Zero History, by William Gibson
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2010)
Faithful readers believe that William Gibson will always mess with your head and that that no novel of his will leave you with your assumptions about human-tech relationships intact. What Gibson writes has been so bleeding-edge that what he describes often becomes reality a few years later.
To quote Wikipedia, he is a “speculative fiction novelist who has been called the “noir prophet” of the cyberpunk subgenre. Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his short story “Burning Chrome” (1982) and later popularized the concept in his debut novel, Neuromancer (1984). In envisaging cyberspace, Gibson created an iconography for the information age before the ubiquity of the Internet in the 1990s. He is also credited with predicting the rise of reality television and with establishing the conceptual foundations for the rapid growth of virtual environments such as video games and the World Wide Web.”
In this 2010 novel – though one hesitates to call it a novel, it’s more like a conceptualization of the flows of information through the international data economy of today, as demonstrated by the interfaces between military-industrial contracting, fashion branding and financial speculation – he messes with your head again. A couple of pages in, he describes the main character, Milgrim, as using a laptop and a “dongle” – a piece of hardware for connecting to the internet. Now, as any person over the age of 12 can tell you, these days, people hardly ever use dongles any more, there being wi-fi, and built-in modems – and besides, who travels with laptops when you have ipads, tablets and cloud computing? Who can even remember a dial-up tone? I had to check the publication date to make sure that this wasn’t written in the early 2000s – but of course, Gibson always has a trick up his sleeve.
The dongle and the laptop are indicators of Milgrim’s naivety when it comes to the internet age – he has just left a rehab facility after years of being so high and comatose that the world passed him by. He is the original tabula rasa – a blank page with no connection to the wired world, no address, medical files, social security or history, and no internet presence, and that makes him perfect for industrial espionage in the fashion/marketing industry. He has no context, and as an outsider and someone so bland as to be invisible, he can see trends in data where others cannot, in other words, he can see the trees for the forest. His job is to find the source of a specific brand of jeans, very expensive, very exclusive jeans, named Gabriel Hound, whose designer might well be linked to the next big thing in military clothing and have a connection to a drugs cartel. You might think that the premise is just plain daft, but Gibson has a few interesting observations on the role and value of design and high fashion. This is Project Runway with AK-47s.
The supporting characters are as odd as Milgrim, and all perfectly plausible. As Milgrim learns the value of the information he has in his head, he also enters the internet age, learning to e-mail and tweet, and as he begins to wear the kind of clothes people will kill for, he becomes visible to both the right and the wrong kind of people.
Gibson visualizes the future so precisely and persuasively that there is always debate about his references after he has published a novel. These characters stay in an upmarket hotel called Cabinet, a weird and exclusive design statement, parts Chinese-Gothic horror, part Edwardian glamour. Bloggers have been wishfully debating whether Cabinet is real, and if so, where in London it is. Of course it’s a fiction, but some say it was based on the ultra-exclusive hotel Hazlitts in Soho. Another interesting plot mechanism Gibson uses is a T-shirt that is so ugly you literally cannot see it – it acts like camouflage in an urban environment and cannot be recorded by CCTV (sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling is credited with the original concept).
With this novel being current-ish rather than futuristic, the question is whether Gibson will continue to be as mind-bendingly conceptualistic, and as addictively fun, as when he was the Great Tech Prognosticator in his earlier novels.
Watch the book’s promo video on YouTube, with interesting comments from readers.
William Ford Gibson (born March 17, 1948) is an American-Canadian speculative fiction novelist. In envisaging cyberspace, Gibson created an iconography for the information age before the ubiquity of the Internet in the 1990s. He is also credited with predicting the rise of reality television and with establishing the conceptual foundations for the rapid growth of virtual environments such as video games and the World Wide Web. Gibson is one of the best-known North American science fiction writers, fêted by The Guardian in 1999 as “probably the most important novelist of the past two decades”. Gibson has written more than twenty short stories and ten critically acclaimed novels (one in collaboration), and has contributed articles to several major publications and collaborated extensively with performance artists, filmmakers and musicians. His thought has been cited as an influence on science fiction authors, design, academia, cyberculture, and technology. Read more on his official website…