Milgrim's progress

<strong>Spook Country</strong>

William Gibson<em> Viking, 384pp, £18.99</em>

For 25 years, William Gibson has maintained a mythic status among science-fiction readers, as a technological visionary capable of signposting new developments long before they happen. Since 9/11, however, there has been a definite shift in his work. He has come back from the future to examine a contemporary climate rife with crooked intelligence, computer-aided espionage and global terror. His latest novel, the politically engaged and unsettling Spook Country, confirms just how right he was to shed his sci-fi shell.

Spook Country is, loosely speaking, a sequel to Pattern Recognition (2003), Gibson's first foray into the present. It told the story of Cayce Pollard, a "coolhunter" who is contracted by international brands to anticipate whether their products or campaigns will succeed. On a trip to London, Cayce ends up working for Hubertus Bigend, director of the ultra-hip advertising agency Blue Ant. Bigend, an accentless Machiavellian fixer with unnervingly white teeth, hires Cayce to find the creator of fragmentary film footage being released on the internet, an assignment that turns into a trendy spy thriller as she and her friends, with their good haircuts and expensive trainers, get caught up in Camden break-ins, Tokyo scooter-chases and nefarious profiteering led by invisible Russian oligarchs.

Spook Country speeds around even darker technological corners, driven by an elaborate Iraq-connected plot involving iPods, GPS systems, the CIA and a mysterious shipping container. Its heroine, former rock singer-turned-freelance journalist Hollis Henry, is in LA to research an article about "locative art" for a new magazine called Node. Locative art, she discovers, combines virtual reality with GPS technology, allowing artists to create site-specific virtual experiences. Her first encounter with this new form is to see a spectral River Phoenix prostrate on the pavement outside the Viper Room; later, she sees F Scott Fitzgerald having a heart attack in the World Music section of a Virgin Megastore.

Nobody, including Hollis, has heard of Node before, until its backer, Hubertus Bigend, shows up. It becomes clear that Bigend is far less interested in locative art than he is in its technical whizz-kid, Bobby Chombo. As well as helping artists to articulate their virtual visions, Bobby is using his knowledge of GPS systems to track a shipping container being moved around the globe. Bigend knows that various parties, including government agencies and CIA- connected pirates (obviously), are interested in the container's contents. With his appetite for clandestine adventure whetted, Bigend convinces Hollis to follow Bobby.

In addition to Hollis, two other young characters are roped into the hunt for the container. First, there is Tito, a member of a Cuban-Chinese family in New York. Tito's family is like a clan of ghosts, slippery phantoms who were trained by Castro's secret service in all sorts of evasive arts. But they are in debt to the man who helped them get into America, a former CIA agent. Tito works for the CIA man on behalf of his family, initially helping him to traffic iPods loaded with GPS data, though the terms of his employment change drastically as the story progresses.

And then there is Milgrim, a prescription-drug addict who helps a nasty government agent called Brown to monitor Tito's activities. Milgrim's job is to translate messages intercepted from Tito's mobile phone, messages written in Volapuk, a form of Russian that uses the western alphabet to approximate Cyrillic. In return for this service, he is drip-fed the drugs he has no other means of scoring.

Gibson jumps rapidly between the three strands of the treasure hunt until all of the characters converge in Vancouver. It is here that the cargo ship carrying the container arrives in port, and things start to get a bit intense: Tito becomes absurdly acrobatic; Milgrim gets a lucky break after a car crash; and Hollis is witness to an extraordinary act of sabotage, which seems to be motivated more by moral and political obligation than by greed.

Despite so much hyperactivity, Spook Country has a considered message: beneath this slightly ridiculous cast of Mac-savvy design junkies, with their funny names and comic-book troubles, is a sharp analysis of the international impact of America's "war on terror", and of the way that globalisation allows unseen organisations to access information and wealth. The unique quality of Gibson's writing also mitigates any silliness: he extracts a dazzled beauty from his distinctive brand of tech-speak, and his descriptions of place are brilliant. Pattern Recognition brought London, Tokyo and Moscow vividly to life; Spook Country does the same for LA, New York and Vancouver. He is a superb writer of cities.

In being so self-consciously of the moment, it's impossible to guess how well Spook Country will date. But for now at least, Gibson has delivered a compulsive and deeply intelligent literary thriller, which, in those moments when it pauses for breath, manages to say a great deal about the disturbances of a post-9/11, post-Iraq world.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?