April 9, 2013

Zero History by William Gibson [review time]

If you thought he could write about the future, you should see him write about the present. William Gibson's 2011 novel, the third of an informal trilogy that includes Pattern Recognition (2005) and Spook Country (2007), is relentlessly contemporary and doesn't shy away from weaving Twitter and a much-loved MacBook Air into the story, a modern tale of love, marketing and stolen denim. Although fans have been critical of Gibson for expecting us to care about the mystery surrounding the identity of a blue jeans designer, the book does have something. The words breathe some amount of mysticism into the real world of digital systems and networks, and the characters are worth caring about, even if you don't share their obsession with the maker of Gabriel Hounds jeans.

Hollis Henry is a former rock star who has agreed to work for one Hubertus Bigend, founder of a company called Blue Ant, and Milgrim is a recovered drug addict Bigend comes to own in return for his expensive rehabilitation. What's most interesting is that Bigend, the big boss man of our two heroes, is neither protagonist nor antagonist; he's someone of whom to be very wary. Hollis's reluctance to work with him is the first foreboding warning that her employer, who seems jovial and even caring at times, is actually something of a danger. Milgrim's loyalty to Bigend is not out of fear, but he is afraid to tell Bigend when he veers away from orders, largely because it is the first time since joining the payroll that he has thought for himself. That's kind of worrisome.

It doesn't come to much, however. Zero History may have received a lot of critical acclaim for its masterful authorship, but many fans agree that the plot falls flat. Take our fears about Bigend, for example. In the end, it isn't hard for Hollis to keep him in check; a simple deal suffices to keep him from harming any of the characters we care about before the actual threat of what he might do is even revealed. The main story suffers from a similar lack of stakes, and lack of consequence. One review I read on Amazon had a long-time fan who read both Pattern Recognition and Spook Country put down the book two thirds of the way in, and I know exactly the feeling. There just comes a point when there are only so many pages left and you can tell whether the end will be climactic, or completely unsatisfying. Gibson's latest novel failed to come up with a story the readers would care about, and an ending that would at any point have them on the edges of their seats.

No one can touch Gibson's writing, and it's got to be damn hard to keep at it after peaking with Neuromancer in 1984, but Zero History is only worth reading if you're jonesing for his masterful wordsmithing and you're already bored to tears with the rest of his work. It may be the best story about denim ever written (maybe), but from William Gibson we've come to expect something a little more consequential. Then again, maybe that says a lot about us as readers. We're always looking for something big, and we're not easily sated.

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