The iconic visionary returns with his first new novel since the New York Times bestseller Spook Country.
In 1993, Wired magazine sent William Gibson to Singapore. A decade on from the cyberpunk ground zero of Neuromancer, Gibson had just published Virtual Light, the first novel of what would become his second science-fiction trilogy. Singapore, gearing up for its mid-90s boom, was a futuristic technopolis of networked transportation flows and identikit malls, with an authoritarian approach to public policing. The result – “Disneyland with the death penalty” – was a witty, perceptive piece of reportage, hinting at a non-fiction talent equal to the vision that had elevated Gibson to digital-age guru. “There was no dirt whatsoever,” he wrote, “no muss, no furred fractal edge to things.” The city-state had all the depth of virtual reality. There was, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, no there there. In Singapore, Gibson found, “The physical past… has almost entirely vanished.”
As the title of his latest novel suggests, Gibson is still interested in the ways that postmodernity flattens history into serviceable narratives, from records of financial data – a credit check database returns the information that a character has “zero history” – to brand-formation and marketing strategy. Since Pattern Recognition (2003), his novels have dealt not with imagined futures, but with the structured flows of information through the international data economy of the present day. Concluding the story that began in that novel and continued in Spook Country (2007), Zero History is a satisfying and tightly plotted techno-quest for “a MacGuffin of ultimate scale”, following international webs of complicity between military-industrial contracting, fashion branding and financial speculation. Returning from the previous book is Hollis Henry, ex-rock star and now freelance researcher for Hubertus Bigend, a sinister Belgian marketing mogul who reads like a cross between Charles Saatchi and Doctor Mabuse.
The effect of Gibson’s shift from speculative to contemporary fiction has been twofold. On the one hand, it has offered him ample opportunity to display the cultural acuity that distinguished the essay for Wired. He has an instinctive understanding of how we use objects, and how technology, whether new or naturalised, colours our interactions with the world. In Zero History’s post-smoking-ban London, for instance, “Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that had once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones.” Later, a character communicating with her children tenderly strokes the touchscreen of her phone. Gibson has always been obsessed with technology and with luxury branding, but such moments of minute observation turn his writing into something more interesting than mere brand fetishism.
A layering of narratives means that we see objects and locations from different angles as the story progresses. A room that is the natural habitat of one character seems alien to another; an object is an everyday device or a weird hallucination, depending on who sees it. Readers are vulnerable to the same confusions, meaning that a little too much of Zero History is devoted to expository dialogue about the capabilities of particular devices or the connections between separate elements of its twisting plot. Even so, Gibson knows how to pace a novel, and has enough experience to ensure that the moments of strain are few.
Less welcome has been the impoverishment of invention in the Gibsonian present, meaning that most of the interesting technologies that appear here have already made their way virally around the internet. The brand-new Festo AirPenguin – a kind of robot sphenisciform blimp – might be worth watching on YouTube, but Zero History makes it the dubious centrepiece of an A-Team style denouement. Worse still is the attention lavished on Apple hardware throughout the book. Gibson used to be a master at inventing names for corporate behemoths manufacturing barely imaginable pieces of futuristic kit: now, his hi-tech has all become iTech.
This flatness is the strangest feature of the world of Zero History, and more generally of the trilogy it completes. There’s no question that, taken together, these three books represent one of the first great novels of 21st-century data culture. But there’s no dirt in view – no muss. The cities of Neuromancer were crumbling into a kipple of obsolete technology, litter and grime. Cyberspace – clean, rational, clutterless – offered an alternative reality for those with the skills and the technology to gain access, while the wealthy could escape to exclusive orbital country-club cantons. Now that the future is here, Gibson’s readers, like his protagonists, seem condemned to cities that are all surface, while yearning for a glimpse of something seedier, stickier, more troubling.