Zero History

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Overview

Hollis Henry is broke.
Milgrim is owned.
Garreth can’t be bought.
 
And they all have something that global marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend needs/wants, as he finds himself outmaneuvered and adrift, after a Department of Defense contract for combat-wear turns out to be the gateway drug for arms dealers so shadowy they can out-Bigend ...

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Overview

Hollis Henry is broke.
Milgrim is owned.
Garreth can’t be bought.
 
And they all have something that global marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend needs/wants, as he finds himself outmaneuvered and adrift, after a Department of Defense contract for combat-wear turns out to be the gateway drug for arms dealers so shadowy they can out-Bigend Bigend himself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Opposing forces contend violently over what are in the end ephemeral trivialities, the minutiae of modern fashion, in Gibson's quirky tale of 21st-century brand positioning. The attention of eccentric financial genius Hubertus Bigend, seen previously in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, has landed on military fashion, a field he believes is immune to the vagaries of the market. When an unusual pair of mil-chic trousers raises the possibility that the anonymous designer is copying Bigend's new obsession, Bigend dispatches his team of talented amateurs to investigate the source of the suspiciously au courant trousers. Bigend's competition turns out to be none other than Michael Preston Gracie, an ex-military officer whose unwarranted self-confidence is rivaled only by his ruthlessness. Gibson's style has become even more distilled, more austere, since his science fiction days. Inanimate objects and, in particular, the brands of those objects, are more fully illuminated than the characters using those brands. (Sept.)
Library Journal
One of Gibson's strongest offerings since the pioneering cyberpunk tales that first made his reputation, this near-future tale follows the continuing agendas of deliberately mysterious businessman Hubertus Bigend, who previously appeared in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. But readers don't need familiarity with the earlier works to appreciate this tale in which former rock star Hollis Henry must track down a secret brand of denim for Bigend while preserving her own and her friends' integrity and safety. Hollis is a sympathetic heroine, competent, conflicted, and with a complex network of friendship and relationship histories that both complicate her life and make her a striking mature contrast to the alienated loners of Gibson's early classics. It's Milgrim, however, a man recently released from Bigend-sponsored rehab, who steals the show with his lack of preconceptions, journey to self-discovery, and connection to others. Only in the steampunk-esque hotel Cabinet and the Gabriel Hounds denim brand does Gibson indulge in a baroque charm that can endanger suspension of disbelief—no one starts a buzz-building secret to get away from fashion—but there is more than enough grit to balance it out. VERDICT A good crossover book for fans of fashion, cutting-edge technologies, and spy thrillers as well as followers of science fiction. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/10.]—Meredith Schwartz, New York
Kirkus Reviews

Gibson's third thriller-ish novel set in the present day (Spook Country, 2007, etc.)—like its predecessors, post-modern, post-structural, almost post-speculative.

A comfortable narrative familiarity deriving from the recurring characters (most of them appeared in one or both of the previous books) and motifs—Russian gangsters, pattern recognition, motorcycle couriers, the virtual certainty that somebody, somewhere, is listening—eases us into the action, which occurs, metaphorically at least, in London and Paris, aspects of GibsonWorld with slightly different accents. Shadowy mogul Hubertus Bigend provides the motivation for everything that ensues, through his constant need to live on the edge; if no edge is available, he'll manufacture one. He rehires Hollis Henry, a former vocalist for a famous rock band now down on her luck, to investigate a line of superbly made clothing, Gabriel Hounds, a brand whose method of achieving exclusivity involves rendering itself virtually nonexistent: It has no outlets, no factory, no offices, no sales force. Bigend also hopes to procure a recession-proof contract to design military apparel. Previously he dispatched drug-addicted translator Milgrim to an expensive Swiss clinic to be straightened out, merely to see if it was possible. To test Milgrim's newfound mental architecture, Bigend now sends him to investigate a new line of military-style clothing, unaware that he's stirring up a well-connected and touchy arms dealer about whom U.S. intelligence also is curious. Hollis's ex-boyfriend, daredevil Garreth, who jumped off the tallest building in the world only to get run over by a Lotus, enters the mix. Gibson's plotting or characters rarely compel—the (mostly offstage) spooks and thugs—andthe off-kilter romances seem amateurish, even clownish. What matters are the highly textured, brilliantly evocative prose and the stunning insights Gibson offers into what we perceive as the present moment—the implication being, per the title, that's all we have left.

Unsettling and memorable, weird flaws and all.

Scarlett Thomas
As always, Gibson's writing is thrillingly tight…The only other writer who is as good at chronicling our contemporary milieu, in which the world of things eats itself like an ouroboros, is Douglas Coupland. To read Gibson is to read the present as if it were the future, because it seems the present is becoming the future faster than it is becoming the past.
—The New York Times
Art Taylor
Zero History boasts…a greater lightness than some of Gibson's other novels. But if the plot seems a tad weightless at times…the book proves momentous in other ways. Gibson remains as coolly incisive as ever in his observations, whether about technology or marketing or, yes, fashion…Paranoia is "too much information," reflects Milgrim—a definition that also explains Gibson's genius as a thinker and a stylist. His trenchant scrutiny of society and culture, and the relentless precision of his prose force us to see his world (and ours) with a troubling exactitude and an extra dose of unease.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review


Like a wizard employing a hieratic numerology to craft his spells, William Gibson likes to work in threes. Far from being impelled by the publishing industry's fascination with commercial trilogies -- for, indeed, his triplets are not even marketed as such, but only observed in retrospect -- Gibson's focus on sequential cycles of three novels seems to arise from his need to employ shifting angles of attack, to make lateral feints and forays against and into his abstruse subject matter.

His most famous set of three books remains his first: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the "Sprawl" trilogy that introduced cyberpunk and cyberspace to the reading public. Following a story collection and a collaborative steampunk novel, Gibson next turned his attention closer to the present with the "Bridge" trilogy: Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow's Parties.

His latest book, Zero History, marks the culmination of a trilogy too new to have been named yet (although I will offer a suggestion at this review's end), a cycle that started with Pattern Recognition and continued with Spook Country. All three books are set in a recognizable present, Gibson having foresworn traditional SF with the assertion that "fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day...." In an interview with the California Literary Review, he referred to this mode of storytelling as "speculative fiction of the very recent past."

And truly, the bones beneath the narrative flesh are remarkably similar. Still following SF's imperative to dramatize cultural, political, and technological changes in visionary ways, Gibson's newest fiction slides a reality-enhancement filter over his authorial camera lens, offering snapshots of the contemporary world that are more CAT scans than photographs, a diagnostic readout where the estranging and deracinating forces at play all around us -- a sustaining yet potentially poisonous memetic medium we swim in, and consequently ignore -- are highlighted and brought into the foreground of the reader's attention.

Consider Gibson's current fiction as analogous to the controversial terahertz body scanners being installed at airports worldwide: they both present ghostly yet detailed and embarrassing imagery of the hidden aspects of whatever passes before their eye.

Pattern Recognition featured a female protagonist, one Cayce Pollard, who possessed an almost supernatural sensitivity toward commercial hype. A freelancer, she was hired to track down, among other things, the origin of some viral video being posted on the internet. But the man who did the hiring -- Hubertus Bigend, millionaire owner of a firm called Blue Ant -- although onscreen only minimally in this first outing, would become the dominant figure of the next two books, just as Cayce would be replaced by a new model heroine. Gibson's rethinking and retooling at work.

The enigmatic Bigend is a relatively young and charismatic Belgian whose name is pronounced "bay-jend," although he self-mockingly accepts and encourages the easy and common mispronunciation of "Big End." Money and fame are secondary to him, if not ultimately undesirable. What really floats his boat is surfing the wavefronts of trends and innovations, of winkling out potential new cultural explosions while they are still sputtering squibs. He is, in essence, the ultimate coolhunter, and tends to employ people possessing similar gifts. Curiously, Cory Doctorow's recent Makers features a very similar mover and shaker, Landon "Kettlebelly" Kettlewell.

In Spook Country, Bigend employs one Hollis Henry, female ex-member of an eccentric pop group called the Curfew. He sets her on the trail of what, at the time of the book's publication (2007) was called "locative art," but which today has been subsumed under the broader heading of "augmented reality." Parallel to Hollis's strand of the story is that of a clever and sensitive drug addict named Milgrim, co-opted by the Feds and put on the trail of some mysterious folks who might be terrorists, but who turn out to be principled avengers of wrong-doing. One of these fellows is named Garreth, and he becomes Hollis's lover.

Zero History opens up about a year or so after the action of its predecessor. Hollis and Milgrim, relocated to London from the USA, continue to work for Bigend. The utterly believable and easy-to-love Hollis remains essentially the woman we came to know in Spook Country:  a wry, savvy, wary, and principled artist and survivor. She's a warmer version of Cassandra Nearing, ex-punk photographer from Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss.

But Milgrim has undergone a rejuvenation, having been detoxed at Bigend's great expense through an experimental method of multiple total blood replacements. It is Milgrim, in effect, who is starting out at "zero history," a condition that also echoes much of twenty-first-century existence, as the restless citizenry of the planet seeks to forget or to submerge humanity's inconvenient past in a fit of "atemporality." In fact, the ratio of authorial interest and focus has been reversed here from earlier. Whereas in Spook Country the storytelling was about sixty-forty in favor of Hollis, here Milgrim's personality and fate assume dominance. (One might well assume that Milgrim is named after Stanley Milgram, famed psychologist who often seemed intent on stripping down the human psyche to its essential building blocks, much in the way that Gibson's Milgrim has been rebuilt.)

The McGuffin this time around is a "secret brand," a line of clothing known as Gabriel Hounds. Bigend wants to lay his hands on the creator of this anti-product, and sets Hollis and Milgrim to ferretting out the origin of the clothing. But they unfortunately intersect with a semi-deranged ex-military type named Michael Preston Gracie, as well as his mean sidekick Foley, and a simple investigation turns deadly. Add in Hollis's dirty-tricks boyfriend Garreth, her two ex-bandmates, and a Federal agent named Winnie Tung Whitaker, among others, and you have a recipe for a complicated and farcical thriller.

Mention of the thriller mode raises the issue of Gibson's altered taste in narrative templates. Earlier books of his were famous for their noir influences. But this latest trilogy firmly adopts the armature of the simon-pure caper/thriller/espionage novel: a bit of John le Carré, some Elmore Leonard, some Carl Hiassen. (Gibson's mordant humor is an aspect of his writing frequently overlooked.) The Mission Impossible-style climax enacted here would have seemed totally out of place in his earlier works. And in fact, one suspects that the formula employed in these three books even offers a sly nod to Charlie's Angels: mysterious Mr. Big(end) sends his wily women on various secret and dangerous assignments.

But of course, if with one eye completely closed and the other half-shut, a reader could view Zero History as Gibson's Charlie's Angels script, upon opening his eyes fully the same reader would see Gibson's evergreen tropes and themes utterly intact. His Pynchonesque preoccupation with paranoia and with subterranean movements and factions remains on display, as does his Ballardian fascination with the surfaces of the material world. Just as Ballard posed the existential and koan-like question, "Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?", so too does Gibson's intense and minute particularity concerning such things as Hollis's luxe hotel room induce a kind of slippery, almost Phildickian apprehension in the reader, a sense that quotidian reality is a loose warp and weft we continually re-weave to keep from falling through to our doom.

One notable thing, however, about the new-model William Gibson that is different from the younger version is a kind of cooling down of affect and tone that might derive simply from the aging of the author, or represent a deliberately dispassionate strategy toward dealing with the confusing postmodern world. The white-hot impatience and drive of his earlier protagonists is missing nowadays. Sex, for instance, is hinted at and spoken of, but never indulged in, either on the page or in close proximity. And moments of high drama are few and far between, and when they do occur -- such as the collision of cars carrying Milgrim and Foley -- they are rendered in subdued fashion. It's all very "The Dude Abides." The working-hard-just-to-maintain stance, always an undercurrent in Gibson's fiction, has now expanded to be the default option for navigating the world.

In a Wired essay titled "My Obsession," Gibson declares, "We have become a nation, a world, of pickers." In other words, scavengers for the beautiful and odd and valuable and fascinating. Given that this same obsession is precisely what drives Bigend, and that Bigend is the ultimate engine of all three books, I would be tempted to call this latest cycle of Gibson's novels the "Picker" series. We all are searching for gems in the manure, says this x-ray-eyed observer.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399156823
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

William Gibson

William Gibson lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife. He is the author of Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Burning Chrome, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History

Biography

Science fiction owes an enormous debt to William Gibson, the cyberpunk pioneer who revolutionized the genre with his startling stories of tough, alienated loners adrift in a world of sinister high technology.

Gibson was born in Conway, South Carolina, and spent much of his youth in Virginia with his widowed mother. He grew up shy and bookish, discovering science fiction and the literature of the beats at a precociously early age. When he was 15, he was sent away to private school in Arizona, but he left without graduating when his mother died suddenly. He fled to Canada to avoid the draft and immersed himself in '60s counterculture. He married, moved to British Columbia, and enrolled in college, graduating in 1977 with a degree in English. Around this time he began to write in earnest, combining his lifelong love of science fiction and his newfound passion for the punk music evolving in New York and London.

In the early 1980s, Gibson met writer and punk musician John Shirley and sci-fi authors Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling. All three were blown away by the power and originality of Gibson's stories, and together the four men went on to forge a radical new literary movement called cyberpunk. In 1984, Gibson's groundbreaking first novel, Neuromancer, was published. Daring and revolutionary, it envisioned such techno-marvels as AI, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and multinational capitalism years before they became realities. Although it was not an immediate sensation, Neuromancer struck a chord with hardcore sci-fi fans who turned it into a word-of-mouth hit. Then it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Awards (the Triple Crown of Science Fiction), catapulting Gibson into superstardom overnight.

Even if he had never written another word, Gibson's impact would be clearly seen in the works of such cutting-edge contemporary authors as Neal Stephenson, Pat Cadigan, and Paul DiFilippo. But, as it is, Neuromancer was just the beginning -- the first book in an inspired trilogy that has come to be considered a benchmark in the history of the genre; and since then, Gibson has gone on to create even more visionary science fiction, including The Difference Engine, a steampunk classic co-authored with Bruce Sterling, and such imaginative post-9/11 cyber thrillers as Pattern Recognition and Spook Country .

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    1. Also Known As:
      William Ford Gibson (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 17, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Conway, South Carolina
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of British Columbia, 1977

Read an Excerpt

1. CABINET

Inchmale hailed a cab for her, the kind that had always been black, when she'd first known this city.

Pearlescent silver, this one. Glyphed in Prussian blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.

"Their money's heavy," he said, dropping a loose warm mass of pound coins into her hand. "Buys many whores." The coins still retained the body heat of the fruit machine from which he'd deftly wrung them, almost in passing, on their way out of the King's Something.

"Whose money?"

"My countrymen's. Freely given."

"I don't need this." Trying to hand it back.

"For the cab." Giving the driver the address in Portman Square.

"Oh Reg," she said, "it wasn't that bad. I had it in money markets, most of it."

"Bad as anything else. Call him."

"No."

"Call him," he repeated, wrapped in Japanese herringbone Gore-Tex, multiply flapped and counter-intuitively buckled.

He closed the cab's door.

She watched him through the rear window as the cab pulled away. Stout and bearded, he turned now in Greek Street, a few minutes past midnight, to rejoin his stubborn protégé, Clammy of the Bollards. Back to the studio, to take up their lucrative creative struggle.

She sat back, noticing nothing at all until they passed Selfridges, the driver taking a right.

The club, only a few years old, was on the north side of Portman Square. Getting out, she paid and generously tipped the driver, anxious to be rid of Inchmale's winnings.

Cabinet, so called; of Curiosities, unspoken. Inchmale had become a member shortly after they, the three surviving members of the Curfew, had licensed the rights to "Hard to Be One" to a Chinese automobile manufacturer. Having already produced one Bollards album in Los Angeles, and with Clammy wanting to record the next in London, Inchmale had argued that joining Cabinet would ultimately prove cheaper than a hotel. And it had, she supposed, but only if you were talking about a very expensive hotel.

She was staying there now as a paying guest. Given the state of money markets, whatever those were, and the conversations she'd been having with her accountant in New York, she knew that she should be looking for more modestly priced accommodations.

A peculiarly narrow place, however expensive, Cabinet occupied half the vertical mass of an eighteenth-century townhouse, one whose façade reminded her of the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway. It shared a richly but soberly paneled foyer with whatever occupied the other, westernmost, half of the building, and she'd formed a vague conviction that this must be a foundation of some kind, perhaps philanthropic in nature, or dedicated to the advancement of peace in the Middle East, however eventual. Something hushed, in any case, as it appeared to have no visitors at all.

There was nothing, on façade or door, to indicate what that might be, no more than there was anything to indicate that Cabinet was Cabinet.

She'd seen those famously identical, silver-pelted Icelandic twins in the lounge, the first time she'd gone there, both of them drinking red wine from pint glasses, something Inchmale dubbed an Irish affectation. They weren't members, he'd made a point of noting. Cabinet's members, in the performing arts, were somewhat less than stellar, and she assumed that that suited Inchmale just about as well as it suited her.

It was the decor that had sold Inchmale, he said, and very likely it had been. Both he and it were arguably mad.

Pushing open the door, through which one might have ridden a horse without having to duck to clear the lintel, she was greeted by Robert, a large and comfortingly chalk-striped young man whose primary task was to mind the entrance without particularly seeming to.

"Good evening, Miss Henry."

"Good evening, Robert."

The decorators had kept it down, here, which was to say that they hadn't really gone publicly, ragingly, batshit insane. There was a huge, ornately carved desk, with something vaguely pornographic going on amid mahogany vines and grape clusters, at which sat one or another of the club's employees, young men for the most part, often wearing tortoiseshell spectacles of the sort she suspected of having been carved from actual turtles.

Beyond the desk's agreeably archaic mulch of paperwork twined a symmetrically opposed pair of marble stairways, leading to the floor above; that floor being bisected, as was everything above this foyer, into twin realms of presumed philanthropic mystery and Cabinet. From the Cabinet side, now, down the stairs with the wider-shins twist, cascaded the sound of earnest communal drinking, laughter and loud conversation bouncing sharply off unevenly translucent stone, marbled in shades of aged honey, petroleum jelly, and nicotine. The damaged edges of individual steps had been repaired with tidy rectangular inserts of less inspired stuff, pallid and mundane, which she was careful never to step on.

A tortoise-framed young man, seated at the desk, passed her the room key without being asked.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, Miss Henry."

Beyond the archway separating the stairways, the floor plan gave evidence of hesitation. Indicating, she guessed, some awkwardness inherent in the halving of the building's original purpose. She pressed a worn but regularly polished brass button, to call down the oldest elevator she'd ever seen, even in London. The size of a small, shallow closet, wider than it was deep, it took its time, descending its elongated cage of black-enameled steel.

To her right, in shadow, illuminated from within by an Edwardian museum fixture, stood a vitrine displaying taxidermy. Game birds, mostly; a pheasant, several quail, others she couldn't put a name to, all mounted as though caught in motion, crossing a sward of faded billiard-felt. All somewhat the worse for wear, though no more than might be expected for their probable age. Behind them, anthropomorphically upright, forelimbs outstretched in the manner of a cartoon somnambulist, came a moth-eaten ferret. Its teeth, which struck her as unrealistically large, she suspected of being wooden, and painted. Certainly its lips were painted, if not actually rouged, lending it a sinisterly festive air, like someone you'd dread running into at a Christmas party. Inchmale, on first pointing it out to her, had suggested she adopt it as a totem, her spirit beast. He claimed that he already had, subsequently discovering he could magically herniate the disks of unsuspecting music executives at will, causing them to suffer excruciating pain and a profound sense of helplessness.

The lift arrived. She'd been a guest here long enough to have mastered the intricacies of the articulated steel gate. Resisting an urge to nod to the ferret, she entered and ascended, slowly, to the third floor.

Here the narrow hallways, walls painted a very dark green, twisted confusingly. The route to her room involved opening several of what she assumed were fire doors, as they were very thick, heavy, and self-closing. The short sections of corridor, between, were hung with small watercolors, landscapes, un-peopled, each one featuring a distant folly. The very same distant folly, she'd noticed, regardless of the scene or region depicted. She refused to give Inchmale the satisfaction he'd derive from her asking about these, so hadn't. Something too thoroughly liminal about them. Best not addressed. Life sufficiently complicated as it was.

The key, attached to a weighty brass ferrule sprouting thick soft tassels of braided maroon silk, turned smoothly in the lock's brick-sized mass. Admitting her to Number Four, and the concentrated impact of Cabinet's designers' peculiarity, theatrically revealed when she prodded the mother-of-pearl dot set into an otherwise homely gutta-percha button.

Too tall, somehow, though she imagined that to be the result of a larger room having been divided, however cunningly. The bathroom, she suspected, might actually be larger than the bedroom, if that weren't some illusion.

They'd run with that tallness, employing a white, custom-printed wallpaper, decorated with ornate cartouches in glossy black. These were comprised, if you looked more closely, of enlarged bits of anatomical drawings of bugs. Scimitar mandibles, spiky elongated limbs, the delicate wings (she imagined) of mayflies. The two largest pieces of furniture in the room were the bed, its massive frame covered entirely in slabs of scrimshawed walrus ivory, with the enormous, staunchly ecclesiastic-looking lower jawbone of a right whale, fastened to the wall at its head, and a birdcage, so large she might have crouched in it herself, suspended from the ceiling. The cage was stacked with books, and fitted, inside, with minimalist Swiss halogen fixtures, each tiny bulb focused on one or another of Number Four's resident artifacts. And not just prop books, Inchmale had proudly pointed out. Fiction or non-, they all seemed to be about England, and so far she'd read parts of Dame Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics and most of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male.

She took off her coat, putting it on a stuffed, satin-covered hanger in the wardrobe, and sat on the edge of the bed to untie her shoes. The Piblokto Madness bed, Inchmale called it. "Intense hysteria," she recited now, from memory, "depression, coprophagia, insensitivity to cold, echolalia." She kicked her shoes in the direction of the wardrobe's open door. "Hold the coprophagia," she added. Cabin fever, this culture-bound, arctic condition. Possibly dietary in origin. Linked to vitamin A toxicity. Inchmale was full of this sort of information, never more so than when he was in the studio. Give Clammy a whole hod of vitamin A, she'd suggested, he looks like he could use it.

Her gaze fell on three unopened brown cartons, stacked to the left of the wardrobe. These contained shrink-wrapped copies of the British edition of a book she'd written in hotel rooms, though none as peculiarly memorable as this one. She'd begun just after the Chinese car commercial money had come in. She'd gone to Staples, West Hollywood, and bought three flimsy Chinese-made folding tables, to lay the manuscript and its many illustrations out on, in her corner suite at the Marmont. That seemed a long time ago, and she didn't know what she'd do with these copies. The cartons of her copies of the American edition, she now remembered, were still in the luggage room of the Tribeca Grand.

"Echolalia," she said, and stood, removing her sweater, which she folded and put in a chest-high drawer in the wardrobe, beside a small silk land mine of potpourri. If she didn't touch it, she knew, she wouldn't have to smell it. Putting on an off-white Cabinet robe, more velour than terry but somehow just missing whatever it was that made her so un-fond of velour bathrobes. Men, particularly, looked fundamentally untrustworthy in them.

The room phone began to ring. It was a collage, its massive nautical-looking handset of rubber-coated bronze resting in a leather-padded cradle atop a cubical box of brass-cornered rosewood. Its ring was mechanical, tiny, as though you were hearing an old-fashioned bicycle bell far off down a quiet street. She stared hard, willing it to silence.

"Intense hysteria," she said.

It continued to ring.

Three steps and her hand was on it.

It was as absurdly heavy as ever.

"Coprophagia." Briskly, as if announcing a busy department in a large hospital.

"Hollis," he said, "hello."

She looked down at the handset, heavy as an old hammer and nearly as battered. Its thick cord, luxuriously cased in woven burgundy silk, resting against her bare forearm.

"Hollis?"

"Hello, Hubertus."

She pictured herself driving the handset through brittle antique rosewood, crushing the aged electro-mechanical cricket within. Too late now. It had already fallen silent.

"I saw Reg," he said.

"I know."

"I told him to ask you to call."

"I didn't," she said.

"Good to hear your voice," he said.

"It's late."

"A good night's sleep, then," heartily. "I'll be by in the morning, for breakfast. We're driving back tonight. Pamela and I."

"Where are you?"

"Manchester."

She saw herself taking an early cab to Paddington, the street in front of Cabinet deserted. Catching the Heathrow Express. Flying somewhere. Another phone ringing, in another room. His voice.

"Manchester?"

"Norwegian black metal," he said, flatly. She pictured Scandinavian folk jewelry, then self-corrected: the musical genre. "Reg said I might find it interesting."

Good for him, she thought, Inchmale's subclinical sadism sometimes finding a deserving target.

"I was planning on sleeping in," she said, if only to be difficult. She knew now that it was going to be impossible to avoid him.

"Eleven, then," he said. "Looking forward to it."

"Good night. Hubertus."

"Good night." He hung up.

She put the handset down. Careful of the hidden cricket. Not its fault.

Nor hers.

Nor even his, probably. Whatever he was.

2. EDGE CITY

Milgrim considered the dog-headed angels in Gay Dolphin Gift Cove.

Their heads, rendered slightly less than three-quarter scale, appeared to have been cast from the sort of plaster once used to produce worryingly detailed wall-decorations: pirates, Mexicans, turbaned Arabs. There would almost certainly be examples of those here as well, he thought, in the most thoroughgoing trove of roadside American souvenir kitsch he'd ever seen.

Their bodies, apparently humanoid under white satin and sequins, were long, Modigliani-slender, perilously upright, paws crossed piously in the manner of medieval effigies. Their wings were the wings of Christmas ornaments, writ larger than would suit the average tree.

They were intended, he decided, with half a dozen of assorted breed facing him now, from behind glass, to sentimentally honor deceased pets.

Hands in trouser pockets, he quickly swung his gaze to a broader but generally no less peculiar visual complexity, noting as he did a great many items featuring Confederate-flag motifs. Mugs, magnets, ashtrays, statuettes. He considered a knee-high jockey boy, proffering a small round tray rather than the traditional ring. Its head and hands were a startling Martian green (so as not to give the traditional offense, he assumed). There were also energetically artificial orchids, coconuts carved to suggest the features of some generically indigenous race, and prepackaged collections of rocks and minerals. It was like being on the bottom of a Coney Island grab-it game, one in which the eclectically un-grabbed had been accumulating for decades. He looked up, imagining a giant, three-pronged claw, agent of stark removal, but there was only a large and heavily varnished shark, suspended overhead like the fuselage of a small plane.

How old did a place like this have to be, in America, to have "gay" in its name? Some percentage of the stock here, he judged, had been manufactured in Occupied Japan.

Half an hour earlier, across North Ocean Boulevard, he'd watched harshly tonsured child-soldiers, clad in skateboarding outfits still showing factory creases, ogling Chinese-made orc-killing blades, spiked and serrated like the jaws of extinct predators. The seller's stand had been hung with Mardi Gras beads, Confederate-flag beach towels, unauthorized Harley-Davidson memorabilia. He'd wondered how many young men had enjoyed an afternoon in Myrtle Beach as a final treat, before heading ultimately for whatever theater of war, wind whipping sand along the Grand Strand and the boardwalk.

In the amusement arcades, he judged, some of the machines were older than he was. And some of his own angels, not the better ones, spoke of an ancient and deeply impacted drug culture, ground down into the carnival grime of the place, interstitial and immortal; sundamaged skin, tattoos unreadable, eyes that peered from faces suggestive of gas-station taxidermy.

He was meeting someone here.

They were supposed to be alone. He himself wasn't, really. Somewhere nearby, Oliver Sleight would be watching a Milgrim-cursor on a website, on the screen of his Neo phone, identical to Milgrim's own. He'd given Milgrim the Neo on that first flight from Basel to Heathrow, stressing the necessity of keeping it with him at all times, and turned on, except when aboard commercial flights.

He moved, now, away from the dog-headed angels, the shadow of the shark. Past articles of an ostensibly more natural history: starfish, sand dollars, sea horses, conchs. He climbed a short flight of broad stairs, from the boardwalk level, toward North Ocean Boulevard. Until he found himself, eye-to-navel, with the stomach of a young, very pregnant woman, her elastic-paneled jeans chemically distressed in ways that suggested baroquely improbable patterns of wear. The taut pink T-shirt revealed her protruding navel in a way he found alarmingly suggestive of a single giant breast.

"You'd better be him," she said, then bit her lower lip. Blond, a face he'd forget as soon as he looked away. Large dark eyes.

"I'm meeting someone," he said, careful to maintain eye contact, uncomfortably aware that he was actually addressing the navel, or nipple, directly in front of his mouth.

Her eyes grew larger. "You aren't foreign, are you?"

"New York," Milgrim admitted, assuming that might all too easily qualify.

"I don't want him getting in any trouble," she said, at once softly and fiercely.

"None of us does," he instantly assured her. "No need. At all." His attempted smile felt like something forced from a flexible squeeze-toy. "And you are…; ?

"Seven or eight months," she said, in awe at her own gravidity. "He's not here. He didn't like this, here."

"None of us does," he said, then wondered if that was the right thing to say.

"You got GPS?"

"Yes," said Milgrim. Actually, according to Sleight, their Neos had two kinds, American and Russian, the American being notoriously political, and prone to unreliability in the vicinity of sensitive sites.

"He'll be there in an hour," she said, passing Milgrim a faintly damp slip of folded paper. "You better get started. And you better be alone."

Milgrim took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said, "but if it means driving, I won't be able to go alone. I don't have a license. My friend will have to drive me. It's a white Ford Taurus X."

She stared at him. Blinked. "Didn't they just fuck Ford up, when they went to giving them f-names?"

He swallowed.

"My mother had a Freestyle. Transmission's a total piece of shit. Get that computer wet, car won't move at all. Gotta disconnect it first. Brakes wore out about two weeks off the lot. They always made that squealing noise anyway." But she seemed comforted, in this, as if by the recollection of something maternal, familiar.

"Right as rain," he said, surprising himself with an expression he might never have used before. He pocketed the slip of paper without looking at it. "Could you do something for me, please?" he asked her belly. "Could you call him, now, and let him know my friend will be driving?"

Lower lip worked its way back under her front teeth.

"My friend has the money," Milgrim said. "No trouble."

<<<

"And she called him?" asked Sleight, behind the wheel of the Taurus X, from the center of a goatee he occasionally trimmed with the aid of a size-adjustable guide, held between his teeth.

"She indicated she would," Milgrim said.

"Indicated."

They were headed inland, toward the town of Conway, through a landscape that reminded Milgrim of driving somewhere near Los Angeles, to a destination you wouldn't be particularly anxious to reach. This abundantly laned highway, lapped by the lots of outlet malls, a Home Depot the size of a cruise ship, theme restaurants. Though interstitial detritus still spoke stubbornly of maritime activity and the farming of tobacco. Fables from before the Anaheiming. Milgrim concentrated on these leftovers, finding them centering. A lot offering garden mulch. A four-store strip mall with two pawnshops. A fireworks emporium with its own batting cage. Loans on your auto title. Serried ranks of unpainted concrete garden statuary.

"Was that a twelve-step program you were in, in Basel?" asked Sleight.

"I don't think so," said Milgrim, assuming Sleight was referring to the number of times his blood had been changed.

<<<

"How close will those numbers put us to where he wants us?" Milgrim asked. Sleight, back in Myrtle Beach, had tapped coordinates from the pregnant girl's note into his phone, which now rested on his lap.

"Close enough," Sleight said. "Looks like that's it now, off to the right."

They were well through Conway, or in any case through the malled-over fringes of whatever Conway was. Buildings were thinning out, the landscape revealing more of the lineaments of an extinct agriculture.

Sleight slowed, swung right, onto spread gravel, a crushed limestone, pale gray. "Money's under your seat," he said. They were rolling, with a smooth, even crunch of tires in gravel, toward a long, one-story, white-painted clapboard structure, overhung with a roof that lacked a porch beneath it. Rural roadside architecture of some previous day, plain but sturdy. Four smallish rectangular front windows had been modernized with plate glass.

Milgrim had the cardboard tube for the tracing paper upright between his thighs, two sticks of graphite wrapped in a Kleenex in the right side pocket of his chinos. There was half of a fresh five-foot sheet of foam-core illustration board in the back seat, in case he needed a flat surface to work on. Holding the bright red tube with his knees, he bent forward, fishing under the seat, and found a metallic-blue vinyl envelope with a molded integral zipper and three binder-holes. It contained enough bundled hundreds to give it the heft of a good-sized paperback dictionary.

Gravel-crunch ceased as they halted, not quite in front of the building. Milgrim saw a primitive rectangular sign on two weather-grayed uprights, rain-stained and faded, unreadable except for FAMILY, in pale blue italic serif caps. There were no other vehicles in the irregularly shaped gravel lot.

He opened the door, got out, stood, the red tube in his left hand. He considered, then uncapped it, drawing out the furled tracing paper. He propped the red tube against the passenger seat, picked up the money, and closed the door. A scroll of semi-translucent white paper was less threatening.

Cars passed on the highway. He walked the fifteen feet to the sign, his shoes crunching loudly on the gravel. Above the blue italic FAMILY, he made out EDGE CITY in what little remained of a peeling red; below it, RESTAURANT. At the bottom, to the left, had once been painted, in black, the childlike silhouettes of three houses, though like the red, sun and rain had largely erased them. To the right, in a different blue than FAMILY, was painted what he took to be a semi-abstract representation of hills, possibly of lakes. He guessed that this place was on or near the town's official outskirts, hence the name.

Someone, within the silent, apparently closed building, rapped sharply, once, on plate glass, perhaps with a ring.

Milgrim went obediently to the front door, the tracing paper upheld in one hand like a modest scepter, the vinyl envelope held against his side with the other.

The door opened inward, revealing a football player with an Eighties porn haircut. Or someone built like one. A tall, long-legged young man with exceptionally powerful-looking shoulders. He stepped back, gesturing for Milgrim to enter.

"Hello," said Milgrim, stepping into warm unmoving air, mixed scents of industrial-strength disinfectant and years of cooking. "I have your money." Indicating the plastic envelope. A place unused, though ready to be used. Mothballed, Edge City, like a B-52 in the desert. He saw the empty glass head of a gum machine, on its stand of wrinkle-finished brown pipe.

"Put it on the counter," the young man said. He wore pale blue jeans and a black T-shirt, both of which looked as though they might contain a percentage of Spandex, and heavy-looking black athletic shoes. Milgrim noted a narrow, rectangular, unusually positioned pocket, quite far down on the right side-seam. A stainless steel clip held some large folding knife firmly there.

Milgrim did as he was told, noting the chrome and the turquoise leatherette of the row of floor-mounted stools in front of the counter, which was topped with worn turquoise Formica. He partially unfurled the paper. "I'll need to make tracings," he explained. "It's the best way to capture the detail. I'll take photographs first."

"Who's in the car?"

"My friend."

"Why can't you drive?"

"DUI," said Milgrim, and it was true, at least in some philosophical sense.

Silently, the young man rounded an empty glass display-case that would once have contained cigarettes and candy. When he was opposite Milgrim, he reached beneath the counter and drew out something in a crumpled white plastic bag. He dropped this on the counter and swept the plastic envelope toward the far end, giving the impression that his body, highly trained, was doing these things of its own accord, while he himself continued to survey from some interior distance.

Milgrim opened the bag and took out a pair of folded, un-pressed trousers. They were the coppery beige shade he knew as coyote brown. Unfolding them, he lay them out flat along the Formica, took the camera from his jacket pocket, and began to photograph them, using the flash. He took six shots of the front, then turned them over and took six of the back. He took one photograph each of the four cargo pockets. He put the camera down, turned the pants inside out, and photographed them again. Pocketing the camera, he arranged them, still inside out, more neatly on the counter, spread the first of the four sheets of paper over them, and began, with one of the graphite sticks, to make his rubbing.

He liked doing this. There was something inherently satisfying about it. He'd been sent to Hackney, to a tailor who did alterations, to spend an afternoon learning how to do it properly, and it pleased him, somehow, that this was a time-honored means of stealing information. It was like making a rubbing of a tombstone, or a bronze in a cathedral. The medium-hard graphite, if correctly applied, captured every detail of seam and stitching, all a sample-maker would need to reproduce the garment, as well as providing for reconstruction of the pattern.

While he worked, the young man opened the envelope, unpacked the bundled hundreds, and silently counted them. "Needs a gusset," he said as he finished.

"Pardon?" Milgrim paused, the fingers of his right hand covered with graphite dust.

"Gusset," the young man said, reloading the blue envelope. "Inner thighs. They bind, if you're rappelling."

"Thanks," Milgrim said, showing graphite-smudged fingers. "Would you mind turning them over for me? I don't want to get this on them."

<<<

"Delta to Atlanta," Sleight said, handing Milgrim a ticket envelope. He was back in the very annoying suit he'd forgone for Myrtle Beach, the one with the freakishly short trousers.

"Business?"

"Coach," said Sleight, his satisfaction entirely evident. He passed Milgrim a second envelope. "British Midland to Heathrow."

"Coach?"

Sleight frowned. "Business."

Milgrim smiled.

"He'll want you in a meeting, straight off the plane."

Milgrim nodded. "Bye," he said. He tucked the red tube beneath his arm and headed for check-in, his bag in his other hand, walking directly beneath a very large South Carolina state flag, oddly Islamic with its palm tree and crescent moon.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 132 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    The Blue Ant Trilogy Unfolds

    While light on action and heavy on atmosphere, Zero History is an intriguing and artful summation of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. The story features yet another bizarre scheme by Hubertus Bigend, the menacingly curious founder of Blue Ant, a company seemingly without a purpose.
    Characters from Spook Country return to develop beyond what we knew them as in the past. Milgrim, now free of his crippling addiction, grows out of the schizoid shell he had been hiding in for over a decade, flirting with self-determinism and progressively confronting his anxieties. Hollis Henry, roped again into Bigend's employ, finds what has been missing in her life for so long, ironically while trapped in Blue Ant's web. Bigend, ever the inscrutable manipulator, maintains his paradoxical aura of menace and charm, but becomes more vulnerable than we have seen him in the past.
    This story is about Bigend's latest scheme; a power-grab for the one "recession-proof" gig in the fashion industry- military clothing contracts. Hollis and Milgrim are brought into Blue Ant's employ half against their will, having been tapped for qualities they don't know they possess. As the story unfolds, Bigend comes to realize that someone else is playing his game and taking the offensive to win.
    The end of the story has a plot twist that readers of the past books will most likely guess. However, If you are like me, you will be glad Gibson did what he did and would have been disappointed if he had not. The story will give you a sense of full-circle completion, but you will be sadly disappointed if you want meaningful answers as to what Blue Ant really is and what Bigend really aims to do with the company.
    Overall, I loved the book. A great deal of time was spent on detail and atmosphere and compared to the last two books, this one had the least action. But what were already colorful characters have grown beyond their core programming and actualized into something more interesting, more human... except for Bigend.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2010

    Maybe his best yet (no offense to Neuromancer)

    Gibson writes about the present, and it feels like science fiction. I have enjoyed the characters in Spook Country and Pattern Recognition and now I think they come to fruition in Zero History. Plus the spy-thriller ending was a lot of fun, and even the obligatory car chase scene was cool. Gibson is one of the those writers, like Neal Stephenson and Tom Robbins and Orson Scott Card, who have enough brains to be nuclear physicists. Instead, happily, he turned his talents to writing about the possible or maybe possible. I love the lightness in his writing in this book. It is like a scent that keeps pulling me forward. I like how he introduces terms and concepts, and manages to define or to explain them without breaking the flow of the story. I also got a distinct feeling for each characters. Most are pretty ambivalent, neither good nor bad, which seems like the real world to me. Gibson's first book, Neuromancer, blew my mind when it came out. I read it twice in 3 days! I've read every one of his books since and love them. I think he is at the top of his game. Btw, Zero History has a very cool concept, the ugliest T-shirt in the world. If you wear it in London, you are erased from the surveillance cameras. In the acknowledgements at the end, Gibson credited Bruce Sterling w/ helping him with that idea. How cool is it that Bruce would give Bill such a great idea, and that Bill would credit him for it? The BBC did a great interview with Gibson about the zeitgeist of Zero History. Search for "bbc William Gibson says the future is right here, right now".

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Don't buy the eBook version

    I had a very hard time following this book and couldn't figure out why. I got about 200 pages into it before I just gave up.

    Turns out that there are a lot of pages missing from the eBook version. Chapters out of order missing parts of chapter. Refund? Nope!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Funny Cultural Outlook!

    This book is amusing. I loved Milgrim's comments and "abbreviated" observations. I laughed out loud in many places. I dig Hollis.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 23, 2011

    Brain Food - put it on you list.

    Excellently written and edited. Gibson always takes us somewhere we haven't been. He is a one man meme factory.

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  • Posted April 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Still Cyberpunk

    Not the idiot chrome-and-guns that ruined it in the 90s. But the slick, clever, just on the edge of society kind of smart writing that made the genre. The main focus here is, oddly, clothing fashion, underground backroom secret fashion of the marketing elites. A rehabilitated drug addict with an uncanny ability to understand the street, and pissed of ex-rocker with a sense of fashion, and a man with more money than he really knows what to do with go hunted for the maker of a clothing brand so small that even those in the know don't know when a new pair of jeans will arrive. And the pop twist at the end, well, definitely worth the ride.

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