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November 4, 2007
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Spook Country: An Introduction

I was reading down the excellent Hobbes’ Internet Timeline the other day, trying to remember exactly what it was that Al Gore did for that astonishing technology.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, a detailed description of the government’s decision in 1991 to commercialize a military network that had been around for years, used mainly by academics. At least the newsman who broke the story that it was about to happen, Thomas Valovic, has recorded the details of his scoop for Telecommunications magazine in Digital Mythologies: The Hidden Complexities of the Internet. The legislative histories will come later, I suppose.

What I did find in Hobbes’ timeline, somewhere between the invention of the first barebones emoticon [ -), on April 12, 1979, though its use didn't take off until the introduction of :-) on September 19, 1982]; and the first meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force, in January 1986; was this interesting entry, in its entirety, midway through 1984: Neuromancer, by William Gibson. 

For those who don’t know it, Neuromancer is the book that coined the term “cyberspace” and introduced to the Internet generation a forward-looking fictional landscape that, for a time, captured their imagination as completely as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four enthralled readers for well over a decade after it appeared in 1948. The immediate effect of Gibson’s book, at least on young readers, was roughly the same as when Bob Dylan had turned up with an electric guitar, writes novelist Jack Womack in an afterward to a later edition. Two more books followed Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, forming what’s know as Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (here is a precis that conveys the flavor). And then, at intervals, three more after that — Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties — now known as the Bridge Trilogy, for the colony of homeless that has taken over the broken San-Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in a region devastated by earthquakes. Almost single-handedly, Gibson spawned a genre known as cyberpunk, of which the three “Matrix” movies are the ultimate Hollywood expression. (Cybernauts understand the value of both sequels and diminishing returns.) 

What’s Neuromancer about?  On the surface, it’s about a hacker who has been fired for theft and neurologically prevented from connecting to the computer grid, living in a nightmare of Japan, recruited by a “razorgirl” to undertake a mission for a mysterious Mr. Big — not much different from Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, which had appeared a couple of years before. A Wikipedia contributor gives an excellent account of the truly wacky plot.  Part of the pleasure is its intricacy. And Gibson writes with traditional detective story force (“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” the book begins.) What gave Neuromancer its urgency, however, were its ethical concerns: it is a world of very rich and very poor, powerful and powerless, with very little in between; of no permanent attachments among people or places; of bewilderingly rapid innovation in techniques of skill-enhancement and self-destruction; of “applications interfaces” instead of bonds of trust. Mind you, Neuromancer appeared nearly 25 years ago. Today all this is very old news.  If you can believe it, Hollywood is still working on the film, and the outlook is not promising. A Rastafarian Zionist space station is not as sly a joke today as it was in 1984 (the cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai appeared the same year), Americans are no longer obsessed with Japan, and Russian mycotoxins no longer seem quite so threatening

But Gibson has hardly rested on his laurels.  His two most recent books (again, apparently parts of a trio) are great fun to read.  In Pattern Recognition (2003) he conjures up Cayce Pollard, a free-lance corporate “coolhunter” who, in the course of vetting a corporate advertising campaign, becomes caught up in the intrigues of a Russian oligarch. In Spook Country (2007), a tight-knit Cuban-American crime family from New York undertakes a mission that leaves the reader in suspense until it is (highly satisfyingly) resolved.

Gibson’s world is not quite as dystopian as Orwell’s. It is more romantic. Always there are artists around: big money, free-lance talent, hegemonic corporations, lurking danger, but also the possibility of a locally happy ending — like that of Gibson himself. He took up fulltime professional writing on the eve of the birth of his first child, the better to serve as house-husband to a wife who held a demanding day-job in Vancouver, B.C.; during his recent book tour, he posted photographs of his hotel beds for his family and fans on his blog.

Among Gibson’s books, my favorite remains his first, The Difference Engine, with Bruce Sterling, a counterfactual history in which Charles Babbage succeeds in manufacturing steam-powered computers in the early nineteenth century, his son-in-law Lord Byron becomes leader of the Industrial Radical Party (instead of dying in Greece), the Luddites become a powerful force in British politics, the Confederate States of America succeed, and the Napoleonic Wars continue intermittently into the 1850s. All very interesting Might Have Beens — the steampunk genre! But if you want to develop your sensitivities to a world today in which nearly everything can be outsourced, and all familiar boundaries melt away, Spook Country is the one to read.

My hunch is that Gibson’s influence among the young these past twenty years has been roughly equivalent to that of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series in the 1950s, a cunningly plotted space opera loosely based on the author’s reading of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which the ultimate edition of economics, repackaged as “psychohistory,” plays a central role. (More than a little of Asimov’s epic informed Georg Lucas’ Star Wars movies — all but the techno-optimism.)  Economics Nobel laureate Roger Myerson is among those who acknowledge that his enthusiasm for social science was kindled by his youthful reading of the Foundation novels. Economist Paul Krugman is another.  And, of course, it was Asimov’s readers who built the Internat.

What will the bright young readers of the rising generation take away from Gibson? As much as anything, his books are about how the artificial, the synthetic, the highly-engineered and the remote have supplanted every kind of natural experience — what Gibson calls the World Before Television. Recently he told an interviewer that Google has replaced looking out the window. My hunch is that, in due course, Gibson will turn out to have inspired many among his readers to do what he has done — to seek enduring relationships and a powerful sense of place. In the course of the Sprawl Trilogy, the haggard hero of Neuromancer inconspicuously marries, settles down and raises four children. The critic Michael Benedikt has described cyberspace as being “Everywhere and nowhere, a place where nothing is forgotten and yet everything changes.” The task for the next generation may be to bring that antic change under some form of social control: to buckle down, to this place, this world, this planet.

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