‘This is more pomo spy thriller (John Simu-Le Carré?) than cyberpunk’ – Zero History by William Gibson

The third in William Gibson’s latest trilogy following Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Zero History romps along through the contemporary landscapes of South Carolina, London, and Paris, crackling with decals, sigils, and company logos, littered with references to dazzle ships, secret brands, guerrilla merchandising, shot through with references to the darknet, and peopled by ex-rock stars, extreme sportsmen, recovering junkies, and corporate businessmen trying to outwit time and the market. So far, so Gibsonian. But what should we call this trilogy? We have had the Sprawl trilogy: Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive; and the Bridge trilogy: Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties. Maybe the Brand trilogy or the Market trilogy. Characters from the previous books appear – Milgrim, Hollis Henry, Hubertus Bigend, and Cayce Pollard, and Gibson revisits the themes of signs, espionage, and secret histories. This is more pomo spy thriller (John Simu-Le Carré?) than cyberpunk – though Milgrim’s characterisation owes something to Neuromancer’s Case and the same novel’s Armitage splits to become Bigend and Garreth.

Now, I am a huge Gibson fan – it is hard to believe that Neuromancer is 26 years old – but this novel – and the trilogy as a whole – read(s) as if it were about last week, last month, not the present, let alone the day after tomorrow. I am not sure – and it is a great idea if it is the case – but I have a suspicion that Apple sponsors William Gibson. Apple product placements appear in nearly every chapter – iPhones, iPods, Air Macs – but in a way that gives the novel a dated feel, not the ultra-contemporaneous burn it should have. Read a Douglas Coupland novel and you feel you are in the here and now with a cheekily advantageous glimpse into next week. Read the later Gibson and it has a patinated feel, as if the pages were already slightly foxed rather than fizzing with digital pixel dust.

Gibson’s complex, almost Jamesian, sentence structure compounds the problem, giving the prose an antique feel rather than a hypermodern one. Gibson can write, there is no doubt about that, you will not find flat sentences as you will in many so-called “science fiction novels” (Dick one of the biggest culprits), but, at times, the Baroque does not roll. 

He saw the building’s original stairway, winding down, beyond big twisted brown-stained timbers that couldn’t possibly have been as old, in America, as they no doubt were, here.

An explosion in a comma factory and when they finally settle, they seem to have taken up positions in which they no longer fit. Or, from the early pages of the novel so we can excuse some scene setting:

The key, attached to a weighty brass ferule 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.

 Er… she opened the door and turned on the light. Sometimes the prose is poetic, powerful in its descriptive balance; sometimes it reads like filler.

The plot: Hubertus Bigend has hired ex-rock star now investigative journalist Hollis Henry to track down the designer who makes clothes for the secret brand The Gabriel Hounds. Meanwhile, Milgrim just out of rehab has special skills involving speaking Russian and identifying military designs – the next big thing in the fashion world. Bigend’s ad agency Blue Ant has been infiltrated by corporate spies, ready to steal Bigend’s uncanny knowledge of the hidden world, the darknet, the secret society of signs. There are car chases, appearances by the magnificent Festo penguins and rays, double agents, and the story zips along, is well constructed, and enjoyable for what it is.

But what is it? If Gibson takes the postmodern stance that all is surface, there are no depths, that popular culture has its own elite stratum, its own semiotics, then Zero History embodies that – it appears all surface with little gravitas. At his best, Gibson matches DeLillo and Coupland as a writer who lights out for the new territories, bringing back reports of now and the near future. The “Market” trilogy may investigate globalization, identity, the push and pull between and within late-capitalism of a surge toward differentiation on one hand and monological organization on the other, but it does so through – what seems to me – an old-fashioned narrative and a language maculated with brand names, products, and media references. Gibson’s world is a world that is:

Dreadful because the new postmodern condition has obliterated all the place markers—inside and outside, culture and society, orthodoxy and subversion—that made it possible to map the world and hence mount a critique of its power structures. Visionary because this new multi-national world, a world with intensities rather than emotions, elaborated surfaces rather than hidden depths, random, unreadable signs rather than signifiers, intimates a utopian release from the traditional nightmare of traditional history. (Stephen Greenblatt: “Towards a Poetics of Culture” in Learning to Curse.)

But I still think Gibson stands with Coupland, DeLillo, and Pynchon as the “gang of four” novelists who – from the sixties to the tens – have attempted to imagine our real or what we believe it to be.

Any Cop?: Zero History is a good read, a page-turner, but some of the pages are heavy with unwarranted punctuation, unnecessary characters (Pamela?), and dodgy character motivation. Maybe a stand-alone novel would allow Gibson to recover his chilling dreadful vision.

Steve Finbow

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