William Gibson. Zero History (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2010).
Of course I’ve taken too long to get around to reading Zero History, but I do have my excuses, such as the huge Sunburst reading list I spent most of the past year on. Though I had not read it the year it came out: mea maxima culpa. Because, of course, it’s terrific, the perfect conclusion to Gibson’s latest trilogy, what might be called the contemporary one (maybe The Bigend Trilogy?).
Two of the things about William Gibson’s writing that makes these three novels (the earlier two: Pattern Recognition ; Spook Country ) so entertaining: 1. He writes a certain kind of dialogue as well as anyone; 2. He creates a (making) strange kind of poetry of the materials around us, from the smallest details of a shirt or a lamp through hotel rooms to the vagaries of a whole city, as in these sentences about entering London by car: ‘Like entering a game, a layout, something flat and mazed, arbitrarily but fractally constructed from beautifully detailed but somehow unreal buildings, its order perhaps shuffled since the last time he’d been here. The pixels that comprised it were familiar, but it remained only provisionally mapped, a protean territory, a box of tricks, some possibly even benign.’ One could write a whole essay on how these two sentences encompass ideas that underlie the whole trilogy, set context for later events in this novel, & reveal aspects of the perceptual character (Milgrim). Gibson has perfected the noir understatement he has played with from the beginning of his career, where every word caries weight, & the reader is invited to play the game of deep inference throughout.
For those who have read the earlier books, which is a good idea but not absolutely necessary, many characters return, especially Bigend, who runs Blue Ant, the weird conglomerate that seems to be about being just ahead of the curve in everything, & Hollis, whom Bigend likes to use because she seems able to connect with the people who create the near-future in culture (the artists of the commercial world whether or not they actually work there). Milgrim, who also has some abilities, was a mere drug addicted helper in Spook Country, but, having been expensively cleaned up at Bigend’s request, he comes into his own in Zero History. Others who congregated around these two re-appear here, often having changed in subtle ways; sometimes not. Where, in the previous two novels, Gibson managed 3 interwoven narrative threads, each with its point-of-view character, here he holds the twisted narrative links to just Hollis & Milgrim, but they intersect with both each other & so many other wannabe protagonists that the larger story gets very complicated, indeed. On one level, then, Zero History is a subtle thriller, & at the right moments, Gibson ratchets the tension up. But it’s also a character study, & much of the delight of this novel lies in the way he represents his major characters in conversation with others as well as in their difficult inner conflicts.
So, it’s a cat’s cradle of a book, so many threads of narrative intertwined. Gibson can derive tension from the smallest interactions – that’s where this reader’s major pleasure comes from; but he also creates moments of intense action, that usually arrive out of nowhere, unexpectedly, & create a kind of chaos for the various protagonists. Not least Bigend, himself, who wants to be in some kind of control even as he recognizes that such is impossible. In one of Gibson’s smartest moves throughout the trilogy, he never represents Bigend interiorly but only through talk & acts, as others perceive him, usually acting on them (getting them to do things for him).
There can be no doubt that a major pleasure of reading Zero History & its 2 predecessors are how their complicated thriller plots play out. But there is so much more to these novels, not least the style Gibson has honed over the years. Especially in these books set in the present of their writing (just post-9/11 in Pattern Recognition; in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency & the Iraq War in Spook Country; just after the 2008 economic breakdown in Zero History), Gibson has become one of our finest poets of contemporary consumer thingness. Of course I am also wondering if Gibson did personal research on all the places his characters eat, so many of which seem really neat, & out of the way, &, I hope, actual.
Although these 3 books are set in the present, & might seem to have a shorter literary cum cultural shelf life than his earlier SF set in a clearly defined future, their wit, style, & cultural/commodity insight makes them eminently re-readable. Highly provocative, they are also consistent delights. If you havent read them, do.