Bill Gibson is cooler than you

But he’s not cooler than me. Which is one of the things I thought of several times while reading Spook Country, his new novel. If you don’t want the long version, here’s the gist: it’s decent, he’s still pretty good, buy it in hardcover, move to Vancouver, buy a Powerbook, learn Mandarin, get hooked on benzos, run a startup involving art, and find yourself some new cocktails to drink.

Minor spoilers ahead, but no big ones.

I really wanted to love this one. Gibson’s of course been a big part of my life since I was a wee one; Neuromancer is one of the few books I’ve been rereading at every stage of my life since middle school, and getting more out of it each time. In fact, I’ve reread everything of his but the Difference Engine, which is no knock on it. I guess I continually expect big things from the fella.

In case you had been under a rock, his last book, Pattern Recognition, broke out of his near-future mold and set a book in the recent past; effectively present-day. I don’t know whether he’s trying to broaden his toolkit, or whether he found the conventions of genre too binding; regardless, he did well. Pattern Recognition was an paranoid ride through the hypercommercial fully-connected post-90s world. If he struck any false notes, it was that the world of the internets moves quick enough to make his web communities seem…outdated.

And that’s not what’s wrong with Spook Country. He’s made a specific effort to identify a particular vision of 2006, which may or may not age well, but it didn’t bother me. His story is compelling, linking a former rockstar who’s trying out life as a culture writer, a junkie sucked into some spy work of unknown provenance, and a Cuban-trained cloak-and-dagger prodigy thrown into the mix. There’s a macguffin, but it’s a good one.

So why am I feeling sour? First of all, any delight I had when figuring out for myself what was going on when the plot threads all began to merge was ruined when it was explained to me. Not cool. Gibson’s power is in mystery, and in just giving you enough information to think you know what’s going on, and no more. To boot, there’s a constant sense (particularly as he’s introducing side characters) that he’s trying a little too hard to generate edge. This edge was there in Pattern Recognition, but was genuine. Here, I’m not so sure. But maybe he’s not writing for me anymore.

I was also peeved when a character from Pattern Recognition returned (which is fine, although I thought he was trying to break out of genre, and shared-universe novels?) and referred to the events in that book in a very annoying as-you-know nod to the reader. I’m a big fan of Gibson’s creation Hubertus Bigend, and the things he does, but some subtlety would be appreciated.

What can you do, though? There’s moments of wonder, and Gibson’s still good at building a mystery, and I’ll still buy him in hardcover. If I’ve got too much instinct to poke behind the curtain, it’s probably my fault.

(This post was written as if I was in his novel: on my OS X laptop, listening to post-something on my iPod, flying the Monday-night business connection from Newark to Reagan: a plane filled with spooks, salarymen, and students. All I needed would have been a briefcase full of data and maybe a video artist paramour and it would really have gotten eerie. )