Since I finished reading Zero History a few days ago, I’ve been trying to come up with a relatively coherent account of my impressions and I’d decided to give it some time, when I came across Adam Greenfield’s post on cyberpunk. It reminded me of something I wrote about Charlie Huston’s Sleepless a while back:
Not only is it particularly relevant and timely, it also created the sort of frisson I felt when I first read Gibson’s short stories or Womack’s novels, this sense of entering a fully realised near-future world, almost tactile in its feasibility and terrifying in its immediacy.
I have been thinking lately, like Greenfield apparently, that my discovery of cyberpunk at a very young age constituted not only a sort of personal watershed, a formative intellectual landmark, but also a very specific emotional impression that I may have been trying to recreate, consciously or unconsciously, ever since. Huston’s novel came pretty close as did McDonald’s River of Gods and more recently Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. It’s probably due to the fact, as Jon Courtenay Grimwood notes in his comment to Greenfield’s post, that I was exposed to the radical newness of cyberpunk at a very young age, like most people then. At the same time, one of the reasons for the lasting appeal of Neuromancer and other works of fiction, cinema or music from the same period, would be that, pre-internet, cultural artefacts had more impact, carried more cultural weight because the immediacy and saturation brought about by the web was not there yet.
Before the web made everything so easy, we had to make more effort to find those books, records, comics or films that we were told would change our lives, and when we did find it was SO fucking worth it. We would lend or borrow books and VHS tapes, copy friends’ vinyl records, make long trips to obscure little stores in the off chance that they had copies of novels by P. K. Dick, Harlan Ellison or Vonnegut and Burroughs, or of films like Liquid Sky, Eraserhead and Repo Man. If they didn’t, you had to wait for weeks until they got them in. You’d go for weeks listening to the same record over and over, reading the same novel, mercilessly dissecting the same issue of some crappy fanzine, until you had the opportunity to find something else, usually courtesy of some better connected or more well off friend (i.e. someone with a job).
Now consider Neuromancer. We had been hearing amazing things about it, a lot of us were at that particularly receptive age, and it still managed to be so much more than what it promised. Not only was it incredibly timely, it also seemed frighteningly prescient, the language sounded disturbingly right and it described a dystopian society that managed to be oddly attractive! Everybody wanted to be the equivalent of a Panther Modern, to jack in and creep around Bladerunneresque cityscapes (probably listening to Throbbing Gristle and Sonic Youth, not Vangelis, even if we still loved his music).
Compare the exhilaration of finally receiving a record after weeks of waiting and the immersion of listening to that same record continuously for days and weeks even, with the instant gratification afforded by the web in the form of downloads and on-line shopping. Products are immediately available and easily accessible. I don’t even know how many records I get each month but I definitely don’t have the time to listen to all of them properly. That special frisson that I used to get by listening to a great record has dissipated with age and overexposure. How fair can it be to compare the deepness of the affect produced by a book or a record or film then and now? How can anyone think that Zero History or any novel could provide that same experience to a teenager now that Neuromancer did twenty five years ago? Of course it won’t.
To get back to our apparent topic, it appeared as if, after the late 80s works of the cyberpunks, that political edge and perspicacity that formed such a big part of the attraction almost disappeared. (I tend to consider much of the rest of American fiction in the same way, especially since the publication of novels like DeLillo’s White Noise, Pynchon’s Vineland) and Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All, all of which appeared from the late 80s to the early 90s.) The seeming political clairvoyance of the cyberpunks, their observations and caveats had been long foretold by William Burroughs and James Ballard, but the impact was stronger because of their sheer concentrated fury and the already tactile and perceivable impact of the “future” they were describing. Because they weren’t really prescient, only more observant than most. The various expressions of late capitalism, the political economy of the media and the pervasive influence of corporations, not to mention the rapid descent into what is increasingly becoming a highly intrusive surveillance culture, had already starting to become our reality. The “future” seemed to overtake us but that does not mean that cyberpunk is somehow obsolete. It’s more current and timely than ever. The thing is that any work of fiction is of its time only, a reaction to the political/social/cultural milieu at the time of its creation. SF itself has never been predictive, has never been about the future so much as about the writer’s perception of the present and what he can extrapolate from that. In that sense, Gibson’s novel remains a very astute depiction of our fears for the way things were going.
Over the past few years, cyberpunk appears to have mutated in the near future techno-thrillers of writers such as Charlie Stross, Ken McLeod, McDonald and Bacigalupi, or even Cory Doctorow and Laura Beukes, not to mention Sterling and Gibson’s own later work. I have to admit that I loved Pattern Recognition and that it made me realise how raw Gibson’s early work really was. His style has matured, the urgency has perhaps evaporated but his eye for emerging trends and their economical and political ramifications, the varied manifestations of the information age, is still there. And that’s one of the things about SF that more and more readers and mainstream authors are coming to realise: technological trends and developments proliferate seemingly uncontrollably. The speed with which ideas, images and news propagate on the web is uncanny. Information has never been more dispersed, readily available or overwhelming. Technology changes our lives rapidly and in very profound ways, without us even realising it. In the last fifteen years or so, our interface with the world has completely changed. We’re tele-experiencing much of what used to be everyday first-hand experience. Our sense of the historical process has been eroded by the undifferentiated plateau of information that is the web.
(By the way, as far as I am concerned, this is the only basis that can support Bruce Sterling’s concept of atemporality. In more ways than one, it’s nothing more than what used to be called post-modernism, another term I’ve never been okay with. It is only when I see it in relation to the unhistorical, levelling effect of the web and the network culture it has enabled that the concept becomes something else, more relevant and fitting to our experience. At the same time, the notion of atemporality is starting to seem to me increasingly relevant to the way readers can approach novels now. In a recent interview, he claimed that he doesn’t bother with infodumps and extraneous explanations any more, since everything is “googlable”. Words become virtual hyper-links, immediately searchable on our iphones. I’m sure that a lot of us have spent some time on PR-Otaku and Node Magazine, the websites dedicated to Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, where such searches are aggregated to form annotations to the novels. Narratives are transformed into an atemporal web of myriad hyper-linked connections, the act of reading becomes a non-linear process of constant contextualisation.)
Even if I recall Pattern Recognition as being more dense in a narrative sense, I’ve found Zero History to be equally vivid and captivating. Gibson’s references to cultural and technological minutiae are topical and he manages to construct a spectacular web of connections among them. His writing is razor-sharp and super-precise, conveying the essentials of every scene with minimum effort. As always, style and form is more relevant than actual plot. However, the novel is a very effectively sparse and streamlined techno-thriller, which maintains its thematic weight throughout.
Reading Gibson is as much about references as it is about plot or characterisation and Zero History is definitely the prime example of the novel-as-hyper-link, something about which Gibson has been increasingly vocal in interviews lately. The amount of googlable details is actually staggering. It creates a vertiginous impression that the novel, in a more heightened sense than traditional realism, acquires and maintains a truly reciprocal relationship to the world as it is filtered through the web, in a Borgesian continuum of mediation. Zero History springs from and redirects to myriad cultural minutiae that Gibson has been assembling and which will take on their arbitrarily imposed narrative significance once again, when the reader looks them up.
Leaving all the references and knowingness aside, it can be read, like the rest of Gibson’s work and certainly much of the rest of the cyberpunks, as a lament for a certain counter-cultural ethos. It evinces a nostalgia for something that existed or might still exist in potentia perhaps, not fully achieved, but definitely a romantic idea of some sort of subcultural autonomy. It is a theme that can be traced from Burroughs straight down to Gibson, Sterling, Shirley and Stephenson, via Pynchon of course, and more famously theorised by Hakim Bey. In the past, subcultures were visible and exposed. They became monolithic. The web has provided ways in which subcultures can circumscribe “temporary autonomous zones” for themselves and become more diffuse on certain levels, but they still remain searchable and cannot avoid the inevitability of commodification and co-optation. Zero History describes an even more cryptic form of that, however. Gabriel Hounds is a truly secret brand. It has withdrawn into actual off-the-grid circulation. It looks like Gibson is alluding to an ideal that can be tentatively realised on those terms only.
If there ever has been potential for any sort of authenticity or purity, be it cultural or political, in a subculture or even a brand it can be readily dispelled by commodifying and commercialising it, which is exactly what Bigend has been doing and what Hollis ultimately reacts to, after protracted soul-searching. Her search eventually leads her to a meeting with the designer of Gabriel Hounds herself (a cool little revelation here), where Hollis decides to protect her privacy. The scene is wonderfully resonant and subtly emotional, sketching out Hollis’ thought process very economically. For me this is the thematic crux of the novel and the culmination of Hollis’ travails since Spook Country. I can’t say anything other than that this is vintage Gibson. Like the best of his novels it makes you re-evaluate a lot of things you’ve taken for granted or look at things with a fresh eye. There is never going to be another Neuromancer but this is as close as it’s bound to get.