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September 8, 2010

Filed under: fiction»reviews

Spilled Ink

Zero History, by William Gibson

As with any author, I have favorite William Gibson titles, as well as books I've enjoyed but never felt a need to revisit. Zero History, however, is the first Gibson novel I've found myself actively disliking for most of its length.

The third part of a loose trilogy by an author who seems to write trilogies by accident as much as anything else, Zero History follows relatively close on the heels of 2007's Spook Country. It centers on Hollis Henry, ex-rock singer and freelance journalist, and an ex-junkie named Milgrim, both of whom are recruited by eccentric PR tycoon Hubertus Bigend to locate an underground clothing designer (known only as the "Gabriel Hounds"). Bigend wants to do this for several reasons, partly because he's envious of their vague and trendy marketing strategy, but mostly because he wants to get into the business of designing military uniforms for the US, and he'd like the Hounds to do it for him.

In the right hands, this plotline is the material for a dark farce, but Gibson insists on writing it straight-faced. Worse, he spends most of the book stalled out in endless circular conversations. Over and over, it seems, Hollis and/or Milgrim meet with a possible lead on the enigmatic designer, fail to make any progress, and return to Bigend to give him the bad news and receive a new assignment. Lather, rinse, repeat, until finally Gibson seems to realize that he's gone 250 pages without any real action and kicks off an admittedly exciting hostage exchange, one involving flying drones, a prisoner exchange, and ubiquitous surveillance. Even then, it's peculiarly passive--viewed primarily through remote cameras--and is only the top layer of a market manipulation scheme that is described as monumentally important, but never explained or detailed.

These are not, granted, new criticisms for Gibson. He's never been able to write a convincing ending (the book's closing connection to Pattern Recognition is at best unjustifiable, and at worst entirely gratuitous), he likes his Macguffins elusive, and he often leaves the real plot events (not to mention their resolution, such as it is) in the background, while his protagonists toil over some small part of the greater plan. Unlike his past books, however, Zero History can't quite achieve escape velocity, perhaps because the stakes are so low, and the characters so slightly motivated. Why should we care whether or not a rich Belgian ad agency can find someone to make fashionable army pants? Especially when the agency is run by someone as aggressively bland as Bigend, whose only role is to fund the plotline for arbitrary reasons, and whose "eccentric" personality is limited to wearing obnoxiously-colored suits?

Over the entire trilogy, but particularly in Zero History, Gibson has joined the ranks of science fiction authors (see also: Doctorow and Sterling) who seem to believe that the world has become sufficiently weird that merely documenting it qualifies as genre fiction. This shift from sci-fi to techno-thriller is not kind to Gibson's style of writing, which has always been evocative rather than technically-detailed. In this new subgenre--blog-punk? tweet noir?--authors have traded in their worldbuilding for exhaustive trivia. All this real-world gadgetry has to be explained and infodumped to establish its real-world credibility, turning these novels into little more than collections of nerdy ephemera. For me, they become a distracting game of "guess the source" (a little John Robb here, a little Wired Magazine there, perhaps), constantly jerking me out of the narrative.

Besides, maybe it's just me and my particular pet peeves, but there's a lot here that seems tuned to the wavelength of the modern techno-hipster: a precious preoccupation with design, an exhaustive catalog of name brands, and a steady stream of shiny objects that reads like a random selection from BoingBoing or Valleywag (quadcopter drones, the OpenMoko Neo, steampunk hotels). Everyone has an iPhone, which they're constantly stroking or pinching or otherwise fondling via a near-sexual verb choice. Twitter features prominently. All it needs to complete the stereotype is a pair of skinny jeans and a bad haircut. This is a disappointingly mundane turn from the author who first envisioned the vast neon vistas and chrome origami of Neuromancer's cyberspace.

Zero History carries a lot of thematic similarities to another Gibson trilogy-ender, All Tomorrow's Parties, in that both try to describe some kind of grand paradigm shift between the real and the virtual. But in the latter, the protagonists were blessed with data-crunching abilities verging on magical realism, and a real technological transition (toward nanotech production) was taking place. Here, when side characters suddenly begin vaguely describing Bigend's marketing firm as "about to become exponentially bigger" during the book's climax, it comes across as a crutch--an author who doesn't know how to raise the stakes except by telling the audience that they're higher.

It's not all bad, I guess. Gibson still has a deft hand with dialog, and he has a few great characters up his sleeve, like Hollis's perpetually furious ex-drummer Heidi (unlike many of his colleagues, Gibson can pass a Bechdel test) and a surly, profane Eastern European computer repairman. The writing is less stylized, but also less distracting than Spook Country, where almost every chapter ended with a choppy, zen-like pronouncement. And when his eye for detail works, like the descriptions of a secret hotel in London, it's as gorgeous as ever.

Kraken, by China Mieville

Kraken, in contrast, is a playful throwback for China Mieville, returning to the kind of politically-aware, Gaiman-esque urban fantasy that he first wrote in King Rat and later indulged in his YA novel, Un Lun Dun. Since then, Mieville's been overdue for something less grim than his usual fare, and the result is a big, fun shaggy dog story. It's filled with dubious sorcery, religion collectors, and LOLspeak. Also, it's about the end of the world, in a way. Mieville treats apocalypses something like a grade-schooler's birthday party: what if two of them were thrown on the same day? Which one gets attended, and which gets left with a lot of uneaten ice cream cake?

So here's a biologist named Billy Harrow, whose career highlight to date is having preserved a giant squid specimen for the London Natural History Museum. Billy goes in to work one day, only to find that the squid has been neatly stolen from its tank, without a single clue left behind, and Billy's being investigated by the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit. In short order, he's pulled into a mess of competing conspiracies, including a group of devout kraken worshippers and (in a kind of reverse-Yakuza twist) a vicious mobster tattoo.

Mieville likes to play with genre, and urban fantasy is basically defined by its tension between belief systems--namely, the mundane world and the secret history. This is, of course, inherently ridiculous: you can barely go three pages without a violation of natural law in the average Dresden Files book--they're more like natural suggestions at that point--so urban fantasy simply replaces the old rules with a new set of extra special rules, which exist as "reality" until the author amends them to get around a difficult plot point. Kraken, as Mieville tends to do, stages a sly critique of this dynamic via excess: all the secret histories get a chance at the table--all of them that he can think of, that is, and that's quite a few, ranging from bizarre cults to television shows--but that doesn't mean they all get to be the history:

Vardy swung back his chair and looked at her with some queasy combine of dislike, admiration and curiousity. "Really? That's what it stems from, is it? You've got it all sorted out, have you? Faith is stupidity, is it?"

Collingswood cocked her head. Are you talking to me like that, bro? She couldn't read his head-texts, of course, not those of a specialist like Vardy.

"Oh believe me, I know the story," he said. "It's a crutch, isn't it? It's a fairy tale. For the weak. It's stupidity. See, that's why you'll never bloody be good enough for this job, Collingswood." He waited as if he'd said too much, but she waved her hand, Oh do please carry the fuck on. "Whether you agree with the bloody predicates or not, Constable Collingswood, you should consider the possibility that faith might be a way of thinking more rigorously than the woolly bullshit of most atheists. It's not an intellectual mistake." He tapped his forehead. "It's a way of thinking about all sorts of other things, as well as itself. The Virgin birth's a way of thinking about women and about love. The ark is a far more bloody logical way of thinking about the question of animal husbandry than the delightful ad hoc thuggery we've instituted. Creationism's a way of thinking I am not worthless at a time when people were being told and shown they were. You want to get angry about that bloody admirable humanist doctrine, and why would you want to blame Clinton. But you're not just too young, you're too bloody ignorant to know about welfare reform."

They stared at each other. It was tense, and weirdly slightly funny.

"Yeah but," Collingswood said cautiously. "Only, it's not totally admirable, is it, given that it's total fucking bollocks."

They stared some more.

"Well," Vardy said. "That is true. I would have to concede that, unfortunately." Neither of them laughed, but they could have done.

And that's your argument for rationalism, by way of a book about squid gods. Honestly, with the playing field wide open like this, Kraken gets a little overstuffed at times. Mieville's clearly enjoying himself, stewing together all the ideas and pop cultural references he no doubt couldn't use in either Bas-Lag or The City and the City, but there are a few times toward the end when the double-crosses and twists become more exhausting than confusing.

But hey: it's about time that someone tried to bring some intelligence to a sub-genre that's the pulp of our age, isn't it? When the bookshelves are groaning under the weight of mopey vampires, brooding werewolves, and the sexy men and women who love/kill them, isn't it nice that someone can step in, say "well, this is a bit ridiculous, so let's see how far it can go?" If it sometimes wanders on its way up to 11, maybe it abuses the italics a little bit and has more fun with squid puns than is strictly necessary... well, speaking personally, that's a price I'm willing to pay.

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