Review: William Gibson's Zero History

Fashionista: Gibson in the present tense
By JOHN BOWKER  |  September 14, 2010

CONSPIRACY THEORIES: Who but Gibson could make fashion a successful framing device for a tech-driven thriller?

Zero History | By William Gibson | Putnam | 416 pages | $26.95
It’s been more than 10 years since he’s set a book anywhere but the present. Regardless, cyberpunk visionary William Gibson’s new novel still occupies top spots in multiple science-fiction rankings this week. That’s not surprising given his long history in the genre, but the retail category does highlight the difficulty of pigeonholing his recent work. Beginning with 2003’s Pattern Recognition and continuing with Spook Country in 2007, Gibson has evolved a sort of fictionalized underground journalism. The loosely connected novels are tech-infused meditations on the undercurrents of art, fashion, conspiracy theory, and commercial detritus that surface briefly on some blog or obscure news site before being replaced by the next distraction. Some of these are trivial; some have deeper implications. With Zero History, he once again takes his readers on a tour of this modern subviral landscape.

Although not strictly a sequel, the book draws on the two prior novels. Hubertus Bigend is CEO of a European marketing firm with tendrils stretching into every aspect of global commerce. Enigmatic and of considerable means, Bigend is the Charlie to a worldwide staff of willing and unwilling Angels. When his curiosity is piqued by an underground clothing designer whose work is so underpromoted that obscurity alone is driving demand, he drafts retired rock musician Hollis Henry and recovering Ativan addict Milgrim to determine the designer’s identity. This search, combined with Bigend’s exploration into the semiotics of military apparel as a driving force behind contemporary American fashion, quickly entangles the characters in an unstable web of former Special Forces contractors, “gear-queer” military-clothing designers, government agents, and corporate mutineers, all of it leading up to a high-tech caper that ties together the fates of many — if not all — of the major characters from the three novels.

Fashion is an odd framing device for a tech-driven plot, and that it works as well as it does is impressive. But though the story moves along smoothly, and though Gibson’s frequent philosophical and cultural digressions are fascinating, it’s difficult to feel a great deal of urgency about the characters. For the majority of the book, Hollis and Milgrim are cogs in Bigend’s machinations while he remains largely absent from the narrative. A cipher who knows more than he’s telling, Bigend is opaque to the reader as well, and that leaves Milgrim and Hollis to move without any visible motivation through the hidden world into which he’s drawn them. Toward the end, there’s some effort to provide the characters with their own reasons for sticking it out, but by then it hardly matters.

Like Gibson’s previous novels, Zero History benefits from your keeping a search window open nearby. The narrative is sprinkled with intriguing references to obscure technological and cultural artifacts. You’ll want to take the occasional break to look up the Pantone number of Bigend’s suit (286) or a video of Festo’s AirPenguins. If nothing else, such diversions might distract you from all the Apple product placement. Barely a chapter goes by that an iPhone isn’t ringing, tracking, or controlling an unmanned taser drone. Realistic or not, it was enough to make me long for a future where the “i” has been struck from the cultural lexicon.

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