I picked this book up from a second-hand stall to take on a trip to New York (which is the location for much of its action). I've enjoyed a fair number of Gibson's science fiction books - most recently his excellent Burning Chrome
collection - but this time I've read one of his novels which has a contemporary setting.
That setting is hard to discern at first, as Gibson writes about the present in the same way he writes about the future - as a uneasy, unfamiliar world of hidden meanings and secrets underpinned by a technology which has been put to new and unexpected uses. It's a world where practitioners of locative art create installations in public places that can only be seen by wearers of VR headsets, where iPods are used as mules to smuggle mysterious data to Cuba and back again, and where a container is tracked from ship to ship at sea over a period of many years. A persistent - but quietly stated - underlying theme of the story is post-9/11 espionage, although much of the writing is timeless: for example, there are some memorable bon-mots (e.g. "secrets are the the very root of cool") and noteworthy and insightful technological asides such as this one (p120):
"Organized religion, he saw [...], had been purely a signal-to-noise proposition, at once the medium and the message, a one-channel universe. For Europe, that channel was Christian, and broadcasting from Rome, but nothing could be broadcast faster than a man could travel on horseback. There was a hierarchy in place, and a highly organized methodology of top-down signal dissemination, but the the time lag enforced by tech-lack imposed a near-disastrous ratio, the noise of heresy constantly threatening to overwhelm the signal."
The story unfolds at a leisurely pace as it follows journalist Hollis Henry on the trail of locative artist Bobby Chombo in LA, a young Cuban called Tito and a shadowy old man in New York, and Brown the secret agent who's forcing a drug addict called Milgrim to do his Russian translation for him. The climax brings all parties together in a more-or-less satisfactory conclusion, but the real value of the story lies in the journey up to that point.
Finally, it should be mentioned that this is the second part of Gibson's so-called Blue Ant trilogy, in which it's sandwiched between - and shares some characters with - Pattern Recognition
and Zero History
, but I wasn't conscious of missing anything owing to not having (yet) read those other two books.