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Zero History

by William Gibson

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Zero History by William Gibson
© Putnam
Putnam, September 2010

William Gibson's migration from cyberpunk to present day speculative fiction is no longer news. The malevolent artificial intelligences, dystopic science fiction futures, and cyberspace voodoo gods ended with the 2003 introduction of the Bigend trilogy, so named for Hubertus Bigend, the Belgian founder and CEO of Blue Ant, a multinational marketing firm that features prominently in all three novels.

The final novel in the trilogy, Zero History begins much like its predecessors (Pattern Recognition and Spook Country), with the various machinations and desires of Blue Ant and the man at its helm. Bigend, "an overly wealthy, dangerously curious fiddler with the world's hidden architectures," once again coerces former rockstar Hollis Henry into his employ. The job? Something typically nebulous, this time fashion-related: track down any information relating to a rare and enigmatic brand of denim known as Gabriel Hounds. Along for the ride is another character from Spook Country, the (now recovering) drug addict, Milgrim, a man in his mid-30s with an acute and unbiased sense of branding and culture, who Bigend uses to steal the plans for a pair of pants he wishes to market to the U.S. military.
William Gibson has long shown a penchant for prying up the culture to see what lurks beneath, but never so much as in these last three novels and especially with regard to fashion in this latest. Yes, the much sought after Gabriel Hounds provide focus for the characters in Zero History, but particular attention is paid to details of attire of the characters themselves, beginning on page one with Hollis' former bandmate, Reg Inchmale, "wrapped in Japanese herringbone Gore-Tex, multiply flapped and counter-intuitively buckled," and shortly thereafter with the entrance of Bigend in a putty-colored trench-coat, Crimean lapels, and "the only International Klein Blue suit (that Hollis had) ever seen."

Gibson's attraction to fashion is of course an extension of his keen awareness of technology and objects in general. In addition to the Gabriel Hounds line of denim, Zero History prominently features expensive toys such as the Festo Air Penguin - a "penguin wrapped in fluid mirror" that swims through the air - and a Jankel-armored Toyota Hilux. Reading any of his latest novels, one gets the impression that were he not an author, William Gibson would have had an exceptional career as a product designer or marketing creative, so acute are his own branding senses.
It is then not surprising (though still somewhat disappointing) that the plot of Zero History revolves around the perfect design for a pair of pants. Tension builds throughout the novel as Bigend and company attract the undesired eye of a retired Special Forces colonal who has his eyes on the same prize. And just when circumstances seem most dire, a bit of unrealistic tactical advantage arrives like the good fairy in the form of Hollis Henry's CIA-connected, base-jumping boyfriend, Garreth.

It's interesting to note then that the last hundred pages of Zero History, when the action hits in the form of disguises, decoys and armed rendezvous with the enemy, are the most contrived and least interesting pages of the novel, and the parts that really stand out are the bits early on, when Gibson employs his immediately recognizable, highly-stylized prose to render curious surroundings, desirable technology, and... well... pants.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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