By Art Taylor
Saturday, September 11, 2010; C03
By William Gibson
Putnam. 404 pp. $26.95
The post-9/11 world has offered rich fodder for the most recent trio of novels from William Gibson: "Pattern Recognition" (2003), "Spook Country" (2007) and now "Zero History." While Gibson may be best known as the writer who coined the term "cyberspace" and kick-started a new chapter of science-fiction writing, even the most futuristic of his earlier books seemed relentlessly present-minded. These latest novels peruse aspects of a world as familiar as yesterday's headlines and yet also startlingly alien: competing trends toward globalization and isolation, marketing strategies as complex as military maneuvers (and not always unrelated), ubiquitous surveillance coupled with an urgent desire for privacy, and the lingering sense of conspiracies afoot across the globe. A doom-laden idea that everything may be connected persists even while individuals are striving, and often failing, for personal connections amid a technological wonderland.
In many ways, "Zero History" serves as a sequel to "Spook Country" by reuniting most of that book's leading characters and hewing closely to its caper structure -- individual missions crossing and complicating one another, ultimately leading toward a showdown with much higher (if somewhat nebulous) stakes.
In "Spook Country," what's at stake is the fate of misappropriated funds from the Federal Reserve, the balance of international economic structures and the truth about U.S. rebuilding efforts in Iraq. In "Zero History," it seems to be . . . casual menswear?
Megalomaniacal billionaire Hubertus Bigend (pronounced "Bayh-jhan," please) has become decidedly fashion-forward in this outing -- and not only because of his one-of-a-kind International Klein Blue suit (a color best described as "radioactive"). Noting that "military contracting was essentially recession-proof," he wants to horn in on the market -- and on the future of a much larger industrial enterprise. According to his analysts, "male streetwear generally, over the past fifty years or so . . . had been more heavily influenced by the design of military clothing than by anything else." So with a few right moves, the future might be bright for Bigend's interests in "brand vision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general."
In South Carolina, after a previous job translating messages from a Cuban-Chinese crime syndicate, a recovering drug addict named Milgrim finds himself tracing the outlines of contraband camouflage trousers. Former music icon Hollis Henry, despite having sworn to avoid Bigend forever, is hired to locate the reclusive designer behind the Gabriel Hounds denim, a brand whose appeal has skyrocketed. Soon, these maneuvers attract the attention of a Department of Defense operative trying to safeguard national security and an international arms dealer looking to legitimize himself by landing military clothing contracts of his own. A final showdown brings these and other forces together under the watchful eye of floating surveillance platforms in the shape of a penguin and a manta ray, drifting around under Bigend's control, watching, listening and then rigged up to do quite a bit more.
"Zero History" boasts an occasionally far-fetched frivolity and a greater lightness than some of Gibson's other novels. But if the plot seems a tad weightless at times (and not just because of floating penguins), the book proves momentous in other ways. Gibson remains as coolly incisive as ever in his observations, whether about technology or marketing or, yes, fashion: the "industrialization of novelty," the "semiotics of mass-produced American clothing," the construction of "parallel microeconomies, where knowledge is more congruent than wealth."
Paranoia is "too much information," reflects Milgrim -- a definition that also explains Gibson's genius as a thinker and a stylist. His trenchant scrutiny of society and culture, and the relentless precision of his prose force us to see his world (and ours) with a troubling exactitude and an extra dose of unease.
Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.