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In Association with
Zero History
William Gibson
Penguin / Viking hardcover £18.99

review by Tony Lee

This sequel to Spook Country sees the return of Gibson's favourite 21st century heroine, ex-rock singer and unaccredited 'journalist'/ writer, Hollis Henry (in performance, once likened to "a weaponised version of Françoise Hardy"), who is stuck under the mildly diabolical - in the Faustian sense - influence of, though still not actually gainfully employed by, that grandiose international schemer of 'big new things', and restlessly inquisitive wizard of entrepreneurial dreams who rewards freelancer initiative, Hubertus Bigend.

What's it about? ("It's about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It's about deeper code.") Infused with a droll yet rather dry sense of humour, Zero History is - well, apparently - something to do with shopping for designer jeans! It delves into the outré psyche of knowingly dysfunctional global commercial practices, and debugging the rag-trade's "guerrilla marketing strategies" with retail therapy, and the concerns of how to sell/ promote an elite no-logo clothing 'brand' so exclusive that stock is habitually unavailable. Obviously, the lack any regular supplies increases demand for any authentic works of couture by a reclusive rare genius, especially one who prefers to remain entirely anonymous. And that's the basic plot here: find the mysterious fashion designer who doesn't even want to be known, let alone famous.

Nowadays, William Gibson writes modernist fiction that's barely one tenth in a familiar SF mode. As with his preceding novels, Pattern Recognition, and Spook Country, Zero History is a very much a story that's happening now (in our present: of twitter urgency, dongle ubiquity, and ebay cool-hunters), or occurring quite soon, in the shadow-play of contemporaneous 'mundane' science fiction. Larger than life, though finely etched and generally engaging, characters are defined largely not by their actions, particularly in emotional responses (positive/ negative; passive/ aggressive) to the conduct of others, but by their aesthetic choices or their individualistic, sometimes genuinely iconoclastic, 'verbals'.

So, the bulk of Gibson's writing is concerned with exacting descriptions of places, not of situations. Still, this novel manages to inject a cumulative dose of wryly astute wisdom into retrofitted proceedings: symbolism of a library stacked up inside a giant birdcage indicates beleaguered status of the book publishing industry. "Stability's the beginning of the end. We only walk by continually beginning to fall forward." Morphing is always "Utterly addictive."

And yet there are still elegantly proportioned nuggets of near-future SF: experimentalism with surgical techniques - like ossified rattan ("Microscopic structure allows the blood vessels to grow through it") used to replace a shattered thighbone... An instance of 'dazzle' camouflage, identified here as "the ugliest T-shirt in the world" with sigil markings that enable its wearer to achieve virtual invisibility to any computerised searches of CCTV archives... And, every spook's favourite toy, a HERF gun used to blank electronic data storage.

Décor and furnishings of room spaces are often exquisitely detailed in witty prose, just as if nearly everything (whether objet d'art, sub-cultural artefact, or hi-tech gizmo) that each character encounters has info-dump tags or provenance logs (penned with concise precision, of course) for virtuality pop-ups that spring into view, as if HUD activated via authorial gaze control, to satisfy vague curiosity, while engendering a fascinated intrigue which borders on the satirical and terminally hip.

Industrial espionage, which lurks in the background and drives the plot towards its coolly violent conclusion, now finds new badge-less criminal neutrality in its semi-legit architectures of "strategic business intelligence" with highly flexible contracts for threat assessments and lateral thinking, benefiting from a murky metropolitan society unwarily tolerant of paparazzi and thoughtlessly embracing video surveillance culture.

A delicate balance of descriptive complexity and literary wit is enhanced with liberal use of disparate yet clearly well-researched topics; from the mentalities of hardcore Russian gangsters to European pharmacological therapy; from the eccentricities of American arms dealers, investigative federal agents, and leisurely amateur detectives, to a narrative thesis on the profound influence of military fatigues and sportswear on late 20th century men's urban fashions, as in a "traditional army-navy store. Whole universes of wistful male fantasy in those places."

Melancholy paranoia, slick black comedy, and edgy techno-thriller specifics pepper this skilfully constructed, innovative mystery-drama with compulsively fetishistic snobbery. Bigend is drawn to outsiders and mavericks, in whatever new field catches his attention, because there's "a certain mediocrity inherent in professional competence." Instructive, on matters ranging from 'paradoxical antagonist' drug treatments, to 'cartel grade' high security armour fitted to road vehicles, Zero History posits all manner of nonconformist propaganda and reveals the 'secret machineries' of corporate shenanigans but carefully avoids the pitfalls of relentless faddism even whilst fashionista name-dropping, from Ralph Lauren to Robert Cavalli.

Produced by a writerly mindset almost fixated on quirky cachet, based upon the extraordinary or simply peculiar, Zero History bursts with weird, unconventional artistic values that are derived from professional oddity, not esoteric otherness, and yet atypical middle-class lifestyles of the core characters arise from their politically moderate principles or social ethics, all soundly reasoned, even if, or when, activity strays towards spurious measures deploying extralegal means.

Creativity, absurdity, originality, and frivolity are keywords for the archly manipulative Bigend's fearlessly unabashed machinations, which place Hollis, and her likeably assorted bunch of problem wrangling associates and loyal friends both old and new, in sundry mortal dangers concocted just, it really does seem at times, to keep Greater London life, and regions far beyond, in romanticised quasi-utopian or covetously interesting times.

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press