Signs of the times

William Gibson says his flights of fancy are based on the real-life here and now
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Zero History

By William Gibson (Viking, 2010) $40 Buy@Fishpond

After predicting the advent of the internet, the development of computer viruses and online hacking in his seminal 1984 debut Neuromancer, cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson set his three novels of the new millennium in the accelerated culture that we currently live in.

Pattern Recognition, written in 2004, centred around a ‘coolhunter’ who could discern what logos would be commercial successes, while 2007’s Spook Country was a thrilling caper involving encrypted iPods and virtual art installations created with GPS systems.

In his new novel Zero History, the characters seem to constantly either converse on their iPhones or search for elusive wi-fi hotspots.

Gibson famously wrote Neuromancer on an old typewriter and reportedly didn’t get an email address until 1996. However, he remains an acute observer of the impact of technology on social interaction: Zero History reflects how telephonic devices are commonly seen in people’s hands. “In terms of gestures, it’s now more phones to ears than cigarettes to lips,” says Gibson.

“In the years that I’ve been writing, we’ve gone from a world where the cyberspace science fiction bits were very special and exciting, to a world in which the bits that aren’t somehow connected to cyberspace have become the very special bits. The most dated moments in contemporary fiction are the ones where the character is alone with no cellphone and no internet connection.”

Gibson is wary of the impact that e-readers like the iPad and Amazon’s Kindle will have on the book market. “The group of people who at the moment are the most enthusiastic users of the Kindle are editors of large publishing houses, because of all the large manuscripts they have to carry around,” he says wryly. “If I had a job like that, I’d much prefer a small device that I could keep in my pocket.”

But he doesn’t believe the traditional printed book is doomed just yet. “The biggest thing against [e-readers] is their carbon footprint,” he says. “They’re enormously heavy and you have to carry them around and keep them somewhere warm and waterproof. But I’ve not read a novel or much fiction at all on a screen of any sort. The book is old and it’s amazing how long it’s been around. People will always have them and there will always be demand for an tangible object.”

Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History form a loosely linked trilogy— sinister ad agency mogul Hubertus Bigend is the only constant presence in all three books—that explores the effect of increasingly subversive branding and marketing methods on contemporary society.

“Branding has such importance in the west, in the industrialised world,” says Gibson. “One of the things that emerged while I was writing the books was the understanding that once we design something in the west and work out how to market it, we tend to have it made somewhere else, usually in a country that hasn’t been industrialised.”

Zero History continues the story of rock journalist Hollis Henry and addict-turnedfreelance operative Milgrim. “It’s probably more of a linear sequel than any of the books I’ve done before,” says Gibson. “I wasn’t expecting that so I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps because it takes place in the present, I was looking for some kind of closure for the characters. I wanted to find out what happened next.”

Henry and Milgrim are hired by Bigend to track down the mysterious manufacturers of Gabriel Hounds. The highend jeans were originally designed for the US military but have now been taken up by underground street fashionistas; a far-fetched idea that Gibson insists is derived from fact.

“A lot of the things that people assume I’ve made up for satirical or fantastic purposes are actually based on real stuff,” he says. “There are things like that floating around that are so esoteric that most people have never heard of them.”

Milgrim’s prototype smartphone, the Neo, sounds like an ironic tribute to the main protagonist of the Wachowskis’ 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, which owed much to Neuromancer. “It’s an actual product and, as near as I know it, it is exactly as I describe it. And my understanding is that the company that made it actually went out of business during the course of writing the book,” says Gibson, referring to Neo1973 manufacturers Opendoko. “That’s why Milgrim has to get his phone reprogrammed, because the company has gone bankrupt.”

Henry is forced to return to Bigend’s dubious employ after losing a small fortune in the credit crunch. “The global financial collapse was the event that loomed over the book in the way that 9/11 loomed over Pattern Recognition and the Iraq War loomed in the background of Spook Country. These macro-events have been the zeitgeist moments of these times and if the novels are set in the present, they need to capture what it feels like to live through them.”

Stephen Jewell is a London based New Zealand journalist

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