William Gibson’s Zero History (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $31) throws light on the digital era in the same way that spy stories of previous decades did on the Cold War. The microcircuitry of its plot hums with subterfuge and shadowy surveillance—noir storytelling for the age of online networks and high-tech consumerism. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of our wireless, trend-obsessed society, showing how the industries of fashion, warfare, finance, and art can overlap in strange yet logical ways.
And as in 2003’s Pattern Recognition and 2007’s Spook Country (Gibson’s two preceding novels, with which Zero History forms a loosely woven trilogy), the mysterious figure of Hubertus Bigend floats above and behind the action, a filthy-rich hybrid of branding visionary and Bond villain.
The Straight recently caught up with the acclaimed Vancouver-based author by phone in London, England, to ask about Bigend’s remarkable resilience and the world that the arch-marketer wishes to shape and control.
Gibson will speak about these themes and more when he appears at the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival next Thursday and Friday (October 21 and 22), at Performance Works and the Granville Island Stage.
Georgia Straight: When did you know you’d be returning to characters from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, and particularly to Bigend?
William Gibson: That’s a tricky question.”¦I’m not the sort of writer who sits down and works out the plot in advance, to put it mildly.”¦
There’s a period before I start where I sort of open a casting window and see who turns up, and if it’s a complete stranger, I’m usually happier than I am if it’s a character I’ve seen before. But it worked out this time.
GS: Bigend’s main motive seems to be a detached curiosity about the world that roves from place to place and detail to detail. Is this similar to an artist’s or novelist’s curiosity?
WG: Well, possibly. I think he’s a new sort of critter, Bigend, in that his mother was an artist, and he’s somewhat like an artist, except that it would be difficult to say what the medium is—unless the medium is money.”¦
One of the things that makes him a wonderful character for the author is that he’s like a 50-gallon drum of plot thickener. As soon as you have Bigend aboard, pretty much anything can happen, just because he would be interested in finding out what would happen if he did X.
GS: Our media environment, the one you write about in these novels, seems all-pervasive. Does that make it harder to observe it from the outside and be creative about it?
WG: I’m observing it from a considerable distance. I might be a little bit less immersed in media day to day than the average person. I tend to have a lot of filters up. I listen to people talk about media more than I actually access media. So in a way I’m sort of guessing as to what its essence might be—although generally the feedback I’ve been getting indicates that I’m pretty close, you know? That the guess works for a lot of people.
GS: Are you involved in any kind of social networking? That’s where people often draw the line if they’re concerned about how much time or effort they’re willing to put into online life.
WG: Well, I do, although it’s been relatively recent for me, and it’s been completely limited to Twitter. Prior to Twitter, I didn’t feel there was anything much for me there. Everything seemed too structured. Facebook and MySpace seemed like malls to me, as opposed to the street—whereas Twitter actually seems like the street. There’s no architecture within the template other than a limit on the length of a given post. And anyone can turn up and address you directly. It’s exactly like walking down the street. You might meet someone who’s really charming and intelligent, or you might meet a total malevolent idiot [laughs].
GS: Nearly all of the characters in Zero History and in the previous books in the series are totally at home in this message-soaked environment—not just with all the branding and marketing but with the multiple streams of information from wireless devices and RFID tags and GPS systems. Do you think the human brain can adapt easily to this environment?
WG: I think we’re already used to it, to whatever extent we’re using it. I think emergent technology works that way, and we get used to it very, very quickly. And then we can’t really imagine how we were prior to the advent of a technology. I think we’ve become these things—like, we became the book and we became the telephone and we became radio and broadcast television. Once we’re there, the world prior to the advent of those things becomes mysterious and unimaginable.
GS: It leaves you wondering how much information can be sorted and interpreted by an individual on a daily basis. You know, is there an actual biological limit?
WG: Well, I don’t know. Maybe in some way we’re unconsciously running a contest to find out.