Reflections on Zero History

Attention Conversation Notice: SPOILERS!  Big giant ones.  Also, not a review – though it may contain traces of one.  The author reserves the right to wax lyrical, reminisce, draw inappropriate comparisons between his own life and that of Gibson’s protagonists and slowly wander back to the subject at hand.  Highly dependant on the reader having already devoured Zero History.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way:  this is a very good book.  Brilliant, in fact.  A writer at the top of his craft.  A man that has been steadily improving for the past 30 years.  There are passages so evocative I nearly cried; scenes and objects depicted so well they unfurl like a blooming flower in your mind’s eye.  There are books that make you want to be a writer and then there are ones like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that make you think why bother, you’ll never be this good.  This is the later.

If you’re reading this wondering if you should buy Zero History, stop now.  Buy it.  Yes, it helps if you’ve read the first two in the Bigend series (and I wish I’d been able to re-read them before this), but it is not mandatory.  Worst case, you track them down – Pattern Recognition and Spook Country – then re-read the whole trilogy in one go.  I certainly shall do so in the near future.  Beg, borrow or buy this.  If you don’t believe me, just trawl Twitter for rave reviews from the likes of McKenzie Wark  and Steven Shaviro.  Ben Hammersley is obsessed with Bigend.  Cory Doctorow has already called it the best thing Gibson has written.

The greatest thing I can say is that this book took me a long time to read.  Not because I kept putting it down in frustration, but because it’s passages caused my mind to wander in what Umberto Eco calls an inferential walk;  catching myself staring into space as I came back, I could almost feel the new connections forming in my brain.  The last time this happened with such frequency was on reading (and re-reading) Charles Stross’s Accelerando.

OK…anyone still reading?  Let’s begin.

The Near Future.. Past – that’s the new territory Gibson has been examining of late.  Versus the coming Future, when he, Sterling & Co were inventing cyberpunk.  Or a place just left of the futurepresent as I’ve been known to say.  Taking the elements of the day before today and re-combining them to show us another version of the now that could have existed.

In Pattern Recognition it was an artist seeding the internet with images and clips of her work and Bigend’s agent Cayce’s journey to solve the mystery of them.  Now, as far as I know – and I spend a fair chunk of time trying to know these things – we haven’t seen anything like this until the rather unique promotion for iamamiwhoami.  That’s a surprising lag.  Gibson laid it all out, what.. 7 years ago? ..but no one picked it up and used it (took it off-the-shelf) until late last year.

Pattern Recognition – critically examining the workings of contemporary technology, remixing them to present a different yesterday.  Science Fiction?  Yes.  Slipstream?  Yes.

In Spook Country the plot driver was Locative Art.  As Hollis says, in Zero History, to Milgrim, “what we call Augmented Reality today.”  Now AR is an update on VR; except unlike VR it actually has legs and will be a default app soon on your new smartphone.  VR – artefact of classic cyberpunk.. which real-life cyberpunks tried heroically to bring into reality and failed.  Was it prescient to base a work on this?  Well, if you’re Gibson and you take it 5 steps further than just ‘we have cool HUDs and see stuff in the air generated by computers’, then yes.  ‘Cause that’s what he did now, init.   He took a tech clearly lying on the horizon and imagined how artists would use it, to what ends, what those implications might be and who might try and re-appropriate it.  Not ‘what does it look like, but how does it feel?’

Today we have the magically atemporal AR apps, like Street Museum, that are even odder than seeing the ghost of River Phoenix outside the Viper Room, as happens at the beginning of Spook Country; seen through a device that didn’t exist at the time of writing, but well could have.

Spook Country – Science Fiction?  Yes.  Slipstream?  Definitely.

ATEMPORALITY!  There, I said it again.  It’s been an obsession of mine recently and much of my excitement on the release of this book stemmed from videos of Bruce Sterling’s lectures on the subject, which he kept speaking of as a back’n’forth between him and Gibson, as they fleshed-out this idea.  That Zero History would be the bible of Atemporality. That this would be the case was furthered by twitter exchanges between these two, and thusly hashtagged tweets by them on the subject.

So is Zero History a manifesto of Atemporality.. a guidebook to a new understanding of progress, a new way of viewing the present, the defining of a new historical epoch?

First, we have to say what Zero History isn’t.  It is not Science Fiction. It is Slipstream. (Now you see what I was doing earlier.)  It is not concerned with the immediate implications of technological change; what it feels like, what might result from progress.  It is not a look into a re-imagined yesterday.  It is so much more than that.

With Zero History Gibson has moved beyond science-fiction, into the realm of the philosophical and the world of literature.  The sphere of ideas.  At the same time it is a very science-fictional look at the current human condition.  Most of all, it is an examination of the world we live in; and the world that it describes is one that has become completely Gibsonian.

The plot driver for this novel concerns fashion.  The world of clothing and those who design it.  Those who covet it.  Those who wear it.  The mystery is a ‘secret brand’, as we are told the Japanese call such things.  A label without a store, without a web presence.  The stuff of hushed whispers, small nods and secret smiles.

The investigators of this mystery are two of the characters from Spook Country; Hollis Henry, former rock star and a now-reformed drug addict known simply as Milgrim.  Where Spook Country had an ensemble cast that would slowly converge, where the only shared elements of the Blue Ant universe were Hubertus Bigend and Pamela Mainwaring, Zero History is told from the viewpoint of these two characters, each taking alternating chapters.  It picks up some time after the events of Spook Country, filling in the details of what has happened to them in the interim through memories and conversations, as the story proceeds.  Meanwhile, Gibson weaves some of the characters from the previous two novels into the plot,  like a tapestry.  Recycling them.  Drawing on their history for added depth, but not relying on it.  Only a few new characters are introduced, each one with a specific role to play, all having a shared history with the existing cast.

History, zero history.. atemporality.  Fashion.  The ‘secret brand’ of Gabriel Hounds, the mystery of which is the quest of the novel – Who created it? Are they stealing Bigend’s mojo? – is an object of desire not just because of its scarcity.  It is something new.  Something timeless.  The secretive designer is creating perfect clothing; not the Platonic ideal of a shirt, pants, jacket or boot, but their perfect idea. It is an allegory for consumption; they are rejecting the idea of seasons, built-in obsolescence and instead focusing on distilling the essence of their idea of that fashion item into one perfect, timeless vessel.  It is a revolutionary statement to, oxymoronically, create timeless fashion.  That is the value the fashionistas recognise, questing as they always are for the next-big-thing.

Value, privilege, reputation and relationships. For all his money and resources, for all his hiring of ‘business intelligence agents’, Bigend and his team at Blue Ant are unable to obtain membership of the mailing list announcing the latest drops of Gabriel Hounds items.  He recruits Hollis once more because she has the reputation, relationships and ability to navigate her way to the heart of this secret. Her unique intersection of talents and experience is something that cannot be manufactured or engineered.  It cannot be bought off-the-shelf.

In Accelerando Manfred is chastised by his former-lover for giving away a conversation for free that he casually estimates the value of as $5M.  The harder it is to define the value of something the more it’s value is dependant on relationships, reputation and context.  I’m increasingly having conversations with people where they’ve said “oh, you couldn’t afford my normals rates (for a corporate client) but we’ll figure something out.”  Pitched the right way, with the right context the most valuable things can be gotten for free.  The Eyeborg is operating on a zero-dollar budget, purely by attracting the attention of interested scientists, engineers and corporations.  All of which will get something out of it too; be it an associated reputation boost for the company or a new, better job for the engineer by having this on their resume.

Right now my friend is driving my car and crashing at my house at his leisure, because I’m on holiday and have no need of them.  The cost to me is minimal and in return an eye is kept on my precious things and my mail is collected.  The cost to him to rent a house and car for that period would be far greater.  Last summer my wife and I stayed at a friend’s house, empty and soon to be sold.  A beautiful riverside country estate.  For nothing.  Combining ‘real world’ friends that have scattered the globe and my distributed tribe of Fellow Travellers, I can confidently say I have places to stay and/or at least friends to hang out with now in Sydney, Wellington, Tokyo, LA, Las Vegas, New York, London, Edinburgh, Paris, Budapest.  And that’s just the bigger cities.  Relationships are truly invaluable (and so far, untaxable!)

Bigend’s talent and success lies in spotting and appropriately utilising true Individuals to help him accomplish his goals.  So when he pays, just for starters, for all of Hollis’s expenses and accommodation, he is getting a bargain. He recognises such potential in Milgrim; paying for his unknowingly expensive rehabilitation from a decade of addiction to benzos (such is his state in Spook Country)..  partly from pure curiosity to see if it might be possible, mostly following his intuition that Milgrim will be another priceless asset.

Milgrim’s insights are partly generated in the reconstruction of his identity. Having spent ten years principally engaged in being absent; and when present, having been involved in criminal networks, he is seeing the real world again for the first time; like a child, but with the education, abilities and prior memories of an adult.  His ‘doors of perception’ haven’t been cleansed, they’ve just been locked for some time and are slowly reopening.  Milgrim is constantly surprised to find himself having an opinion.  The construction of the self is arguably science-fictional.  Definitely contemporary.  Just look at the story of the ultimate self-made man, in Don Draper on TV’s Mad Men.

Together, Hollis and Milgrim make for a unique investigative team.  Something in no way resembling the noir detective stories of Chandler & Co, from which Gibson drew, inspiring the grittiness of the cyberpunk universe.  Of particular delight to me is the way my hometown of Melbourne haunts this story; a mythical place lying in the background, that the characters allude to and describe in the same way I’d previously read of places such as Berlin.

What we have here is the TwentyFirst Century stripped back and shown to us anew; through the eyes of characters possessive of a unique way of seeing.  That there is a story occurring here at all is almost secondary.

This world we occupy is undoubtedly Gibsonsian.  I am writing this on a netbook I received ‘for free’ when purchasing a new television.  If seen through the eyes of someone in the 1980s or 1990s it would be mistaken for a child’s toy.  But it is fully functional, portable and light-weight.  And already, thanks to the iPad, obsolescent. But perfect for my needs, being nominally on holiday as I write this.

Holidays, vacations.  Luxury hotels.  The Bigendian world is that of the high-end lifestyle.  Hubertus Bigend is a creature walking a road seldom seen by the eyes of the middle-class.  Beyond automatic admittance to exclusive clubs and restaurants, he possesses almost magical totems granting him protection (such as the mystical giant yellow permit he unfolds to park wherever he wants, in Pattern Recognition).  This just serves to highlight how valuable the services of Hollis and Milgrim are to him; for the man who has anything to need their services to find something for him only escalates their value.  But, by documenting this world, Gibson can be seen to be approaching, from a completely different angle, the work of Brett Easton Ellis, prince of modern  literature; mostly especially with this latest work.  This connection was cemented in my mind in Zero History with Hollis’s increased confusion on viewing the follies in the art-work adorning her private hotel’s corridor; so much like the way Patrick Bateman is haunted by  park-benches in American Psycho.

As another modern classic said, “it was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, he just gave it a name” (Fight Club).  Gibson continues his dual role of both exploring the (soon to be extinct in this time of accelerated change) culture of cool-hunting, and in doing so, becoming one himself.  Gear Queers has now entered the modern lexicon. Describing it as “a subset of cosplay”, people re-purposing tactical ware both as a fashion statement, and as an expression of an unconscious desire to be associated with the professionals for whom this is their key toolkit (Special Ops soldiers, S.W.A.T squad policeman, etc).  It’s a post-geographic tribe I never (consciously) knew I belonged to, until he described it for me.

I have always sought out the most ruggedised versions of goods where available (and affordable – no mil-spec laptop for this sad puppy).  My memory sticks are shock and water proof; my sunglasses case, hardened. My sunglasses.. well, I happened to be out to lunch with my Grandmother when I bought them.  Trying them on, I asked what she thought of them.  She said I looked like a gangster.  I said I’d take them.

But as the dog-tags that dangle from my neck right now show, my specific membership is of an even smaller subset; they are of the Russian Space program, marking my yearning for life out of Earth’s orbit and association with a lost future, that of the space marine.

Whilst packing for this vacation, throwing my travel kit into a personalised hiking backpack, I tweeted on this subject, and ended up in discussion in with my friends in Vegas (@jzellis) and Bristol (@catvincent); we confessed we were all long time gear queers.  See, post-geographic tribe.  The point being, as Cat is wont to say, “Its Gibson’s world; we just live in it.”

After blogging a picture of a mil-spec wrist keyboard with little more than the word “WANT!” attached, I soon received an email from a reader in the US military offering to source it for me.  Even at cost price though it was equivalent to a month’s rent.  Admittedly I did deliberate it, then replied I would pay in the price in time, waiting for it to appear in military surplus stores.  (Round about this time next year, I figure..)  Oh for want of a Bigendian budget!

For what more classic Gibsonian description of the world is there than the quote “the Future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” It can be easily argued that he’s never done a better job of demonstrating that in the present, with Zero History.  The high-end clinics responsible for rehabilitating Milgrim and Garreth are the perfect example of this.  Cutting edge, experimental, medical technology, of the body and the mind.. it is easy to infer how they will inevitably be distributed.  It is also a return to the subject of value.  They are prized as test subjects for the creation of the future.  But once that experiment moves to a solid proof it’s path to commoditisation begins. From experimental to luxury medicine and downward.. before becoming an expected right, part of a (first world) nation’s health care system.

To bring this to a close, I hope I’ve shown how Zero History simultaneously is and isn’t a text on atemporality.  It does spend a few pages explicitly discussing the topic; specifically in the discussions between Hollis and Meredith on the nature of Gabriel Hounds.  It shows the present in a completely different light, through the eyes of a character that could be described as post-human; and it very specifically shows how the future is created and later distributed.  It captures a snapshot of the present, preserving it for history.  It marks a turning point, as we’re increasingly self-aware of progress and it’s consequences.  And it’s so perfect that it ends with Hubertus Bigend cruising to an Iceland devastated by the recent Global Financial Crisis (the First World Country to be wrecked by the IMF) in a restored former-Soviet trooper carrier (reclaimed from history), fitted out by top-end designers (ffffashion).

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