Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Book review: Zero History

My book club selection, this time around, was William Gibson's 2010 novel, Zero History.  This was my first exposure to Mr. Gibson. 

Zero History is the third part of a trilogy, the other two parts being Spook Country and Pattern Recognition.  But, upon completing Zero History, any interest I might have in the other two books has withered.

The novel is set in the near-future.  Gibson extrapolates on today's trend of ever-expanding communication technology to create a mirror world that is easily recognizable and not very far away.

Hollis Henry, a retired pop music star and writer, and Milgram, a recovering drug addict with a penchant for noticing details, join forces in the employ of Blue Ant corporation in search of a secret brand of clothing --a "ghost" brand.  Blue Ant's chief executive, Mr. Bigend, believes the ghost brand, "Hounds," holds the key to vast riches, if it can be manufactured and marketed.  Hollis, Milgram, and some dozen or so other characters jaunt around the streets of London and Paris in a game of cellphone subterfuge, hoping to find the illusive brand and its designer.

Gibson's narrative approach is to alter perspective between the two main characters as they scramble around playing at espionage.  Odd-numbered chapters are told from Hollis' perspective; even-numbered chapters are Milgram.  This unwavering cadence results in many empty scenes that neither advance the plot nor reveal much of anything about the characters.  Gibson slavishly adheres to this pattern far past the point of being predictable.  By the end of the book, it is flat-out monotonous. 

Which brings up another point.  Gibson strings this novel together by way of a series of three-to-five page scenes, which he calls "chapters."  Gibson extracts each chapter name from a phrase that occurs within the chapter.  But the reader quickly notices that these names are not significant to the story, and comes to suspect that Gibson is just picking phrases that he imagines sound intriguing.  A few examples:  "Paradoxical Antagonist," "Post-Acute," "Always is Genius."

Gibson's apparent idea of descriptive narrative is --well, I didn't find it effective.  He does a lot of sketching and suggesting, but he's not much for detail.  Lots of empty words.  Take this passage, for example:
The lobby here suggested some combination of extremely expensive private art school and government defense establishment, though when he thought about it, he'd never been in either.  There was a massive central chandelier, constructed from thousands of pairs of discarded prescription eyeglasses, that contributed very handsomely to the art school part, but the Pentagon part (or would it be Whitehall?) was harder to pin down.  Half a dozen large plasma screens constantly showed the latest house product, mostly European and Japanese automobile commercials with production budgets dwarfing those of many feature films, while beneath these moved people wearing badges like the one Rausch had used to open the door.  These were worn around the neck, on lanyards in various shades, some bearing the repeated logos of various brands or projects.  There was a smell of exceptionally good coffee.
Am I supposed to get a picture from that

Jim Kidwell and Will Johnson are both familiar with Gibson and attested that this novel is not his best work.  But I don't imagine I'll bother with anything more.

The worst of it, of Zero History, is that it is unbearably boring.  Four hundred pages in which nothing happens.  The story is a tedious transcription of wooden characters sending email, tweeting, and playing with cell phones.

I thought Gibson himself described the book rather well in the opening passage of Chapter 79:  Dungeon Master:
...something tedious and self-importantly arcane, on multiple screens.  Something that didn't matter, was of no great importance, on which nothing depended.

1 comment:

Dan Binmore said...

Gibson's great moment was as the grandfather of cyberpunk, the aesthetic that produced Bladerunner (from a different sci-fi author). He's actually has one of the few lines from literature that I can remember off the top of my head, which opens Neuromancer, "The sky was the color of a television tuned to no channel).

I actually had no problem creating a picture from the example you gave, while I have had a hard time being interested in anything that you bring up by Cormac McCarthy.

However, I do think that Gibson wrote a couple of classics and started withering on the vine shortly afterwards. I haven't tried to read one of his novels in more than a decade.