Review: Zero History by William Gibson

With the possible exception of the Very Ugly Shirt, I think I’ve seen all of the technology in William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, featured on BoingBoing. Zero History is a science fiction novel because a science fiction writer wrote it. If it had been written by someone other than William Gibson, it could have been shelved with the thrillers. On the other hand, Zero History does two things that science fiction is supposed to do: It examines the impact of technology on human beings; and if the science was taken out, the plot wouldn’t work.

Hubertus Bigend, the eccentric billionaire from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, once again recruits the former rock star, Hollis Henry. This time he’s tracking a fashion genius whose anti-advertising has created an underground sensation. With the former benzo addict Milgrim, would-be military contractors, and a surprisingly straightforward romantic subplot, William Gibson pulls together another intricate and enthralling novel.

I found this book to be more ambivalent than the other two. Fear drives the characters. I have not figured out what Hollis is running from, aside from her mysterious and frightening benefactor. Milgrim is remembering what fear is like without sedatives to insulate him from the world. The generalized paranoia that underlies modern military-worship keeps the nominal bad guys moving through a series of misunderstood signals that might have been comic if the stakes didn’t feel so high. At the end, despite the protagonists’ celebrations, I had the unsettling impression that the bad guys won.

Zero History is a continuation of the series that started with Pattern Recognition. It brings back both the style and many of the characters from those books, not his earlier work. Gibson’s precisely-machined writing is a pleasure to read, as always. He lets his plot drift, so it feels like all the characters are sliding slowly and inevitably towards towards a single point of crisis. While Zero History never reaches the frenzy I remember from other Gibson novels, it kept me engaged until the end. Also, I adored the bit with the penguin.

I will reread this book. Zero History is not a stand-alone novel, and I believe I will benefit from reading the whole series in order. Readers who are looking for a return to Neuromancer will be disappointed. Fans of the other Bigend books should pick this one up, too.