Review: Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History by William GibsonZero History

Slick and interesting, Zero History turns fashion and marketing trends into the stuff of spy thrillers. This time Gibson’s hit it straight on the head, the book’s swagger and cool all seems genuine, not forced.

I’ve been reading Gibson for a long time. Not since Neuromancer was first published, obviously, I would have been five, but he’s one of the few authors I’ve read almost everything by. So I still remember my disappointment at Pattern Recognition, even if I don’t remember exactly why. I vaguely recall the plot almost entirely hinging on far too random an encounter, maybe, but that can’t have been the only reason. So disappointed was I that when Spook Country came out, I never got round to reading it (although I have it on my shelf).

I wanted to give Zero History a try though, not realising initially that it was the end of the trilogy (I should have, it is Gibson after all). The cover helped, I really like it, simple yet complex, not unlike the plot.

I talked about first lines in my previous review, I’m a little obsessed with them. The first line in Neuromancer is classic: evocative, classy, indicative of the book you’re about to read. The first line in Zero History has none of that. It’s pretty ordinary, mundane even, which is a shame, because there are turns of phrase within the book that are classic Gibson; a twist of language that is almost everyday, but with added cool, a nod to noir. And there are certain paragraphs that just have such resonance, the book is almost worth reading for those alone.

The larger plot is great too. It feels like Pattern Recognition, but more accomplished (Pattern Recognition as a title even, could almost apply equally well to this). Like he went away and re-wrote it with (mostly) different characters and new driving motivations/ devices. Unlike a lot of Gibson’s books where the characters start quite a distance apart and a drawn together by what seem initially to be disparate plots, in Zero History the two main characters are brought together fairly early on. There are still several different plot lines woven together, but it feels tighter, it feels driven. This is a very good thing.

The two main characters are strong too. Hollis Henry was a rock star, in a minor way, once, and now she doesn’t really seem to know what to do with herself. She had a fairly successful book published (which I think may have been something from Spook Country), and she is followed around by the vestigial remains of fame, her face on posters; people who used to be fans; mobile phone ringtones… She’s interesting, but the other protagonist, Milgrim, is far more interesting, in the way he thinks, acts and develops through the book.

Milgrim is a recovering/ recovered addict, put through a kind of experimental cognitive behavioural therapy program (from the sounds of it). As a result, the Milgrim in the book is a new (though fully grown) Milgrim, who doesn’t exactly know who he is. As we’re discovering him, he’s discovering himself. He has a very good eye for detail and a circumspect way of thinking, which makes him useful to his employer and interesting to follow as a character. He starts off very obedient, in part because of his gratitude at having been put through the program and freed from addiction, but in part because his personality has not quite emerged yet. To make things more interesting, within him is the old street-wise addict, a way of looking at the world in terms of risk-assessment and street sensibilities; it emerges unbidden sometimes, like a great white peering from beneath a placid surface. (I’m not talking a sense of violence, but more a sharp, hungry sense of subterfuge and motive). Part of Zero History’s journey is these two sides of Milgrim reconciling themselves.

The book is told from the two characters’ points of view, alternating chapters between them. An early criticism I have of the book is that before this pattern is established it’s not entirely obvious this is the case, so when you hit chapter three and it just talks about Hollis as ’she’ it’s a little disorienting until you realise who ’she’ is from the environmental clues.

And he still doesn’t quite know how to finish a book. Most Gibson (and a lot of other cyberpunk) seems to finish and then just roll on for a bit until the momentum runs out. The plot reaches its conclusion but the book carries on for a few pages to a meandering halt. This isn’t a terrible thing, the books are still good books, I’ve just always found it a little odd. The climax of Zero History is a little damp, initially. The explosive action scene happens in the dark from the point of view of characters who are only watching remotely… but after that the closing chapters do bring the book to a very strong end, thankfully. Except that Gibson then adds a final one-page chapter that is entirely superfluous and throws the feeling of a satisfying end a little off-kilter, which is a shame.

I will read Spook Country at some point. Whether I will re-read Pattern Recognition beforehand and Zero History afterwards for a fuller sense of the trilogy (the Blue Ant trilogy?) I’m not sure. And whether you’ve read them or not, I do highly recommend Zero History. Having not read Spook Country and barely remembering Pattern Recognition did not greatly reduce my experience of this book. One of the things I try to achieve with my own micro-ficion (the Xeroverse) is a sense of a greater world, a wider story, beyond what you are reading. Reading Zero History isolated from the rest of the trilogy leant it that feeling, that beyond the characters was history and other intersecting stories; it’s a feeling of depth and one I greatly enjoyed.

So what I’m saying is, don’t be put off by thinking this is part three. It’s a whole story in its own right and well worth picking up.

8/10

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