanclub and telling them (the fiction) that Rez had died, and to organise the vigil, and then broadcast it to as many people as she could reach.

Hence the crowds of pubescent girls assembling outside the hotel which are becoming such a public nuisance that everyone learns that police helicopters and cop cars are on the way.

At this point all parties in the hotel room realise there’s no way they can have any kind of fight and get away with it, so Blackwell and the Russian in a surly truce, Rez and Chia and Masahiko, take the elevator to the car park just as Arleigh arrives in the crew van. They all climb aboard and then drive carefully through the hordes of weeping Japanese teenage girls, get free of them and hack it back to the hotel.

Coda

And that is the end of the main plot. That’s the story. The last few chapters are brief and tie up loose ends:

Laney confesses to Blackwell that he’s being blackmailed by Kathy Torrance, so Blackwell says ‘Leave it to me, I will have a very personal conversation with her’. Among other things we have learned during the course of the book that two of Blackwell’s techniques involve a) nailing people’s hands to the bar or table b) chopping their toes off one by one. Seems probable he won’t actually have to do that to terrify Kathy so much that she drops the blackmail attempt.

So Laney is in the clear, he has fulfilled his job and a one-page chapter finds him in bed with Arleigh, they’ve clearly had sex, they’re an item and later that night he phones Rydell, who tipped him off about this whole job in the first place, to tell him everything turned out just fine.

Chia has the longest chapter. Rez pays for her to fly back to Seattle first class and we have a fairly lengthy look into her mind and feelings and see her maturing, growing up, realising the reality of her pop star crush is very different from her fantasy. On one level, the novel could almost be interpreted as a teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.

The most problematic thing about the ending is the marriage of Rez and the idoru. I haven’t managed to bring it out so far, but in the later phases of the book there were references to the way Rez believed the nanotech assembler could facilitate his marriage to the idoru. That this would happen somehow via the creation of shiny new high-rise buildings out in Tokyo Bay.

I’ve read this passage several times and I remain mystified what this actually means in practice. It feels very like a kind of imaginative sleight-of-hand whereby Gibson evades any sort of logical ending and gives us this semi-mystical one except that, unlike the conclusions of all three Sprawl trilogy novels, is not so much mind-blowing as just puzzling.

Worldview details

Gibson supplies hundreds of vividly imagined, incidental details which contribute to the sense of a totally convincing futureworld, including:

  • overnight there are rumours of rocket attacks and chemical weapons in the former Financial District, doesn’t bother any of the characters, suggesting they live in a semi warzone (page 51)
  • fridges talk, tell you what’s inside them and to close the damn door (page 53)
  • logging into the virtual world to contact friends or whoever is called ‘porting’ – ‘I have to port’ (page 75) because you plug into a ‘dataport’ (page 77)
  • a revolutionary new technology of nanobuildings which literally build themselves by tiny elements of the building intelligently replicating, like watching a candle burn but in reverse – ‘They are like Giger paintings of New York’ (page 81) watching them ripple and move makes Laney feel queasy
  • toilets flush then disinfect themselves with UV light (page 78)
  • elevators talk, well, you tell them where you want to go (page 78)
  • Chia’s phone uses GPS to locate people she’s calling (page 85)
  • Masahiko interacts with the Walled City program via a slender rectangle, much like a modern tablet
  • ‘meshbacks’ is a general term for what we call chavs
  • cigarettes are banned in America and the authorities have gone back through movies and digitally erased them (page 156)
  • the Kombinat seems to be the name of the government in Russia which is actually a mafia government (page 157)
  • cars drive on gasohol, leaving an oddly sweet polluting smell behind

Punk prose

Gibson writes highly finished, stylised, jazzy, jive prose, no doubt about that – he takes the hard-boiled prose style of the 1940s noir writers, Hammett and Chandler, itself subsequently pared down and refined by generations of American airport thriller writers, and then mixes it with his own highly distinctive combination of high tech jargon and low-life street life. Imagined tech is mashed up with multimedia imagery, skyscraper and 4-by-4 consumer products, neon signs, shiny chrome hotel rooms, black Range Rovers; the text keeps presenting vivid contrasts between the precise spec of high-end, shiny products and streets full of broken glass from the great earthquake, patrolled by hoods and skaterpunks.

It’s a dazzling mix which Gibson handles with extraordinary verve and confidence, creating hundreds of examples of vivid, chrome poetry.

The rain was running and pooling, tugging reflected neon out of the perpendicular and spreading it in wriggly lines across sidewalk and pavement. (page 161)

Blackwell thunked the door behind him, then opened the front, should’ve-been driver’s side door and seemed to pour himself into the car, a movement that simultaneously suggested the sliding of a ball of mercury and the settling of hundreds of pounds of liquid concrete. (page 161)

‘Who owns the building?’ Laney asked, watching Blackwell float up the stairs in front of them, his arms, in the matte black sleeves of the drover’s car, like sides of beef dressed for a funeral. (page 164)

Here is a description of Chia’s first shadowy encounter with ‘the Walled City’ in cyberspace, which brilliantly conveys Gibson’s vision of it as shifting shapes and images, more sensed than ‘seen’:

Something at the core of things moved simultaneously in mutually impossible directions. It wasn’t even like porting. Software conflict? Faint impressions of light through a fluttering of rags. And then the thing before her: building or biomass or cliff face looming there, in countless unplanned strata, nothing about it even or regular. Accreted patchwork of shallow random balconies, thousands of small windows throwing back blank silver rectangles of fog. Stretching either way to the periphery of vision, and on the high, uneven crest of that ragged facade, a black fur of twisted pipe, antennas sagging under vine growth of cable. And past this scribbled border a sky where colours crawled like gasoline on water. (page 182)

Gibson can write this kind of thing by the mile and I find it beguiling and entrancing – he creates real electronic dreams.

He uses another characteristic effect – the pregnant pause, the ominous intimation, the hint that something momentous is hovering just out of range of eye and mind which recurs again and again in Gibson’s novels, giving them a constant sense of mystery and threat:

Between stations there was a grey shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being. (page 137)

Reservations

Fiction about and for teens?

Although it’s about other things as well, the weight of the novel feels dominated by the story of a teenage fan of a famous rock band. The amount of time Gibson devotes to describing the Seattle club of teenage girl fans and the Japanese fan club, and then the way the novel climaxes with all those teenage girls crowding round the Hotel Di… it felt like they… It helped to make it feel like Idoru is, at bottom, a book for teenagers or young adults.

Embarrassed teenage attitude towards sex

This sense of it not quite being a book for adults crystallises in the couple of chapters featuring sex. When Chia and Masahiko explore the ‘love hotel’ room, her discovery of the various rubber sex aids is played for laughs. ‘Yuk,’ she says, wrinkling up her nose at the rubber vaginas or extra-large dildos. So the reader sees adult sex urges and aids through this young teenager’s basically virginal, innocent eyes.

This makes the short scene right at the end which finds Laney in bed with Arleigh feel strangely… out of place. Grown-up sex somehow doesn’t fit into this book. The narrative is much more at home with made-up rock bands and their teenybopper fan clubs, taking us to bars with silly theme bars (the Kafka-themed bar, the bar plastered with bubblegum brands, the ‘Western World’ bar, notable for having a large plastic replica tank in the middle of the dance floor, and so on).

Teenage environments

It’s a book of noisy amusement arcades, skateboard gangs, cheesy TV shows, nerdy teenagers obsessed with computer games and gadgets, who show off by smoking (banned) cigarettes. Even the main adult character, Laney, is himself immature, naively impressed by swanky hotels and shiny cars, impressed in the way a gawky teenager would be.

Rock music

Another issue is Gibson’s taste in music. His novels feature rock bands with silly names like Chrome Koran (isn’t that a terrible name?) or Dukes of Nuke ‘Em (a ‘hideous ‘roidhead metal band’).

But it’s not that these are silly names, it’s that the entire idea of ‘rock’ music seems rather retro nowadays, in 2021, a time of female singers (Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele) and rap artists from Kanye West to Stormzy. Gibson’s obsession with rock bands feels a bit dated.

Digging deeper into this theme, there are references to:

  • Chia’s Music Master hologram being modelled on David Bowie (he’s not actually named but there’s a reference to his unmatching eyes, which is a famous Bowie factoid)
  • the way this hologram refers to the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)
  • the way Rez is referred to in a BBC music documentary as ‘the next Hendrix’ (p.131)

All these old references remind the reader that the third novel in the Bridge trilogy is named All Tomorrow’s Parties after the Velvet Underground song sung by Nico and released way back in 1967.

Hendrix, Procol Harum, Nico. They’re all from over half a century ago. That’s old, in fact it’s Dad Rock. So it’s a paradox that Gibson, who made a reputation for inventing the cyberfuture before it happened is, in this central respect, a central theme to all his later novels, so deeply conservative.

The odd centrality of television

The numerous descriptions of what Laney and Chia see when they jack into cyberspace are genuinely visionary, beautiful and compelling. But back out in the real world (when they’re not jacked in) it’s an oddity that a key element in the plot is, surprisingly, Television.

Some people might find the satire about TV programmes which make a living dishing the dirt on celebrities, and then another TV programme which makes a living dishing the dirt on programmes which dish the dirt on celebrities, amusing and witty satire. But taking the mickey out of TV for being mostly trash feels very dated to me, reminds me of those Clive James TV shows from the 1980s which took the mickey out of Japanese TV, and the scores of programmes which have copied this simple idea.

Nonetheless, television companies and programmes are a surprisingly big component of many of Gibson’s books.

Thus the previous novel, Virtual Light, opens with Rydell being taken up by a reality TV show and the climax of that book relies on the fact that Rydell is again taken up and his story told by the same TV show – Cops in Trouble – whose lawyers spring him and his beautiful assistant, Chevette, from gaol, make them sign exclusive contracts, and make them media stars for a few weeks.

Similarly, in this novel, the central theme of the opening hundred pages is Laney’s experience working for another reality TV show company, Slitscreen, complete with a supposed exposé of its trashy, exploitative values.

My point is that this is all very old media. Rock bands and television, Hollywood producers and lawyers. I know a whole load of futuristic details have been bolted onto it, and I know a key element in the novel is the repeated and brilliant evocations of cyberspace, and yet… somehow, the core vibe feels very nineteen seventies.

A teenage coming of age

In the end, the marriage of idoru and Rez doesn’t really come off. I read the last passage a couple of times, but still didn’t understand how they were being united in what was basically a property development project. Here’s Chia reflecting on her experiences:

But mainly it was the City taking up her time, because Rez and [the idoru] were there, shadows among the other shadows but still you could tell. Working on their Project. Plenty there who didn’t like the idea, but plenty who did. The Etruscan did. He said it was the craziest thing since they’d turned the first killfile inside out. Sometimes Chia wondered if they all weren’t just joking, because it just seemed impossible that anyone could ever do that. Build that, on an island in Tokyo Bay. But the idoru said that that was where they wanted to live, now that they were married. So they were going to do it. (pages 291 to 292)

All the way through, characters including Rez refer optimistically to ‘new modes of being’ and Rez refers to his partnering the idoru as an ‘alchemical marriage’, but when it comes down to it, in these last pages, Gibson fails to give us any sense at all of what that actually means.

Whereas the absolute final chapter, an extended reflection on Chia’s feelings once she’s safely back home after her Big Adventure, is much more effective at somehow encapsulating the book’s essential adolescence.

It is fitting that the novel ends not with the evanescent idoru concept but with the much more solid and traditional trope of Chia, the adolescent girl, feeling she’s grown up a bit now and is no longer so in thrall to the Lo/Rez mystique, having seen the reality of his life, of adult life.

This final chapter helps crystallise your sense that the novel is less ‘a vision of a dystopian future’ (as the blurb on the back puts it) and far more a rather sweet, teenage girl’s ‘coming of age’ story.


Credit

Idoru by William Gibson was published by Viking Press in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Penguin paperback edition.

Other William Gibson reviews

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

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