Review of Zero History by

Book cover for Zero History

It’s strange, because Neuromancer is over 30 years old and relies on concepts of technology that have diverged from our own world (Gibson’s cyberspace and the visualizations it birthed seem remarkably quaint these days)—yet in almost every respect, it holds up far better than Zero History, which is only 6 years old.

It was the constant use of the word iPhone that got to me. Every character kept taking out their iPhone—not their phone, but their iPhone. These days, of course, unless we particularly want to telegraph a character’s brand allegiance, we would just say phone. It’s assumed to be a smartphone. But in 2010, smartphones were still the new kid on the block, and iPhones the poster child of this technology. So it makes total sense for Gibson to do this, but it means that only 6 years on, Zero History already feels ancient.

We’re back with Hollis Henry, Milgrim, and Hubertus Bigend again. This time Bigend ensnares Hollis and Milgrim to sleuth for the mysterious creator of the Gabriel Hounds line of clothing. It’s some gambit to corner some market or another in the usual ineffable way that Gibson has of presenting Bigend as a kind of capitalist artistic genius. As with Spook Country, the actual details aren’t supposed to be important. What’s important are the ways in which our protagonists negotiate the parameters created by the changing technologies of our world.

Surveillance is a heavy spectre over this novel. The title itself refers to the idea of evading or outsmarting surveillance, as Garreth and Hollis do towards the end of the novel with his T-shirt hack for the surveillance cameras. Who can see us, who we let see us, is a very important factor in our interactions. Seeing and being seen provides leverage. Whether it’s Sleight tracking Milgrim, or Bigend(?) tracking Hollis, surveillance is an indication of power dynamics, a tool for control—but also something we willingly submit to, if we think we get something in return.

I had no trouble getting into Zero History, because sinking into a Gibson novel is like sinking into a bath of the perfect temperature. His prose style is distinctive. I love the little notations he makes on what characters are wearing, or something they’re doing, that calls to mind the tenor of the moment. When a character is exhausted, we feel their exhaustion. He’s not an overly descriptive writer, but he makes each word count towards an overall description.

I had considerably more trouble finishing the book, unfortunately, because it seems to lack much in the way of plot. Hollis is ostensibly searching for the Hounds designer, all right, but she and Milgrim meander around London and Paris for a while, and he kind of spies for an American law enforcement agent, and … there just doesn’t seem to be much driving the first two thirds of the book. Then, as if a switch were flipped, the last third is this energetic, over-the-top thriller involving double crosses and body doubles and drones with tasers and weird special ops knowledge coming out from left field.

The whole experience left me dissatisfied, because it just felt so uneven. I want to be able to gush about William Gibson’s writing, because he really does have a unique and interesting perspective on digital technologies’ intersections with our lives. But the meat of Zero History, the story, does not excite or dazzle me—in fact, just the opposite. Instead of seeing a fresh new way of looking at our world, I’m seeing something that feels off, a little stale, and not all that interesting. I don’t know if that’s the book, or if it’s just me, or if it’s a combination of these things and maybe the particularly time and place where I’m reading it.

Regardless, Zero History did not make the same impression that many of Gibson’s other works have left with me.

That Cayce cameo is double-A-plus nice, though.

Engagement

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