Monday, January 14, 2008

William Gibson's Thing for Damaged Experts and Ninjas

It was apparently a weekend for wakeup dreams -- Saturday morning's jolted me awake at the precise moment when I'd realized that someone had burglarized my (dream) house -- an idealized version of my parents' house. (The dream's tipoffs: It was far too tidy and had a Miata in the garage.)

I attribute the dream to some It Takes a Thief reruns I saw on Discovery last week.

Anyway, despite the fact that it was 5am-ish, I couldn't get back to sleep. So I finished reading William Gibson's Spook Country, which I had just borrowed and started.

I enjoy all of Gibson's works.* This one was a little unsettling because one of the protagonist arcs -- primarily Tito's -- doesn't reveal who the "good guys" are until very nearly the end. In fact, for a while it seems possible that Tito is helping terrorists set up a nuclear device or dirty bomb. It's that Le Carre novel-ish, morally ambiguous kind of thing.

Gibson's recurring themes are really prominent here. They include:

Mysterious, Wealthy, Oddly-Named String-Pulling Savants: Hubertus Bigend (also featured in Pattern Recognition) takes a more benign but essentially similar role to Cody Harwood in All Tomorrow's Parties and Josef Virek in Count Zero.

You can see the root of this in Neuromancer's Wintermute AI (though Julius Deane handles a bit of this in the early going).

Ninjas: While Neuromancer's Hideo is the only actual ninja (outside of the short stories), you can see the ninja qualities in the effortlessly efficient, ruthlessly competent others who dance elegantly through the world with catlike grace -- usually while killing people: Most notably, Molly (and the Panther Moderns) in the Sprawl Trilogy and Konrad the Taoist knifeman in ATP.

In Count Zero, Beauvoir represents part of this, though it's mostly Turner, a rougher, Westernized, more everyman version. Idoru's tomahawk-wielding ex-toecutter Blackwell is on the edge of this, as an even more brutal, not-quite-reformed-criminal variation. And I exclude Virtual Light's Loveless, as he's a bit too psychotic (and too easily beaten).

Alternately, in Spook Country's less fantastical world, we see the ninja manifest in Tito and his extended family of Russian-speaking Chinese Cuban spies, whose focus is espionage tradecraft, not assassination.

Damaged Experts: In Neuromancer, all the primary characters are damaged experts in some way -- Case, drug-addicted hacker; Armitage, insane Special Forces; Molly, ex-meat puppet assassin, though we can also see it to a lesser-extent in the supporting characters: Finn, agoraphobic fixer; Peter Riviera, speedball-addicted holographic artist; and Maelcum, ganja-addled space pilot.

However, the prime example in Neuromancer of the damaged expert is the Dixie Flatline ROM construct -- a dead man's expertise and personality hardwired into a cassette.

In Count Zero, the damaged experts are smaller roles (the Finn; Pye, the rarely-sober vet who sews up Bobby), until the appearance of Turner's reclusive backwoods tech genius brother Rudy), the brain-implanted Angie Mitchell, crazy space hacker Wigan Ludgate, the robotic boxmaking artist itself.

In Mona Lisa Overdrive, though we can see bits and pieces in other characters (AI guide Colin, hacker Tick, nurse Cherry), the primary role falls to Slick Henry, the memory-impaired robot builder, and his drug-abusing, former console cowboy patron Gentry. (Though the Finn has a cameo as a ROM personality construct playing oracle in a laser-armed, armored housing.)

It's been a while since I read the Bridge Trilogy books, but Virtual Light's Skinner sort of fulfills this role, though he's more of an oracle. We see damaged experts in Zona (and some of the other computer-dwelling otaku) in Idoru. And the prime example would be ATP's Silencio, the quasi-autistic boy, drawn out by his watch fixation, as well as Colin Laney, who's introduced with his nodal point fixation in Idoru, but who becomes truly damaged (and ultimately dies for his obsession) in ATP.

As to Pattern Recognition -- I'm not nearly as familiar with it as I am with the other books, though Hobbs Baranov, the former government cryptographer who provides information probably qualifies, as does brain-damaged Russian twin who is behind the footage (though she is also the mystery being solved).

In Spook Country, the damaged experts are very clearly Milgrim, the psychoactive drug-addicted translator of idiomatic Russian, and Bobby Chombo, the obsessive-reclusive GPS-hacker who doesn't sleep in the same square twice. (Art expert Odile Richard is not damaged -- she's just French.)

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I talk about Gibson's tendencies towards the Nancy Drew aspect, as well as his peculiar manifestation of techno-fetishism.

*Note: I'm less familiar with his Bridge Trilogy and post-9/11 books (which presumable form the first 2 books of a trilogy to be named later) -- I couldn't even find my copies of Virtual Light and Idoru, which were at the bottom of a box until today. Why yes, I am procrastinating. Very badly.

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