Thursday, October 20, 2011

William Gibson - Zero History

William Gibson, Zero History, Penguin, 2011.

This book follows the novels Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and features some of the same characters, though this is not technically a trilogy or series, at least in my opinion. Like those novels, it explores the implications of contemporary or near-future technological and social change.

Hollis and Milgrim are hired by Bigend to investigate a secret fashion label, but end up involved in a more serious matter. The concept of a secret product, promoted by word of mouth, with a scarcity value, is presented as a counterpoint to the mass-marketing of mass-produced mainstream consumer goods. But does the fashion industry have more sinister applications?

I found the nomadic freelance lifestyle of the characters attractive in some ways. It seems like the ultimate independence, travelling, living in hotel rooms, with one's entire worldly property contained in a case, a backpack, and a laptop. I know they can only live like this because they have specific skills that others can hire, and it does impose restrictions on their personal relationships. But it is a world in which I enjoy spending time, in my mind, knowing that my own life will probably never resemble theirs in any way.

It is an interesting thriller, but at the same time a close character study. Gibson's attention to detail and evocative portrayal of realistic people in strange situations makes for fascinating reading. Following the character's inner thoughts and reactions to their experiences and surroundings, and tracing who knows what about whom, engages the reader in the world in an intimate and personal way. Like all great literature, it inspires readers to wonder in what ways they are similar and different to the characters, how they would behave in the circumstances presented, and what living in such a world would do to them.

I found it hard to decide whether this was the final story set in this world. Perhaps the author will return to the setting and some of the characters. I would welcome such a story, but I did not feel that this novel, or the two previous ones, for that matter, left plot threads unresolved in an unsatisfactory way. Each book really can be read on its own, unlike some series that claim each novel is "stand-alone" but end up having to summarize the back-story for new readers.

I have read all Gibson's novels, and look forward to reading whatever he chooses to write next. He is one of my all-time favourite writers, a master of plot, character, description, and language. I strongly recommend his work to all readers, even those who do not normally read anything that can be considered SF.