Sunday, September 23, 2007

Spook Country + First Among Sequels

Reviews of two brand new book releases ...

1. "Spook Country" by William Gibson

William Gibson is the so-called "father of the cyberpunk" - a genre of
science fiction that mixes streetwise characters with high tech, usually
set in the future.  Unlike much of his earlier work, "Spook Country" is
set in the present.

Hollis Henry, former member of cult band "The Curfew", is writing an
article about "locative art" for Node magazine (an emerging European
rival to Wired).  She interviews a locative artist, who introduces her
to a reclusive geek responsible for the technology used to generate
geographically-specific, virtual reality-based installations.

Meanwhile, a family of Cuban-Chinese New Yorkers is involved in the
traffic of sensitive information.  Tito, a young member of this family
of spies (one of the "spooks"), is asked to do the legwork, passing
iPods with encrypted data to a co-conspirator.

Meanwhile, a man called Brown is part of another less-than-official
organisation that is trying to work out what Tito's family is up to.
He's keeping a drug-addict translator named Milgrim (a reference to
the Milgram experiment?) as a sort of willing captive.  Milgrim wants
to escape, but that would deprive him of a steady and free supply of
his drug of choice.

These three threads eventually merge as the story reaches its climax.
But it's a rather slow burn.  Compared to Gibson's frenetic earlier
work, this is a thriller on sedatives.

As Gibson gets older, he seems to be tracking further from the future
and back into the present.  This would be ok, except that there seems
to be more style than substance in his latest work.  And that style is
becoming rather tiresome.  He name-drops so many brands that the
references seem like the product placements you see in many Hollywood
movies.  Here's an example: "The door opened like some disturbing
hybrid of bank vault and Armani evening purse, perfectly balanced
bombproof solidity meeting sheer cosmetic slickness."  Whatever.

The three-star average rating on Amazon is about right.  I would only
recommend this book to ardent Gibson fans.  His early books were more
abstract and inventive.  Try "Neuromancer" (which was written in 1984
using a typewriter) instead of "Spook Country".

2. "First Among Sequels" by Jasper Fforde

As the title suggests, this book is a sequel.  In this case, it's the
latest in the Thursday Next series.

It's been 14 years since Literary Detective and Jurisfiction agent
Thursday Next last saved the world from imminent destruction.  She and
her husband now have three (or is it only two) children.  Cheese is
still outlawed.  After years of responsible rule by the Commonsense
Party, the nation has an ominously large "Stupidity Surplus".  Reading
rates have dropped off alarmingly.  In a desperate attempt to reduce
the Stupidity Surplus and hopefully get people reading more, it is
agreed to dumb down great works of literature by turning them into
reality TV programs.

Meanwhile, a recipe for "unscrambled eggs" left in one of Uncle
Mycroft's old jackets is the key to the invention of time travel.
ChronoGuard, the government department responsible for keeping time
ticking smoothly, will not exist unless time travel is invented.
ChronoGuard operatives from the future are co-operating with the
Goliath Corporation to make sure the recipe is found.  (Don't even
try working out the logic of that.)

Thursday wants to save literature from becoming reality TV fodder.
She must also make sure the unscrambled eggs recipe remains locked
away in BookWorld and out of ChronoGuard's reach.  As an added degree
of difficulty, she has to cope with training the BookWorld versions of
herself to become Jurisfiction agents.  It turns out that the Thursdays
portrayed in the "Thursday Next" books of her reality are quite
different to the "real" Thursday, so they are more of a hindrance than
a help.

Another enjoyable Thursday Next adventure.