William Gibson used to write science fiction. He achieved worldwide recognition for novels such as Neuromancer and Virtual Light, and became something of a prophet for the cyberspace generation with his eerily prescient descriptions of a future computer-dominated landscape.
William Gibson no longer writes science fiction. He’s been quoted as saying: “I felt that I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction’s best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going. . . . The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now.”
For Gibson, there is no longer any jumping-off point. We’ve reached critical mass: Zero History. The narrative of the world is in a continuous state of flux, and thus, the only story the writer can tell with any authority is the one about the world we live in today. Gibson, it seems, has become a realist. Certainly, 2003’s Pattern Recognition, and 2007’s Spook Country would suggest this. His new novel, Zero History, continues the thread.
The novel is a darkly comic vision of the present day; the claustrophobic, paranoid, post 9/11, post credit-crunch world. Referencing the Surrealists, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, and Naomi Klein, it is a world of brands—a world in which the characters are under almost constant surveillance. A world of information overload. A dystopian world shaped as much by technology as any sci-fi. In Zero History, Gibson explores how technology has impacted us to the extent that it blurs the line between the real and the imaginary. This exploration, which drills down deep into the psycho-geography of the world, is such a creative treat that the actual plot of the novel, such as it is, becomes rather secondary.
Principally, this is a thriller. Hollis Henry, a semi-famous former rock star, “grateful for having had a pre-You Tube career,” has lost almost half her assets in the stock market crash and reluctantly agrees to take on a project for the rather shady marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend, a man so powerful he “seemed to exist in his own personal time zone,” a man with “a kind of dire gravity.” (Bigend is a Gibson staple, having previously in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country). Hollis’s task: to hunt down the creator of a “secret brand” of fashionable denim called “The Gabriel Hounds.”
Her partner in crime: Milgrim, a man of zero history. A former drug addict, he “had arrived from a decadelong low-grade brown-out, and was, according to Bigend, like someone stepping from a lost space capsule.” Little do Milgrim or Hollis know, but they are eventually drawn into a global conspiracy centering around defense contracts for combat wear. From these humble beginnings, they rapidly become more and more enmeshed within the tangled webs and patterns that underlie the new century.
It is these webs, these liminal constructs that are most interesting in pretty much the whole of Gibson’s back catalogue. Gibson’s characters exist at the boundaries of society. They can circumnavigate between the real and constructed worlds. Here we meet outsiders, minor celebrities, ex-addicts, powerbrokers—he even revisits a version of Chevette Washington, the motorcycle courier character from Virtual Light, in Fiona.
Much of the action takes place in London, a London which lies midway between the real and the representational, a London whose meaning has been lost: “Her body remembering to lean into the turns, hugging what she took to be a strong thin girl. Very little she could see, past the smudged plastic of the visor, under wing-beat strobings of streetlight. (. . .) To either side a blur of abstracted London texture, as free of meaning as sampled skins in a graphics program.”
London is: “Like entering a game, a layout, something flat and mazed, arbitrary but fractally constructed from beautifully detailed but somehow unreal buildings, its order perhaps shuffled since the last time he’d been here. The pixels that comprised it were familiar, but it remained only provisionally mapped, a protean territory, a box of tricks, some possibly even benign.”
And: “He looked down at the screen, the glowing map. Saw it as a window into the city’s underlying fabric, as though he held something from which a rectangular chip of London’s surface had been pried, revealing a substrate of bright code. But really, wasn’t the opposite true, the city the code that underlay the map?”
Geography, then, has become fractured due to the impact of the information age. And the way we interact with our environment has changed to reflect this. In Zero History, characters are constantly surprised at the fact the cities they visit are not as they expected. When Milgrim visits Paris on the scent of “The Gabriel Hounds” he is rather disappointed: “Paris seemed slightly unreal, the way London always did when he first arrived. How peculiar that these places had always existed back-to-back, as close together and as separate as two sides of a coin, yet wormholed now by a fast train and twenty-some miles of tunnel.”
This is more than simply a tale of two cities however. It is a tale of many cities, a post-geographical analysis of context and textuality. These are the same places they’ve always been, but now they mean differently, they signify something else:
“Hollis realized that she was framing all of this, visualizing it, in a Melbourne that had almost nothing to do with any actual city. They’d played Melbourne and Sydney twice each, touring, and each time she’d been so jet-lagged and so embroiled with band politics, that she’d scarcely registered either place. Her Melbourne was a collage, a mash-up, like a Canadianized Los Angeles, Anglo-Colonial Victorian amid a terraformed sprawl of suburbs. All the larger trees in Los Angeles, Inchmale had told her, were Australian. She supposed the ones in Melbourne were as well. The city in which she was imagining Clammy now wasn’t real. A stand-in, something patched together from what little she had available. She felt a sudden, intense urge to go there. Not to whatever the real Melbourne might be, but to this sunny and approximate sham.”
The universality of culture and information, the McDonaldsization of Paris, for example, has changed the way we look at our world: “. . . she wondered exactly when coffee had gone walkabout in France. When she’d first been here, drinking coffee hadn’t been a pedestrian activity. One either sat to do it, in cafes or restaurants, or stood, at bars or on railway platforms, and drank from sturdy vessels, china or glass, themselves made in France. Had Starbucks brought the takeaway cup? She wondered. She doubted it. They hadn’t really had the time. More likely McDonald’s.”
Surfaces and signs no longer mean what they are supposed to mean. Location becomes clouded. People are lost somewhere between the lines, only looking at the real thing over the top of the screens of their mobile phones or their laptops. It’s changed our world and the way we interact within it has changed too: “She hung up before he could say goodbye. Stood there with her arm cocked, phone at ear level, suddenly aware of the iconic nature of her unconscious pose. Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that had once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones. Human figures, a block down the street, in postures utterly familiar, were no longer smoking.” And: “She watched as he sank instantly into whatever it was that he did on the Net, like a stone into water. He was elsewhere, the way people were before their screens, his expression that of someone piloting something, looking into a middle distance that had nothing to do with geography.”
Gibson’s observances of the new psycho-geography of our world are what lend this novel its genius and its readability. Especially toward the climax, the plot becomes rather convoluted and a number of minor characters seem to cloud the main issue. But throughout the novel, the paranoid, unstable sense of being rather lost in the world carries through.
Like Milgrim, we are left clutching at straws of meaning and place as we try to find our way out of the tangled web of the real, the unreal, the cyberreal and the hyperreal.
Gibson no longer writes science fiction and history no longer plays any real part in the worlds he creates. But one thing is for certain: He sure can write psycho-geographic fiction.