zero history

Recent­ly fin­ished William Gib­son’s new nov­el, Zero His­to­ry, dur­ing the no-elec­tron­ics phase of a plane’s ascent to 30,000 feet.  It feels like I’ve read half of this book dur­ing take­offs and land­ings.

I have a soft spot for Gib­son.  A good deal of my pro­fes­sion­al life has been about mak­ing cyber­punk real.  He’s one of the vision­ar­ies who defined this field, and it’s a rare breed of writer who has not only per­ceived a hid­den shape, and told a good sto­ry, but who has influ­enced the course of events in the real world through the rev­e­la­tion of that hid­den shape.

How­ev­er, this post isn’t a love let­ter.  Yes, I enjoyed Zero His­to­ry, though in a low-tem­per­a­ture sort of way.  This wasn’t a book that made me stay up late, or pre­vent­ed me from pow­er­ing up my note­book on reach­ing cruis­ing alti­tude.

Gib­son is at a com­fort­able point in his career, shift­ing gears smooth­ly while keep­ing that writer’s voice steady and assured.  He sports an agree­ably fit yet griz­zled half-smile on the jack­et pho­to.  I’m sure he gives a great cam­pus talk; he cer­tain­ly reels off a fine quote, like

The future has already arrived; it’s just not even­ly dis­trib­uted yet,”

a thought that’s been repro­duced on ten thou­sand blogs.  (Make that 10,001.)

Back when Gib­son believed that the future might not have arrived yet, he was a shim­mer­ing, if uneven prophet.  The writ­ing was bet­ter than it need­ed to be, because the ideas alone were good enough.  A cou­ple of decades on, in émi­nence grise mode, he’s put away his VR gog­gles and donned tor­toise­shells, tak­ing on the more dig­ni­fied role of com­men­ta­tor on the here and now— or his own per­son­al ver­sion of it.  The trou­ble is that where there used to be big ideas, there are now just pecu­liar obses­sions.  Con­sumer elec­tron­ics and rare earths, for instance.  And fash­ion, espe­cial­ly of the den­im and Con­verse vari­ety.  Per­haps it’s always been there, but the off-axis wob­ble of these obses­sions comes into very sharp focus when the soci­ety Gib­son is describ­ing isn’t a San Fran­cis­co of the imag­i­na­tion, but the world we sup­pos­ed­ly inhab­it.

This may sound odd, but I’m remind­ed of Ian McE­wan.  Like Gib­son, McE­wan once wrote some elec­tri­fy­ing stuff (The Cement Gar­den and The Inno­cent come to mind).  Then, in 2003, Sat­ur­day came out.  There was plen­ty of crit­i­cal praise, but a scathing cri­tique from John Banville in the New York Review of Books:

Own­ing things is impor­tant to Per­owne, an unashamed ben­e­fi­cia­ry of the fruits of late cap­i­tal­ism. Few pas­sages catch the fla­vor of this extra­or­di­nary book as well as the one in which, appar­ent­ly with­out a trace of autho­r­i­al irony, Per­owne is made to recall an epiphan­ic moment on a fish­ing trip when his eye lit on his beloved car, a “Mer­cedes S500 with cream uphol­stery”:

Glanc­ing over his shoul­der while cast­ing, Hen­ry saw his car a hun­dred yards away, parked at an angle on a rise of the track, picked out in soft light against a back­drop of birch, flow­er­ing heather and thun­der­ous black sky— the real­i­sa­tion of an ad man’s vision— and felt for the first time a gen­tle, swoon­ing joy of pos­ses­sion.  It is, of course, pos­si­ble, per­mis­si­ble, to love an inan­i­mate object [...]”

[...] Theo comes up with an apho­rism: “The big­ger you think, the crap­pi­er it looks,” and fol­lows it with an apolo­gia pro vita sua which we assume, mis­tak­en­ly, as it turns out, Per­owne, or McE­wan, will chal­lenge as vapid and self-serv­ing:

When we go on about the big things, the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, glob­al warm­ing, world pover­ty, it all looks real­ly ter­ri­ble, with noth­ing get­ting bet­ter, noth­ing to look for­ward to.  But when I think small, clos­er in— you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we’re doing with Chas, or snow­board­ing next month, then it looks great.  So this is going to be my mot­to— think small.”

It might also be, amaz­ing­ly, the mot­to of McEwan’s book.

In his recent writ­ing espe­cial­ly, Gib­son also dwells lov­ing­ly on the small.  Small, and prefer­ably inan­i­mate– mate­ri­als, vehi­cles, clothes, acces­sories.  The word “iPhone”, which embod­ies every­thing Gib­sonesque, is used 55 times in Zero His­to­ry.  The nor­mal­ly more com­mon word “face” is used only 35 times, after sub­tract­ing the near­ly equal num­ber of times it refers to watch­es and oth­er arti­facts.  The phras­es in which it occurs are inter­est­ing too:

Blond, a face he’d for­get as soon as he looked away”, “unused to inhab­it­ing his own face”, “hide his face”, “wip­ing her face, mechan­i­cal­ly”, “his face bat­tered and immo­bile”, “imag­in­ing they see his face on coins”, “trousers in front of his face”, “Orwell’s boot in face for­ev­er”, “your basic pasty-faced Cau­casian fuck”, “a hock­ey jer­sey with a face paint­ed on it”, “a grotesque and enor­mous face.  ‘Looks Con­struc­tivist,’ he said”, “half of his thin face lost behind an unwashed diag­o­nal cur­tain”, and “we’ve had face time”.

So much for “face time”.  On the oth­er hand the word “jack­et” is used, incred­i­bly, 114 times, as in,

mechan­ic jack­et”, “den­im jack­et”, “leather jack­et”, “cot­ton motor­cy­cle jack­et”, “mul­ber­ry wool Mugler jack­et”, “short black jack­et”, “Nice jack­et”, “olive-drab jack­et”, “black jack­et”, “leather tour jack­et”, “tweed hack­ing jack­et”, “com­plex­ly black majorette jack­et”, “tight short jack­et, with its fringed epaulets and ornate frogs”, “black ‘Son­ny’ jack­et”, “inside-out jack­et”, “crum­pled cot­ton jack­et”, “very old, very grimy insu­lat­ed jack­et with that Amstrad logo on the back”, “armored jack­et”, “translu­cent­ly ancient waxed cot­ton jack­et over the tweed”, “majorette jack­et open over an Israeli army bra”...

Now we feel the love!

Gib­son and McE­wan, both born in 1948, feel­ing at the top of their game.

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