It is getting more difficult to classify William Gibson as an SFF writer. Although Gibson’s earliest work stands alongside the best of science fiction and cyberpunk, and The Difference Engine, which he co-wrote with Bruce Sterling, is a well-respected steampunk novel, Gibson’s Bigend trilogy has left cyberpunk, outer space, and human cloning behind.
Instead, Zero History is about jeans.
Gabriel Hounds clothing is unlike any clothing now made by mainstream fashion companies. The fabric is of the highest quality, and it is especially well made. What’s more, the design is iconic, yet timeless. These clothes aren’t the height of “fashion.” They’re real.
They’re also impossible to find. What an unusual marketing strategy. Marketing guru and CEO of Blue Ant, Hubertus Bigend charges former lead singer of The Curfew Hollis Henry and rehabilitated pain killer addict Milgrim to find the designer behind the “very secret” brand Gabriel Hounds. Bigend hopes to use these designs to land a contract designing clothing for the American military, an organization that used to set the standard for “cool” clothing but has since lagged behind. What Bigend doesn’t realize is that an arms dealer is looking to legitimize his illegal income by landing the same contract. It is up to Milgrim and Hollis to navigate their way to safety as these ruthless businessmen match wits.
Milgrim and Hollis were first introduced in Spook Country, a novel that is more politically charged than Zero History, but that lacks Gibson’s usually smooth touch with plot and character. Here, however, Milgrim and Hollis are more interesting, perhaps because both have become more assertive and inventive in their actions and decisions.
The writing in Zero History stands up to anything that Gibson has written to date. The plot is exciting, perhaps because Zero History is as much a techno-thriller as it is a mystery or spy novel — forget about sci-fi. Ultimately, Gibson has delivered a well-crafted conclusion to what has been an unusual trilogy of “science fiction” novels.
I’m a little disappointed in the plot of Zero History, but I’m not disappointed in the book. William Gibson’s latest reunites us with Hollis Henry, former lead singer of the Curfew, currently unemployed. Hollis was paid a good deal of money for her last adventure, but the recession cut her fortune in half, and she reluctantly agrees to work once again for Hubertus Bigend, the enigmatic billionaire. Also working for him is Milgrim, the addict and Russian translator we met, along with Hollis, in Spook Country.
This go-round, Bigend (Hollis’s friend Garrett calls him “Mr. Big End”) is interested in fashion, specifically an unusual pair of pants and a secretive fashion line. He has put Hollis on the trail of the Gabriel Hounds, the elusive fashion imprint, while Milgrim searches for that special pair of cargo pants.
I will not attempt to recap the plot, because, essentially, the plot doesn’t matter. What matters are the people we meet along the way: Milgrim, in recovery from his addiction and discovering whole continents about himself; Hollis’s friends and former bandmates; the hip and dialed-in Reg, a successful record producer; the erotic, chaotic Heidi, best friend and serial wife; Foley; the charming Fiona; and Milgrim’s mysterious contact who may really work for the Department of Defense. What matters is the description of Hollis’s strange hotel, the periodic appearances of the twin Icelandic celebs, Milgrim’s switch in an elevator, and Gibson’s amazing, perceptive and intentionally off-center eye for culture, for language, for behavior and for that strange thing we call style.
I do not mean that Zero History is poorly plotted, because that’s not the case. There is plenty of story, suspense and action, even if it does wrap up a bit too neatly at the end (but I can forgive that, because much of it — especially Heidi — is funny). Gibson made choices, not mistakes, and one of his choices is to show us, near the end, that the clothing chase is not what’s happening at all. Hubertus Bigend always has more than one project, one adventure, happening, and two of them have collided, putting Milgrim and ultimately Hollis in jeopardy. This all brings us back to one of Gibson’s greatest inventions; the character of Hubertus Bigend.
Bigend, the mysterious billionaire, is like one of the Artificial Intelligences from Gibson’s earlier novels given flesh. His antecedents are a bit cloudy; or maybe people just think the story of his beginnings is boring, or maybe they’ve been influenced to believe it is boring. He is powerful, almost beyond measure, but vulnerable to attack. He achieves most of his goals through human intermediaries. It is almost impossible to insult or embarrass Bigend, in part because he just doesn’t get it, but also because your laptop or your coffee maker really can’t insult or embarrass you. He exercises his intellect, his strategic virtuosity and his relentless curiosity at the expense, sometimes, of the people who wander into his orbit. He also often rewards them handsomely. He tests Hollis by nudging her, almost imperceptibly, to step over her own ethical boundaries. He considers Milgrim to be something he has re-built and is taking for a test drive.
Bigend balances in the center of a far-flung, quivering, gleaming web of information. He personifies the expression “knowledge is power.” He is not terribly interested in money except as an artifact of power: he doesn’t want fame, isn’t interested in getting the best table in the exclusive restaurant (although he always does), does not crave the adoration of beautiful women or beautiful men. He likes to know how things work. He likes to know how to make things work. Once he has figured out something, he will make it work to his advantage. The scariest thing about him is not that he might take over the world. It’s that perhaps he already has, and we just don’t know it.
I think the end of Zero History might have had a bit more resonance for me if I had paid more attention to the Icelandic banking scandal. Then again, maybe not. Gibson has an uncanny gift for drawing together random threads, and maybe he just got lucky.
At the end of the book lovers are united, Bigend has triumphed over adversaries who underestimated him, and we learn the secret of the Gabriel Hounds. Milgrim, sipping champagne, is trailing along in Bigend’s wake. A happy ending for everyone, except perhaps Bigend himself, surrounded by loyal employees yet still as isolated as an Artificial Intelligence orbiting earth in a decaying military space station.