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March 1, 2011

Zero History - William Gibson

Zero History is the first book by William Gibson that doesn't feel futuristic. Pattern Recognition and Spook Country felt one minute in the future, only just there, but still Science Fiction, still foreign. Zero History feels like it's several months in the past, and, being set in London, not foreign at all.

Maybe it's the fact that I don't really like London and so instead of revelling in Gibson's joy of the oddities of the city to an American I was instead imagining the dull, grey reality, the grubby Victorian buildings and the dreary endless urban sprawl. Not at all filled with the wonder of The Sprawl in Neuromancer.

Maybe it's the fact that it feels like I've read all of the ideas on the internet six months ago: the flying penguin drones, the dazzle paint, the endless cool-hunting. There doesn't seem to be anything new, no imagination just a magpie collections of Boing Boing oddities wrapped up in a thin plot.

Without the cool future feel, that has seemed to be ever present in Gibson's books so far, the plot is more exposed and revealed to be limp and lifeless. Essentially the entire plot revolves around one business man trying to win a contract to manufacture military clothes, and the search for a mystery designer to help in that quest. The perilous world of fashion. Really? It left me cold. The last section of the novel picks up with some action but only with the injection of a character who literally turns up from nowhere, "Hello, I am the action, pleased to meet you." I just didn't care about the plot, didn't feel the peril. I'm sad to say that it left me cold and bored.

In Gibson's books with a less than zippy plot (for example Pattern Recognition and Spook Country) the futuristic feel and the great writing has more than made up for it. Zero History let me down with the plot and SF-ness and probably consequently I also felt let down by the writing. Instead of revelling in the descriptions and the language I was irritated by the repetition of locations and the lingering glances at London.

This time William Gibson really hasn't written Science Fiction, and the novel is all the worse for it. I feel quite sad.


If I can be blunt, I think you missed the point of Zero History by reading it with false expectations.

Neither Pattern Recognition or Spook Country or this are science fiction. Yes, a version of speculative presentism, but not books aiming to engage the futuristic urge. And their not really books with plots, more fuzzy collections of events, sometimes arbitrary, like newspaper clippings, which form the effect of a story set in the early 21st Century.

It's that fuzzyness that I enjoyed.

While I couldn’t possibly agree, of course, I think I can see where you're coming from, and indeed felt a little bit the same after first finishing Spook Country, which now I love and have indeed nicked the concept of Anti Buzz from and used in client meetings

Pattern Recognition was something new, and indeed got nominated for the Clarke as such, and a lot of the negative reviews reaction to SC was 'oh, its just Pattern Recognition again just without that awesome cool-hunter with the logo allergy character.'

I think first time out I made the mistake of reading SC'’s surface plot as the main point and it was only on the second read that I really got into the hidden stuff (because the surface stuff was so cool) and SC is all about the hidden stuff - secrets are cool etc etc - and started to really appreciate it for the massive Situationist prank of a book it really is.

You make the rather good point that Zero History doesn't feel like the future but more like six months ago, and i think this is not only correct but also the point of the book. The clues are in the titles.

PC is the future book of the three, or at least a book of the mirror world, a found object future rather than the one we were all told to expect from our favourite fictions and Gibson’s explicit statement about the complexity of writing near future SF.

SC is a book of the hidden world, and Zero History is about an effort to move beyond that world, with urge towards evolution / transformation of major character being a regular Gibson theme.

What ZH isn't about is a new brand of jeans.

Read again and see exactly how little Bigend really cares about the answer to that conundrum in the way he really did want to know in the first two books.

This time about he has a different prize in mind and it feels like he’s almost going through the motions, partly because he’s bored and the competition is catching up and stealing from his playbook, but I think more because he sense the edge has moved and he needs to move with it -Another recurring Gibson theme.

I read the hunt for Gabriel Hounds as essentially a business feint to keep his competitors and the traitorous parts of Blue Ant busy playing a game they think they know from the first two books while he’s off cooking up something very different in Camden.

In this way Zero History is more of an extended Coda to the first too books. A ‘what happened after the credits’ exploration of the characters, if you will.

It is, in my humble view, also the only book of the three that is very explicitly science fiction if you know where to look, although I'll definitely claim PR as science fiction as well, just for different reasons (+ the Clarke nom)

Within this theory Bobby Chombo is the most important character, and you have to consider the creation of a Google-style algorithm as a moment of science fictional significance of course.

Just a thought

I'm suddenly flashing back to the year I discovered Philip K. Dick, and was pouring through everything I could find by the guy. Eventually I hit this one book - "In Milton Lumkey Territory" - that did the usual slice-of-life thing to set up the big reality shift that inevitiably comes. I kept reading and reading what, on the surface, was a boring story about a guy attempting to sell typewriters, only to find out that beneath the surface....it was about a guy trying to sell typewriters. No reality bending, no secret nature of life, no Roman Empire never fell, no weird supernatural catharsis.

It was my first exposure to Phil having written stuff other than SF and as good as the story may or may not have been, I just came out of it feeling cheated and a bit confused.

This discussion, and the review, remind me pretty much exactly of that.