Book Review - Sci-fi author William Gibson plants himself in the present with Zero History
Gibson finds the actual present stranger than the cyberpunk future
In 1984, Apple's Orwellian Super Bowl commercial promised that computers would liberate individuals and change the world. That same year, William Gibson delivered a vision of how computers would accomplish this feat with his science fiction novel Neuromancer. Two years earlier, Gibson had coined the term "cyberspace" to describe the virtual realm of electronically interconnected hackers and their avatars. Neuromancer anticipated how we'd use the Internet, while launching the "cyberpunk" subgenre of swaggering hackers vs. corporate behemoths.
Gibson never saw himself as a scientific visionary so much as an author crafting technological metaphors for the society around him. "Science fiction is just like that. Orwell's 1984 is really about 1948. I would hope that anyone bothering to look at Neuromancer in the future would say, 'Oh, this is a novel of the early '80s.' Having read and written science fiction set in the 21st century, it's a deep pleasure to now be in the 21st century."
In a sense, the future caught up to Gibson, who's spent most of the century's first decade eschewing predictive sci-fi for fiction set in the present. "We comfort ourselves with feeling that life goes on, business as usual. But in reality, in the past 50 years, some incredibly strange things have been happening." After finishing his Bridge Trilogy of near-future books in 1999, Gibson recalls, "I felt like I could set a novel literally in the present, and induce the same feeling of cultural and technological strangeness that I got from my Mad Max/Max Headroom early fiction. And eventually I got tired of hearing myself say that, so I had to try to write it."
Gibson's newest book, Zero History, marks his third novel set post-9/11, following Pattern Recognition and Spook Country from 2003 and 2007, respectively. Where Gibson's earlier fiction fits comfortably with the work of his contemporaries like Neal Stephenson and Rudy Rucker, the new books feel more akin to the cultural anthropology of Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics guys, replete with concepts such as "antimarketing," "coolhunters" and "ghostbranding."
Zero History's primary plot thread, for instance, depicts former pop singer Hollis Henry and a recovering drug addict named Milgrim attempting to track down the source of an elusive, hyper-exclusive line of clothing designed to stand outside the changing whims of the fashion industry. The newer books follow the outlines of transnational corporate espionage thrillers, but are informed by themes comparable to Don DeLillo's. Where Gibson's sci-fi heroes would have fought with high-tech hit men, Hollis and Milgrim contend with subtler forms of corporate influence, control and surveillance, while considering the nature of authenticity in our highly mediated world.
In conversation, Gibson sounds more amiable and loosey-goosey than you'd expect, given the tone and subject matter of his work. Ask him to describe how he chooses his subjects, and he says, "When I'm not writing a book, I go up and down the world bumping into things. Some of the things I bump into get tossed into a basket, and some come out and tap me on the shoulder and say 'Look, I'm utterly, breathtakingly peculiar!'" Zero History's peculiar shoulder-tappers include the overlap of snowboard designers and military clothing designers, as well as gizmos such as the Festo AirPenguins.
Nearly 30 years after Neuromancer, Gibson retains his mixed feelings about cyberpunk. "I'm OK with the stuff I wrote. I always had some doubts about cyberpunk as a Movement with a capital M. 'Cyberpunk' was journalistic label that was stuck to the bumpers of a group of writers, most of whom were younger than I. Most of them were delighted with the bumper sticker, but I was horrified, because I'd seen it before. It was like in the 1960s: You're being something, then you get labeled as 'hippies' and are owned big-time, and no one will take you seriously."
While no longer writing the cyberpunk genre, Gibson enjoys the way the term still defines a kind of narrative and fashion aesthetic that extends from mirrored sunglasses to The Matrix. "Where cyberpunk did its best work was sort of as a Pantone chip in the spectrum of science fiction. 'Did you see that film? It was totally cyberpunk.' 'Do you see her pants? They're cyberpunk.' I imagine that's how it's most often used in the world today." He almost sounds like a parent proud of his offspring's unexpected success.