There are many hearts to William Gibson’s Zero History. Part of the pure, undiluted joy you will experience when you read Zero History is uncovering those secret, sacred hearts for yourself. Like kernels, germs, gems, you’ll dig them out from the fertile earth of the novel’s imaginative life.
You’ll sense that wavering dread that Hollis Henry (retired lead singer and erstwhile journalist) experiences when Hubertus Bigend, corporate monolith and psychic vampire, goads her into tracking down the mind behind Gabriel Hounds denim fashion. Near the novel’s beginning, it will begin to feel like that part where the dream of the horror movie is just about to become too much. You’ll sense that hopeful wonder of a world that may yet be righted, when Mere speaks of the Budo-Christian disconnect between the world consumers see in glossy magazines, and the horror-sacrifice needed to make that world from the lives of poor, hungry women sleeping on apartment floors.
If you’re like me, you’ll find these gems moving through the book reading at breakneck pace—but it won’t feel like that at all. It will feel slow and rhythmic, like the slow beating pulse of the planet that syncs with human brainwaves at about 7.8Hz. You’ll smuggle Zero History into your daily life, you’ll read it on your daily commute across the bay, or deep enough under the city to not see natural light, or in the elevator, on the way to your next meeting. The book will become a device. You’ll set aside the iPad, iPhone, you’ll unplug. Time will unfurl…
There are many hearts to Zero History, but there is one surface, one edge. You’ll encounter it in Chapter 33, ‘Burj’.
Zero History rounds out the third chapter in Gibson’s third trilogy, the ‘Bigend’ trilogy named for the culturally ubiquitous European media magnate Hubertus Bigend who appears in all three books. Unapologetically, Zero History is the most geographically compact of the three novels, but also the strongest, clearest, swiftest of the three. A strong argument can be made for Zero History being the best of Gibson so far.
Zero History picks up in the wake of 2003’s Pattern Recognition which explored the post-9/11 world of asymmetrical, highly mobile, internationally-charged packs of crime, and 2007’s Spook Country which explored the insurgency psychology of military intelligence with respect to the media-saturated commercial-arts world. Gibson tackles as Zero History’s major theme, the psychology of luxury items, and the fixity of global capitals, like London and Paris. Continuing on from his surprise move at the outset of the trilogy, Gibson has situated Zero History not in some near- but tantalizingly-out-of-reach future, but in the ground of the imaginative present.
Zero History plays out in 2010. Plays out in a world where the 911 terror attacks have already taken place. In a world where, continuing on from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, Hubertus Bigend has already psychologically crippled Cayce Pollard (the first novel’s protagonist), and has already come close to doing the same with Hollis Henry over the course of Spook Country.
Positioned part of the way by the success manufactured by her project that resulted from the events of Spook Country, and part of the way by Bigend’s overt manipulation, Hollis finds herself drawn into a Bigend’s world for the second time. This is not a comfortable, cozy or even easy relationship. Bigend would read like a James Bond villain, if he did not in equal measure read like a 21st century James Bond.
Zero History runs on rails for the most part. It’s a simple, elegant political thriller, but also one that overturns the idea of a political thriller. Readers won’t find themselves fixed like flies on the wall, chasing down clues that will reveal moles inside the Pentagon. Nor is this a ridealong with Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch as he turns over the L.A. underworld. What’s at stake here is culture, the bleedpoint between the human and the technology that we use to coevolve ourselves.
At no one point is Gibson’s genius more evident than with ‘Burj’. There’s an immediate tension when Hollis re-arrives in London. “What’s happened to Garreth?”, she demands, opening the chapter with the full force of a SWAT team flashbang. Her ex-boyfriend, one for whom she is at this point in the novel increasingly rekindling romantic affection, had jumped the Burj al-Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
The landing had not been successful. “Don’t watch YouTube”, she’s told. The name of the internet viral video site is itself a reference to a cultural wave Gibson himself predicted in Pattern Recognition just a year before the concept hit the popular imagination.
The chapter is beautifully structured. When Hollis does open video footage of the jump, we are swept into the dive. The irresistible nature of it, the impossibility of escaping the end. Yet, the video doesn’t show what happened. Not fully. It’s as if there is a radical transformation. Garreth becomes information by the end of the jump. Information floods into London from all points across the globe. It is the immediate extension of a single nervous system to a global scale. It is Haiti, Chile, swine flu in Mexico, 9/11. It is our empathy perpetuated. If for no other reason (there are thousands of other reasons), it’s this that allows the idea of Zero History to succeed.
When Garreth finally enters the novel it is no less than Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man. It’s months later. He has healed, almost completely. His femur has been removed, replaced by a ratan cane caked in calcium.
This is a deeply moving moment. It recalls perfectly the shortest chapter in perhaps the most passionate piece of science writing of the past decade; Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred. In ‘Broken Bones’, Kauffman recalls our the broken bones of our ancestors in the fossil record. One reason for this, Kauffman posits, might be war. He suggests that overarching ideology, like those that fuel fundamentalisms the world over, might lie at the root of such wars.
Another reason for these millions of years of broken bones might be our ancestors’ violent assertion of the human form in the face of generations of climate change. Our ancestors who willing threw themselves off the edges of cliffs, who were just a little more curious about fire than scared of it. Our ancestors who ensured that every human today descended from an unbroken line of genetic successes.
What kind of world would it be if there were no broken bones in the fossil record? Impossible is nothing, and even gravity needs to ante up for a poker game with the human that will eventually out-evolve this planet.
With Zero History there is a boost, a kick. With Gibson we are lead on into being a part of that greater thing. Not simple survivalism, but unashamed, genetic-level success. Flourishing, wealth. It’s what Grant Morrison meant when he wrote in R.I.P.: The Missing Chapter ‘‘So I stepped through that door into a bigger, simpler world”.
Gibson’s Zero History unites us with Einstein, with Galileo, with Hubble, with Robert Goddard who labored tirelessly for most of the 20th century to allow his dream of rocket-flight to become real. With Vera Rubin who first conceived of the gravity rotation problem that would eventually be solved by dark matter, with Henrietta Swan Leavitt whose ideas of luminosity of stars catapulted us into understanding the full scope of the universe. With Chuck Yeager, with Charles Darwin.
It speaks to the best of us, in all of us. It deserves to be owned. To be read over and over, to be smuggled into your everyday world.