Zero History is the third of Gibson's books to feature the Blue Ant ad agency and continues to explore issues of branding, marketing, technology and cutting edge cool in a fast moving and entertaining thriller.
It's almost obligatory when writing anything about William Gibson to recall that in an earlier short story, he invented the term 'cyberspace'. Gibson remains at the cutting edge of what is 'cool. Like most of his books, Zero History is a thriller, but at its core are issues surrounding technology, how we interact with it, branding and marketing. It would be easy to criticise much of his content as being too shallow and concerned with 'nothing' - but then that's part of his point.
Gibson also has a history of writing in trilogies - and this is indeed the third of his books to deal with the mysterious Blue Ant ad agency run by the gloriously named Hubertus Bigend. But equally, it stands perfectly on its own and no prior familiarity is required with the other two books (Pattern Recognition and Spook Country).
Although set firmly in the present, Gibson writes about cutting edge issues that gives his books an almost science fiction feel, and if you are a fan of some of the lighter sci fi genre, then you will find much to enjoy here. There's plenty of gadgets and no small amount of humour.
At the heart of this thriller is a subject that is, at first, unexpected; namely a secret brand of denim jeans, known as The Gabriel Hounds. This is what Bigend wants his Blue Ant agency to understand and initially has in his employ, a former rock singer, Hollis Henry, and a recovering drug addict, Milgrim (both of whom will be familiar to readers of his previous book). Both are separately working for Bigend, with varying degrees of reluctance but quickly become emerged in the same task. If that sounds a dull basis for a story, you would be wrong. Yes, at times it feels a little on the unlikely side, but then it will have you questioning if it is really so unlikely after all. At stake here is the ability to control fashion desirability and Gibson goes on to make some thought provoking links between street fashion and military ware.
Everything in Bigend's world is knowingly über-cool. Sometimes this can be irritating, but it is essential to build up the world in which Blue Ant is involved. I-phones get a lot of coverage, as do augmented reality, CCTV surveillance and Japanese 'secret brands'. Gibson also seems strangely obsessed with describing elevators. The constant brand mentioning would get wearing in some books, but here is entirely justified. By including the reactions of Milgrim, who has been 'off the grid' in re-hab, to some of the technology that we are now very familiar with, like Twitter, Gibson will have you thinking 'really, can they do that?' with some of his more outlandish concepts. If so, we are in for a treat with penguin-shaped balloons in the very near future.
The book is largely, and convincingly, set in London, with the odd foray into Paris and the US. Often American writers who set books in London seem to fail to grasp the soul of the city, but Gibson pulls it off with aplomb.
It's fast moving, entertaining and frequently amusing. The heart of the mystery around which the thriller operates does shift at times, and this can be a bit annoying, and ultimately it's a lot of tech to employ on such a small issue, but it's fair to say, without revealing too much, that even Bigend might be in over his head on this one. There's a lot of paranoia and there's always seems to be someone watching everyone.
Only 3 stars for this I'm afraid. I'm a massive fan of Gibson's (ground-breaking) SF work, but I haven't much liked the Blue Ant novels (Pattern Recognition and Spook County) and this is the weakest of the trilogy. Set in contemporary London it follows Hollis Henry and Milgrim (both of whom appear in Spook County, but this book can be read standalone) as they follow the trail of iconic new fashion at the behest of the enigmatic Hubertus Bigend.
I thought the English stuff was fairly well done in terms of location and dialect, but the plot didn't really engage me and I found it somewhat confusing at times. There is something (big) that Bigend really wants, but it's hidden away and almost inconsequential.
Having said that there is some excellent writing: "[The Neo phone]....was also prone to something Sleight called "kernel panic" which caused it to freeze and need to be restarted, a condition Milgrim himself had been instantly inclined to identify with."; "Milgrim....was caught in some frustrating loop of semi-sleep, slow and circular, in which exhaustion swung him slowly out, toward where sleep should surely have been, then overshot the mark somehow..."; And my favourite: "These were, she gathered, private internets, unlicensed and unpoliced, and Garreth had once remarked that, as with dark matter and the universe, the darknets were probably the bulk of the thing, were there any way to accurately measure them."
And there are good ideas - not so much the fashion stuff for me, but the "Order Flow" is clever and the idea of the hideous T-shirt having an impact on surveillance is wonderful - although both of these ideas are credited to others in the acknowledgements.
Ultimately the book just didn't engage me and I wondered if Gibson was trying to say something about society by deliberately writing in this almost dreamlike manner - if so it went over my head.
I'll probably still buy every novel he writes still, but a fairly disappointing end to a so-so trilogy. Maybe he'll return to SF - I do hope so.
Zero History is the third novel in William Gibson's sequence involving the octopus like Blue Ant PR agency, and its vaguely sinister owner, Hubertus Bigend.
Hollis is a rock singer employed by Bigend to find the designer of an achingly trendy denim brand. Milgrim is a fixer with a mysterious past, involved in shady dealing for Blue Ant and assigned to aid Hollis. The story is told, in alternate chapters, from the viewpoints of these two main protaganists.
In his iconic sprawl novels, Gibson wrote something that was unequivocally science fiction, albeit virtually inventing the sub genre of cyberpunk as he did so. Zero History is barely, if at all, a work of science fiction. His world is very recognisably our own, driven by iPhones, the internet, and twitter, although he writes in the margins of society, where shady power brokers trade real violence in battles for brands and for market position and information.
If that makes this sound like a techno-thriller, it is a long way from the works of Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy. It is more as if Gibson has taken the real world which has evolved in a parallel manner to his cyberpunk vision, and has created a new version of what the semi legal nether world looks like and how it underlies and interfaces with a mainstream market economy.
Although this is barely science fiction, it is closer to Gibson's sprawl trilogy than any of his other novels since. Both are based in the fringes of an interconnected, networked society, the former the fictional cyberspace, the latter what it has in reality become. It is interesting to note that the importance of branding and marketing is the major development which Gibson didn't foresee in the 80's. The street samurai of the Sprawl is re-incarnated as a female despatch rider. At the start of Neuromancer, Gibson set out his stall with his famous simile about the sky over Chiba city, and here his trademark imagery of a man-made environment, is very much in evidence, based, for example, on the colours of urban decay. Bigend is almost a human Wintermute and finally, Zero History ends, like Mona Lisa Overdrive, with a game changing "something big" and it can surely must be a conscious decision that the human catalyst in both cases is called Bobby.
The genre of Zero History is difficult to define. It is more intelligent and less reactionary than a typical techno-thriller. It is too much based on the contemporary world to be science fiction. It could be described as socio-fiction, using an SF style to comment on today's society. Whatever it is, it is an easy reading, fast paced, exciting thriller (of some variety) which makes intelligent observations about where we are today.
It is not entirely successful. Like many of Gibson's later works, it it something of a road movie of a book; the story-telling journey is more interesting than the eventual denouement, which feels somewhat rushed. Also it is one of those novels which would benefit from a cast list at the start. A number of characters make one appearance, disappear for half the book and then re-appear, leaving me thinking "now who was that again?" Or maybe I'm just getting old.
So, I would definitely recommend Zero History as an entertaining and interesting read. It will probably be more palatable to those with an ear tuned to SF, but Gibson is a unique writer with a vision and street smart style which should not be ignored by a wider audience.
More and more, Mr Gibson seems to want his writing to be pure description
- of surfaces, technology, objects, streets. On this level alone, his books are always worth reading, often attaining a sort of rhapsodic, dreamlike quality.
The trouble with the 'Blue Ant' trilogy, for me, is this prose has been built onto increasingly flimsy and unconvincing narratives, populated by vague, sketched-out characters. (The lead character, Hollis Henry, is supposedly some sort of cool-divining savant, but in this book at least shows almost no abilities beyond being able to order coffee in Selfridge's Food Hall. And, to the extent 'coolhunters' actually exist in reality, are they so well paid as freelancers that they can afford vast second homes in glamourous foreign locations? Sort of doubt it.)
But I digress. This time, Hubertus Bigend wants our two heroes to research an obscure Japanese clothing brand to aid his bid to manufacture clothing for the US Military. A fairly unpreposessing idea or what's nominally a thriller, you must admit, and so it proves as the protagonists sit round in obessively-decribed London cafes eating obsessively-described food whilst having conversations about jeans and the colour green,whilst what little plot there is advances at the speed of a glacier, though to be honest it's pretty difficult to care what happens anyway.
So, if your a Gibson fan, I'd get this for the prose..but maybe wait for the paperback. If your new to him ,this isn't the best start.
on 14 April 2011
It seems to me that over the years William Gibson has been listening to those around him telling him over and over what a great writer he is to a point where he has begun to believe his own hype. The result is Zero History where Gibson writes about Boutique Hotel lobbys, hotel room interiors, telephones, Mac Air laptops, iPhones and many more mundane things- all in the most boring and pretentious way, convinced that everything he is putting down on paper is solid gold. Nothing happens in this novel until the last quarter and when I say 'nothing' I really mean it. Characters move around London hotels. They might go to Paris in the chunnel for the day and then return. They might get a coffee in a cafe or not. Thats it. For hundreds of pages. The sad thing to me is that William Gibson can be fantastic writer but he needs to stop jetting around the world giving talks in Prague and appearing at symposiums on the future of ninja bio-tech (or whatever the hell he's been doing all these years) and get back to writing engaging characters that we actually care about. He also needs to get back to having a plot and not a series of post-it notes that move the story along at a snails pace.
on 2 September 2010
Because, I fear, he might have been an American Bigend: a vampiric marketer, a voracious prospector and exploiter of ideas. He might, with a different background, be tugging our subconscious consumerist strings, deciding what we want before we know we want it.
Of course, he's sort of doing this already. He's been defining cool for decades. But in a different way to Hubertus Bigend or Cayce Pollard. He's like a magician who shows you the tricks and explains how they work.
Zero History is the third book in his newest loose trilogy. Thematic progression from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country is evident: branding, global socioeconomics, underground culture, espionage, transitory jobs, transitory people. It expands on threads explored in the previous books while presenting new revelations and characters. In this, it's similar to the ending books in the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies - uniting characters from the previous stories and bringing together concepts for a conclusion.
Zero History is more than that, though. It's the last book in what I see as a trilogy of trilogies (he may embark on another trilogy right after I write this review, but bear with me) that, in the 80s, started in future, coming closer and closer to the "present" with each book. The Sprawl books were in the comparatively far future - truly speculative fiction - the Bridge books were closer to the present - more believable, more realistic - and this, what I guess is the Bigend trilogy, is right on the mark. He's working with the materials of "now".
He almost acknowledges this in Zero History, referencing elements of his other books in sly ways: the silver balloons go back (look forward) to Chevette's friend's flying cameras in All Tomorrow's Parties; the ubiquitous Iphone is the Ono-sendai; Milgrim's Laney; the designer of the secret jeans is Wintermute. Gibson's stuff has always been the fiction of ideas. Now, with a basis in this time, with this technology, it takes on a weightiness that may not be apparent, given the seeming superficiality of boutique clothing, brand awareness, and other minutae.
In other words. This is a hell of an interesting read. There's a nowness to it that I hope doesn't date terribly when looked back on in 10 years. He was able to get away with vagueness with cyberspace and the version of the net seen in the Bridge trilogy, but Twitter, for example, is extremely tied to this time, and hopefully just a flash in the pan. Another - possibly dating - thing he does throughout the book is to constantly, persistently namedrop the Iphone brand - is this an experiment in brand saturation, to see if people will get tired of something generally seen as desirable? Is it a comment on how a formerly niche product (the smartphone) is now as common as muck? Is it just that, he, a man who loves what technology does to people and what it looks like, but doesn't really understand hardware, just likes his new toy?
A lot of this reads like Gibson fantasising what he'd do, with the right inclinations and resources, to the global underground. He'd travel the world, a kind of hyper-aware otaku sniffer, like Milgrim, or he'd be a roving predator with connections like tentacles, like Bigend. But he's not like that. He's too in touch with reality. Too conscious of what's really going on.
on 30 August 2010
Zero History shares many of its themes and characters with Gibson's last two books, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Like them it is set in the present and deals with themes around branding and secrets. If Gibson is following his previous patterns we can assume that Zero History forms the third part of a trilogy (which I am going to refer to as the Blue Ant trilogy).
Where the other two books in the Blue Ant trilogy were set around about now, Zero History is very definitely about today. This causes some problems early on. Branding and technology is at the forefront in Zero History, as in all of Gibson's work, but here it is iPhones, Twitter and Google rather than Sendai decks and the Matrix. There are a few, and it is only a few, passages early on where Gibson tries to explain or contextualise these current technologies and it feels slightly as if your dad is telling you about this new Interweb thing he has heard the young people talking about. These, very few, clumsy passages do jar slightly but are more than made up for by passages later in the book where Gibson has interesting things to say about how we interact with our phones and the interplay between military imagery and street fashion.
Gibson's status as the creator of "an iconography for the information age" does create a temptation to overly concentrate on how he deals with technology and the modern world. At its core though, Zero History, like the rest of Gibson's books, is an efficient thriller. Without wishing to give too much away the action begins with two of the characters from Spook Country, Hollis Henry and Milgrim, engaged on separate assignments for the Blue Ant agency. Both are searching for exclusive kinds of clothing; some designed by military contractors, some hand made for anonymous "secret brands". The action quickly centres on an authentic feeling modern day London and draws in a number of characters from the previous Blue Ant trilogy books.
The first couple of chapters feel a bit sluggish, with detailed descriptions of rooms and buildings taking precedence over plot but the pace quickly picks up. Like nearly all of Gibson's previous books I couldn't stop once I had started and read the 400 odd pages in a couple of sittings. I did have a few minor issues with the book, which I have discussed above, but they are minor enough for me not to hesitate in giving Zero History 5 stars.
on 18 September 2011
Albeit I was heartened to see both Hollis & Milgrim return as characters from Spook Country, there is a level of unreality to the apparent boundless financial generosity of Hubertus Bigend when it comes to his willingness to bankroll his accidental heroes through their constant missteps, as well as kowtow to their every demand that just doesn't hold up that well in a novel which is trying so hard to operate with some degree of modern day verisimilitude. That Bigend does indulge the every whim of his petulant charges (seemingly) without question undermines the increasing reluctance of Hollis to work for him, given 'work' consists of being put up in a fancy exclusive boutique hotel, chauffeured around a lot to various locations (never far from a coffee vendor it must be noted), using her iphone incessantly (they are ubiquitous) and talking to friends and friends of friends and occasionally having to report her progress (the apparent tyranny of Hubertus Bigend knows no bounds). Milgrim, albeit an interesting (and integral) character in Spook Country, seems like a complete indulgence in many ways, and I get the sense Gibson has only brought him across because he wasn't happy with where he left him at the end of that book, and wanted to give him a more upbeat ending. He seems an unnecessary middle man given his lack of qualifications for the task in hand beyond 'an eye for detail'. One can't help but feel if Bigend is hoping that Hollis's semi-celebrity is there to open up social doors, a better partner for her would be that of a seasoned fashion hawk to work with on the investigating, rather than a man who's still coming to terms with sobriety after a substantial absence from reality.
There's also an breezy easy Oceans Elevens aspect to the latter half of the book, that just trades too much off of sheer happenstance, especially when it comes to the right people at the right time being right there (outside the door, next door, met down the pub/gym or a phone call away), that undermines any sense of tension to events. Much is made of an antagonist, who ultimately proves to be little more than a paper tiger when things come to a head (though we are thrown a bone of peril at the last minute), that in many ways you kind of feel sorry for him given how royally screwed over he and his companions ultimately are by the 'good guys'.
As always Gibson delivers on the detail and the dialogue and there's plenty of reaching for wikipedia to be done over some of the obscure real world references, but it's not enough to make this book one I can readily recommend, unless you're already heavily invested in the 'Bigend Trilogy'. Given the large list of acknowledgments at the end of the book, I can't help but feel that Gibson may have found himself surrounded by too many 'yes men' and not enough people prepared to challenge his storytelling and push him to the next level.
on 30 September 2014
As ever, Gibson's taut, poetic prose is utterly unique, and a sheer delight. I simply do not know of anyone who can weave together the coolness of modern life and the drabness of modern living with such terse perfection. Gibson's books are ones I return to again and again - I can open them at a random page and bask in the way he expertly skewers some aspect of contemporaneity. I also enjoyed the plot - I don't think it's quite as daft as some have said. However, I did feel that there was a slight whiff of deus ex machina in the closing stages. The final chapter (which is in effect the epilogue) was for me unnecessarily high camp, too.
But it still gets five stars. I just love his use of language. Even an average Gibson novel is still head and shoulders above almost any other writer, in my opinion.
on 27 May 2014
I won't say too much about the quality of the actual book which was OK... Not one of Gibson's best by any means but engaging enough with some interesting ideas. However... The reading of the audio book is fairly dire. Firstly, with a book that has so many central female characters it really would have benefited from a female reader as the chap reading just does not portray any of them as convincing or likable characters. Secondly, tehrte are an awful lot of British characters here and the reader lapses into a terrible, Dick Van Dyke Mary Poppins type, accent. It's really very distracting and hard to get past.