Zero History, By William Gibson

An amnesiac is caught up in some hi-tech espionage

Reviewed,James Urquhart
Sunday 29 August 2010 00:00
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For well over a decade, William Gibson has been steadily refining and reiterating a theme in his fiction, concerning the panhandling for digital nuggets of data that, when clustered together, can have a meaningful impact on the physical world. His virtual Japanese pop star in Idoru (1996) was scarcely more than this, manifesting as "a self continually being iterated from experiential input". The post-apocalyptic All Tomorrow's Parties followed in 1999, with a protagonist whose drug-enhanced ability to sift a global jet-stream of electronic data for nodes of commercially sensitive significance began to articulate more clearly the preoccupation that frames Gibson's most recent novels.

Spook Country, Gibson's previous offering, was a cool, sophisticated thriller wired on prankish humour and high-end cultural referents. Working for the (pointedly titled) phantom magazine Node, former rock star Hollis Henry investigated LA's "witheringly geeky" trend for locative art (in which physical landscapes are "augmented" by saturation with virtual contexts), while Hubertus Bigend, her elusive employer, tracked a mysterious container through the world's ports, culminating in an audacious heist.

Reluctantly, Hollis is back in the thick of it in Zero History. Bigend's new obsession is Gabriel Hounds, an obscurely desirable brand of heavy-denim clothing whose ultra-low-key viral marketing just might be encroaching on the territory of Blue Ant, Bigend's own shadowy brand promotion enterprise. Somehow he persuades Hollis to track down the designer whose genius, he grudgingly admits, "lies in some recombinent grasp of the semiotics of mass- produced American clothing" – an opinion that Gibson spins out through some almost self-parodic cultural riffing on the "pervasive subtext" of military-influenced streetwear.

Hollis is assisted by Milgrim, whose blankness of memory gives the novel its title. Addicted to Valium throughout Spook Country, Milgrim has powers of observation that were valued highly enough for Bigend to pay for his wincingly expensive Swiss rehab – but nosing after some scent of the Hounds in London and Paris brings Hollis and Milgrim unwelcome attention from other, less aesthetically principled fashionistas.

The meat of this smart and seductive novel is the artful collision of commercial espionage and its grubby threats of violence with the subtle grooming and manipulation of information streams that are Bigend's (and Gibson's) stock in trade. The complexities of continuous digital surveillance and the uncertain, instinctive nature of interpersonal trust give depth to plot material that might otherwise seem light. It's not the physical pursuits that give Gibson his edginess but the subtle interplay of dependencies between his characters: the fluid, understated dialogue so reliant on inference; the intense, curiously intimate debriefs and, of course, the seamlessly stitched-in über-telephony that gives a platform to the whole fictive concept.

A character "stroking the horizontal screen of an iPhone, pinching up virtual bits of information" gives the flavour of Gibson's tactile interface with electronica. It's not just kit; he's eloquent on the "gestural language of mobile phones, taken from cigarettes" – but I must admit to the relentless Apple product placement being somewhat wearying. Other toys here include "cartel-grade" armour deployed on a Toyota Hilux, digitally camouflaged clothing and a whole barrage of remotely operated automata necessary for the novel's tense but somewhat lazily contrived showdown.

Milgrim's inchoate emotional side peeping out and signalling wildly to a female motorbike courier is another indicator that Gibson is really just having tremendous fun with this novel. His inventive descriptions (Bigend's ghastly suit looks like "antimatter paired with mohair") certainly resonate with Douglas Adams's offbeat humour, leaving Zero History feeling more of an indulgent pursuit than a taut cyber-thriller.

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