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.