by Terence Taylor
Lately I’ve felt buffeted by events outside my control, a failing OS, a work schedule that’s left me little time to write or sleep, multiple deadlines and other unforeseen circumstances that have left me exhausted, emotionally and physically. “Life… don’t talk to me about life… brain the size of a planet and I’m parking cars,” is my favorite quote of Marvin the Manically Depressed Robot.
Nonetheless, I plunge on, because that is what we do, isn’t it, the famed last lines of Becket’s The Unnamable, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Progress in the face of adversity, thin cotton collars turned up against the storm, backs to the wind in the hopes it will speed us on our way and not tumble us to the ground. William Gibson’s Spook Country and Tobias S. Buckell’s Sly Mongoose are stories of people in similarly slippery circumstances, in very different milieus, each struggling to find footing on unfamiliar, even alien terrain.
Both books open with their main protagonists in freefall — one metaphorical, one literal. Both face a major mystery that’s unraveled until a final reveal that exposes its ugly truth. The difference is that one takes us on an emotional journey, the other down a complex intellectual rabbit hole.
Hollis Henry, the main character in Spook Country, is a retired rock star from an indie band called The Curfew, pursuing a new career in journalism. She’s lost most of the money she made in rock and roll with bad investments and loans to a now dead junkie band mate, but like Nick in The Great Gatsby, seemingly still has enough stashed away to survive comfortably in a job she seems only ambivalent about. She’s in Los Angeles to write a piece on locative art, ephemeral three-dimensional site specific digital recreations of famous deaths viewed via VR headset… an overdosed River Phoenix sprawled in front of The Viper Room. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fatal heart attack. A street filled with white crosses keeping count of American fatalities in Iraq.
The tech used to display them becomes suspect when her publisher, the enigmatic billionaire Hubertus Bigend, asks her to meet and investigate Bobby Chombo, the guy responsible for the systems that track and lock the art pieces in place using GPS signals. He’s also using his equipment to track a mysterious traveling intermodal container, roaming the world for reasons unknown, never in the same place twice, much as the easily spooked (pun deliberate) Bobby sleeps in different squares on a grid each night. And so our story begins in classic noir style, a cynical hero surrounded by sinister eccentrics, on a seemingly simple assignment that takes on larger, darker implications.
Like most noir heroes in L.A., Hollis quickly realizes she may be in over her head, though she has no idea in what. The fictitious magazine she works for, Node, described only as a European Wired, can’t be defined with any certainty even by the omniscient Internet. Like the mysterious traveling steel container glimpsed only in virtual space with VR headsets, it can be described, but not explained.
Node is as much a phantom as the “spooks” we meet along the way; a team of covert agents from Cuba, Chinese-Cubans who speak Russian, the youngest, Tito, guided by Orishas. There are the spooks in pursuit of them, Brown and his drugged slave, Milgrim. We also meet the artists who use Bobby Chombo to realize their work, Hollis’ ex-band mates, one who still influences her life even in death, and all the peripheral people around them. In true noir style, she moves from person to person through the story, pieces together the puzzle while we watch the other players in motion around her until they all converge.
My biggest issue is that Hollis is a former member of a rock band sufficiently well-known for her to be recognized by most of the characters in the book. When someone finally pins her down to an answer as to why The Curfew disbanded, Hollis can only say, “Bands are like marriages. Or maybe only good ones are. Who knows why a good one works, let alone why it stops working.“
The same can be said of books.
I remember reading David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day and, though amusing, I was struck at how much less compelling humorous essays about his life as a successful international author in a happy relationship were than his more identifiable early work of struggle and frustration. By the end of Spook Country I felt the same about Gibson, that his life after a rare authorial rise to rock star status may have had the same effect on his work. The novel reflects a vacuously lush world of luxury hotels and opulent living spaces, with easy access to any means necessary, even for the spooks on either side, never left without the right tool for the job. Hollis has an ease in her interactions with others that comes with celebrity status, lives in a world where even underground agents for change open their doors and hearts to her.
There is a point where you are faced with the Superman problem… How do you feel any sense of threat to someone made invulnerable by her stardom? Brown, a ruthless agent tracking the container’s pursuers, a sociopath who enlists another man’s aid by addicting him to speed that he controls access to, is the only one in the book who would take her out without a thought, but they never quite meet. In Hollis’ circle she is bulletproof and her celebrity extends the borders of her safety. The Old Man, a character we are led to see as a possible villain until later actions make him ambiguous, opens up almost immediately upon meeting her and enlists her aid as an amanuensis to tell the tale of their illicit endeavor when it’s done, rather than killing or imprisoning her.
The novel is well written, chapters spare, characters and settings sketched in quickly and clearly. There‘s no fault in the wordcraft, but the storytelling lacks an essential element for me of dramatic change. Though several characters change places, no one actually changes. I could detail their moves, but it’s all geography, not psychology. The spooks on each side accomplish their goals, though one side is mistaken. One character is feed of his bondage, but lives the same life on his own. Hollis is left as adrift as she was when we met her, still unsure of her direction, so I found the trip clever, interesting, but only intellectually stimulating.
By contrast, Sly Mongoose is a breathless space opera in the classic tradition, turned nicely askew with a dark dreadlocked centuries old hero who’s easily the smartest person in the room for most of the novel. It’s an emotional, action-filled high adventure set in a distant galaxy far, far away that includes actual pirates, more Somalian-styled than the Disney kind. We meet our first protagonist, Pepper, AKA Juan Smith, mysterious super soldier with a shady past, as he plummets in a spacesuit in freefall from orbit towards a toxic, but inhabited world, about to become a battleground, calmly working out how to survive his collision.
That inevitable downfall also impacts the life of Timas, a young worker still able to fit into the patched together pressure suits used to mine the precious metals his city needs to survive. His best friend is killed while they are on the planet’s surface by falling debris caused by Pepper’s crash into their city. Arrested as a criminal, Pepper’s missing an arm and a leg by the time they recover him, but heavy eating begins to repair his wasted flesh as he tells them a terrible tale of approaching danger from The Swarm, an infectious intelligence that turns humans into zombielike drones with a bite, becoming parts of an alien hive mind that gets smarter as the population it controls expands. Having been freed from centuries of slavery to an alien race that posed as their gods, the people of planet Chilo are beyond dubious, until events prove him horribly right.
The rest of the book reveals deeper reasons for the invasion, and whether or not there are aliens hiding under the lethal clouds of Chilo. It rapidly escalates in action as the invasion begins in earnest, cities going silent one by one, then coming back into contact, distorted, pretending normalcy to break through their defenses as ships arrive, laden with the infected. We follow Pepper, Timas and Katerina, a teenaged avatar for her people, the Aeolians, technologically telepathic, kept in constant contact with everything she sees and hears through a silver eye that has replaced one of her own, as they collectively vote on any decisions to be made.
Unlike Spook Country, there is not a character in Sly Mongoose who is not radically transformed over the course of the story. Even Pepper, sure of who he is and what he believes in the beginning, finds new meaning to his life, and by the end becomes the sly mongoose of the title.
When all is said and done, transformation of characters over time is what makes a read enjoyable. Whether it’s growth or decay, change is all that drives a story for me, that we leave the protagonists somewhere other than where they were when we met them. Buckell did that better than Gibson in these two examples of their work, and that, ultimately, is always what brings me back to an author’s work.
Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. As an author of fiction, his first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was one of a handful of authors to be included in the next two volumes, with “The Share” in Voices from the Other Side and “Wet Paint” in Whispers in the Night. Terence is also author of the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy: Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. After a two-year hiatus he has returned to the conclusion of his trilogy, Past Life. Find him on Twitter @vamptestaments.