Zero History

By William Gibson

During his director’s commentary on The Godfather DVD, Francis Ford Coppola muses at one point on the subject of trilogies and quartets. Referencing Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Mishima’s Sea of Fertility he observes how “the last book inevitably runs out of juice,” simply repeating the things that made the earlier books unique, fresh and original.

One can take Coppola’s comments as a mea culpa for The Godfather Part III as much as an enunciation of a general rule. But while there are obvious exceptions when it comes to things like genre franchises, it’s a rule that has some traction in the more strictly literary realm. The Hamlet is one of Faulkner’s best novels, while The Mansion (the final part of the Snopes Trilogy) only plays out the string.

Zero History is the third of three books by William Gibson (the first two were Pattern Recognition and Spook Country) loosely revolving around the character of Hubertus Bigend. “Revolving around” is the correct term here since Bigend (pronounce it how you will) is a man of some mass, and is at various times said to have his own “nodal” gravitational field. Essentially a kind of New Media super-entrepreneur with fingers in many different pies, this time out Hubertus is trying to track down a mysterious clothes designer as part of a plan to break into the lucrative military garment market.

Bigend himself, however, does not figure all that prominently. The two main protagonists (also carried over from the previous novels) are former rock star Hollis Henry and Milgrim (just Milgrim), a Russian translator. Milgrim doesn’t actually do any translating, but he’s one of those characters a Gibson novel can’t do without, possessing a sixth sense when it comes to all things zeitgeist. The chapters take turns going back and forth between Hollis and Milgrim, who are both hunters and hunted in their quest for the perfect pair of jeans.

The plot is overfull of twists and secondary characters, making it sometimes difficult to understand just what is going on. One is left trying to recognize patterns and themes. Chief among these is surveillance. Everyone, it seems, is spying on everyone else. They even have fanciful radio-controlled balloons that provide an eye in the sky.

With so much peeping going on, staying under the radar becomes of paramount importance. A Faraday pouch is used to block all radio signals and their radio frequency identification tags. Cell phones have to be altered or exchanged to stay one step ahead of snoopers. Milgrim himself is a man with “zero history,” which means he hasn’t left a data trail. Camouflage, in the form of make-up kit disguises, dazzle paint, and a strange “sigil of forgetting,” seeks to disrupt visual identification. Brands paradoxically gain cachet by remaining secret while “darknets” offer a clandestine version of cyberspace.

As with almost everything Gibson writes, the ideas are fascinating and full of contemporary relevance. The story, however, is a poor vehicle for them, being muddled, uninvolving, and finally – at over 400 pages – a drag. The big problem is that there is no clearly defined villain for the good guys to play off against, or goal for them to achieve. True to the spirit of surveillance, even the pre-programmed dramatic climax is an event comfortably observed from remote stations.

Zero History covers all the usual Gibson bases – pop culture, technology, global commerce, information flows, celebrity – but this time around he hasn’t found a way of making it interesting. One has the feeling that the Bigend Trilogy hasn’t ended so much as simply run out of juice.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 19, 2010.

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