For Tomorrow

William Gibson, 'Zero History' and The Present... The Interview

by shathley Q

12 September 2010

Fantasy skyline based on the world of William Gibson's Sprawl Series” (partial) by
Mike Hernandez aka Mainkder. See more of Mike’s work at 

Altering Adjacency

Gibson pauses momentarily before he begins to describe what he sees as an ill-considered path. He offers a careful, and thoroughgoing evaluation not only of the condition of technologically individuated objects and their contextual systems, but of the moral imperatives that underpin them as well. His writer’s mind is as keen and as empathetic as ever. “I think Apple might do more good if [CEO Steve] Jobs were more like Meredith, actually”, Gibson responds, “If Apple simply wanted to create better digital devices. As it is, Jobs seems to want to create new, hierarchic, top-down systems to control the software that will run on those devices.”

But the central thematic of Zero History reaches beyond the personal as it interfaces with an ecology of technology. Zero History consolidates itself around a thematic of the psychology of luxury items and how this psychology overflows into notions of fixity and mobility of geographic and post-geographic existence. Once again Hollis Henry finds herself embroiled in the labyrinthine machinations of Hubertus Bigend. Zero History is far and away the most geographically compact of Gibson’s novels to date. The major action transpires almost exclusively between London and Paris.

“Someone,” [Bigend] said, “is developing what may prove to be a somewhat new way to transmit brand vision.”

“You sound guarded in your appreciation.”

“A certain genuinely provocative use of negative space,” he said, sounding still less pleased.


“I don’t know,” he said, “I haven’t been able to find out. I feel that someone has read and understood my playbook. And may possibly be expanding it.”

Hollis finds herself deployed once more, this time to hunt down the designer behind Gabriel Hounds, a unique denim line that exploits a unique marketing technique.

“Piracy, someone said, is a tax on fame”, Gibson volunteers when asked about the comparatively low-index around intellectual property in the fashion industry. While brand-names can be owned, copyrighted, trademarked, basic architectural elements like zippers or buttons cannot be. Instead, the fashion industry relies on gifting skilled designers who are able to cannibalize those precise structural elements from times past and position these as trending for upcoming collections. “I doubt that luxury brands are actually damaged by knock-offs. But I think they do want to be seen to be enforcing their supposed exclusivity”.

This trend can be seen again Gibson’s compacting of geographical localities, a technique which complements the unbroken and recurring post-geographical landscape he simultaneously offers. “The novel is compact geographically (London, Paris) but virtually infinite, post-geographically. Information flows, today, into just about everywhere, and to just about everywhere. Unless you’re in, say, China”, Gibson suggests, “Traditional capitals will continue to grow, or to become more expensive, or both. This is because they are home to the most choices. Eventually, though, they become ‘fixed’, too valuable to change. London and Paris are both nearing that fixity, I suspect.”

Ultimately though, it seems that even the virtual and the real tangoing each other the way they do in the Bigend Trilogy, is nothing more than a brief skirmish. There is a genuine core to Gibson’s writings this decade, a richer vein that he deftly and swiftly taps.

For Gibson, perhaps the real engagement is the distribution of High Art and popular culture in the new century. “I’ve never taken the distinction between pop culture and high art entirely seriously. I think I have a more anthropological perspective, though largely by accident. That distinction is cultural, and has its meaning within the given culture”, says Gibson.


Photo of William Gibson (partial) by © Michael O’Shea (courtesy of Putnam)

Gibson’s meditations on these disparities seem suggestive of an earlier piece of writing. A meditation of his own on his work nearer the early part of this decade, entitled ‘God’s Little Toys’. In it, Gibson himself suggests, “Meaning, ultimately, seemed a matter of adjacent data”. When prompted on this intertext between his earlier and his current thoughts, Gibson offered PopMatters, “The idea of ‘adjacency’ of data changing the data’s meaning is important to me. It reminds me of Borges’ belief that each time a novel is written, it alters the meaning of all previous novels. It alters adjacency”.

After three decades of cultural capital, it is hard to come away from an encounter with William Gibson, without expectations. His mind is generationally definitive. It’s a strange quirk of history that sees his debut novel published in the same year as the Orwellian paradigm (named for that year) lapses. But given the weight of Gibson’s own writings that inception date of 1984 takes on a secret grandeur. Like the extinguishing of one paradigm leads to the ignition of another. But William Gibson is no Clint Eastwood, Dr. Martin Luther King or Neil Armstrong. Yet he consistently exceeds expectations. In the three decades that he has come to dominate the cultural horizon, the only thing “old” (or “known”) about him is his very familiar role in leading us into the new.

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