For Tomorrow: William Gibson, ‘Zero History’ and The Present… The Interview

“I’ve never believed that I’m particularly prescient”, William Gibson says modestly in an interview with PopMatters, “It’s more a matter of being observant, and betting on the things that are already here, but seem to have potential for the future”. This might at first scan as disingenuousness. Particularly from the mind that perhaps first conceived of, then coined the terms ‘virtual reality’ and ‘cyberspace’. But it only seems that way.

There is a kind of piety to William Gibson, a piety of the secular kind. A cultural fixture since his 1984 debut, Neuromancer, Gibson has evolved in the popular imagination, an exclusionary principle to his own immense sociocultural impact. It was not that Neuromancer had set the tone for a generation of writers (which it has), inventing a new genre (the genre is called ‘cyberpunk’), and constructed a new dynamic for interrogating the social dynamic when it links human to human by way of technology (check). The story of William Gibson happens long after his debut, long after the invention of ‘cyberpunk’ or his invention of the Victorian era equivalent ‘steampunk’, and is continuing to happen well into the 21st century.

In the handful of days prior to the release of his latest novel Zero History, the novel which also wraps the decade-long “Bigend Trilogy”, Gibson agreed to share insights into his latest work and longtime themes in his novels. With the subject-matter of Zero History, and particularly the new technology it posits in its concluding chapters, the binaried dynamic of being prescient versus being observant appears like an armada on the horizon. Something immense is happening, a basal shift in human conditionality on the planet. We just haven’t noticed yet, but Gibson has.

Zero History rounds out a project began by Gibson in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. With the opening chapter in the trilogy, Pattern Recognition, Gibson threw his newest protagonist, coolhunter Cayce Pollard (pronounced ‘Case’, a doff of the hat to his Neuromancer protagonist Henry Dorsett Case), into a search for a viral video released and distributed through the internet. In 2007’s Spook Country new protagonist Hollis Henry, retired lead singer for cult band The Curfew, finds herself on the streets of L.A. chasing down the emergent new artform of locative art. Meanwhile Milgrim, no last name, finds his unique talents at the disposal of an individual who may or may not be a functionary of the government intelligence apparatus. The two protagonists’ storyarcs collide around a missing shipping container. And Milgrim becomes entwined in one or more of Bigend’s networks.

The three protagonists find themselves having been deployed like chess pieces by European marketing magnate Hubertus Bigend, a shadowy, media-sexy figure who in Zero History once again finds a way to intricate both Milgrim and Hollis the dealings of in his media conglomerate Blue Ant. “Bigend is perhaps more a ‘vector’ than a ‘victor'”, Gibson offers, meditating on the closing of his most recent novel. In the closing chapter the character arcs Milgrim, Bigend and a slew of Blue Ant employees (the ones who remained personally loyal to Bigend during an ostensible coup) are tied off on route to Iceland. Events play out on a ground-effect vehicle, a technology long since deemed non-viable, somehow redeemed by Bigend’s marketing genius. Bigend is exactly this kind of character — his counterintuitive rationality serves as a platform for finding and exploiting the edge, the cool. But in some ways, Bigend’s character arc mirrors the role the trilogy he lent his name to, has come to play over the course of the last decade.

Rather than, as he has done in the past, set his work in the tantalizingly-out-of-reach not-too-distant future, Gibson has made the radical decision to commit fully to the 21st century with the Bigend Trilogy. “Having written about the 21st century since about 1981”, Gibson says in an earlier interview to promote Spook Country “then finding myself in the actual 21st century, is stranger and more complicated than anything I would have been allowed to come up with”. This has had a profound effect on Gibson’s cultural capital. In an earlier trilogy, the Bridge Trilogy of the ’90s, Idoru stands out for having correctly predicted the kind of virtual world that is Second Life. But with the noughties trilogy, Gibson has really ramped up his cultural capital.

Within the space of a few short years, Gibson’s Bigend Trilogy would have predicted YouTube (as the viral internet videos of Pattern Recognition have done) and geohacking (as iPhone apps have come to make the locative art of Spook Country available to popular culture). With Zero History, Gibson stands on the cusp of a new generation of cultural prefiguring. Remote-controlled flying ‘toys’ hardwired into iPhones extend the human nervous across a broader range of the urban landscape. ‘Ugly shirts’ render their wearers ‘invisible’ to facial recognition software by offering a hard-hack of the London surveillance camera network. Rattan cane baked in calcium proves to be a superior form of human skeleton. And a new kind of surveillance software, the Order Flow, which forms the core of the novel’s closing chapters.

Again the question of being prescient versus being observant emerges. More than anything what Gibson is able to do (and more so with this trilogy than with earlier ones) is determine the vector of human evolution. In doing so, Gibson taps directly into an ages-old mythography, perhaps the very first of mythographies, the story of human coevolution with technology. It is the notion of ‘materiality’ which the author of The Artificial Ape and Bradford University anthropologist Timothy Taylor uses as shorthand to reference a deep and abiding connection between the human and the fabricated.

“The technology we put into the world has a reverb”, Taylor says explaining his concept on science podcast Are We Alone?, “which we don’t then remove, we adapt to it. So for example, we sit around in chairs, we get slack pelvic floor musculature, because we’re designed to squat. But we don’t get rid of the chairs, we develop obstetrics. We have bad eyesight… we solve the problem with glasses like mine, but you also get optics… whereas in a cultural context, you might actually be saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got these people who are good opticians, and now they’ve built a microscope, and now they’ve worked out what cholera is.’ So the payoffs are no longer predictable in straight cultural terms”.

Taylor continues by suggesting the driving mechanism for human evolution to no longer be natural selection, a process that allows species to adapt perfectly to a defined biological environment, but materiality or material-cultural selection. It is not a case of humans getting smarter and then fabricating technology, rather it is a condition technology being indistinguishable from culture. Making technology is already the act of evolving human biological capacity. This is a phenomenon that Taylor connects with the philosophical concept of the practico-inert, original proposed by Existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre. It is this same liberty-seeking, elevating view of technology that underpins the novels of the Bigend Trilogy and Zero History in particular.

Gibson is at his most quietly passionate when his characters approach the subject of material elements, of things in the world. For him, as with other futurist writers like William Burroughs and Phillip K. Dick, individuated objects are often at odds with the systems that birth them, or the systems that they themselves birth. Case in point, Mere (a contraction of Meredith) is at her most passionate when speaking about her own history as a fashion model.

The living conditions were horrendous. She would tour Europe awash in a sea of opulence. She would grace the covers of high-end glossy magazines and model the emerging trends, visually the definition of cool. Yet between the financial commitments she had made to her model agency, and the cost of accommodation, food and simply living in the cultural capitals of the world, she would often find herself penniless. Her joy would be to tour the cities she found herself in, but that would come to present a unique set of problems. Her shoes were never sufficient to the task of walking the cities she found herself in. Breaking out of modeling and into fashion design, allowed her an opportunity to envision the kinds of shoes she would have needed.

“The seasons, the bullshit, the stuff that wore out, fell apart, wasn’t real”, Gibson writes for Mere speaking in a deep confessional tone to Hollis Henry, “I’d been that girl, walking across Paris, to the next shoot, no money for Métro card and I’d imagined those shoes. And when you imagine something like that, you imagine a world. You imagine the world those shoes come from, and you wonder if they could happen here, in this world, the one with all the bullshit. And sometimes they can. For a season or two.”

“I don’t see Meredith as imagining a system”, Gibson offers PopMatters, “She wants there to be better sneakers. I don’t see her as having much of an ideology about that. In making the sneakers she imagines, perhaps the system will be altered, however slightly. She isn’t making the shoes because she wants the world to be better, but because she wants better shoes”. The cultural cross-cutting proves too seductive at this point, and I pose the question about the sociocultural role of the visionary in the unfolding century. I’m thinking specifically about the recent past. About the wonder-decade enjoyed by Steve Jobs at Apple.

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.