Zero History

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.