Zero History by William Gibson: luke-cool espionage fashionably portrayed

I’m a big fan of William Gibson, the man who brought us Neuromancer and helped forge the cyberpunk movement and a great deal of our internet nomenclature in one fell swoop. And has continued to take a poke at near-future technological change in and on society.

His most recent novel, Zero History, returns to characters introduced in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country – a lot of them have names beginning with H – and further delves into industrial espionage, marketing and fashion.

Hollis Henry is back in Hubertus Bigend’s traces, looking for a mysterious clothes designer, with assistance from former bandmate Heidi Hyde and former addict Milgrim (who comes across as a sad, neglected fallout from a Le Carre novel circa Smiley’s People).

Add some gadgets, some pithy one-liners and weird decor, and that’s about it, really.

The story builds on its predecessors but does stand alone, though having read the previous volumes will deliver a bigger payoff. The writing is descriptive and label-laden, as you’d expect, but the commentary isn’t particularly biting and the action doesn’t really grab, partially because the threat level seems quite low. Neither of our narrators, Hollis and Milgrim, are in the loop, reducing us to bystanders on the rim of the action as Bigend’s curiosity leads them into vaguely dangerous ground.

In some ways, the mundane nature of the characters’ desires, framed within the hyper-real world of Bigend’s manufacture, is part of the appeal; in other ways, there is a feeling that a soap opera is being brought to a close, family trees tidied, rewards handed out, just desserts delivered, even if the chemistry of attraction might seem to be missing.

Zero History is enjoyable and comfortable, but not compelling, a bit like old jeans when we’re used to something a little more shiny from this label. Not so much lukewarm as luke-cool.

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