Writing about Reading: Zero History

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

William Gibson is an intimidating writer,  even to other professional writers. To we struggling amateurs, he’s downright terrifying. Why? Because William Gibson’s novels shape the world.

Gibson was the writer who ushered terms and ideas like cyberspacenetsurfingICEjacking in, and neural implants into being, as well as concepts such as net consciousness, virtual interaction, and “the matrix” (long before the Wachowskis came along).

Legend has it that Gibson will sometimes begin writing a novel with nothing more than a neat image in his head, around which he builds a complex story full of quirky, unique characters.

If you’re an amateur writer, you read William Gibson to see a master’s work—but you do so at your own peril, because nothing you write will ever live up to his books.

I’ve read most of Gibson’s oeuvre, and every time I have the same experience of reading the synopsis and thinking, “This sounds horribly dull.” And then I get completely swept away. Zero History is no different.

On the surface, the book (the third installment in the Blue Ant series, by the way) is about Hollis Henry, a former rock star turned quasi-journalist, who is asked by the head of a marketing company to find the secretive maker of high-end, ultra-rare denim clothes. The marketing company is Blue Ant, headed up by the improbably named Hubertus Bigend. He sends a newly drug-free man named Milgrim (even he isn’t sure if it’s his first or last name) along to assist Hollis in her quest. But something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and no one is to be trusted. Hollis and Milgrim find themselves being shadowed by a threatening man in foliage-green pants, and they begin to sense that their investigation into a fashion mystery has placed them in path of dangerous, unknown forces.

Zero History is, in a nutshell, a spy novel without the spies. Well, that’s not exactly true. There are spies. And spy gadgets. But the spies aren’t what you’d expect, and the gadgets are things like remote-controlled surveillance drones made up of silver helium balloons that look and move like penguins and manta rays. Gibson slathers the story in pop-culture references and pop-tech devices—iPhones, Macbook Airs, a cartel-grade Jankel-armored Toyota Hilux. And yet for all its oddities and quirks, the story seems entirely plausible, and it is utterly compelling; you can’t put it down.

Odds are, I will never be as good a writer as William Gibson, and that’s okay. I’ll keep trying, of course, but for now, it’s just a pleasure to watch a master at work.

Dave Borcherding



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