The Hippo


May 26, 2020








Zero History
by William Gibson (2010, Viking, 416 pages)


 Gibson caps his latest trilogy succinctly with Zero History, a richly steamed froth of light espionage, marketing nerdisms, and an insightful awe for the role of technology in the shape of modern life.

Zero History brings together, more explicitly than their unbeknownst passing in Spook Country did, former ’90s rocker Hollis Henry and former addict Milgrim. Both are now employed by bleeding-edge marketing avalanche Blue Ant to track down the creator of Gabriel Hounds, an underground non-brand of haute couture. Hollis and Milgrim are out to find the elusive designer on the well-funded whims of Hubertus Bigend, the ad guru-extraordinaire who wants to capture, vivisect and, sub-textually, devour-the-heart-of-and-thereby-gain-the-power-of unbranding. Cue the MacGuffin bell.
But really Zero History isn’t about the surprisingly dangerous world of pop-up underground fashions any more than Remembrance of Things Past is about making really great madeleines. Zero History is about authenticity and temporality in an age of instantaneous communication and commodity. All of Gibson’s latest informal trilogy has trended toward this theme as begun in Pattern Recognition’s search for the mysterious film footage cult, a cult whose fetishism was rooted in the ultra-traditionalism of its object’s construction. Spook Country further explored this concept and applied it to human expertise; therein Milgrim was a thoroughly flawed but genuinely talented translator and preternaturally keen observer. Hollis Henry was a figure who came down from the heights of success with perspective and credibility intact, the very attributes that grow exceedingly rare and which send up such distracting chaff in the contemporary search for value and honesty.
But it is likely for Bigend that these books will be remembered. This Marshall McLuhan/Malcolm McLaren grotesque comes to the fore finally in Zero History. Figuring prominently it is Bigend’s situationalist notion of curiosity that sets him apart from the pack. While Zero History is never seen through his eyes and, in fact, Bigend spends less than a third of its pages in scene, it is around him that the story orbits. Bigend is too huge a character for the reader’s eyes; he is too impossibly grand in his geekery. His heartfelt stride into the amoral commune of post-traditional marketing is too emblematic of the kool-aid drinking industry and its rapacious cultural outlook. He cannot be a character for us to identify with; he must be at best a force of nature (or here, commerce) to be navigated and propelled by. 
Gibson’s futurism and speculative fiction flourishes are fewer than ever here. There are no Artificial Intelligence singer-idols and no quasi-magical cyberspace hackers in Zero History. Even the VR-themed locative art that leitmotifed through Spook Country gets barely a nod. No, the far-flung wizardry of Gibson’s ’80s and ’90s imagination has finally arrived outside his front door, and, as his characters have always been, we are startlingly comfortable and familiar with it. Smart phones, global positioning systems, RFID tags, and a wireless global computer network of black ops secrets, security camera feeds and our YouTube movies of dumb dangerous stunts; these are more “flying car” than “Where’s my flying car?” could ever have envisioned. It is the marrow-deep changes that these technologies have wrought on the way we live, even while they have not massively changed the where we live, that is more impressive than any cybernetically augmented assassins, and I think that Gibson, or at least his fiction, has come to recognize that. Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson and the growing line of purportedly “cyberpunk”-themed authors have clued us in to the fact that it is not the magical machinery that matters, it is how characters live with those machines that holds interest. 
Zero History puts another feather in Gibson’s cap, though. His signature prose finds new facets here. While he has never been at a loss to provide a resonant sense of place, Zero History finds his scene-setting taking new weight. His descriptions often inhabit an odd second-and-a-half person perspective. Where we are not reading Gibson narrating, we’re reading Gibson while possessed by Milgrim narrating. Hollis Henry is seen reflected in the melody of prose that a Hollis-centric chapter possesses. Her world is a broader view and the narration sets the scene like sonar mapping. Hollis’ gaze pings out, reaches the borders and returns to the reader with a sense of something more than its parts. 
Milgrim’s scenes are invariably laid out with a more punctuated and analytical eye. His gaze and assessment is penetrating and follows deep threads of meaning and object relationships. The combination of vantages brings a unique perspective, and the plot, scenes and actors gain new movement and motive when revealed by the lenticular flip between protagonists. From the off- center views of their shared employer we get a three-dimensional model of Bigend and it is perhaps because of this illusion of dimensionality that he looms above the rest of the cast: more vibrant and possessing of deeper motive. A sad side effect of a glorious approach. A disservice to Hollis, Milgrim and the collection of solid dramatis personae in the trilogy as none of them can hope, despite their richer history and greater time with us, to supplant such a monumental force. Gibson put god in the machine in the Neuromancer trilogy but he has done something far more piquant here — he’s turned it into an empty blue suit. 
Zero History is an education in what contemporary fiction should be. It walks the line between philosophy and fun beaming to the audience all along. It cannot conceive of falling to either side and failing us, and for its assurance, bravado and skill it does not. A
 — Glenn Given

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