Summer Reading: William Gibson’s Spook Country

William Gibson by Michael O'Shea

William Gibson by Michael O’Shea

William Gibson, Mr. Cyberspace, dropped into the house yesterday morning for coffee and an hour’s gab. He seems light-hearted and handsome for a hard-core geek-intellectual; friendly and digressive for a cult celebrity on a book tour.

We talk here about:

First, the disappearance of the virtual, of cyberspace itself, because it’s not “there” anymore, viewed from “here.” It’s everywhere, and we’re inside it most of the time now.

In 1981 there was very little cyberspace around. Everything else was ‘the world.’ In 2007 the ratio has reversed. Most things that are happening are simultaneously happening to some extent in cyberspace. And relatively few things are happening outside it. The amount of time we spend without connectivity is getting scarce…

For me the best and most profound experience of seeing a technology change something was being in London on a series of trips when the cellphone hit. One trip was the old London. You were in that solitary grid of London that Ezra Pounds’ little haiku about “petals on a wet black bough” describes perfectly. You’d just see faces along the tube platform. People didn’t chat with one another or with strangers. Next trip, they all had cellphones. The solitude of the transit through London vanished instantly. And it became in that moment a different city, and the previous city needs an artist to recapture. We can’t remember how it was before.

William Gibson, in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 20, 2007.

Click to listen to Part I of our William Gibson conversation (10.7 MB MP3)

And carry on, please, with Part II.

Spook Country is William Gibson’s first comic novel, an acidly satirical broadside against the “war on terror.” Set in the political present (2006, in fact; Tower Records is still in business), it’s a thriller about a geo-strategic “prank,” to disrupt or at least embarrass the Pentagon’s cash offensive in Iraq, the real-life inundation of Baghdad in 2003 with pallet-loads of millions of $100 bills.

The “chase” that threads the story turns on rival gangsters and gamesmen — “non-state actors,” in the current parlance, but mostly of the US persuasion — all trying to track a single land-and-sea shipping container. Is it loaded with weapons of mass destruction? Or museum treasures looted from Baghdad? Why is this Flying Dutchman container being driven now to Vancouver? And who’s really behind the several networks of agents hoping to manage its next move?

At all events, it’s the political edge of Spook Country that marks Gibson’s graduation not just from science fiction but also from the cyberpunk genre he mastered and famously linked with episodes of The X-Files, movies like Johnny Mnemonic and Bono’s music.

And it was the political apercus in the book that I was interested in chasing down in conversation. Like this one from the character Milgrim, an intelligence agent who emerges from the haze of an Ativan tranquilizer addiction now and then to speak, it seems, for the author of Spook Country:

“Are you really so scared of terrorists that you’ll dismantle the structures that made America what it is?” Milgrim heard himself ask this with a sense of deep wonder…

“If you are, you let the terrorist win. Because that is exactly, specifically, his goal, his own goal: to frighten you into surrendering the rule of law. That’s why they call him ‘terrorist.’ He uses terrifying threats to induce you to degrade your own society…

“It’s based on the same glitch in human psychology that allows people to believe they can win the lottery. Statistically, almost nobody ever wins the lottery. Statistically, terrorist attacks almost never happen.”

William Gibson, Spook Country, page 137

In other words, building a world view or a foreign policy around the experience of 9/11 is something like building a family budget around the chance of winning the Irish Sweepstakes. And then there is the sly observation by one of several ex-rockers in a cult band called The Curfew:

“Inchmale thought that America had developed Stockholm syndrome toward its own government, post 9/11…” The Stockholm — or “Patty Hearst” syndrome — being “the fondness and loyalty one could supposedly come to feel for even the most brutal captor.”

William Gibson, Spook Country, page 310.

I am feeling dazzled and a little dazed by my sudden immersion in Gibson — by my first careful complete reading of a whole Gibson novel, and now by a morning’s easy exposure to the man himself. He is the rarest real thing: an imaginative fictionist for our own strange time. Of course lots of people have been saying that for years. I am a little chagrined to be coming so late to the party, and all the more grateful, too.

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  • Any chance you can add the audio to the podcast feed? Just saves the step of importing into iTunes.


  • hurley

    Gibson’s view of technology as a vast agglomerating juggernaut is born out every passing day. You begin to wonder if there is a technological imperative working through us, propagating itself through the creation of artificial needs. Years ago Umberto Eco wrote that a cell phone, far from being a sign of advancement, was instead a mark of enslavement. I’ll bet he has one now, but I don’t (thank you, Umberto!). I’ve seen that strange unease Gibson describes that comes over people when they’re off the grid — felt it, too. The analogies with addiction aren’t difficult to make. Imagine neglecting a nice farmhouse in the New Hampshire countryside for want of a wire? Only disconnect!

    I haven’t read Gibson’s latest, but his turn to the present reminds me of Phillip Roth’s famous lament in the 60s to the effect that the imagination of the novelist could hardly keep pace with the present, much less outstrip it. If anything, that’s more the case now, with the future collapsing into the here and now at such a clip that even such a gifted soothsayer as Gibson is compelled to turn his attention to the present day, as the brighter future we might have hoped for unravels behind us.

  • Oh, you’re so good, Hurley, and you seem to have been thinking hard and deep about the substance of Gibson’s understanding… which is still new to me.

    Only disconnect! is brilliant, as good as E. M. Forster’s original.

    I’m glad you penetrated the audio conversation here, in which Gibson delves into the mystery of where the technology comes from. It’s never exactly envisioned or invented for a purpose, nor of course is it legislated into existence. There’s a line in Spook Country where the mysterious Bobby Chombo observes:

    The most interesting ways of looking at the GPS grid, what it is, what we do with it, what we might be able to do with it, all seemed to be being put forward by artists. Artists or the military. That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery.

    William Gibson, Spook Country, page 63.

    So what are the rest of us doing here in cyberspace?

    Hurley, you confirm my “crush” on William Gibson. He’s thinking, intuiting and imagining the scope of the Internet transformation as nobody else is that I know of.

  • hurley

    Well thanks, Chris. I don’t keep up with the subject, so much writing about technology so swiftly obsolete. One essential book that bears on many themes you and Gibson raise is Manuel De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991), where he traces the shift in the relationship between man and machines through the evolution of military technology, ending, as of 1991, with the Israeli prototype of a tank designed to automatically seek and destroy human beings, a version of which we might be seeing around the Rio Grande before long. Gibson’s aperçu about new technologies first being used by artists and the military fascinating, but not just limited to technologies. Israeli special forces (not to harp on the Israelis) are adapting certain aspects of postmodern theory to the urban battlefield, extrapolating from Deleuze (a crucial influence on De Landa) to explore new ways of manouevring around the battlefield, crashing through walls instead of doors, etc. Difficult to understand why they would need his imprimatur for that, but it’s a weirdly compelling twist in the history of ideas nevertheless.

    Great show. Many thanks.

  • wps946

    My little girl was going to be one, and my husband was turning the ‘big 3-0’ soon, so I wanted to have an extra special birthday party invitations for both occasions. I spent a long time searching the internet until if found these great sites for Children Birthday Invitations, Adult Surprise Birthday Party Invitations and Personalized Birthday Invitations for Children and Adults. These sites have cute and unique birthday party invitations, and you can use my own birthday wordings with lots of sample birthday party sayings for me to use. I ordered from Cards Shoppe, and the birthday invitations cards were beautiful. Everyone loved them!

  • Sutter

    As pertinent and observant as always, wps946!

    Now, back to the matter at hand. I want to stand up for connectedness. Today, I had a lunch appointment across town from my office. I also planned to meet someone around 4 in the same part of town as lunch (not incidentally, someone I had previously only met online). Thanks to my trusty (and, as this person noted, “well-used”) Blackberry — yes, I’m an addict — I was able to spend the intervening hours in a Barnes and Noble, reading documents while sipping iced tea and perusing philosophy books. (Ok, I had a big cookie too. Sue me!) In the old days, pre-Blackberry, I would surely have spent time and money returning (cross-town) to my office and then going back not two hours later. (And on the flip side, I can only speak for myself, but the argument that “people now expect you to be available anytime” just hasn’t been borne out. When I reply to e-mails or whatnot at night or on the weekend, people are genuinely surprised. But that may just reflect my own experience.)

  • Potter

    I’ll stand up for connectedness as well. I could go on. I control it too. Speaking of Israel, I can read Haaretz. And posts on their “talkback” are from all over the world; the Gazan, the Ramallan, the Arab in Michigan, the Jew in Australia, England, South Africa, others from everywhere, etc etc.)

    Most of all I am able to have a close relationship with my niece and her family of four little girls growing up close to the Syrian border, in the Golan. She calls me via the internet- free. We email heartfelt notes, she sends me pictures.

    That is just one aspect of my very broadened life. This is not the comprehensive post on the subject I wanted to lay down here but it will suffice for the moment.

    The Gibson interview is a good meditation.

  • nother

    When I listen to William Gibson, I hear his slow North Carolina cadence tinged with that Canadian twang, and I feel like I’m rocking on a front porch in the company of his calm reason, as he describes the rumbling hummers and bluetoothed pedestrians moving urgently by in separate directions.

    I sit sipping iced tea with Gibson, itching for tidbits of prophecy – I have to wait though as he takes his time with a long drawn-out sip of tea. Over that crackling ice he gives me a narrative of the “future collapsing into the present” (as hurley so eloquently put it). It’s a great story I must say, but I marvel most at how familiar that ol’ future feels. Earlier in the day, when I was imagining “cyberspace,” I squinted through the haze of our hot noon sun and far off aberrations danced fantastically and frantically with possibilities of new pleasures and conveniences.

    Well, now it’s late afternoon and I’m not midday dozing anymore…the illusions of that early haze have been replaced by soft benign shadows just beyond our porch. A disembodied voice announces dinner, an impossibly hyper squirrel jolts just to jolt…I hear in the air William Gibson’s cool assured cadence, and something about that melody reminds me that many things have changed, but nothing has or will become more important than quiet times in the company calm souls.

  • nother

    The meta question that I find myself grappling with is how much of all this is personal and thereby relative. That is to say, how much of this change is a fundamental change for our species and how much is normal change in the context of history. When automobiles hit the road for the first time, I’m sure someone was pronouncing that the future was collapsing into the past, and when we start cloning dudes years from now, I’m sure some dude will say that we have left the “here” and are now living in the “there.”

  • Sutter

    Nother, I think you’re absolutely right to wonder that. This is a slight tangent, but I think that one of the biggest weaknesses in our efforts to shape our environment through public policy (and thus one of the most difficult challenges to progressives, like me, who advocate use of such policy to mold our world) is our inability to foresee certain kinds of technological change. We’ve begun to think about cloning but I’m not sure we’ve given it sufficient due. We thought about the new economy and the information revolution but in some ways our lives are still modeled on an industrial economy (think especially of where we live, and where we work). I have worried for a while that we’re not thinking enough about what will happen when computers can outthink us — not out-soul us, or out-emote, but out-think. (Do such entities have rights? Why or why not?) It seems to me that the moment the present seems to collapse into the future is likely the moment that we see a “now” for which we haven’t planned well enough.

  • Concerning the “future collapsing into the present” what if that is exactly what IS happening? What if our orthodox, conventional conception of “time” isn’t entirely accurate?

    Or rather, what if our sense of past, present and future are properly to be regarded as a function of consciousness and not bound to “time” in the conventional sense? What if consciousness itself is accelerating? or collapsing into itself?

    We in the west have inherited a linear notion of time, and regard consciousness as residing in the body. But is this accurate? Wasn’t it Einstein that said, “to the degree our equations are accurate they do not reflect reality, to the degree they reflect reality, they are not accurate”? Or something like that.

    What if consciousness is more properly to be regarded as having an autonomous existence and dynamism independent of any individual? What if we, as individuals, are simply receivers and transmitters of such? What if consciousness is more properly be located in “the field”, in the quantum physics sense of the word?

    Perhaps it is time to reconsider some of the key assumptions that informed our tradition for the past couple of millennia. Is there anyone out there who “feels” they have “more” time on their hands these days? How about “less” time?

    What if there is a better map or model for our consideration? For anyone interested in exploring such concepts I recommend The Mayan Calendar and The Transformation of Consciousness by Dr. Carl Calleman.

  • Potter

    I do feel I have less time because there is too much “now”. Now has been broadened. I want that though. I want to be able to control it, to stop it, to retreat.

    The point being made is that all this change is happening so fast that we don’t know what is happening to us. We, some of us, addicted or entranced, perhaps get lost or swallowed- lose our balance. We are connected more in some ways but perhaps disconnected in others.

    The interview produced mutual laments about losing some things. Nother is right that in the normal context of history we are always losing the past as we move forward. We mourn the relative tranquility,even the naivite. But the pace of history has quickened. Our world is vastly different than the world into which we were born. In other eras, there was of course evolution, but the pace was slower. Everything was slower- now it ‘s almost as though life itself is whizzing by faster than ever.

  • I just listened to the interviews. Thanks! I enjoyed listening. Before I learned how to use a computer I did live off the grid. My New Hampshire Farm being a hippie palace out in the woods on Lopez Island. I often miss that place. It was my favorite place I’ve ever lived and yet I sure would be reluctant to give up my computer at this point. (On the other hand I don’t think I’ll ever get a cell phone – I rarely feel like answering my regular phone)

    Thinking about the computer and the arts, it changed how I write. Or at least made it easier. When I still used a type writer if I wrote anything very long I actually got out the sissors to literally “cut and paste” moving words, sentences, paragraphs around. Much easier with a computer!

    Art-wise: One of my tasks in my job at The Whale Museum is setting up events. I’m just now setting up a presentation by a man named Jim Nollman of Interspecies Communication who has recorded Whale sounds from all over the world. He plays music with whales and composes music using whale communication. He uses a lot of electronics in this work. He also does sketches when he his out in the field with colored inks and then uses photoshop on them. Many artists use photoshop to tweak their work but rarely do you see photoshop used as a medium itself as Nollman is using it. You can see and hear his work here. The possibilities here have barely been tapped.

    My ideal world? Live quietly out in the woods WITH electricity.


    here is the site with Nollman’s work.

  • hurley
  • Potter

    I would not be writing this, we would not be having this conversation or any other here without it. I’s a contradiction to complain about technology while availing ourselves of it…. the interviews from Greece included. It may save us all as it changes us.

    By the way I am looking around for some non-genetically modifed corn on the cob. Wish me luck. It’s all “sugar-enhanced” now here in central Massachusetts. The local farmer says everyone loves it and that I won’t find “old-fashioned” corn so easily anymore. Well I don’t like the new corn. It’s too too sweet. Maybe palates are getting used to sweet and more sweet. So give them more. I’m betting my normal corn will soon be sold as “heirloom corn” just like we have “heirloom tomatoes” for those of us with memories of such things. These are the “old-fashioned” tomatoes that don’t withstand travel, that are juicy and don’t have leathery skins, that are grown nearby and in season. As per Hurley’s link above- I remember the old corn, and the old tomatoes just as I remember a quieter world of less traffic, no cell towers, more wildness and green, more farms, cows and sheep in fields now subdivided tightly packed with mushrooming McMansions.

    – from the “burbs”

  • One reason, and maybe it is a contradiction, that I was anxious to learn how to use a computer was my love of living away from the cities and the marketplaces. I thought, and have not entierly given up the idea, that maybe through the computer I could do work and earn a living from a remote location. As an artist who lacks ambition I have not quite figured it out so I am still stuck in town due to my need to make a living. The industrial revolution brought the country folk into town. The computer revolution was suppose to let us go back to (what is left) of the countryside. Where I live only the wealthy can afford rural property and they buy it for leisure. This was a farming & fishing economy. The fish are gone and the farms are at risk. It has become a service economy. I live on the outskirts of a small town on a small island and some people may consider that I already live rural and remote but the low-income housing apartments on the edge of town were not exactly what I had in mind.

  • Thanks for the fresh content Team ROS !

  • galoot

    Great interview – a fresh dose of Open Source does wonders in the fading days of summer 2007. I am thankful to ROS for the wisdom of two Williams at the moment, Gibson and the amazing William James. I took the Richardson biography on vacation with me, and am just finishing it. He is my new hero, and I couldn’t help but think of his New Hampshire farmhouse, with its many doors to the outside, when you mentioned yours, Chris. The book has been the first thing to make me homesick for the US, and more specifically New England, since leaving Boston in 2002.

    I especially enjoyed Gibson’s discussion of technological changes that were not digital. I was reminded of a documentary I saw recently on the late Ingmar Bergman. He was speaking with a Swedish journalist on his island, and the initial segment showed him silently assembing an old film projector like the one he had as a boy. It was very simple, with a gas lamp and a crank handle to advance the frames. You could see that he had been enchanted by this new medium, and the enthusiasm lasted his entire life. I guess it is not all about bits and bytes…

    I also liked the “where are the grownups” thread. I had the additional frisson of listening to it on the same day that Gonzales resigned. The triumph of Comey?

    PS. A complete aside, but today in the attic I came across the gorgeous nametags (Galoot, and I’m with Galoot) that the calligrapher Lydonista made for a gathering in Cambridge some years ago. Is he still here?

  • Zeke

    Galoot: Not to change subjects, but if William James is your new hero, be sure to check out a book by Louis Menand called The Metaphysical Club. It deals with not only James, but also his contemporaries, Charles Sanders Pearce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey. I’m too tied up in Richardson’s Emerson biography to get to the new one, but I am looking forward to it.

  • Potter

    The calligrapher Lydonista was (or is) Ozymandias. We have not heard from him, not that I know anyway.

    Nice to hear from you Galoot. I was (am) Potterwithasorethumb- shortened to Potter. And I still have my beautiful nametag too.

  • galoot

    Hi Zeke and Potter, thanks for the info and reading suggestion. I will definitely look out for the Menand book, I am really enjoying finding out more about that period. Maybe something about them facing a new century. James’s outrage at the US actions in the Phillipines sounds very familiar.

  • rahbuhbuh

    pure coincidence that I picked this up in a Texas airport over the weekend, and now will rush to finish in order to listen to an interview.

  • rahbuhbuh

    context: i have not listened to the interview yet, only read the comments, finished the book earlier today.

    Flow beckons us to search out new vantages as if we’re blind to an oncoming truck of futuredom: “What if our orthodox, conventional conception of “time” isn’t entirely accurate?”

    we have produced an educational and publications market where analysis of our western notion of time versus other shapes (typically eastern cyclical) is gobbled up. we have also visualized time travel, put “space time continuum” into PG blockbusters and children’s vocabulary. “Einstein’s Dreams” details full chapter vignettes of non-linear time in plain-spoken english, and it is a bestseller. Ditto for the notion of “consciousness” and where it resides. we dip into isms and abstractions with ease. if the future collapses into the past, we’ll know it and not be bothered by it.

    the west is thirstily open to new ideas, and often funds them in sponsorship while adopting the technology as toy/keepsake.