It’s been seven years since William Gibson reinvented himself as a contemporary literary author. Best known as a science fiction writer and the reluctant grandfather of the cyberpunk movement, Gibson has never been comfortable with the prescient abilities ascribed to him. He has ever looked at the present under a finer lens than most authors.
His newest work, Zero History, may be the first novel written for the iPhone/iPad generation. The internet predicted in his landmark 1984 book Neuromancer is the perfect companion to his latest novel, given the encyclopedic quality of his references. One senses the invisible tag cloud surrounding his always-mesmerizing sentences. (While reading, I very much wished to tap my finger on an unfamiliar bit of historical detritus and be directed to the Wiki page explaining it.) Zero History is awash in interesting pop culture and historical name-checks. From Constructivist artists seventy-years dead to the specific beat of the reggae tune “Draw the Breaks,” such effort might be slightly daunting for a newcomer to Gibson’s work, but the rich underlying subtext is well worth the Googling.
Taking place after his last novel, Spook Country, Zero History catches up with two characters from that book, between whom Gibson toggles. Hollis Henry, a former alt-rock star with cult status, joins Russian-language specialist, and former Ativan addict, Milgrim. The two embark on the apparent finale of what online fandom has coined “The Bigend Trilogy” (so named for the eponymous Belgian marketing magnate who looms over the entire series as prime motivator and sometime antagonist.) This time out, Bigend tasks Hollis and Milgrim with finding the unknown maker of a very fine, fetishistic and secret denim fashion line known as Gabriel Hounds.
Having lost much of her savings in the economic crash of 2008, and recently split with her daredevil boyfriend Garreth, Hollis agrees to work once again for Bigend. This, despite her better judgment, as Bigend is, more or less, Big Brother’s mischievous little brother. Milgrim, meanwhile, owes his sobriety to Bigend, who paid for his treatment at an experimental Swiss clinic that couples cognitive therapy with multiple blood transfusions. While Bigend finds Milgrim useful due to his relative anonymity and “eye for detail,” it becomes clear that Milgrim is more of a personal, existential project. After waking up from ten years of sedative-induced oblivion, Milgrim is the “zero history” of the title.
As Hollis and Milgrim pursue the mysterious maker of Gabriel Hounds, they are drawn into a strange, post-marketing world of anti-buzz where penguin-shaped reconnaissance drones are piloted by iPhone apps, ex-special forces operatives are hot for military clothing contracts as a way of legitimatizing arms dealings, and secret brands constitute the next form of exclusivity.
In a world that has become all too deluged with information, the very lack of information, an absence of actual branding becomes the most sought-after marketing platform imaginable. But, conscious of what happens to secrets that go public, Hollis must ask herself if she wants to turn the maker of Gabriel Hounds over to Bigend. Nothing Bigend touches stays a secret long.
Around a seemingly straightforward plot, Gibson spins a collage of curios where found objects become poetry and quiet, human moments are tenser and more revelatory than the labyrinthine movements of the story. “Garreth. Whom, she now obliquely accepted, in the descending bronze elevator booth, she did truly love. Replacing this swiftly, however, before the jolt announced the Odeon’s lobby.”
Gibson combines a taught, winding thriller with a literary Cornell Box of lonely objects and lonely characters. Each of them is recalled from the dust-bins of history, reified and re-imagined as something new, something with “zero history.”
As in the final books of his previous trilogies, Gibson suggests we are on the cusp of a paradigmatic shift. Something is moving, secretly, under the variegated and omnipresent currents of the world and Bigend seems somehow to be at the center. Hollis observes, “I think something about Bigend condenses things, pulls them together…” Indeed, Bigend is a magnet, a conjurer for the the new century, and Gibson intimates he’s about to become something even more.
Where Hollis and Milgrim are motivated by private needs, Bigend orchestrates complex plans simply, “because he can.” This is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of his nature. He is a force, haunting the dreams of those who run the world, a spectral sigil of the new century, herald of the ultimate zeitgeist.
Yet there is hope, there are spots, secret hotels and mystery brands that Bigend cannot get at. There are, Gibson suggests, places inside (or perhaps outside) the ever-connected present where the sincere appreciation of style and substance find purchase. There are objects which drown down centuries, whose purposes now seem almost quaint—and among them sometimes lies the possibility of finding genuine selfhood amongst the avatars of the world.
Gibson’s book demarcates an end to a strange decade. Free, hopefully, of the recent mediated baggage of terrorism, political manipulation and ubiquitous branding, his protagonists are able to move forward into the rest of this young century. The closing pages serve as a sort of goodbye and suggest that Gibson might be moving on too, toward whatever setting, whatever temporal locale his next imaginings might take him. I’ll follow. I couldn’t not.
Chris Lites holds a B.A. and is currently working on his masters in creative writing at DePaul University. He is marketing a novel and wishing he majored in welding. Contact him here.