...as submitted today to The (Charleston) Post and Courier, which re-numerates me for reviews by giving me books...
ZERO HISTORY by William Gibson. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 404 pages. $26.95
It's stunning to think about all that's changed in our world during the eight years since science fiction novelist William Gibson stepped out of the future and into the present with “Pattern Recognition,” a spooky travelogue of the emerging post-geographic landscape of a wired planet.
That “Pattern Recognition” is today described as the first of Gibson's Blue Ant novels, and that Gibson has just delivered us “Zero History,” his third book in that series, is ample reason to reflect. If ever there was an unintentional mirror of the failed promise of our age, of the dissolution of networked culture's sublime mysteries into the sodden mess of flatline digital static that drones in the background of our lives today, it is this series.
Like “Pattern Recognition” and its follow-up, “Spook Country,” the events in “Zero History” swirl obliquely around Hubertus Bigend, a London-based “nominal Belgian” whose job description (“advertising and marketing genius”) does little to convey the depth of his meddling, reality-distorting manipulations. It is Bigend, through his company Blue Ant, who sets in motion the storylines of all three novels, but according to Gibson, Bigend wasn't intended to be part of the second novel. Rather, it was as if whatever part of Gibson's psyche is represented by Bigend simply imposed its will on the hapless author, hijacking the legacy of “Pattern Recognition” like a quasi-comic Bond villain and rebranding the series as a Blue Ant subsidiary.
In the first novel, Bigend sends a “cool-hunter” in search of the source of mysterious video clips. In the second, he recruits former rock star Hollis Henry to write a piece about enhanced-reality art for a non-existent magazine, a quest that illuminates secrets of the post-9/11 era. In “Zero History,” Hollis Henry returns, along with numerous other characters, only this time her nominal tasking from Bigend is to find a secretive fashion designer.
If that seems a light feather on which to establish a plot-heavy novel, that's because it's a seriously telling flaw. What began in the first book as a suspiciously sponsored quest for meaning has by book three deteriorated into dull soliloquies on fashion and branding, half-heartedly connected to some Bigendian yarn about military clothing contracts. Did Gibson mean for us to make this comparison? Who knows?
What we can know from reading is that the plot advances only minimally over the first 47 chapters, and that all the action and revelations take place in the disappointingly contrived jumble that is chapters 48-87. One of its most important resolutions is laughably shoe-horned into the midst of the climactic caper sequence, which is only tangentially related to the high-concept plot-payoff in the penultimate chapter.
Gibson is one of our most interesting and capable writers, and his relationship to his most ardent fans is sophisticated, creative and meaningful. But this is Gibson at his worst, name-dropping real-world hipster references like the product-placement wing of Blue Ant, eschewing basic character-development as if it were bad salmon and essentially acting as if the entire novel were merely a private performance for the readers of this series who obsess online over its every trivial detail.
When Gibson began this series in 2002, the world was self-reorganizing around technologies that seemed like the wild imaginings of science fiction, and regular people, identified only by their interests, collaboration and participation, played a leading role in shaping that new culture. That this arc-less trilogy ends in 2010, at a moment when that once-hopeful future is being paved over by corporate levelers and creative mercenaries, is a sad, if fitting, statement.
Dan Conover is a bike mechanic in Charleston, SC.