Zero History is the third book in William Gibson’s series that began with Pattern Recognition and continued in Spook Country. The best-selling series brought Gibson out of the ghetto of genre fiction into the limelight of more mainstream fiction, which is something that some sci-fi fans may hold against him. One of the inventors of cyberpunk is writing books that aren’t even sci-fi, and they’re about … fashion! How dare he?
Also, nothing much happens in them. Or rather, for long stretches only a series of small, seemingly unconnected things happen, while the characters ponder and discuss design, branding, and the history and future of fashion — in clothing, technology, leisure pursuits, business, and war. In some ways, these books are like an updated take on the kind of cerebral espionage books written during the Cold War by Greene and LeCarré.
Zero History neatly wraps up the ideas and themes Gibson introduced in the previous two books. And there are some big ones: globalization, loss of privacy, the industrialization of culture, the proliferation of gadgets and cyber-devices and online networking and the attendant increase in personal isolation. I found this the most entertaining of the three, with all of the strengths and fewer weaknesses.
Hubertus Bigend, the London-based Belgian expat gazillionaire, businessman and puppet-master, emerges as the series’ pivotal figure. Lots of other characters from the other two also show up here, including the two whose parallel tales ran through Spook Country, Hollis Henry and just-the-one-name Milgrim. Former rockstar Hollis, with the help of the recent global recession, has burned through much of the stash she walked away with at the end of SC. So she has done what she swore she wouldn’t do and signed on to another Bigend/Blue Ant caper. This time she’s to work with Milgrim, who has emerged from months in an experimental Swiss rehab clinic free from his longtime Ativan addiction and is trying to remember what living feels like.
Hollis’s job is to track down for Bigend the designer behind a mysterious line of clothing — denim jeans and jackets mostly, made with the kind of integrity that was common when a guy named Levi was making them by hand in a tent in San Francisco. They cost hundreds of dollars, partly because of the quality of their design and construction, but mostly because you have to know somebody who knows somebody who’s on a list that gets an occasional email telling when and where a few items are going to be sold. It’s a marketing and anti-branding scheme that intrigues Bigend, who would like to get the designer on his team. And Hollis is teamed up with Milgrim because he owes Bigend for his rehab and — well, Milgrim notices things. Because he has been subsumed in the world of drugs, petty crime and addiction for a decade, he doesn’t always know what he’s seeing, but he sees things and remembers them. He’s a tabula rasa and a wild card, just the kind of factor Bigend likes to throw into the mix. And he makes a wonderfully dry commentator on aspects of consumer culture to which we’re so accustomed that we don’t notice them; he’s the Mork to Hollis’s Mindy.
Sure enough, Hollis’s and Milgrim’s search sets things in motion on a transatlantic scale. Sinister figures start tailing both of them, and they never know if these followers are Bigend employees, or his allies or his rivals — or maybe some combination of all three. Hollis and Milgrim realize they’re being played by Bigend, they just don’t know to what degree or what his game really is. But he always seems to have the resources to protect them should they need it, and situations or people that at first seem frightening often turn out to be benign, and by the time things turn scary they’re in too deep to back out.
On one level, the book’s a consumerist fantasy. Who wouldn’t like to have an unlimited expense account and get to explore London and Paris, eating great food, staying in superb hotels and meeting fascinating people? On another, it’s a dark but droll tale of industrial espionage involving all sorts of red herrings, misunderstandings, physical humor and romantic liaisons. On yet another, an unnerving look at today’s global marketplace, where anything and everything is for sale and violence lurks barely under the surface. Lest we be tempted to dismiss Gibson’s focus on fashion, design and consumerism as mere fluff, we are reminded of something one of the characters in Spook Country said: Terrorism is mainly about branding.
I don’t think I need to dwell too much on the writing. Gibson’s only getting better at his craft. Every page is densely packed with information, whether it’s scenery, props, characters or ideas, so that you occasionally wish for an index. But of course that’s merely a reflection of one of his themes, the proliferation of information and our inability to decide what’s important and what’s not. Gibson’s trademark wit is very much in evidence. I don’t recall ever before laughing out loud at chapter titles.
Spook Country was criticized for an ending that was anticlimactic, with most of the actual climactic scene taking place offscreen as it were. I can only surmise that it was deliberate because Zero History ends in much the same manner. The story is told, after all, through Hollis’s and Milgrim’s eyes, and they’re not omniscient. The technique keeps the focus on the characters, as though Gibson would remind us that it’s people who matter in the end. And the need to remind us of that is comment in itself on these fraught times we’re in.