Open Buddha

Open Source Buddhism, Technology, and Geekery
Bay Area, California

Spook Country

While I was camping this weekend, I read the entirety of the new William Gibson novel, Spook Country. As Cory Doctorow has mentioned, it is set in the far off, futuristic year of 2006. The technologies in it and the paranoia of its world are those of our own. Like Pattern Recognition, Gibson gives up the science fiction future for our science fiction present.

There are a few interesting exchanges and arrangements, such as Tito’s family and his systema, in the book. One that caught my eye when I first read it is on page 64. There, one of our protagonists, Hollis Henry is speaking to Bobby Chombo, the paranoid hacker:

"Someone told me that cyberspace was 'everting.' That was house she put it." "Sure. And one it everts, then there isn't any cyberspace, is there? There never was, if you want to look at it that way. It was a way we had of looking where we were headed, a direction. With the grid, we're here. This is the other side of the screen. Right here." He pushed his hair aside and let both blue eyes drill into her.

“The grid” that they are referring to is the GPS grid system and the way it maps to the world and, in the book, the world maps to it. Bobby has been helping “locative artists” make virtual art that is tied to specific locations. The prototypical example is the memorial to River Phoenix made by Alberto, an artist. It is a intensive, texture mapped, three dimensional image of River Phoenix’s dead body in front of the club where he died. In order to view it, Hollis and others where augmented displays connected to wifi. When they are at a location with locative art, the displays will augment reality by rendering the images at their location. The viewer can then wander around the art piece, seeing the virtual image from any direction.

I found this an interesting discussion most especially because the author, William Gibson, is the same author who invented the term “cyberspace” more than 25 years ago.  He inspired a generation of people who grew up to be the hackers and engineers of the last 15 or more years with his vision of an interior world. This was the kind of place that the character, Case, “plugged” into with his “deck” and moved around within. To invert this viewpoint into something around us, and which permeates the world, is interesting. The fact that a location can be tagged or even have art “present” if only you have the “eyes” to see it has possibilities.

These possibilities have been apparent for a while and it isn’t like Gibson is reporting an idea that others haven’t thought of before now. “Augmented reality” has been a darling of people for a number of years. It is still interesting to see the man who coined cyberspace inverting it to make it present in the world.

If you compare Spook Country (and Pattern Recognition) to his work in Neuromancer, Count Zero, or Mona Lisa Overdrive, they are so very different in tone and style. I still sense underlying currents of the same mind in all of them. I feel that these last two novels are the continuation of trends that I first saw in All Tomorrow’s Parties, the final book of his post-Cyberpunk “Bridge” trilogy. As that trilogy progressed, the focus of the books seemed to move closer and closer to the present, regardless of the supposed dates of the events in them.

Given the tendencies of both to be into current technology and the future as now, I’d love to see William Gibson and Bruce Sterling work together on another novel with their current sensibilities.

I strongly recommend this book. I read a lot of science fiction and this is simply the best novel I’ve read so far this year, maybe in the last year and a half.