Zero History, William Gibson

Putnam, 2010, 404 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-399-15682-3

I can just imagine a conversation between myself and a time-traveling SF fan from the late eighties.

Fan: Is William Gibson still writing?
Me: He sure is.  In fact, he’s famous; people pay to go see interviews with him, and his latest novel Zero History just came out.
Fan: Oh wow!  That sounds interesting!
Me: Actually, it’s a novel set two years ago in which a recovering addict and an ex-rock star go investigate the makers of a mysterious brand of jeans.
(Lengthy pause)
Fan: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Me: No, that’s actually the truth.
Fan: Your future sucks; I’m off to play D&D with my buddies.
(poof)
Me: Aw, and I didn’t even have time to tell him about the iPad.

The point being that Gibson, perhaps more clearly than any of his Hugo-winning mid-eighties contemporaries, isn’t writing the same kind of fiction than he did.  Why should he?  People grow old, change, become interested in different things and that’s perfectly fine.

The problem may come when we insist on reading Gibson in the same way we did at first.  It’s not exactly a revelation to say that Gibson is still writing about the same things he did in Neuromancer, except that they are now all around us rather than in some unspecified future.  In many ways, his writing style hasn’t changed: It’s still heavy in visual descriptions, brand names, fashions and attitude.  Behold this sentence:

After Clammy had decided to go back to the studio, her white plastic bottle of Cold-FX wedged precariously into a back pocket of his Hounds, departing the Golden Square Starbucks during an unexpected burst of weak but thoroughly welcome sunlight, Hollis had gone out to stand for a few moments amid the puddles in Golden Square, before walking (aimlessly, she’d pretended to herself) back up Upper James to Beak Street. [P.47, with reluctant thanks to the Russian hackers who put the entire text of Zero History on-line where it was indexed by Google, so that I could copy-and-paste the passage rather than re-type it in.]

I went to a live Gibson interview at an Ottawa writer’s festival shortly after reading Zero History, and it’s clear that he hasn’t been interested in being perceived as a Science Fiction writer for a while.  Maybe it’s time to do both the author and the genre a favour and start distancing Gibson from SF: If he still sees the world through a prism shaped by SF, that makes him a genre-friendly mainstream author… but a mainstream author nonetheless.  Gibson would rather write the kind of fiction that Gibson finds interesting than being stuck in genre conventions.  If you squint, you can almost see Zero History as a thriller, but an unusually limp one: Like Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, this novel isn’t really interested in trifles such as narrative tension, plotting, suspense or action sequences.  It may have a laboriously set-up climax in which a hacked Festo floating penguin zaps a villain through a Taser activated by iPhone, but that duct-tape cyberpunk is all of the techno-excitement that Zero History has to offer.

In fact, the “Bigend trilogy” he’s been working on since Pattern Recognition shows to what extent he is now recasting in fictional form what catches his attention as he surfs the web.  His novels have become inseparable from the Internet in that we’re practically asked to Google his references in describing the world of his novels.  That’s a particular form of reading pleasure, I suppose, but one that’s quite distinct from his eighties fiction.  Let’s appreciate it for what it is.

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