Gibson's ZERO HISTORY: exciting adventure that wakes you to the present-day's futurism

By Cory Doctorow

William Gibson's latest novel, Zero History, is his best yet, a triumph of science fiction as social criticism and adventure. Continuing on from 2007's Spook Country, Zero History features a reformed, dried out version of Milgrim, the junkie anti-hero from Spook Country. He's been rehabilitated at the expense of Hubertus Bigend, the shadowy power-broker whom we first met in Pattern Recognition. Bigend has got Milgrim hunting for the designer behind a mysterious line of fetish-denim, in the hopes of remaking it as the basis for a lucrative US military contract; this being Bigend's idea of novelty-seeking good times.

Joining Milgrim is Hollis Henry, the former pop star from Spook Country, still reluctantly in Bigend's employ, but even more conflicted, and missing her ex-boyfriend, a thrill-seeking nutjob whose idea of a good time in jumping off tall buildings in a glidersuit. Milgrim -- and later, Hollis -- track the secret denim from South Carolina to London to Paris and back to London again, and very quickly find themselves embroiled in an intrigue involving US spooks, experimental UAVs, rogue infosec specialists, and a palace coup at Blue Ant, Bigend's legendary design and branding firm.

What makes Zero History into Gibson's best so far is how absolutely perfectly he captures the futuristic nature of the present day. Milgrim -- a junkie dried out after a ten year fugue of living rough and stealing to buy pills -- is well-suited to this task, emerging as if from a time-machine into the 21st century in full swing, able to narrate its essential strangeness without seeming contrived. But all of Gibson's characters are in the business of understanding how we got to this futuristic present, and on every page, there is a jolt of pleasant dissonance as Gibson does the conjurer's trick of making you look at your surroundings with fresh eyes.

Here is a book that is both contemporary, and futuristic -- and anachronistic, filled as it is with characters who long for simpler times, who fetishize antique computers and vintage memorabilia. It's a book that doesn't so much feel written as designed, cunningly filled with trompe d'esprit effects that fool your brain into staring at your own life from the objective distance of a Martian.

And moreover, here is a book that is a novel, filled with people having exciting adventures and romance, developing as characters, chasing mysteries. An even better trick: to make something so smart that is nevertheless enormous fun as well. What a treat.

Zero History

Published 5:53 am Mon, Sep 6, 2010

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

33 Responses to “Gibson's ZERO HISTORY: exciting adventure that wakes you to the present-day's futurism”

  1. ricochet53 says:

    I loved all the earlier stuff-the cowboy era-liked the middle stuff-and thought Spook Country was the best since Burning Chrome days. Looking forward to Zero History very much.

  2. Diamond Jim says:

    Actually, what you really should read first is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium . . .

  3. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    I just finished re-reading Spook Country and it was just as good as I remembered. I recall being disappointed by Pattern Recognition, which struck me as slow and enervated. Just never got up a head of steam. I guess I’ll try re-reading that next & see what I think now.

  4. Anonymous says:

    To people saying that ebooks should be cheaper just because it is digital I point your attention to a post by Charles Stross on the subject:

    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/05/cmap-9-ebooks.html

    Pay specific attention to point 1.

    Will Ellwood.

    • Anonymous says:

      Consumers don’t consider manufacturing costs when buying books. They consider value. Paperbacks are less valuable than hardbacks because they don’t last as long and aren’t as nice on a bookshelf. Digital copies are significantly less valuable than paper copies because they cannot be resold or shared easily. Digital books are worth less and should cost less. A new hardback can be read and resold. While marketing is expensive, you only need one copy editor for a book and they don’t make much. The per-copy cost of editing the book is not why digital books are expensive. Networks to deliver the e-books, however, do cost money.

    • jphilby says:

      “80-90% of the cover price of a book has nothing to do with the paper and ink object you buy in a shop”

      Citation needed.

      • Anonymous says:

        @32 re: [Citation Needed]

        I’ll site something, but is sure doesn’t support the “80-90%” fantasy:
        http://ireaderreview.com/2009/05/03/book-cost-analysis-cost-of-physical-book-publishing/

        In short, pre-retail costs unique to paper are around 20%. (10% for printing, 10% for the wholesale supply chain.) Retail is fully half of the cost, and retail costs for ebooks are going to be lower. So, by a cost model, ebooks should be no more than (and significantly less than) 80% of the cost of paper books.

        (This ignores the opportunity that price elasticity of demand gives. With a streamlined supply chain and low barrier to entry (e.g. mobile app stores), things that usually sell for $10-$20 (indie software) instead sell for $1-$5 and make more money (I think). It remains to be seen whether Amanda Hocking is the exception ore merely the first. Of course, this is exactly the scenario that the publishers want to avoid…)

  5. Diamond Jim says:

    Is Milgrim still carrying around/reading Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium?

  6. ptrourke says:

    I’d strongly recommend reading *Pattern Recognition* and *Spook Country* before reading *Zero History* (and re-reading them if you haven’t read either since *Spook Country* came out). You certainly will understand the book without having read the first two, but there are allusions to the other two books that really enrich the characters and situations (for instance, the last line of dialogue in the book has really interesting implications for what has been going on in all three books). If you remember how *Mona Lisa Overdrive* borrowed from *Neuromancer* and *Count Zero* and how *All Tomorrow’s Parties* borrowed from *Virtual Light* and *Idoru*, Gibson does a lot of the same here. Just like I’d call the Sprawl books and Bridge books “Sprawl Triptych” and “Bridge Triptych,” I’d call these three books the “Blue Ant Triptych.”

  7. Malixe says:

    I just finished reading Zero History. I can’t imagine why anyone would call this one of Gibson’s best. It’s not bad, because Gibson’s never really -bad-. It’s just slight. That was my perception of Spook Country too. I liked Pattern Recognition, and Idoru before that, but the Bigend trilogy, as Wikipedia refers to it, has been some of his more tepid work in my opinion.

    Zero History is the culmination of that, with characters pretty much stumbling around, crossing paths and interacting with each other in a variety of ways, but nobody really *does* much of anything until the last 30 pages or so.

    The fact remains that Gibson writes beautifully, creates likable and interesting characters and draws you into the world that he creates, so that even if you find yourself at the end going “Is that all there is?”, you find that you enjoyed the journey nevertheless.

    I feel that Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ and ‘Bridge’ trilogies were much more exciting and interesting reads than his latest work, but Gibson’s writing is a lot like pizza and sex. Even when it’s not great, it’s still pretty good. There’s no way I could think of this as one of his ‘best’, but I enjoyed it and I wouldn’t tell anyone -not- to read it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Already on BT with plenty of seeders, as is appropriate for the books of the Sci-Fi Masta!

  9. g says:

    RP: “(Anon #8 8:32 AM Monday, Sep 6, 2010) Would it be advised to read Spook Country and/or Pattern Recognition first?”

    I am trying to make the same decision as Anon #8, I have never read Gibson. How many would argue it is imperative to read Spook or Pattern first? Or would it be ok to start with Zero and then work backwards if need be?

    • Diamond Jim says:

      Gibson himself says no, per this tweet from last Sunday:

      RT @cwood: @GreatDismal Will I be hopelessly lost in Zero History if I haven’t read Pattern Recognition or Spook Country? [No.]

      But you should read the other two anyway. Reading is good for you. Reading Gibson is good for you. That is all.

  10. Anonymous says:

    It sounds great, but I won’t be able to read it. I’m traveling and have no space for physical books. For some reason this has launched in the UK with no kindle option, and I can’t find it anywhere for my PRS-505.

    Isn’t the future wonderful ? :(

  11. salocorgan says:

    Sounds great.

    Could someone explain why the Kindle edition is just 70 cents cheaper than the HARDback?

    • Anonymous says:

      Because for some reason publishers of music and literature at some point forgot that 90% of the user-end cost of buying their material comes from the physical materials, production and transportation of their product, and NOT from the license itself.

      If they were honest with their model an e-book would cost no more than £1 and an MP3 would be about 10p.

      However that’s not how you make big bucks sonny!

      • clevins says:

        Ah, ignorance. About 20% of the cost of a book is the physical production and shipping. The rest is upstream (editing, copyediting (not the same thing!), author, etc) or sidestream (marketing, sales, etc).

    • Seefood says:

      Having chosen to enter the Kindle jail, you cannot really complain about the price afterwards, now can you?

      http://www.defectivebydesign.org/amazon-kindle-swindle

  12. jjasper says:

    Exciting? Not to me. I like Gibson, but Zero History has less actual action and dramatic tension than it’s predecessors. Yes, there was some danger and excitement at the end, but that’s the only place they have any. Even the Blue Ant coup felt distant and meaningless.

    I liked the sense of how the current day has futuristic elements to it, but I felt less connection to the characters in the book than I did in previous novels in this “cycle” (Further discussion for is “Cycle” a pretentious way to talk about a series?).

    Milgrim in this book is actually less interesting than when he was a junkie, and without his foil, Brown, he’s not presenting me with a view of anything I find interesting. My guess is that Cory is a bigger Gibson fan than I am, so the book is naturally more fun for him.

  13. KBert says:

    “cunningly filled with trompe d’esprit”

    Now that I like!

  14. enkiv2 says:

    “who fetishize antique computers and vintage memorabilia.”

    Does this mean they bring back the mechanical calculators that formed a plot point in Pattern Recognition?

    Gibson is one of my favorite authors, and although I was initially somewhat disappointed with Pattern Recognition, Spook Country put it into perspective and now I’m really looking forward to Zero History (though I plan to wait for a paperback edition; hey, don’t blame me — usually I just pirate books). It seems like with this series (much like with Neuromancer) he’s feeling around a bit in unfamiliar territory. His work seems to fit itself vaguely into trilogies because it takes him until the second or third book to have full command in describing the world that has invented itself in the first book, and so I have little doubt that this current series will fit that pattern.

    One thing I’ve noticed that turns me off about this Bigend trilogy is the way that his fact checking dampens some of the whimsy found in his other books. With the Cyberspace trilogy and the Bridge trilogy, since they are set in an entirely fictional future he can counterpoint his acute observations of the present day with humorous fictions, and he can chop up their basis in fact in order to make them fit. Somehow, paying attention to the brass-tacks details of whether or not something is truly feasible limits the effectiveness of this technique (or it seems this way to me, at least).

  15. soulseeker says:

    I started with neuromancer in 1992 and followed with ALL Gibson’s books. I’ve many editions of neuromancer even in different languages. I try to collect everything related with his works, well in fact anything about sci-fi.

    I found a tee shop (memetictees) with many t-shirts about neuromancer and couldn’t resist to buy one of the Chatsubo and another about Ono-Sendai Decks (one Nexus 6 too) but they have Freeside and Sprawl Cowboy.

    I preordered zero history at Amazon and I agree with many others that is good to have read Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.
    I don’t mind critics. I like everything.

  16. Tony_mac10 says:

    While I hate to be one of those gatekeepers, I am really wondering if Gibson’s recent work (since Pattern Recognition, anyway–those featuring Bigend) is really “Science Fiction.” Look, I know the genre is very nebulous, but I really wonder just exactly how much of Spook Country was fiction at all! Isn’t Bigend actually just an avatar of Soros?

    But let’s put that aside. I am afraid that many will misconstrue my admiration for Spook Country in particular. It is a haunting book: one that comes back to me over & over again.

    But I personally am getting sick of the milieu. I am especially becoming flabbergasted at the Plutocratic hero. It seems to me that GIbson is apologizing for the kleptocrat who has stolen the democratic process, but who we all hope will still steer us into the marvelous “what comes next.”

    Despite my exalted esteem for Doctorow’s opinion, I still can’t help feeling a little brainwashed by some sort of neo-feudalistic manifesto that Gibson’s work seems to be turning into.

  17. Anonymous says:

    The build-up is more satisfying than the payoff, probably because it gives Gibson more space to make his trenchant observations. But I’m not complaining — I feel the same way about sex.

    • karl_jones says:

      The build-up is more satisfying than the payoff, probably because it gives Gibson more space to make his trenchant observations. But I’m not complaining — I feel the same way about sex.

      So, you’re saying that you like to make trenchant observations during sex? Now that’s hot!

  18. Anonymous says:

    This is the third part of a trilogy but you may be able to follow what’s going on without reading the first two. The Sprawl trilogy were able to be read individually, and same with the Bridge trilogy to a lesser extent. This one at least has many of the same characters throughout the whole series, so you’ll miss out on a lot of backstory.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Would it be advised to read Spook Country and/or Pattern Recognition first?

    • Anonymous says:

      Best to read Pattern Recognition and then Spook Country as characters are introduced in PR and reappear in SC and Zero History. Great reads, all of them, IMHO. Just finished Zero History yesterday afternoon. Cheers!

  20. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    Spook Country is a wonderful book. It was the first Gibson in years that inspired me to go around telling people to read it. Just a great story, really well told. I have Zero History on order and I’m going to re-read Spook Country first.

    Thanks, Cory!

  21. Anonymous says:

    I just finished it. I love reading Gibson’s prose, it’s like savoring a fine meal. Most books I’ll rip through, but I take my time with Gibson.

    But is it just me, or are we seeing the same premise repeated over and over? Odd artifacts surface. An outsider is tasked with discovering the mysterious creator at the behest of a benefactor with questionable motives. What’s that, Pattern Recognition, Neuromancer and Zero History? Virtual Light isn’t too far off either.

    It doesn’t stop me from working my way through the entire oeuvre every two years or so, just to revel in the writing.

  22. Xanthippas says:

    Amazon just informed me that my copy has shipped! I love Gibson so much I don’t care if anybody else likes him or not.

  23. Zadaz says:

    (Now that publishers can set the price on Amazon I’ve seen an umber of Kindle books selling for -more- than the hardback. Publishers are freaking trogs.)

    Can someone help me get back into Gibson? I quite enjoyed Neuromancer, etc. But have never been able to get through the newer books. I think I got about three chapters into both Virtual Light and Pattern Recognition before losing complete interest. I never got a sense for the plot, characters that I wanted anything from, or a world that asked me questions. More or less forgot I was reading them and picked up a different book.

    However when I read glowing reviews like this I feel like I’ve clearly missed something. So if anyone has any tips for getting into his newer stuff I’m all ears. And eyes.

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