Monthly Archives: August 2010

Zero History – a review

Zero History is William Gibson’s latest novel. It is set mostly in London and Paris. This being a very early review, I am keen not to broadcast any plot spoilers, except to say that a few characters from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country make a reappearance. The plot, as in many of Gibson’s books, centres around the main character being hired by a powerful patron to find someone who does not want to be found. Initially, in the case of Zero History, the theme is fashion, but the accidental effect of the search is to antagonise a dangerous enemy. The plot pacing is excellent, from a gentle stroll at the beginning to a tense thriller towards the end. The denouement is hidden from the reader and there is an excellent surprise towards the end. The end is a very tidy clean-up of the story line.

You do not read a Gibson book simply for the plot, satisfyingly complex and multi-threaded though Zero History is. Gibson specialises in books absolutely full of cool gadgets, fascinating details, clever concepts and observations. Zero History does not disappoint in these departments.

Gadgets: There are gadgets without number, not least of which is a radio-controlled manta ray. Gibson is an avid collector of interesting trifles, which he weaves into the story.

Details: The detailed descriptions are delightful:

Rausch, his translucently short black hair looking like something sprayed from a nozzle, was waiting for them in front of Blue Ant, the driver having phoned ahead as they’d crept along through the traffic on Beak Street. Rausch held a magazine above his head, to ward off the drizzle. He looked characteristically disheveled, but in his own peculiar way. Everything about his personal presentation was intended to convey an effortless concision, but nothing quite did. His tight black suit was wrinkled, bagged at the knees, and in extending his arm above his head to hold the magazine, he’d untucked one side of his white shirt. His glasses, whose frames came equipped with their own squint, would be in need of cleaning.

Concepts: One character muses on the nature of addiction:

Addictions … started out like magical pets, pocket monsters. They did extraordinary tricks, showed you things you hadn’t seen, were fun. But came, through some gradual dire alchemy, to make decisions for you. Eventually, they were making your most crucial life-decisions. And they were, his therapist in Basel had said, less intelligent than goldfish.

Observation:

Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that had once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones.

William Gibson’s early books – the “Sprawl” series – were far future science fiction, often characterised as ‘cyberpunk’. The next loose trilogy – the “Bridge” series – was set in the near future. Zero History is the third novel of the third series of books – the “Blue Ant” series – set in the present day, or perhaps the present day after tomorrow. These recent books cannot be classified as science fiction. They contain lots of interesting and verifiable facts, together with a number of believable speculations, so that the reader finds it easy to accept the whole package.

In Zero History, we meet a number of characters from the previous books in the current series – Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. These characters are carefully elaborated. Gibson’s interest in fads and fashions results in many of the characters being described in terms of their clothing and accessories, a useful way of making them more memorable than mere names. Dialogue is very natural, and mostly to the point of the plot rather than exposition of the speaker’s personality.

Gibson’s language has been termed as ‘verb-light’. In truth, a whole apparent sentence often turns out not to have a verb.

(describing a London taxi) Pearlescent silver, this one. Glyphed in Prussian blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.

His vocabulary is challenging. I was able to figure out what ‘coprophagia’ meant, but I had to look up ‘echolalia’, both of which words appeared very early in Zero History. Brand names crop up a lot, some familiar, some unknown, some perhaps fictitious. There’s quite a lot of Apple references, I’m afraid.

The result of Gibson’s direct delivery of painstaking detail is a richness of experience in reading that had me lingering through Zero History for much longer than I would usually spend on a single book. In his need to set the scene accurately, he often slows the narrative in a manner that perversely increases the tension.

No other author writes quite like Gibson. There is a rhythm to many of his sentences that is almost poetic, and it’s worth mentioning that one of Gibson’s early works was Agrippa, an atmospheric poem that rewards a reading.

It seems likely that Zero History will be the last of the Blue Ant series. While I have enjoyed them, I miss the imaginative creativity that characterised the more clearly science fiction books.

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