Monday, January 24, 2011
William Gibson: Zero History (2010)
William Gibson continues his archaeology of the present in Zero History, which forms something of a trilogy with Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gone are the jacked-in adventures through cyberspace and virtual reality. Gibson’s new realism (mostly) limits itself to a contemporary world already over-populated with iPhones and GPS systems, a “mixed reality” that doesn’t require the conceits of science fiction to appear as unreal and sometimes dystopian. The very fabric of everyday life has changed as a result of information technologies, as one character ambivalently notes, “Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones. Human figures, a block down the street, in postures utterly familiar, were no longer smoking.” However, the information revolution is primarily approached here not through speculation about new technologies but rather through an imaginative foray into the fashion system and its relentless, repetitive quest for the ever-changing new. The plot focuses on Hollis Henry, former member of the band The Curfew, who is again dragged into a business adventure by Hubertus Bigend, head of the elusive advertising agency Blue Ant. The recession is behind Hollis’ reluctant return to “freelance” work for Bigend: she has lost “nearly fifty percent of her net worth” because of “devalued money market shares.” Bigend hires her to seek out the maker of a clothing line known as Gabriel Hounds, a “secret brand” whose “branding would be that it was a secret. No advertising. None. No Press. No shows.” Sold only for brief moments at shifting, hidden locations, the brand is about the “reinvention of exclusivity. Far ahead, say of the Burberry label you can only buy in one special outlet in Tokyo, but not here, and not on the web. That’s old-school geographical exclusivity. Gabriel Hounds is something else. There’s something spectral about it.” Bigend is interested in Gabriel Hounds because he fears someone has discovered a “new way to transmit brand vision.” His firm Blue Ant has always been more than an “advertising agency,” specializing in “brand transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general.” But Gabriel Hounds seems to exist beyond even his firm’s horizon: “It’s about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialization of novelty. It’s about deeper code.” Bigend’s interest in Gabriel Hounds is also motivated by his risky new venture into making “designer combat pants” for the military. As one character notes, “Military contracting [is] essentially recession-proof,” a massive but rather insular market. It is difficult to move into military clothing, however, not just because of the existing contractors but also because of the history of fashion. As one of Bigend’s employees explains, “The military, if you think about it, largely invented branding. The whole idea of being ‘in uniform.’” “The bulk of the underlying design code of the twenty-first-century male street was the code of the previous mid-century’s military wear.” However, this unintentional success has become an obstacle: “Having invented so much of contemporary masculine cool in the midcenutry, [the military and its designers] found themselves competing with their own historical product, reiterated as streetwear.” Since this is a Gibson novel, Hollis’ search for the maker of Gabriel Hounds eventually settles into some well-trodden generic conventions, resulting in a final confrontation with some angry military contractors, who are thwarted through an operation reliant on remote control drones and a Festo air penguin. The title of the book refers to the blank credit history of someone who hasn’t “had a credit card for ten years” and whose past credit data has been erased. One of the book’s major themes is the desire to acquire freedom by removing oneself from the databanks that are now accessible almost anywhere and anytime. Gibson’s characters regularly search online for information (“Google” is a prominent verb in the novel), sometimes about each other. Cell phones make such searches possible, but are also used to continuously track the movements of individuals. And London’s omnipresent surveillance cameras guarantee that any appearance in public will be recorded and stored away. Gabriel Hounds is an innovative brand precisely because its strategy is to subtract itself from these ubiquitous webs of information. The novel’s conclusion also hinges on an unattractive T-shirt that causes surveillance cameras to delete the wearer from images that are retrieved later. Rather than zero history, Bigend fantasizes about the power that might be obtained from a total view of all available information. One character explains Bigend’s interest in the “order flow,” which is “the aggregate of all the orders in the market. Everything anyone is about to buy or sell, all of it. Stocks, bonds, gold, anything. If I understood him, that information exists, at any given moment, but there’s no aggregator. It exists, constantly, but is unknowable. If someone were able to aggregate that, the market would cease to be real.” Picking up this idea in its last moments, the novel’s narrative itself “cease[s] to be real,” swerving back towards Gibson’s science fiction roots.