(5 / 5)
“Time moves in one direction, memory in another.” – William Gibson
“When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.” – Hubertus Bigend
Zero History is the epic conclusion to William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy. In the novel, the author distills a lot of what made Pattern Recognition great and expands upon it successfully. Gibson gives us an original and well written story filled with great characters, corporate espionage, and big issues regarding life in the 21st century.
Fair warning: although this review is relatively spoiler free for ZH, it will spoil things for Book 2, Spook Country. I also spend a lot of time covering the novel’s “big picture” topics as I did in my other Blue Ant reviews. Feel free skip the “The Themes and Concepts In-depth” section if that’s not your idea of fun.
The novel’s story focuses around the powerful advertising and marketing firm, Blue Ant, led by the cunning Hubertus Bigend. Moving on to the next cutting edge field to exploit, Bigend becomes fixated on military clothing as streetwear. In that obsession, he hires Milgrim – the former drug addict from Spook Country – and discovers that there’s a secret and exclusive brand of clothing named Gabriel Hounds.
Has someone beaten Bigend to the punch? A guru on branding and public appeal, Bigend does what any reasonable person would do. He hires a former freelancer he can trust to discover the truth! Hollis Henry, once rockstar-turned-writer, is reluctantly made to work with the megalomaniac once more.
I was hesitant to read Zero History. While Spook Country was great, I was dissatisfied with its open ended conclusion (we’re not talking about The Peripheral’s sort of ending, we’re talking about dropping SC’s plot completely!). Strangely, besides characters and their backstories, Zero History has nothing to do with the actual details of Spook Country’s plot. And you know what? Zero History is much better book.
I can confidently say that if you had enjoyed Pattern Recognition, you’ll love ZH.
Quality and Presentation
The writing is absolutely top notch. There are some odd elements like the fact that the author doesn’t revisit the events in Spook Country, nor does he give the novel a very strong opening (like every other Gibson novel). Instead, ZH assumes the reader knows about the characters in the previous books. It’s not standalone. The authors writing is extremely sharp, clever, and laugh-out-loud amusing at times. There are even segments that read like poetry. Expect lots of close reading.
The character development is first class. While in the narrative in Spook Country was split among 3 primary characters, Zero History only (mainly) focuses on Hollis and Milgrim. Tito is sadly absent but, in his place, we receive a full cast of three dimensional secondary characters. Hollis Henry is developed fully: character interaction exhibits her music knowledge, emotional ups and downs, and she’s finally instrumental in the main plot! She’s just as outstanding as Cayce from Pattern Recognition, if not slightly more fleshed out.
While I didn’t like him in Spook Country, Milgrim makes a return, this time with a lot more depth! The character is literally a lens through which the author allows the reader to explore the novel’s deeper concepts.
The Themes and Concepts In-depth
“Nostalgia and a sense of history are not the same thing. Nostalgia is a dysfunction of the historical impulse, or a corruption of the historical impulse.”– William Gibson, Distrust That Particular Flavor
One of the major themes of Zero History is the notion that the world that we live in is fundamentally different from that of our grandparent’s. The same concepts hold true throughout all of Blue Ant: we’ve become dislodged from a time one emphasizing objective quality and self-awareness. Instead, everything we encounter is given form our subjective values. The novel is full of great examples that explore this idea on both a macro and micro level.
Like Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Gibson uses 9/11 as a nodal point – a turning point in social consciousness – in which we seek reaffirmations of self in a world where we’ve lost our compass. People are fundamentally unsure of the future. They’re no longer able to see the past as concrete or something to rely on.
“We have no future because our present is too volatile… We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios.” – Hubertus Bigend, Pattern Recognition
In Zero History, Gibson adds to that familiar reality. He highlights our subjective view of history, not just the present. A view which stems from our psycho-social dislocation. Our lives, like blank slates, are defined by our experiences in the present and our ability to fill obtain our desires. The most marketable resource then becomes speculation, ways in which companies can know what our momentary desires are, and satisfy them with targeted products. They provide temporary footing in an ever-shifting present. Enter Blue Ant.
Is Hubertus, captain of advertising, sailing us to some form of liberation or perpetuating our isolation for his own ends? Why is this “secret brand” so important?
In ZH, Milgrim’s characterization best illustrates this social and psychological disconnect. Milgrim – not part of the world due to years on drugs – is forced to deal with new technologies and (iPhones and Twitter) and aid Bigend and Hollis. He’s even described as having “zero history” as far as the U.S. government is concerned, a tabula rasa to be manipulated. Through his experiences in ZH, we receive awesome some commentaries on modern life.
Hollis also experiences this disconnect. She stays in a hotel called Cabinet that mish-moshes antiques of old with modern faux-antique decor. She’s shocked by seeing representations of a past she actually lived through, distorted, familiar and yet not. Even her success with locative art in Spook Country is “too old.” People have moved on to iPhones, augmented reality apps, and Twitter.
Hollis Henry’s struggle is one of accepting her past after a long passed stint as a rockstar and writer. Uncertain of her future, she’s forced to deal with the same range of issues Cayce Pollard did in Pattern Recognition.
Clinging to the past for answers is so desirable in Zero History that cheap, naturally aged clothing is more meaningful to fashionistas than new apparel. One character uses patination as an example: she states that that newer designs and distressed looks (faux-antique) are without the same quality as the real retro stuff. Without describing it too much, there’s a bit more to the story other than “just cool clothes.” The clothes represent a new mode of thinking, an altered global psyche, one concerned with grasping at the past in order to find meaning in the future.
A fine example of this new reality can be seen in the description of a past nodal point involving America’s attachment to military culture. It highlights the pride of American patriotism post-WWII and how it was rocked after Vietnam. The experience was jarring on a societal level. Some never recovered and cling to a past that didn’t happen. Zero History is about the results of such points in time, especially as it relates to military and corporate dominance.
“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.”
The novel covers topics such as cultural pluralism, espionage and surveillance, branding, morality, cultural awareness, encryption, shady state actors, and a host of other cool things. No insane seamstresses, though! It reads a lot like modern cyberpunk with Hollis’s kick ass friend, Heidi, and all of the corporate intrigue. This makes Zero History more interesting than the first two books plot-wise, and manages to provide the reader with plenty to think about.
You know what’s really cool? I haven’t given away any plot twists or turns. There’s just so much to love and discuss with Zero History. If you’re a nerd like me, stop reading this review and go get a copy!
Zero History is thought provoking and action packed. It’s complete with a suspenseful story and features strong character development. There’s literally something for everyone here. A perfect blend of Pattern Recognition‘s deep and introspective subject matter and Spook Country‘s intense pacing. It maintains and often exceeds the high-tech, well written psychosocial ideas of its predecessor. I highly recommend it to fellow Gibson connoisseurs. 5/5
“He wasn’t a graffiti artist.”
“I think he thought he was. Just not with paint.”
“History,” Hollis said.
– Hollis to Heidi about Garreth
“It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialization of novelty. It’s about deeper code.” – Meredith
“I was on the right track, with what I was designing, my shoes. On a track, anyway.”
“What was your track?”
“Things that weren’t tied to the present moment. Not to any moment, really, so not retro either.”
– Meredith to Hollis on her brand
The feeling of being in a telephone booth almost forgotten now. How things went away.
“I like animals,” said Milgrim, the American Bigend had introduced at Blue Ant, sounding as though he were more than mildly surprised to discover that he did. He seemed to have only one name.
“Even the delusionally paranoid have enemies.” – Hubertus Bigend