He looked at her. “It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you, Reg. But I’m still confused.”
“If you weren’t these days,” he said, “You’d probably be psychotic […]”
September 11th, 2001, changed everything in America.
I was on my way to an Intro to Philosophy course in my first year of college (it’s wild that I remember that, it seems), and I remember the profound cultural shift not only in New York City but the nation at large, which is something that I talk about sometimes with my students, about how thinks Used To Be.
One of the things that really changed around this is the way that shadow economies functioned, the way that crime and hustle both shrank and expanded like a soap bubble, gauging what it could and could not get away with in an age of increasingly-blurring parameters defined by the world feeling it could finally “have an enemy.” And while most post-9/11 fiction worked hard to talk about the feelings and states of mind of those who saw it happen, William Gibson’s book Spook Country instead looked at the state of existence of a world that saw it happen without ever really mentioning that a change happen. We know it happened, and we continue to live in the invisible, shadowy weight of its cultural and sociopolitical weight.
Post-war anxiety in the state of uncertainty as WW2 ended and the stalemate of the West VS the East settling into the long Cold War we know from history books and spy novels is the analogy here, as profound shifts in behavior and beliefs codified, somehow clashing with what has been revealed in hindsight to be a constantly-shifting set of beliefs and behaviors regarding alliances, behaviors, and the literal movements of government trying to figure out how to move forward, the confusion of big changes happening after big things creating gray spaces. The “point” of the novel, about tracking a mysterious shipping crate, is important here in the the crate is a representation of how the world has changed in this new country (literal and metaphorical) but it’s also not important, a MacGuffin, an abstract object that represents want and justification for the story to move forward, letting the style and setting really tell us what’s going on here.
Spook Country does this by looking into those spaces between, gray spaces that after 2001 trickled down into social gaps at;
- the local level – How we move around cities, between cities and spaces, and the ways in which big and little things have changed. Sometimes I wonder about how me, post-college, was any different from someone looking at the city as WW2 was over and the specter of the Cold War was just starting. I looked around in the way that everyone in Spook Country did, wondering where the hell I was and how the hell we got here. How they hell did anyone get where they did in the spook country that was the US?
- the cultural level – How we live our lives in spaces, and in what is and isn’t discussed, enjoyed, or viewed through particular lenses. The thing I always think about is the shift in how entertainment reflected new norms, new allowed things. I still feel various ways about the massive move in how we looked at law enforcement and soldiers in film and TV post-2001, about how so much was now taboo…and so much now became OK to actively target in entertainment and media.
- the personal level – How we feel about the state of the society* that we are a part of, and how we feel and react to its new forward momentum and changes. The way that I and my peers felt looking at the new enemies versus the old ones, and the ways that it made people act. It was like living in a dream influenced by simulacra of reality from the fevered hopes of chickenhawks and policy fetishists, profiteers and the few real fanatics that actually exist.
The thing that makes this book stand out to me is that while it’s ostensibly speculative fiction, a near-future sci-fi, it’s actually more a spy-slash-noir story about people living within the noir fluid spaces between social classes, from Bigend high above it all to Tito constantly floating around the edges of multiple levels.
Nobody in Spook Country ever really feels “secure.” So few spaces described feel permanent in a permanent state, even actual houses and homes. I don’t actually think a single scene takes place in someone’s home, at least not in a home in the sense that we even understand it. And in that perpetual uncertainty and motion, the acknowledgment that space is a thing not to settle into but rather to float around in and secure yourself when and where you can as the world changes around us, we see the influence of post-war detective fiction the most.
So much of the world has changed and no one is honestly sure if it’s for the better. We’re presented with progress and trappings of power that are ostensibly meant to be power and safety, but deep down we know it’s just not true. Machinations are now much larger as new industries begin to set themselves up as standards and older ones previously unseen by society at large now exist in the spotlight. How we act and how we should act change on a day-by-day basis, and as characters move through mysteries in this new world and new country, the complexities of whether anything we do really matters in the long run, and what we CAN do to be able to somehow matter, to someone somewhere. The unknown old man, Tito, and Garreth (as witnessed by Hollis Henry) manage to matter, in that moment, and managing to make that moment happen despite the weight of what is around you in a scary new world (a “spooky” one if you will, of both unseen fears and semi-transparent spies) is modern noir in a nutshell, moreso than any detective story could be aping Chandler and Hammett.
*) I hate using the word “society” to describe culture and particular types of social experiences (I guess using “Western society” would be a better way to be specific) but in this case for the sake of writing, I suppose it’ll do.