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Zero History Hardcover – September 7, 2010
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Another smartly scouted roadmap of alternate routes through today's global culture, applauded the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the other critics agreed. Gibson leads readers on a wild adventure that encompasses fashion, the military-industrial complex, viral marketing, behavioral anthropology, addiction, and even base jumping, weaving all of these distinctive threads into a satisfyingly cohesive whole. A couple reviewers cited some implausible plot twists and exaggerated characters, but most praised Gibson's increased focus on his characters, his razor-sharp prose, and his incisive observations on modern culture. Hailed as the funniest and lightest of Gibson's books to date, Zero History stands well alone, but readers already familiar with the series' previous titles will find this last installment much more rewarding.
After a gig investigating “locative art” for the “overly wealthy and dangerously curious” Hubertus Bigend, founder of the trend-forecasting firm Blue Ant (Spook Country, 2007), Hollis Henry finds herself once again under Bigend's employ. This time she is hired to discover the identity of the designer of a secret brand of clothing called Gabriel Hounds, whom Bigend hopes to enlist in his bid to get into the design, contracting, and manufacture of U.S. military clothing (and its inevitable spin-off into the mainstream consumer market). Military contracting, according to Bigend, is essentially recession proof. Meanwhile, the translator and cryptologist Milgrim (also returning from Spook Country), a former Ativan addict (now in recovery on Bigend's dime) with “zero history” (being off the grid, he has no credit or address history), is asked to assist Hollis in her investigation. What begins as a seemingly innocent apparel-related project takes on more sinister overtones when the two are followed from London to Paris by a competitor with shady dealings in the arms trade and a personal ax to grind with Milgrim. Gibson, who made a name with Neuromancer (1984) and other speculative takes on new technologies, returns to his familiar concerns with hacker culture, surveillance, paranoia, and viral marketing, with occasional digressions into the semiotics of fashion and celebrity and references to cosplay, base jumping, and the Festo AirPenguin (look it up). --Ben Segedin
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So let me address Zero History specifically. The entire Bigend series has been an extreme, and I would guess, very deliberate departure from the previous Gibson dystopian-based books such as Neutomancer and the Bridge and Sprawl Trilogies. Those were all great books to be sure. Zero History is, plot wise, a real puzzler for many Gibson fans. There is the sense by many that Gibson has "lost his way" and perhaps even grown "contemptuous" of his own readership; the very ones that made his name famous. I'm really not sure what his motivation has been in writing these books and quite frankly, I don't care. Gibson's writing skills are such that Zero History still represents the same brilliance as his previous works. I've watched a couple of interviews of Gibson and he rambles on in such a manner and at such length that it is hard to follow his reasoning as far as his own writing process goes. When Gibson speaks of his own writing style he seems to be saying that he doesn't really start off with any specific plot or work on any of that beforehand but he says he allows the narrative that takes place as he writes to move the story forward (if I understood him correctly). In any event, as for Zero History, he seems to be fascinated with exploring the common standard global practice of corporate espionage, innovative marketing techniques, etc., which are the very foundation of our current global infrastructure and capitalist societies.
Zero History proves again that Gibson is, as always, a master of the English language. He constructs some of the most interesting sentences I have ever read. In addition, his vocabulary is absolutely awe-inspiring. I have often said that I would hate to go up against Gibson in a Scrabble game (not that I'm necessarily any good at Scrabble in the first place.)The man is absolutely a walking dictionary and encyclopedia. He seems to know about more obscure trivia than anyone I have ever read. It may be a good idea for some to either read his books on an e-book or have a good dictionary and encyclopedia nearby when reading.
There is a common complaint about Zero History that keeps cropping up again and again: many have commented on on what I feel is an unfair and even ridiculous criticism of Zero History for it's use of popular product placements throughout the book. Apple products in particular seem to be a prime target of those criticisms. However, Apple is a perfect example of what this book is about in the first place. Just so you know: I have never owned an Apple product in my life. Anyway, like the Gabriel Hounds products that are the primary focus of Bigend's corporate espionage, Apple seems to act as a kind of literary corporate counterpoint to the whole obscure Gabriel Hounds jeans thing. Both products are highly desired products for those who can afford them and who are also among the "hip" and "in the know" kind of people who chase after the latest, greatest products. The desirability of these products increases proportionately to their higher cost and even better: their hard-to-find/get nature.
I initially had some problems with some of the characters in Zero History, but by the end of the book, I realized how brilliantly these characters were realized. As previously mentioned, Milgrim is my all-time favorite character in the Gibson pantheon. Milgrim is a kind of archetype of sorts. He is a man-child being reborn; initially a true enigma; a burnt out drug-addict with a serious panic/anxiety disorder. It is fascinating to observe Milgrim's rebirth and development under the control of Bigend, the man behind the scene. Milgrim IS the man with zero history being put back together--reconstituted/rebuilt--by Bigend just because Bigend has the money, power and curiosity to do so. Bigend is, in this particular guise, a kind of Dr. Frankenstein. Instead of putting together a human being from dead men's parts, however, he uses the dead soul of a drug addict (Milgrim) instead just to see what will become of it all.
While Milgrim is perhaps the most fascinating character in the lineup, the key protagonist actually Hollis Henry, a former singer with a band called the Curfew. She reluctantly becomes another one of Bigend's corporate agents--a corporatespy if you will on a very specific mission-- for Bigend. Bigend himself is the creepy, spoiled Belgian super wealthy corporate magnate who is constantly coming up with all of these what-if schemes to satisfy his own curiosity. Money, however, is not really Bigend's motivation: Bigend has so much wealth and apparently such a lot of time on his hands that all he has to do is find means of satisfying his own obsessive compulsions and curiosities about things that matter little to the vast majority of humankind. Hollis is really not a terribly strong character and falls in with Bigend once more simply on the basis of financial need (like most of us). The inability of Hollis to say "no" to Bigend renders her as little more than another one of his pawns in his game of corporate dominance. In fact, the bulk of the characters in Zero History are little more than the puppets of this Grand Puppetmaster, "Just Call Me Curious", Bigend. They seem to lack any real will of their own when they're in the presence of this master manipulator of their minds and wills. Bigend always finds a way to keep them hooked and interested in his missions.
There is no question that Zero History is different than his previous "cyber-punk" writings. The entire Bigend Trilogy is different and a distinct departure from his previous writings. I do not think that justifies dismissing Gibson simply because they are so different. Why lock writers or any artist into a rut? I enjoy it when artists spread their wings and explore different things. I especially do not understand those who claim that they simply stopped reading Zero History after 30 minutes or some such nonsense. I mean, to each his or her own, but in my opinion that invalidates their opinion entirely. That reminds me of those people who rave on about this or that movie who have never actually gone to see it but are reacting only to the opinions of others or some media hype. As I've said before, I loved all of the previous writings of Gibson, and I initially had some readjustments to do with this trilogy, but having thoroughly given it a fair examination, it has become another favorite of mine in my Gibson collection. I respect it's differences. I do not see it as some kind of cheap, sell-out product endorsement of Apple products or any other product. Again, that misses the point of the use of Apple products as a iconic type of product that Gibson is purposely using as an example from which to base his mysterious Gabriel Hounds products on. I get the fact that many of you don't seem to be interested in things corporate. But again, corporations are one of the key components of the fabric of our society and Gibson explores it brilliantly. Please read Zero History ALL the way through before judging it. Better yet, read the entire trilogy--Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History--before making your opinions known.
As for me, Zero History is a very fascinating read and now that I've read it for the third time, it will remain among my favorite books. It just keeps getting better with every new read. Highly recommended for those who simply enjoy great writing.
Gibson has followed a somewhat unusual arc as a writer: from Neuromancer, a ground-breaking work of fantasy and science fiction, to the current Bigend Trilogy, which take place in the same world that the reader lives in -- although not, in most cases, the same strata of that world. While the characters and plot of "Pattern Recognition" are a bit fantastic, the events of "Spook Country" are utterly plausible; the characters unusual, but not unusually unusual. This doesn't make them boring or uninteresting, but rather makes them more engaging, at least to me. "Zero History" starts out in this direction, but then reaches back into a science fiction ploy in order to resolve a difficult situation near the end of the plot. In the last few pages, it gets even weirder, with Bigend revealing -- for absolutely no purpose related to the plot, but perhaps as a lead-in to the next novel, something absolutely astonishing that would fit in perfectly with Neuromancer, but simply seems a mix of unnecessary and improbable.
I said I wasn't going to spoil the ending, and I won't, but I will just say that it all seems to fall apart at that point. Bigend, who is a master of secrets, tells his ultimate secret -- not under duress, or to answer some other need, but as a silly boast. There's no need for it. It is a supremely stupid thing for someone who doesn't do stupid things to do.
Let's just say that if there is a fourth book in this series, at the end we find out whether Bigend is the ancestor of Ashpool or Tessier, because that's where this is going. And I find this a disappointing regression.
If the Sprawl Trilogy changed the way we view the future and the Bridge Trilogy brought that future dystopia closer to home, the latest Bigend Trilogy interweaves that future into our everyday life: you know THAT future? Well, it is NOW. And because of this, after turning its last page, memories of the book seem to pop up everywhere, when least expected.
The story ties loosely with the previous two books of the Trilogy (Pattern Recognition and Spook Country) and it is surprising to find out just how ruthless the garment business really is. However, the story is the vehicle, not the destination.
Gibson seems determined to deconstruct a persistent and omnipresent pop-culture that glorifies the trivial, attempts to turn our daily grind into a series of tolerable epic moments and reproduces the propaganda that steers public opinion towards the aims of the interconnected elite. And this he achieves with dense poetic wordscapes, his pattern brand-name fetishism and chains of ironic yet insightful observations.
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