Zero History: Disappointed in the plot, but not the book

science fiction book reviews William Gibson Zero Historyscience fiction book reviews William Gibson Pattern RecognitionZero History by William Gibson

I’m a little disappointed in the plot of Zero History, but I’m not disappointed in the book. William Gibson’s latest reunites us with Hollis Henry, former lead singer of the Curfew, currently unemployed. Hollis was paid a good deal of money for her last adventure, but the recession cut her fortune in half, and she reluctantly agrees to work once again for Hubertus Bigend, the enigmatic billionaire. Also working for him is Milgrim, the addict and Russian translator we met, along with Hollis, in Spook Country.

This go-round, Bigend (Hollis’s friend Garrett calls him “Mr. Big End”) is interested in fashion, specifically an unusual pair of pants and a secretive fashion line. He has put Hollis on the trail of the Gabriel Hounds, the elusive fashion imprint, while Milgrim searches for that special pair of cargo pants.

I will not attempt to recap the plot, because, essentially, the plot doesn’t matter. What matters are the people we meet along the way: Milgrim, in recovery from his addiction and discovering whole continents about himself; Hollis’s friends and former bandmates; the hip and dialed-in Reg, a successful record producer; the erotic, chaotic Heidi, best friend and serial wife; Foley; the charming Fiona; and Milgrim’s mysterious contact who may really work for the Department of Defense. What matters is the description of Hollis’s strange hotel, the periodic appearances of the twin Icelandic celebs, Milgrim’s switch in an elevator, and Gibson’s amazing, perceptive and intentionally off-center eye for culture, for language, for behavior and for that strange thing we call style.

I do not mean that Zero History is poorly plotted, because that’s not the case. There is plenty of story, suspense and action, even if it does wrap up a bit too neatly at the end (but I can forgive that, because much of it — especially Heidi — is funny). Gibson made choices, not mistakes, and one of his choices is to show us, near the end, that the clothing chase is not what’s happening at all. Hubertus Bigend always has more than one project, one adventure, happening, and two of them have collided, putting Milgrim and ultimately Hollis in jeopardy. This all brings us back to one of Gibson’s greatest inventions; the character of Hubertus Bigend.

Bigend, the mysterious billionaire, is like one of the Artificial Intelligences from Gibson’s earlier novels given flesh. His antecedents are a bit cloudy; or maybe people just think the story of his beginnings is boring, or maybe they’ve been influenced to believe it is boring. He is powerful, almost beyond measure, but vulnerable to attack. He achieves most of his goals through human intermediaries. It is almost impossible to insult or embarrass Bigend, in part because he just doesn’t get it, but also because your laptop or your coffee maker really can’t insult or embarrass you. He exercises his intellect, his strategic virtuosity and his relentless curiosity at the expense, sometimes, of the people who wander into his orbit. He also often rewards them handsomely. He tests Hollis by nudging her, almost imperceptibly, to step over her own ethical boundaries. He considers Milgrim to be something he has re-built and is taking for a test drive.

Bigend balances in the center of a far-flung, quivering, gleaming web of information. He personifies the expression “knowledge is power.” He is not terribly interested in money except as an artifact of power: he doesn’t want fame, isn’t interested in getting the best table in the exclusive restaurant (although he always does), does not crave the adoration of beautiful women or beautiful men. He likes to know how things work. He likes to know how to make things work. Once he has figured out something, he will make it work to his advantage. The scariest thing about him is not that he might take over the world. It’s that perhaps he already has, and we just don’t know it.

I think the end of Zero History might have had a bit more resonance for me if I had paid more attention to the Icelandic banking scandal. Then again, maybe not. Gibson has an uncanny gift for drawing together random threads, and maybe he just got lucky.

At the end of the book lovers are united, Bigend has triumphed over adversaries who underestimated him, and we learn the secret of the Gabriel Hounds. Milgrim, sipping champagne, is trailing along in Bigend’s wake. A happy ending for everyone, except perhaps Bigend himself, surrounded by loyal employees yet still as isolated as an Artificial Intelligence orbiting earth in a decaying military space station.

Zero History — (2010) Publisher: Hollis Henry worked for the global marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend once before. She never meant to repeat the experience. But she’s broke, and Bigend never feels it’s beneath him to use whatever power comes his way — in this case, the power of money to bring Hollis onto his team again. Not that she knows what the “team” is up to, not at first. Milgrim is even more thoroughly owned by Bigend. He’s worth owning for his useful gift of seeming to disappear in almost any setting, and his Russian is perfectly idiomatic — so much so that he spoke Russian with his therapist, in the secret Swiss clinic where Bigend paid for him to be cured of the addiction that would have killed him. Garreth has a passion for extreme sports. Most recently he jumped off the highest building in the world, opening his chute at the last moment, and he has a new thighbone made of rattan baked into bone, entirely experimental, to show for it. Garreth isn’t owned by Bigend at all. Garreth has friends from whom he can call in the kinds of favors that a man like Bigend will find he needs, when things go unexpectedly sideways, in a world a man like Bigend is accustomed to controlling. As when a Department of Defense contract for combat-wear turns out to be the gateway drug for arms dealers so shadowy that even Bigend, whose subtlety and power in the private sector would be hard to overstate, finds himself outmaneuvered and adrift in a seriously dangerous world.

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MARION DEEDS is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

3 comments

  1. Merciful Tehlu, I am TWO WILLIAM GIBSON BOOKS BEHIND!!! What has become of me? I actually bought some of his previous ones on the release date, just one step short of sleeping in front of the store to get it first. I need retirement, stat, to have more time to read.

  2. Stephan, yes, yes you do!

  3. Everyone is probably getting tired of hearing me say “I have this on audio but haven’t read it yet” so I won’t say it this time. (But I do.)

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