Book Review: Zero History, by William Gibson

Several years ago I discovered William Gibson through an audio book version of his novel “Pattern Recognition”. The book was a fascinating dive into popular culture and the drive to monetize everything, but with an underlying thread of transcendant beauty. It quickly became one of my favorite novels, and I’ve listened to it several times since then.

But I’d never read anything else by Gibson. From what little I’d read about him, “Pattern Recognition” was departure of sorts. He’d made his name as a writer of cyberpunk, a genre I’ve yet to really experience outside of a few short stories. More recently I became aware that he’d written two other books in the same vein as “Pattern Recognition”, and I vowed I would try one of them sometime.

So when I was with my family at the library recently and saw “Zero History” on a display rack I jumped on it, even moving it to the head of the line before a new Orson Scott Card novel I’d picked up the previous visit.  I couldn’t wait to see if I could get the same feeling I got from “Pattern Recognition”. I’m delighted to say that I did.

It wasn’t easy, though. As I said, my experience with “Pattern Recogition” was as an audio book, read remarkably well by Shelly Frasier. I didn’t realize just <i>how</i> well until I tried reading Gibson myself. His sentences are remarkably dense, evocative prose, but sometimes difficult to decode. Frasier seems to understand Gibson’s mental gymnastics. I had to take a crash course, and I was probably a third of the way through before I started to get used to it. Even then I’d get stopped dead in my tracks by a particularly agile sentence that required re-reading a few times to dissect and comprehend.

But it was still worth it. Gibson has a knack for drawing one into a hip, trendy, cool world of incredible depth, and then educating you in how that world works as you go along so that pretty soon you start feeling a little hip, trendy, and cool yourself. I soon find myself having the same problem as I have with Michael Crichton—determining which parts are real and based on research, and which parts are fiction, inserted in order to create, enhance, or progress the story. It’s very easy to take Gibson’s pronouncements and tutorials as gospel truth.

The novel retains several characters from “Pattern Recognition”, the most obvious being Hubertus Bigend, a larger-than-life, irresistable (and not in a good way) marketing savant with an insatiable curiosity, an eye for potential—in people, ideas, you name it—and the money to get what he wants. Cayce Pollard, Gibson’s heroine in “Pattern Recognition”, can’t stand the man. I can’t help but like him—and wish I could work for him. The man is frightening, certainly, but he is usually quite good at matching talents to the job. He’ll work you to death, but you’ll feel challenged, appreciated, and rewarded along the way.

The other two main characters are, I later found out, carry-overs from a second book in the same setting, “Spook Country”. Hollis Henry is a journalist, formerly of a moderately famous girl band, still carrying a torch for a daredevil operative she met in the previous book. She’s good at research and investigation. Milgrim is a recovering drug addict that Bigend “discovered”, put through the best rehab program he could find (out of curiosity to see if it would work, mainly), and is now using for his eye for detail, his analytical mind, and the fact that he doesn’t remember much of anything—especially pop culture—for the last ten years, something Bigend uses by exposing him to unfamiliar concepts, products, or events and measuring his reaction.

Bigend puts Hollis and Milgrim together on a job to track down the source of a secret brand of streetwear—a plotline that sounds rather similar to that of “Pattern Recognition”, but presented and developed in a way that is non-derivative while creatively acknowledging the congruence. The plot quickly diverges, however, when a seemingly introductory, disposable episode returns to become the primary focus of the novel.

In spite of the similarities, I felt Gibson did a good job of differentiating the characters (at least those who are different). Hollis Henry is <i>not</i> Cayce Pollard, and Milgrim not even remotely like Boone Chu, Parka Boy, or any other potential male comparison from “Pattern Recognition”.  Even Bigend is different—not in himself, but rather in the way Hollis and Milgrim interact with him. They are different characters, and therefore they bring out other sides of Bigend that Cayce Pollard could not.

There is, of course, the usual “cast of hundreds”; a stable of supporting characters presented in such a way that few of them are truly “throw-away” characters. One gets the feeling that Gibson knows a lot more background on each of them than he reveals, and could easily diverge into a short story or novel on even the most insignificant of them—and you wish he would. Even the staff of the private hotel where Hollis stays is endowed with a sense of weight that suggests pages of fascinating dialogue could be revealed should the main characters have a reason to sit down with any of them and dig a little. And we know we’d enjoy the diversion.

I will admit the ending is a little too pat—not entirely predictable, and certainly not without a few bumps in the road, but by and large it was never in doubt. Part of that is just Gibson’s apparent style. There is always an element of danger in his books, but he sees no reason to hinge the survival of the known world on the outcome. There is very little threat to anyone outside the primary group of characters and their associates.  There is the possibility that someone could die, but it never quit seems to go that far.

Bear in mind that I <i>like</i> this about Gibson. Not everything needs to be a Tom Clancy novel with the safety of the world hanging in the balance. If you make characters that the reader cares about, simply having the potential for bad things happen to the characters you care about—even if it’s not life-threatening—is enough. And not every plot needs to end in a Michael Bay exploda-a-ganza.

But while Gibson sets up the possibility that the protagonists could fail, you know they won’t. This could be because there is never sufficient focus on the antagonists to convince us that they are really as nasty as they could be. We see all the heroes’ preparation. We see very little of the bad guys’. The bad guys have been thwarted at every turn throughout the book, with only one significant exception—the one that sets up the final confrontation. There’s no reason to suspect things won’t turn out for the protagonists—it’s only a matter of determining how <i>well</i> things turn out.

I enjoyed the book immensely, though I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I’d listened to Shelly Frasier reading it (she didn’t record this one, though). Still, once you get used to his style, it’s a fun read and an enjoyable immersion in the world Gibson opened up in “Pattern Recognition”.  I probably should have read “Spook Country” first, and someday I will, but already knowing what happens to Hollis and Milgrim in the sequel could be a negative.

More importantly, I think I may go try some of his cyberpunk next. Now that I’ve seen enough of Gibson to trust his style, I might be game enough to try a change of genre.

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