Zero History

Zero History is the third novel in Vancouver author William Gibson’s latest trilogy of science fiction set in the present. It is the sequel to Spook Country, which came out in 2007.

Like all of his work, it is clever and well written. This trilogy succeeds in meshing together the trends and technologies of the past with those of the near-future. It also generates some intriguing characters – in this case, the recovering benzodiazapene addict Milgrim is the most interesting. Unfortunately – as is common in science fiction – Gibson does a better job of setting up a mystery than of resolving it. That and a few forgettable, interchangeable characters constitutes the biggest limitation of the work. Once again, Gibson hasn’t risen to the standard he set with his first novel, back in 1983. That said, while Gibson doesn’t display the same ability to tell a story that is compelling from end to end, in this case, Zero History does seem indicative of his maturation as a writer and a person. For instance, whereas the protagonist of Neuromancer was an unrepentent stimulant addict, Zero History explores the psychological processes of addiction recovery in an intriguing and authentic way.

Certainly, one of the interesting aspects of Gibson’s latest work is his exploration of what kind of societal changes may emerge from the most recent real technologies. As he famously remarked: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” In particular, he is concerned with the emergence of wholesale surveillance technologies in areas ranging from international communications to citywide networks of video cameras paired with facial recognition technologies. The ways in which such technologies intersect with the operating practices of governments, criminal syndicates, and special forces groups is certainly something that has cropped up in interesting ways in both reality and other recent fiction, ranging from the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai to the fictional engagement of both police and drug gangs with communication technology on The Wire.

The climax of Zero History is probably the most disappointing part. Without revealing too much about the plot, it seems fair to say that it is a letdown after all the preparation the characters undertake beforehand, and the revelations that follow it do not seem to justify all the earlier intrigue. That said, Gibson’s latest work is a solid piece of fiction and an interesting exploration of some of the implications of emerging and existing technologies. It will also expose a lot of geeks who normally have nothing to do with the world of fashion to some of the elements thereof, in a way that suggests that the industry is not so very different from the high tech sector, with its secrets and large personalities.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Zero History

  1. Zero History

    The new novel from William Gibson, “one of the most visionary, original, and quietly influential writers currently working.” (The Boston Globe)

    Hollis Henry worked for the global marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend once before. She never meant to repeat the experience. But she’s broke, and Bigend never feels it’s beneath him to use whatever power comes his way — in this case, the power of money to bring Hollis onto his team again. Not that she knows what the “team” is up to, not at first.

    Milgrim is even more thoroughly owned by Bigend. He’s worth owning for his useful gift of seeming to disappear in almost any setting, and his Russian is perfectly idiomatic – so much so that he spoke Russian with his therapist, in the secret Swiss clinic where Bigend paid for him to be cured of the addiction that would have killed him.

    Garreth has a passion for extreme sports. Most recently he jumped off the highest building in the world, opening his chute at the last moment, and he has a new thighbone made of rattan baked into bone, entirely experimental, to show for it. Garreth isn’t owned by Bigend at all. Garreth has friends from whom he can call in the kinds of favors that a man like Bigend will find he needs, when things go unexpectedly sideways, in a world a man like Bigend is accustomed to controlling.

    As when a Department of Defense contract for combat-wear turns out to be the gateway drug for arms dealers so shadowy that even Bigend, whose subtlety and power in the private sector would be hard to overstate, finds himself outmaneuvered and adrift in a seriously dangerous world.

  2. William Gibson, with the Ottawa Citizen’s Kate Heartfield
    Oct. 24, Mayfair Theatre, 2 p.m. $15/$10

    William Gibson is one of the most influential and important science fiction authors of the modern day, having defined and developed much of the lexicon of the Internet Age even before the development of the world wide web. He coined the term “cyberspace” in an essay in 1982, and he is credited with predicting the rise of new forms of entertainment and culture including reality television and virtual online worlds. His writing explores the concepts and ideas behind the information revolution, as in his classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, and he returns this year with Zero History, the third novel in a trilogy that examines the role of technology and security in the post-9/11 world. For fans of cyberpunk, science fiction, or those who wish to hear how our relationship with technology has and will evolve, this will be a treat.

  3. “Addictions, he thought, … started out like magical pets, pocket monsters. They did extraordinary tricks, showed you things you hadn’t seen, were fun. But came, through some gradual dire alchemy, to make decisions for you. Eventually, they were making your most crucial life-decisions. And they were, his therapist in Basel had said, less intelligent than goldfish.”

    Gibson, William. Zero History. p. 53 (hardcover)

    “”Quit staring,” he said to the dressmaker’s dummy as he stepped into his room. “I wish I had a book.” It has been quite a while since he’d found anything to read for pleasure. Nothing since the start of his recovery, really. There were a few expensively bound and weirdly neutered bookazines here, rearranged daily by the housekeepers, but he knew from glancing through them that these were bland advertisements for being wealthy, wealthy and deeply, witheringly unimaginative.

    He’d look for a book in Paris.

    Reading, his therapist had suggested, had likely been his first drug.”


    “Drugs are valuable because you can’t get them without breaking the law,” Milgrim said.

    “I thought they were valuable because they worked.”

    “They have to work,” said Milgrim, “but the market value is about prohibition. Often they cost next to nothing to make. That’s what it all runs on. They work, you need them, they’re prohibited.”


    “He kept walking, simultaneously conducting an imaginary exchange with his therapist, one in which they sorted our what he was feeling. Having worked very hard to avoid feeling much of anything, for most of his adult life, recognizing even the simplest of his emotions could require remedial effort.”


    “”He’s not that easy to read. Not for me.”

    “He’s changing,” Bigend said. “That’s the interesting thing, about someone in his situation. There’s always more of him arriving, coming online.””


    “And it was here, nearing another randomly angled intersection, that he had the experience.

    In a setting, as they had said, of clear reality.

    He had always been repulsed by the idea of hallucinogens, psychedelics, deliriants. His idea o a desirable drug had been one that made things more familiar, more immediately recognizable.

    In Basel, they has questioned him closely, during early withdrawal, about hallucinations. Had he been having any? No, he’d said. No… bugs? No bugs, he’d assured them. They’d explained that a possible symptom of his withdrawal might be what they called “hallucinations in a setting of clear reality,” though he’d wondered how they could assume that his reality, at that point, was clear. The bugs, whatever those might have been, had never come, to his considerable relief, but now he saw, however briefly but with peculiar clarity, an aerial penguin cross the intersection ahead of him.”


    “Milgrim’s panic attack, only his second in recovery, not counting his initial reaction to having been photographed by Winnie in the Caffe Nero, had been for naught. As indeed had been every other panic attack he’d ever suffered, his therapist had repeatedly pointed out. His limbic mind was grooved by irrational fear, a sort of permanent roller coaster, always ready for a ride. “Don’t tell yourself that you’re afraid,” she’d advised him, “but that you have fear. Otherwise, you believe that you are fear.”


    “Bigend studied him, the weird cathode blue of his suit seeming to float in Milgrim’s retina at some special depth. “I think I understand,” he said. “You’re changing. They told me to expect that. I’ll factor it in, in future.”


    “Milgrim, on his side in the sleeping bag, on the medicinal-looking white foam, was caught in some frustration loop of semi-sleep, slow and circular, in which exhaustion strung him slowly out, toward where sleep should surely have been, then overshot the mark somehow, bumping him over into a state of random anxiety that couldn’t quite qualify as wakefulness, then back out again, convinced of sleep’s promise…

    This was, his therapist told him, on hearing it described, an aftereffect of stress – excessive fear, excessive excitement – and he was there. That it was the sort of thing that a normal person could escape with the application of a single tablet of Ativan added a certain irony. But Milgrim’s recovery, he’d been taught, was dependent on strict abstinence from the substance of choice. Which was not the substance of choice, his therapist maintained, but the substance of need. And Milgrim knew that he’d never been content with a single tablet of anything. It was the very first single tablet, he told himself, rehearsing these teachings like a rosary, as he swung back out toward the false promise of sleep, that he was required not to ingest. The others were no problem, because, if he successfully avoided the first, there were no others. Except for the first one, which, in potential at least, was always there. Bump. He hit the random anxiety, saw those few sparks thrown off Foley’s car’s fenders as Aldous drove it back, through the narrow space.”


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