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William Gibson's Zero History

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The cover of William Gibson's latest novel depicts a tunnel vanishing around a bend. The image represents how the author's perspective has changed over the last 25 years. Gibson, after all, is known for seeing far. He catapulted the term "cyberspace" into the popular lexicon with his 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer, the sacred text of cyberpunk. In Neuromancer, Gibson foresaw a fully immersive virtual reality; he was otherwise more clairvoyant about the World Wide Web than nearly any other person writing at the time.

Zero History, however, is Gibson's third consecutive book set in the present. It's an odd and compelling novel of branding, technology and rampant surveillance—a realist novel, in other words. It reads like a cross between Thomas Pynchon, Marshall McLuhan and Robert Stone—a heady brew of pop culture semiotics, bleeding-edge tech and layered conspiracy. It contains little conjecture, crouching solidly in our era of Obama, MacBooks, Twitter and iPhones. And even the most far-out stuff, such as 3-D printers and augmented reality, is real, or at least feasible. Neuromancer's vision of humans and AIs interacting in virtual space is just everyday life now, and Gibson, like most of us, is too busy untangling the present to see around the next bend.

Zero History picks up where Pattern Recognition and Spook Country left off, with returning characters Hubertus Bigend, mastermind of the marketing firm Blue Ant; Hollis Henry, former rock star, journalist and unspecified agent; and Milgrim, a one-time drug-addict and translator of Russian. Readers who missed the last two books will spend at least 50 pages trying to figure out who these people are and what they're doing with all these computers, phones and cameras. Gibson deals out information in baroque bursts, and it takes awhile for them to cohere. But stick around and the book weaves you into its busy, saturated world, steadily picking up narrative steam and really taking off about halfway through, when the nagging mysteries—what on earth are "Gabriel Hounds jeans," and why are both cutting-edge marketing firms and quasi-military groups intriguing so fervidly over them?—begin to hint at resolutions. For all its intellectual leanings, Zero History is essentially a thriller, so little should be said about its plot. Suffice it to say that the book's Big Idea, framed by an abundance of littler Big Ideas, is a doozy, having to do with what you might call the military-fashion complex.

Gibson's prose is fast and dense as a microchip, with coruscating arcs of classical eloquence: an 18th-century building looks like "the face of someone falling asleep on the subway." All of the characters speak in the clipped, street-savvy tones of homicide detectives in Richard Price novels. They have telling names: Could you guess that Sleight isn't quite trustworthy? As individuals, they're a bit blurry amid all the stylized data through which the rich locations—London, Paris, Myrtle Beach—refract only distantly. But perhaps that's Gibson's point about modernity: Awash in so much data on so many virtual planes, the human pales. Nietzsche concluded in 1885 that eventually, "the Spirit will no longer so easily feel itself 'necessary!'" (He blamed the then-new habit of reading newspapers, the Internet's distant ancestor.) Gibson makes us keenly aware that this has come to pass, and for all of Zero Hour's technological giddiness, flashes of nostalgia sear through. "Then into the elevator, smaller even than the one at Cabinet but more modern, like a pale bronze telephone booth," Gibson thinks through Hollis Henry's perspective. "The feeling of being in a telephone booth almost forgotten now. How things went away."

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