Gibson and hipster consumerism in Zero History

Successful as he's been, William Gibson has always been something of a misfit. Gibson is best known for his first novel and cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. But the extent to which Gibson is a cyberpunk author is debatable. Sometimes it feels like the intersection between Gibson and cyberpunk is incidental.There's no doubt that Gibson has some sort of interest in a technology obsessed culture, but I'm not sure that his interest overlaps that of his (subject defined) readers.

Stories like Burning Chrome and Neuromancer made Gibson's books something of a fetish for hackers, not least because of the fact that in the stories hackers themselves are portrayed as nerd superheroes. Hence the alignment between anything Gibson writes and the cyberpunk community. However with that said, it seems like Gibson's interest is subtly different from those of his peers: Gibson's interest in technology is its allure and the desire for the new because it's new. This manifests itself initially in a delight and longing for custom-built technologies and products, but becomes more obvious with time, and even more so in his most recent writings. As Gibson's bibliography crosses into the twenty-first century, we get a shift away from the familiar cyberpunk worlds of Neuromancer and into a world that parallels our own. This brings us to the Bigend Trilogy including its finale novel Zero History published in 2010.

In a nutshell, the plot of Zero History tells of two freelancers (of sorts) hired to locate a secret uber-cool clothing company for the purpose of using their designs to win a U.S. military uniform contract. There's a bit more to it than that, but not too much. The rest is either filler, or part of the third act action sequence with its final mcguffin reveal.

Zero History, like the previous novels of the trilogy, is obsessed to a disturbing degree with teh cool. I might not remember the protagonist's (or anyone else's) physical features, but I can be sure I'll always know what they're wearing. A non-trivial amount of prose is dedicated to describing people's clothes: it's colours, materials, eccentric features, and general desirability. This focus is epitomized in the plot trajectory in which Hollis Henry receives her so-cool-anyone-who-sees-it-wets-themselves Gabriel Hounds jacket (hipster+12), the maker of which she's to find. When did Gibson become a voice for hipster consumerism?

He probably always was1, the only thing that's changed is that now's he's focusing on a familiar milieu.

A few more general comments: Zero History is a deeply flawed novel. The premise is sound and intriguing: the intersection between the fashion of the military, fashion of the street, and the different control implicit in each. That's not the problem. One problem is the poor plot progression: the novel proceeds as follows: Protagonists go to A (wherein the clothing/food/coolness is described) to talk to someone and get information, then they get a call,  so they go back to the hotel and then later go to B to talk to someone, repeat some of the stuff they've already been told, get told some new stuff, and decide who to talk to next. The other problem I'd mention are the characters: they lack obvious willpower or motivation aside from some underlying sense of being capable, (although it's never quite clear what they're capable at). I'd recommend this at Amazon, it's, well it's funny.

1 Neuromancer was special because it made hacking and (the not-yet-existent) internet cool. It described a world in which underground communities and interests based around software and computing could flourish. What's more, those early cyberpunk novels already displayed Gibson's obsession with ownership of the cool, think of all the (especially custom built) hardware that is caressingly described there.

I am a fan of William Gibson, although probably not much more than people in my demographic. Although I have read many of Gibson's works, and actively seek them out, I seem to undergo a predictable phase of amnesia whenever I begin reading them, which goes through the following phases:

  1. What is going on here? I am confused. What is this even about? This makes no sense.
  2. What did I ever like about this? What is the point of all this? This is ridiculous!
  3. Oh, I get, he weaved this pretty fine!

Perhaps one day I will never reach beyond phase 1 or 2, and the magic of Gibson's spell will wear off. But in "Zero History", I went through the stage of confusion with Gibson's bewildering array of characters and my dislike of his portrayal of a hyper-bourgeois/hipster lifestyle, and found the story buried beneath.

Zero History is, like much of Gibson's work, a spy novel, not all that much different from the thrillers that are bought at grocery stores. It is not a conventional spy story, involving the attempts of Belgian advertising entrepreneur Hubertus Bigend to acquire a contract for designing military clothing, which brings him into conflict with a rogue military operative who also wants to get into that business, leading to a McGuffin laden chase and fight scene. The plot isn't really that important, as much as what else Gibson is developing with this book.

The problem is, even though I enjoyed the book, and enjoyed Gibson's descriptive and quirk laden twist on the spy genre, I am somewhat befuddled with that Gibson is doing here. How in earnest is he?

Chosen somewhat at random, is a quote from the book:

But here was a small camera shop as well. He went in, bought a Chinese card-reader from a pleasant Persian man in gold-rimmed glasses and a natty cardigan.
The characters spend most of their time drifting from one fashionable restaurant or boutique to another, with detailed descriptions of the expensive, trendy clothing/food/electronic equipment they are buying, wearing or using being the main way the book establishes character, mood and setting.

Which Gibson does beautifully. The detail he throws in is evocative and interesting.

But the question (to me) is: is Gibson the journal or the journalist? Is his tale of rootless international punk musicians, marketing executives and fashion models who are described by the products they buy a subtle and deeply-cutting parody, or does Gibson think that the average educated American reader really thinks the idea of wearing an "anti-marketed" jacket to be the height of accomplishment? Is Gibson parodying "cool" consumerism or endorsing it?

Of course, it is possible just to read the book as an intriguing story, but for the type of people who read Gibson's books, the question "What is this about?" will probably pop up. And perhaps, as is often the case, what the reader takes away from the book is more important than what the author intended.

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