Before I opened William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, I sat down to a second viewing of Cyberpunk, a documentary film made in the late 1980s, when Gibson was writing his legend as avatar of a movement that was revivifying the comatose science fiction genre. In the film, Gibson sports a fluffy cloud of hair that would have looked right at home on a Duran Duran album cover, and he comes across as a glib and brainy sound-bite machine.
“Science fiction is the golden ghetto,” he says. “I think we’re moving toward a world where all the consumers under a certain age will probably tend to identify more with their consumer status – the products they consume – than with any antiquated notion of nationality,” he says. “We are technology … people are interchangeable … information wants to be free … the future has already happened…”
While there’s nutritious food for thought in every one of these pronouncements, the thing that struck me on my second viewing of the documentary was the expression on Gibson’s face. He wore a constant grin that can only be described as a smirk. That smirk said, in no uncertain terms, I’ve figured out stuff you haven’t even begun to imagine – because I’m way smarter than you’ll ever be.
In the author photo on the back of the Zero History dust jacket, Gibson’s hair is cropped close. But the old smirk is, figuratively speaking, evident on every page of the novel, which is less concerned with the implications of cyber-technology than with the talismanic powers of the products people consume.
The novel opens badly. There are windy descriptions of hotel lobbies, bathroom fixtures, gift shop kitsch, computer game arcades, things that do nothing to advance the story but merely attempt to show off Gibson’s chops. Here he is on the content of a BBC newscast: “Early twenty-first-century quotidian, death-spiral subtexts kept well down in the mix.” I have no idea what “quotidian, death-spiral subtexts” are. There are dozens of examples of this sort of opacity, and they all point to a writer trying way too hard to be hip and wise and, far worse, allowing the effort to show. No smirk in the world can cover that kind of misstep.
Once Gibson gets out of the way and lets his two parallel narratives come together, the novel finally takes off. Hollis Henry, who appeared in Gibson’s prior novel, Spook Country, is a former singer turned writer who is being wooed by a London advertising mogul with the implausible name of Hubertus Bigend, who also appeared in Spook Country and in its predecessor, Pattern Recognition. “We aren’t just an advertising agency,” Bigend tells Hollis. “We do brand revision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.” To use a coinage from Pattern Recognition, he’s a coolhunter.
Bigend pairs Hollis with Milgrim, a recovering tranquilizer junkie (who also appeared in Spook Country), to hunt down the coolest thing on the street – a new brand of denim called Gabriel Hounds that’s so mysterious, so rare, so hard to find that people absolutely must have it. And Bigend thinks there are massive profits to be made by using it in military contracts.
A stealthy seller tries to explain the ineffable allure of Gabriel Hounds: “It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialization of novelty. It’s about deeper code.”
This sounds like discount Don DeLillo to me. But no matter how many $10 words Gibson uses, this is, first and last, a story about … jeans.
In the novel’s better moments, denim clothing actually serves as a workable metaphor for the thing Gibson is after. He has always been fascinated by fashion, not only as an expression of personal style (that is, a shorthand way of reading character), but as a place where technology and advertising work together, on a global scale, to create and feed human appetites in the name of corporate profits. As he correctly predicted a quarter of a century ago in Cyberpunk, people under a certain age today identify more with the products they consume than with any antiquated notions of nationality.
This is a worthy theme, and Gibson sometimes works it to dazzling effect. He’s especially good on Milgrim’s paranoia when he discovers he’s being shadowed by Bigend’s competitors. And there is some unforgettable writing, such as an 18th-century townhouse with a facade that looks like “the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway.” Or the way drug addictions start out as “magical pets, pocket monsters,” but wind up being “less intelligent than goldfish.”
But Gibson doesn’t seem to have faith in his own story. Halfway through the book he injects a kidnapping, which leads to the deus ex machina arrival of Hollis’s old flame, and a denouement that barely rises to the level of a competent espionage novel.
Gibson’s great strength in his early books – and the source of his global following – is that he made readers want to inhabit the worlds he has imagined. But now he strikes me as a prospector who’s working an exhausted vein. If he hasn’t exactly watched too many of his predictions come true, maybe he has watched too many others fail to make them come true. He correctly imagined the inter-connectedness of cyberspace, but it did not, as he’d envisioned it, swallow us in three dimensions. His concept of a matrix hasn’t amounted to much more than a lucrative movie franchise. And the things his coolhunters have lately been hunting don’t strike me as all that unbearably cool.
The root of Gibson’s problem is that he has set up shop in the future, and the future, as he himself put it, has already happened. Again Don DeLillo comes to mind. His brilliant earlier novels, especially White Noise, Mao II and Underworld, didn’t so much predict the 9-11 terrorist attacks as make it possible for us to dread them; since the attacks, DeLillo’s writing has come unmoored. As Andrew O’Hagan asked in an unfavorable review of DeLillo’s 2007 novel Falling Man in the New York Review of Books: “What is a prophet once his fiery words become deed? People still speak of the anxiety of influence, but what of a novelist’s anxiety about his past work’s influence on himself?”
Based on the evidence of his three most recent novels, I think Gibson is suffering from this very anxiety – and if he’s not, he should be. His early fascination with technology, a source of so much fresh writing, has curdled into a sort of arch hipper-than-thou pose. It’s time for this writer of boundless talent to strike out for new territories, to break free of his past work’s influence on himself, to go back to a new future, or deeper into the present, or all the way into the past. Or, possibly, all of the above, all at once.
And while he’s on his way to wherever he decides to go, Gibson needs to wipe that smirk off his face.