Paul's Reviews > Zero History

Zero History by William Gibson
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Jan 14, 2011

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Read in January, 2011

What to say about a book from the author who coined the term "cyberspace"?

First off, I'm used to Gibson's style by now, after 15+ years of reading his stuff, starting in high school with the ever-cited Neuromancer. I then read the others in that "trilogy", Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Then with his second set of stories, starting with Virtual Light and going from there.

There is a certain bit of acclimation that one has to do in order to read and "get" a Gibson novel, in my opinion. The dialogue between the characters isn't explicit, meaning that one will say something that doesn't explain everything unless you've been wholly immersed in the story thus far. Short, clipped dialogue, the way good friends might talk to each other, reading one another's thoughts from knowing each other for so long. This can be a good or bad thing.

Basically, in this story, he brings together (much like he has in the past) characters from past novels into one grand drama. The main mover in the story is basically a kind of "cool-hunter", and the entire book revolves around him trying to find answers to questions that help promote his business interests, using a cast of characters (Hollis and Milgrim being major ones) that show the multi-leveled approach used.

The familiar thing about this book is how elaborate the "discovery process" (plot) is, a pattern he's used before in previous novels. It did keep me up at night at times, and the constant wondering of who is who can be entertaining. The amazing thing about this book, however, is how Gibson is able to be, with a book (books usually taking a decent amount of time to write, good ones at least) so on the cutting edge of certain things in our modern day world, at least with his last trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country). The main thing in this story is about finding the epitome of "cool", of exclusive, so exclusive that it is mythical in a sense, to where if one sees an item from this ultra-hard-to-find-brand, one has to wonder if you were hallucinating or not.

I once read an interview with Gibson, where he describes his writing process (at least back then), and how he gathers a plethora of magazines and just essentially sifts through them, looking for the things that are the outliers in our culture, that are about to reach the tipping point and land on the mainstream culture's consciousness. One can totally see that with this last book, even the last trilogy. Of course, some things he misses on (I still haven't heard a lot about locative art, something introduced in Spook Country), but nowadays on something like Google maps, people will tag a location and give pictures, audio, video, so other people can know about it, experience it, and share it. Not quite the same, but using the same technology and ideas of location and people's associations with a given location.

Gibson carefully constructs a world where people live really interesting lives always in search of something, everything and everyone is super-coordinated, money is no issue (for most characters), and the main thing is to find whatever it is that X character is looking for at the given moment. In a ways, a sort of mystery, but also with an element of science fiction, considering that almost all the time some sort of up and coming technology is being used. Back in '07, when Spook Country was released, GPS tech was only starting to really hit its stride into the mainstream (from what I recall).

With this story, however, Gibson decides to take a new tack and go after something new: clothing. Suffice it to say that there IS more to the clothing world than what one sees on runways and in magazines, and Gibson takes us there. He takes us deep into the realm of clothing manufacturing, and without giving away significant details, he locks on to the next possible phase/craze of the clothing world, going beyond brand, the brand of "no brand" (which is something I suspect he got from the Japanese company Muji). After some musing, I can see why he chose the title for the book that he did, but to talk anymore about it would be to spoil things way too much.

Overall, if you've read his work before, it will feel comfortable and familiar in certain ways. The mechanical aspects certainly (dialogue, setting, everything being ultra-cool and chic, and so on). It's an interesting story, and one that went into totally new ground for me (the clothing aspect), but the funny thing is that by the end of the book, the clothing isn't even that important anymore, but who makes it. The ending is a combination of "events" from the first two books, and I'd highly recommend reading those before diving into this one, just to familiarize yourself with the characters (Bigend being the most important to know about), especially since one makes an appearance after a long hiatus.

This book is hard to "place" - there are elements of sci-fi, culture, mystery, and so many other things, and while the characterization isn't that deep, he's been building a few of these characters over time now in the preceding books. For the characters he does develop, like Milgrim, he does a good job of getting inside their head in a concise and succint way that shows their progress but also helps move the story along.

If you want something that is different from the norm, that is "sci-fi" but isn't all hard tech, or something that reads like a good combination of a mystery/Tom Clancy novel (I make that reference to the fact that so many people seem to be "in the know" except for the main character and the reader, of course), with some tech mixed in and just looking at new and upcoming things that may/may not become cultural currency later, then this is for you. This isn't a book that will change your life (unless you're in clothing design/manufacture and are looking for a new idea), but it is one that will take you away for a while and place you into a story that really does get your attention and make you wonder, "What the hell is going on?" (in all sense of that question with regards to the book's characters and plot, but in a good way).
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