Early in William Gibson's new novel, Spook Country, characters walk around with Bluetooth headsets and pass around info-bearing iPods, while others discuss the real-world phenomenon of "locative art," in which people with the proper equipment can access otherwise-invisible multimedia installations at specific points on the map. For almost 25 years, Gibson's fiction has offered prescient prophesies of the future and revisionist interpretations of the past, but in his recent books—and in Spook Country especially—Gibson is setting his sights on the present, and a technology-transformed landscape that would've looked impossibly alien even a decade ago. The civilized world of today is so thoroughly wired that nearly everyone has become a dot on a grid, marked and tracked. Spook Country is about a few people who've found a way to drop out, for potentially nefarious purposes.
Gibson divides the novel between three protagonists: Cuban-Chinese techno-criminal Tito, drug-addicted translator Milgrim, and rock-star-turned-journalist Hollis. The other major characters, Spook Country's real plot-drivers, are all mysterious and elusive: a locative-art "producer" who refuses to sleep in the same GPS coordinate two nights in a row, a publisher whose magazine may not actually exist, and Milgrim's handler, a secret agent whose affiliation is unclear. The three storylines proceed along distinct paths, intersecting primarily off the page, where the unseen string-pullers (some of whom were also hovering above the fray in Gibson's previous novel, Pattern Recognition) are living out a story that we aren't privileged enough to hear.
The problem with Spook Country is that Gibson's milieu of living ghosts and the hopelessly addled gives readers very little to latch onto. The only character who generates much sympathy is Hollis, whose memories of world tours and semi-celebrity give her modern-art investigations a poignant note. (When Gibson notes that Hollis writes about art to understand it better, it's hard not to hear an echo of the author himself.) Then again, with Gibson, story tends to take a back seat to atmosphere, which Spook Country has in surfeit. The cast of criminals and outlaw artists mix into one creeping shadow-society, building a culture that can only be seen with special goggles, or with the assistance of one visionary author.