Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spook Country - Far From Gibson's Best

Burning Chrome
, William Gibson's 1994 collection of short stories, is on fire. Here, Gibson's literary pyrotechnics are dazzling - and every story is a masterpiece: lean, stark, gritty, vivid and haunting. 

"Johnny Mnemonic" is probably the single greatest literary source from which the Matrix is drawn, and in "Burning Chrome", Gibson invented the term cyberspace, now part of the everyday English lexicon.

"Dogfight" is devastating and beautiful, as profound and pretty as a D. H. Lawrence short. And "The Winter Market" serves up unforgettable characters. In fact, there isn't a single turkey in the entire,
peerless collection. It's undoubtedly destined to be recognized as a literary classic.

But I've come to the reluctant conclusion that Gibson is simply not at his best writing full-length novels.

If you're a novelist, the single Supreme Commandment has got to be - of necessity - "Thou shalt not bore".

Unfortunately, in Spook Country, William Gibson commits this cardinal sin repeatedly and incessantly. His capacity to spin an enthralling yarn seems to have declined in almost linear progression since his bold, visionary and hard-edged 1984 Hugo- and Nebula-winning Neuromancer. Count Zero and Virtual Light were his last full-length novels that really seemed to hold any semblance of suspense.

He seems to have grown weary of his trade, as if for the last decade or so he's been merely churning out sentences without any particular emotional investment .

Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties and Spook Country all seem to be his most earnest attempts at writing the literary equivalent of watching paint dry. He seems to have fallen into the habit
of recycling a single plot device:

  • Have some fantastic futuristic technology, cloaked in mystery for 95% of the book
  • Populate the story with eccentric characters from far-flung ethnic backgrounds
  • Recite each of their meanderings in minute detail - being sure to concentrate almost solely upon exacting descriptions of furniture, buildings, and meals.
  • Make the mysterious device a locus of plot convergence, by which all the characters' paths meet. Invent these details on the fly.
  • Add a couple of two- or three-page chases, and a final epiphany in which the device is revealed.  
  • Rinse and repeat.

Spook Country's central premise is also pretty implausible: an intelligence community retiree decides to foil a money-laundering attempt from the Iraq War - by irradiating the cash and alerting the authorities. Okay - but why spend so much time and effort to do it when simply alerting the authorities would accomplish the same effect?

And how would irradiated cash be a deterrent to seriously hardened criminals if they discovered its danger? They'd simply have some disposable flunkies do the laundering. I'm sorry, this time I don't buy it.

Gibson is worthy of deep respect - if not reverence - for nearly singlehandedly reinventing science fiction with the so-called "cyberpunk" genre, and has foreseen many technological marvels
some two decades before they ever emerged. But that's not license to pen page after snoreworthy page of pointless, dull, pedestrian descriptions of inanimate objects couched in vague,
arcane technobabble.

In my perhaps flawed opinion, science fiction runs along a continuum - at one end of the spectrum, you have the Tom Clancy school of writing ("the P-54 was retrofitted with twin diesel-cocked rotary
valves and a deep-bore flange for reckoning wind pitch on a run", blabbity blabbity - SNORE), and at the other, you have Harry Harrison ("...there were 500 of them - huge - snapping and shredding trees like paper as they plunged headlong, shrieking like the nine Hells. Bursting through shattered glass, he flew backward, guns bucking spastically in his hands as he fired....")

Please, please, please Mr. Gibson, a little more Harrison and a whole lot less Clancy.

love, The Vorpal Blade

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