After revolutionizing science fiction with a downbeat yet oddly familiar vision of the near future, William Gibson has ventured into new territory - the spy thriller - with a set of novels that look briefly backward, examining our recent history by way of digital art, signals intelligence and postmodern advertising. The gloom of the 2008 financial crisis pervades his latest effort, the final entry in a post-9/11 trilogy consisting of 2003's Pattern Recognition, 2007's Spook Country and now, Zero History.
The first of these books refracts the spectacle of 9/11 through the frantic search for the creator of "the footage," a viral video sensation whose complex scenes of grief and longing obsess fans in much the same way that the endlessly repeated loops of the falling towers traumatized a nation. The second takes on corruption and the Iraq War in the form of a missing shipping container filled with the ill-gotten gains of war profiteers. Now, Zero History maps the unlikely intersection of military contracting and fashion.
The story alternates between the perspectives of Hollis Henry and Milgrim, both of whom are holdovers from Gibson's last novel, Spook Country. Hollis is a one-time rock star (thankful for having a pre-Youtube career) and, most recently, author of a study on locative art, in which artists use GPS co-ordinates to virtually annotate the real world. Heady stuff in 2007, but the creative edge has since migrated to the mainstream, in no small part due to Hollis's intervention: "Now it's all iPhone apps," she explains.
Hollis has been brought to London and tasked with hunting down the creator of the mysterious Gabriel Hounds, designer clothing that has generated muted buzz by virtue of the fact it is a "secret" brand with "no regular retail outlets, no catalogue, no web presence aside from a few cryptic mentions on fashion blogs." Her employer, advertising magnate Hubertus Bigend, is intrigued at the thought of a fellow savant on his turf: "Someone is developing what may be a new way to transmit brand vision," he tells Hollis. "A genuinely provocative use of negative space."
The other narrative follows Milgrim, a recovering addict and Bigend pet project. What he offers his employer is a specific type of situational awareness, a kind of junkie reflex in that he is both professionally inconspicuous and keenly observant. Milgrim finds himself on a clandestine mission to Conway, South Carolina, where he inspects a pair of trousers, takes photos and, eager to document every detail, even makes a rubbing: "a time-honoured means of stealing information."
Stealth branding and furtive inseam-fingering may seem like an odd basis for a thriller, but in Zero History the market crash affects everyone; even the obscenely successful Bigend is looking to diversify and "recession-proof" his business by getting into military contracting. Between his efforts to stay on top - if not in front - of the latest trend and spying on the competition, Bigend is intent on bringing his advertising agency's strategic and creative resources to bear upon the marketing challenge posed by all-volunteer armies. As one of his experts explains, "the military needed clothing that would appeal to those it needed to recruit."
Hollis and Milgrim soon find themselves in the shadowy realm of covert couture, where they inadvertently antagonize a corrupt arms dealer eager to legitimize his business by securing a plum contract from the U.S. government. Even as she is on the run, Hollis continues to investigate the enigma that is Gabriel Hounds, the secret brand. She learns that its peculiar appeal stems from its refusal to participate in what Gibson calls the fashion bubble.
In contrast to consumerism, where innovation and progress are premised on the obliteration of the past (the amnesia of next season) and history is available only as a style (vintage), the Hounds designer offers her work as the recovery of memory: "I discovered the ruins of American manufacturing. I'd been dressing in its products for years, rooting them out of warehouses, thrift shops, but I'd never thought of where they'd come from." The novel - indeed, the trilogy - hinges upon a fateful decision: Should Hollis tell Bigend about the identity of the Gabriel Hounds designer or shield her from his commodifying gaze?
A standout thriller and vital introduction to Gibson's trademark style, Zero History also bears the burden of a final volume in a trilogy: tying up loose ends and bringing the overall narrative to satisfying close. Beyond Hollis and Milgrim, a host of characters from the previous two novels make appearances, none more important than Bigend, who is the only character to appear in all three novels. Gibson is clearly fascinated with his creation, who at various points in the narrative resembles Don Draper (of Mad Men), a market Mephistopheles, a Bond villain, but above all an all-too-familiar figure from the economic chaos of the last couple of years: "An overly wealthy, dangerously curious fiddler with the world's hidden architectures."
Matt Kavanagh lives in Kelowna, B.C., where he is chairman of the department of English at Okanagan College.