William Gibson’s imagination seems to work naturally in threes. His first novel, Neuromancer (1984), the book that made him famous, turned out to be the first installment in a trilogy that also included Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). This was science fictionGibson was hailed as the virtuoso of “cyberpunk”but already he was being read by people who did not hang out in that genre. With his second trilogy, comprising Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), Gibson moved much nearer to the presentVirtual Light is set in 2005and with Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country he has dropped the conventions of science fiction altogether while maintaining the sensibility that gave us the word “cyberspace” (“the consensual hallucination that was the matrix,” as he wrote in Neuromancer).
Spook Country interweaves three narrative lines with three protagonists. First among equals is Hollis Henry, formerly of the Curfew, a rock band that flourished in the early 1990’s, disbanded, and still enjoys a cult following. Her post-Curfew investments having gone sour, Holliswho has done a little writinghas taken an assignment with a magazine start-up, Node, described as a European Wired. She is supposed to write about “locative art”a species of virtual reality that would allow a person who had donned a “helmet” to see an image “tagged” to a specific place by the artist, such as a re-creation of actor River Phoenix lying dead on the sidewalk on Sunset Boulevard, overdosed. Take the helmet off and the sidewalk is empty. The assignment brings Hollis to Hollywood.
The second strand centers on Tito, a Cuban Chinese man in his early twenties with a complicated family history. His grandfather was involved in the founding of Fidel Castro’s intelligence service after the revolution in Cuba and worked closely with the Russians when they came. (He spent some time in the Soviet Union himself and received extensive training there, as did Tito’s beloved aunt, Juana; Tito himself speaks Russian as well as Spanish.) Tito’s father also worked in Cuban intelligence. After he was killed, when Tito was still a boy, the grandfather put family welfare above his commitment to the cause (unlike most of the family and indeed unlike most Cubans, he remained a true believer in communism), bringing the rather improbable clan to New York, where they employ a mixture of tradecraft and Santería to pursue various enterprises outside the law.
The third strand involves Milgrim, a slackerprobably in his early fortieswho has worked in the past as a Russian translator but has fallen on hard times. Addicted to tranquilizers and barely scraping by, he is easy prey for Brown, a nasty fellow who kidnaps Milgrim because he needs someone with a knowledge of Russian to translate intercepted text messages in Volapuk. (The original Volapuk was an artificial language akin to Esperanto, but in this context it refers to the use of roman letters as equivalent to Cyrillic characters, so that a Russian speaker can send a message without a Cyrillic keyboard; it can function as a code of sorts.)
The novel consists of a series of short chapters, eighty-four in total, shifting among these three lines of the narrative, with Hollis the most prominent but the other two strongly represented, not merely secondary characters. Also, as the book progresses, the connections linking the three become clearer and increasingly intricate. All three plotlines converge in the tale of a mysterious shipping container, which ultimately turns out to contain $100 million in cash. The money was siphoned from the nearly $12 billion in Iraqi fundsprimarily oil revenue, held by the Federal Reserve under a U.N. mandatesent...
(The entire section is 1582 words.)