Zero History

Despite its obvious satisfactions, there are risks attached to being proved right. In the case of William Gibson, the triumph and eventual collapse of a financial system based on pure illusion, and the emergence and swift dominance of the "consensual hallucination" he named "cyberspace", have reduced him from a prophet to a pundit and transformed his approach from a sensitive taking of the pulse to a matter of simply looking around. Gibson's latest trilogy of novels - Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and now Zero History - takes place in the future - our present - which he predicted in his earlier trilogies, "Sprawl" (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) and "Bridge" (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties). Being able to say "I told you so" comes at the cost, in the more recent books, of the fantastical becoming mundane, the other-worldly becoming everyday.

But while Gibson's earlier successes impose an air of obsolescence on Zero History, there is still pleasure to be had from observing the exact shape the present has assumed. And the world financial crisis has thrown up useful characters, including Bernie Madoff, whose scam - portrayed here as Fuckstick's Ponzi scheme - plays conveniently into Gibson's themes of authenticity and fabrication.

The professional milieu of the new book is industry, the government and "that lucrative sector . . . that might be either or both", and the setting is London. After losing on the money markets what she had left over from the dotcom bust, Hollis Henry, former lead singer of Curfew and heroine of Spook Country, is forced back into the employ of Hubertus Bigend, a slippery Belgian in control of the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant. Also on Bigend's payroll is the ex-junkie Milgrim, who has arrived in London from a stint in rehab. The novel's 84 chapters follow the progress of Hollis and Milgrim in turn, except during their brief joint excursion to Paris.

Gibson's London is a crude creation, not much more specific than Hollis's concert-tour impression of Melbourne: "a collage, a mash-up, like a Canadianised Los Angeles, Anglo-Colonial Victorian amid a terraformed sprawl of suburbs". But even in outline, London has its uses, not least as a setting for noir-ish doings and as a varied playground for the novel's mostly American cast.

The collision enables such chapter titles as “A Herf Gun in Frith Street"; such pop-culture soundbites as "Caffè Nero, a tastier alternate-reality Starbucks" and "Neal's Yard, a courtyard gotten up as a kind of New Age mini-Disneyland" and "a chain called Hackett. Like an upscale Banana Republic but with pretension he knew he didn't understand"; and such descriptions as "Milgrim fell, amazed and unthinking, into his mysterious joy at the Hanger Lane Gyratory" - this coming from the second scene to take place at "England's most famously intimidating roundabout".

Readers uninterested in contemplating, say, the redundancy of the postage stamp or the perversity of the non-digital television will find themselves hopelessly adrift. The characters' interests are generally confined to advertising gimmicks, brand names, surveillance tech­nology and trend-spotting (or "coolhunting").

Description for Gibson is not a tool of vivid scene-setting, just as registering a character's impressions is not a way of conveying inner life: everything is at the service of ideas. He tends to use his characters to channel the thoughts and mouthpiece the opinions that he cannot quite force into his narration; so Gibson himself observes that "the gestural language of public places, that had once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones", but it is Bigend who describes the rumour that Ralph Lauren shops at Hackett as "an extremely complex piece of information, conceptually".

Gibson has a wide range of reference and his prose habits are likewise a fascinating hotchpotch. He is conscientious about the Latin plural ("fora" not "forums", "homunculi") but loves nothing more than a split infinitive; he is capable of debonair literary theft (such as "attractively simian" from Lolita), but relies constantly on ugly colloquialisms, often involving the word "some", as in "some kind of Gurkha feedback loop" or - my favourite - "his tone like some Jane Austen chaperone's".

Unfortunately, these eccentric pleasures are somewhat undermined by a plot that becomes increasingly murky without achieving a corresponding rise in tension. It would have been tempting to disregard the plot as a mere pretext or springboard or motor, but much of the book's length is occupied with bugging and chasing and double-crossing; there are also efforts late in the novel to transform Gabriel Hounds from a McGuffin into a source of independent interest. Gibson seems uncertain whether to treat the plot as function or flourish, with the result that it fails as both. And it is a particular let-down that, after placing the reader in the company of characters with ice-cold blood and alien value systems, he rounds things off with a windfall and an engagement - like some kind of Jane Austen ending.

Zero History
William Gibson
Viking, 416pp, £18.99

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial