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.

Wheeler Centre continues to wow, Tut is on his way!

If you haven’t checked out the Wheeler Centre’s amazing program of mostly free events, now is a great time to do so. This month, they are hosting much-awarded Shaun Tan, best-selling Kate Morton and tunesmiths Stephen Cummings and Clare Bowditch, amongst others. Not bad diversity, that.

And in other events to keep an eye on, it’s worth noting that an uber expensive Tutankhamun exhibit is on its way to Melbourne next year. Despite the level of crass commercialism suggested by the article, I still *shiver in anticipation*.

Feed by Mira Grant: the flavour really hits you

feed by mira grant

Feed is a clever zombie novel from pseudonymous Mira Grant, right down to its title: not only does it refer to the famed zombie appetite, but to western society’s appetite for connectivity – hence the RSS symbol on the cover.

In the world of Feed, the zombies reign. Created by a little-understood man-made contagion, the reanimated dead roam the wilds while an underpopulated and “uninfected” society lives in communes rated by risk. Travel has been reduced to a bare minimum, and the media – a major focus of the story’s plot – has suffered a severe reversal. Traditional news providers now face serious competition from bloggers, who have organised into their own corporations vying for ratings and the dollars they bring with them (I’m sure Rupert Murdoch would be fascinated by their income model!) to feed the connectivity needs of a largely sedentary and isolationist population. The bloggers are broken into distinct zones of interest: fictionals, who write stories that may or may not be based on current events (including slash); newsies, who act as journalists; and Irwins, nicknamed after Australia’s croc hunter Steve, who are the daredevils of the blogosphere, risking life and limb for the sake of entertainment.

Feed’s core characters comprise one of each: sister Georgia (George, newsie) and Irwin brother Shaun and their tech-savvy fictional “Buffy”. The Morgans are rather special, having been, Bindi-like, raised in the spotlight of the blogosphere since the zombie outbreak was hijacked by their parents as a fame platform. This, and the zombie death of their infant brother, informs the pair’s relationship. It’s a lovingly rendered co-dependency and one of the book’s great strengths.

The story is told primarily from George’s point of view, with neat quotes from various blog posts by her and others.

We are given the history of the outbreak and how the world has changed since, how technology and society have evolved to deal with the new circumstances. It’s very clever and quite believable (insomuch as you can make a zombie plague believable).

The story follows the trio as they are invited to join the election campaign of a US senator running for the presidency. And here is where it goes slightly off-track, with opposing forces acting in not entirely logical ways to achieve their outcomes, and the reactions of the public and officialdom likewise conforming more to authorial need than real-world likelihood. That a key piece of evidence required to trigger the story’s conclusion is handed over on a platter further diminishes the trajectory.

And yet these are small things that could’ve been overlooked were it not for the most annoying factor of all: the Morgans. Georgia is 22 but already jaded and cynical, the bearer of a noxious self-importance that erodes her likability as the story progresses. She and her team know more about everything than everyone they meet: politicians, security staff, experienced journalists are all minnows by comparison. Even their technology is superior to that of the American secret service. Her single-minded dedication to the ‘truth’ puts her into the category of fanatic, and fanatics are by their very nature, unreliable, unsociable and boorish. Not really what you want for a main character, and one who espouses her own virtues with such cocky assurance for more than 550 pages.

From what we see of Shaun, he suffers a similar ego-centric view of his place in the world.

There is an element of self-delusion that Grant reveals, most tellingly when George sets out to rip into a candidate whose policies she doesn’t like. Vowing to ask the hard questions and take it up to the man, what she actually does is present a set of standard, largely non-reactive questions which he answers in sound bites according to his platform. Nothing new is revealed, no pressure is brought to bear, and yet she proclaims it a victory, even though she is forced to add an op ed piece to reinforce the win. More of this approach, showing that just maybe the kids aren’t up the spotless standard they think they are – that just maybe someone else also knows what they’re doing — might’ve helped to humanise them to the point of being sympathetic heroes.

It’s easy to appreciate their youthful cynicism: America’s news services, particularly of the broadcast variety, are by and large woeful, little more than a dull amalgam of reality television and opinionated commentary slavishly devoted to domestic introspection. And in fairness, Australia is following a similar route, blurring the line between entertainment and information, reportage and commentary, in electronic, print and online media.

All of which isn’t to say that the characterisation isn’t good or even realistic: the Morgans are of an age and possess a background that make their self-absorption perfectly understandable, and it is certainly a fair call to tell a story through the eyes of obnoxious characters (in fact, I’m sure the very character traits that I found off-putting will probably endear the Morgans to other readers). I just wish that such a beautifully drawn and considered post-zombie apocalypse world could have been explored through the experiences of more likable characters.

Aussies score World Fantasy awards

x6 collection of novellas

Great news: prolific editor of award-winning anthologies Jonathan Strahan and fantasy writer extraordinaire Margo Lanagan have added World Fantasy awards to their sagging trophy shelves 🙂 Margo’s is extra sweet because her most excellent novella Sea-Hearts was published in Aussie small press publication X6 (coeur de lion publishing). Go you good things!