Much has been made of cyberpunk godfather William Gibson’s transition from the dystopic future of Mona Lisa Overdrive and Virtual Light to the contemporary setting of his recent novels. Starting with 2003’s Pattern Recognition and continuing in 2007’s Spook Country, Gibson abandoned the world of Molly Millions and Wintermute for present-day cool finders, benzo addicts and ex-CIA agents. The result? A world no less fascinating and characters no less intriguing.
In Zero History, the third novel of Gibson’s Bigend trilogy, a few years have passed since Hollis Henry last worked for the Belgian marketing mastermind Hubertus Bigend, a relationship she is eager to avoid re-establishing. But as happens with most who find themselves subject to the gravity of Bigend’s attention, Henry is quickly pulled back in as she searches for the reclusive maker of Gabriel Hounds, an anti-brand of denim apparel. She is joined in her search by her fellow Spook Country alum, Milgrim, an ex-drug addict (the “ex” thanks to Bigend) who is slowly rediscovering the person paved over by all the years of addiction.
Gibson is, as always, a meticulous world builder—every piece of clothing and décor comes with a detailed provenance, and even the most mundane material “actor” in a scene is described with exacting specificity. That taxi hailed on page one? “Pearlescent silver, this one. Glyphed in Prussian blue […] a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.”
The relentless attention to detail could easily stop a reader in his or her tracks, yet somehow, it doesn’t—plot, pace and people keep the pages turning. (Though I did keep a pen nearby, building a list of the many references that escaped me for a later Wiki binge.)
Zero History sees the welcome return of most of the cast from Spook Country (and not a few of those from Pattern Recognition). This cast is an immediate and sustained strength of the novel—not necessarily because a reader need know them already, but because, like any good world builder, Gibson is allowing the potential of his characters to be realized. While such character-based brand recognition is found most easily in anti-hero Hubertus Bigend, described by Gibson in one interview as “a cross between Marshall McLuhan and a Bond villain,” it’s also evident in Milgrim, whose growth provides moments of unexpected poignancy.
Gibson’s latest novel may be set in the present, but the author’s eye for the “impending new” is no less keen, and one leaves Zero History with the feeling that Gibson has not turned his eye away from the future—the future has just moved much, much closer to us.