Author: William Gibson

2010, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Filed under: Sci-Fi, Thrillers

William Gibson is most renowned for Neuromancer, his 1984 sci-fi novel that predicted the modern internet, popularized the word “cyberspace” (and the genre cyberpunk), won every major science fiction award, and inspired both Snow Crash and The Matrix. So when critics call Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, his best work since Neuromancer, that’s really saying something.

It’s no use comparing the two novels directly: Zero History doesn’t have Neuromancer‘s depth or its importance. But Zero is entertaining and worth reading in its own right, and its themes reflect back on its author in interesting ways.

Zero is the follow-up to Spook Country (not exactly a sequel, because you don’t need to have read Spook), and it features a plethora of well-defined, if sometimes shallow, characters. Our primary focus rests on Hollis Henry, an ex-rock star who seems surprisingly grounded for someone constantly running into obsequious fans.

The narrative splits time between her perspective and that of Milgrim, an anxious, nerdy, antisocial ex-drug addict. Both Milgrim and Hollis work for Hubertus Bigend (great names in this novel; the other members of Hollis’s old band are Reg Inchmale and Heidi Hyde). Bigend contracts Hollis and Milgrim to find him some jeans—not Levi’s either, but a super-secret unlabeled brand called Gabriel Hounds, sold with more stealth and care than black-market nuclear warheads.

Hollis and Milgrim start to bond, and a tidy little mystery starts to emerge. As long as you can forget that they’re putting such effort into a pair of jeans, it’s a fun ride. Eventually the slender tension collapses, when Hollis’s ex-boyfriend shows up and they focus their attention on a shadowy enemy who’s competing with Bigend for… something. (It’s explained in the book, but it’s not very convincing.) Sometime along the way, the impossible-to-find secret jeans designer shows up out of the blue, and the mystery (my favorite part of the plot) evaporates.

Luckily, Gibson’s style headlines the show, and it stays until the encore, along with his penchant for littering the landscape with ingenious weirdness. Floating mylar surveillance penguins, for instance, which are designed to make anybody who happens to see them think they’re hallucinating.

Gibson’s prose can be dense at times, but it can also shine, like this:

The doors slid aside, revealing Pamela Mainwaring. Looking, Milgrim thought, like some very tasteful pornographer’s idea of “mature,” her blond hair magnificently banged.

With his great talent at phrase-turning, it’s only a few linguistic tics that hold Gibson back from real prosaic greatness, like his overreliance on the incomplete sentence. One character speaks exclusively in incomplete sentences; that gets old not only because it’s obnoxious, but also because it feels like a lazy, gimmicky way to distinguish that character’s dialogue.

Gibson’s world-building, on the other hand, is never lazy. I particularly like when his world intersects ours, in weirdly twisted, often comical details. For instance, when Milgrim joins forces with an American spy, she tells him to set up a special Twitter account and wait for her private tweet—she’ll be GAYDOLPHIN1, she says, and he should be GAYDOLPHIN2.

You can almost feel Gibson chuckling to himself as he came up with that one, and those moments when the author’s personality peeks through the narrative are the novel’s most compelling. With a writer like Gibson, who’s making pointed comments about culture and society, I find myself more acutely aware of his authorial presence than when I read most other novels—for instance when he mentions “pocket monsters” like he coined the phrase, I wonder whether or not he knows what Pokemon means, and what it means for that sentence if he does or doesn’t. More to the point, when he builds a plot on the fashion industry (while criticizing its lack of substance), I wonder whether he knew the novel would feel so insubstantial.

Gibson, after all, has built a career on something akin to coolhunting, the novel’s central theme. He owes a big part of his fame to the simple fact that one of his ideas, “cyberspace,” became a reality. As a futurist, he was perhaps not the best, perhaps not the most prolific, but he was the one who got it right. There’s an echoing sense of luck and fragility in his portrayals of coolhunting—a similar kind of future-telling—in Zero. When the reclusive designer of Gabriel Hounds pops up, she seems grateful and disconcerted about her background in coolhunting—she was good at it, but unable to articulate how or why. Bigend (the arch-coolhunter) seems equal parts foolhardy and cutting-edge, willing to gamble on slight chances, often a failure but known for his success. There’s a persistent feeling that good work in such fields is the result of talented people taking risks and getting lucky.

Perhaps this is a book about Gibson’s career and how he feels about it, or perhaps he wanted to zing the fashion industry so badly that he crashed this book into it like a kamikaze pilot. Whatever the case, the plot threads never add up to much substance, and the tension doesn’t stick around, but Zero is still worth a read, if only for Gibson’s acute observations about fashion, coolhunting and life.

Similar books: The Amateur American, by J. Saunders Elmore, for a half-decent thriller. The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer, for another book that dies to make its point. Turn of the Century, by Kurt Andersen, for another novel that mixes cutting-edge weirdo fact with its fiction.