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REVIEW: Zero History by William Gibson

REVIEW SUMMARY: In the vein of Spook Country, William Gibson melds the form of the thriller with the observations of science fiction to create an always readable and often enjoyable, if occasionally too glib, examination of the end of the new century’s first decade.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Under the employ of Hubertus Bigend, former pop star Hollis Henry and ex-drug addict Milgrim join forces to search for the creator of the designer brand Gabriel Hounds.

PROS: Insights, ruminations and details of life in the twenty-first century; deft chronicling of life in twenty-first century Europe; engaging characters; ironic sense of humor; strong prose and generally elegant pacing; a breathless and body-count-free thriller about…
CONS: …jeans? Really? And its ending teeters dangerously close to standard thriller plotting.

We forget, sometimes, how ironic our contemporary world really is. Seventy-five million users post status updates on Twitter and Facebook that receive more traffic than porn, yet we still wring our hands over the illusory nature of privacy. Spy novelist John le Carré insists that George Smileys and Bill Haydons populate the world of espionage while real-life Russian spy Anna Chapman makes the cover of Maxim. We talk of science fiction as a forward-looking literature, yet its most popular recent novels look to a steam-driven past. So it comes almost as a sigh of relief that William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, publishes a novel that feels as relevant, if not, alas, as visionary, as his first novel.

And now we have Zero History, third in what might be called his Bigend trilogy, which started with Pattern Recognition and continued with Spook Country. And the good news, the very good news, is that Gibson, whose focus has shifted from the middle of the twenty-first century to the waning first decade of the twenty-first, has lost none of the deft observation that distinguishes his work.

Yet the ironies persist, especially in the title. Science fiction readers cannot approach Zero History with anything resembling zero history; for them, the shadow that Neuromancer casts is too large and too dark to ignore. Nor are those readers who might open the book’s pages with no knowledge of science fiction or its traditions immune to the persistent passage of time. History weighs too heavily.

And so it begins. Pop star Hollis Henry, former singer of the 1990s indie group The Curfew, is in need of a job after the 2008 economic meltdown, but never wants to find herself working for Hubertus Bigend, global marketing genius and head of Blue Ant, after the events of Spook Country. When she refuses his offer of employment, it only makes him more insistent. Bigend, it seems, has become interested in fashion, specifically trends in how military and civilian clothing converge. Eventually she relents, agreeing to take on a partner, a bilingual former drug addict named Milgrim (who, unbeknownst to Hollis, also played a role in Spook Country) with a keen eye for detail, to learn the identity of designer a secret denim clothing brand known only as Gabriel Hounds.

It seems an absurd lark, really. I mean, we’re going to follow this former singer and this junkie who speaks fluent Russian (What? I mean, what?!) through an espionage maze at whose center is not a Minotaur but…jeans? Are you pulling the leg of my 501s, Bill?

Looked at solely from that standpoint, Zero History might indeed seem absurd. But Gibson is after much more than a few playful jabs at the standard thriller plot, despite the effectiveness of those plot elements. In one sequence, Hollis and Milgrim wind up at a French fashion fair, where Milgrim tries to lose a paramilitary type who is tailing them. A ruse that involves dropping his cell phone into an expensive stroller pushed by the wife of a Russian mobster leads, in a roundabout way, to a kidnapping scheme. No, what Gibson is after is an exploration of not only fashion but lifestyle. For while the characters in Zero History operate in a civilian world, that world has co-opted the methods created by the military, thus making the separation between the two meaningless, an ironic Interzone where Federal agents receive intelligence dispatches via Twitter and penguin-shaped surveillance drones float above the streets of Paris.

Even more surprising: the world of Zero History is as close as your Google search engine. The setting of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy was buffered by eighty years, the only visual glimpse of which might have come from the graphic novel adaptation of Neuromancer or, perhaps, one of Syd Mead’s concept drawings for Bladerunner. But throughout Zero History I found myself searching for everything from architecture to cell phones, making me wonder what the novel might look like with a series of hypertext links. I thought the silver floating penguin was, for a moment, the most jarringly surreal thing in the novel when I first read it, but found video of the Festo air penguin even stranger.

Gibson’s eye for detail and gift for ethnography does not mean he skimps on character, and Milgrim and Hollis Henry, his chief protagonists, are well-drawn. Milgrim exists paradoxically in Zero History, for he is not just Wells’s Graham, a sleeper awakended into a world lined with funhouse mirrors, but also shares lineage with those pulp heroes who walk down the mean streets completely devoid of any need for their past. As a result, he allows Gibson the ability to use the forms of traditional science fiction to examine the strangeness of the present while aping the conventions both of science fiction and the thriller. Hollis, by contrast, has a history, one which gives her an edge when she finally meets the Gabriel Hounds’ designer, but which is nonetheless disconnected from her popstar life. Even Bigend, who often seems part M, part Ernst Stavro Blofeld, shows more humanity and less caricature than he did in either Pattern Recognition or Spook Country.

As Zero History reaches its climax, its loose, seemingly nonexistent plot tightens into something fairly standard and somewhat less interesting, especially when held against Spook Country‘s almost Hammettesque plotting. It’s the final irony, really; the rest of the novel has been so good that the thriller elements have seen almost ancillary; its climax veers the novel from the fascinating to the mundane, though always competent. Also frustrating are some of the loose ends that dangle in the closing chapters.

But by then most readers will have been glad that the ride has been as engaging as anything Gibson has written, and should be satisfied with the conclusion this particular loose trilogy. Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess, but I for one will definitely follow.

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