Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), Zero History (2010); by William Gibson. Penguin Books. Unless otherwise stated, my reviews are without compensation (no review copies, no fees, entirely from my own pocket.)
I’m going to get right to the chase and talk about geography. Then, I’ll take a stab at reviewing these books, “Pattern Recognition,” “Spook Country,” and “Zero History.” I call these, “The Bigend Trilogy,” as Hubertus Bigend is a prominent character in all three novels. The novels also reminds me of, “The Millenium Trilogy,” written by the late Steig Larsson.
Keeping Google or Bing Maps handy while reading Gibson’s trilogy of books is a good idea. His characters hop on planes, fly from New York City, to Atlanta, Georgia, to Paris, France, to Heathrow (London), and many points in between. Gibson must love geography as every page names some place; Los Angeles, Vancouver, or a person is referred to as “Russian,” or “Italian,” or Japanese.” Gibson has an eye for details. Not simply colors and materials, but the geography associated with styles.
Hollis Henry pulls on a pair of Japanese jeans.
An Italian girl brought her a pot of coffee…
Bigend paws back the Crimean lapels of his suit.
The Tunisian waitress went away.
Milgrim looks into the face of a smiling American girl, ethnically Chinese.
Infused within nearly every page is a smorgasbord of geography, sights, ethnicities, smells, and languages. People pay attention to ethnicity and culture, assign rank and value, origins, and contemplate raw materials, sourcing, design, and lineage of products. Gibson peels back the curtain of today’s cultural tastes and trends. In doing so, he exposes the currency of being on the bleeding edge of trends, the new, the hot, the now, to identify the next consumer product to spread like an infection among socialites, elites of highly developed countries.
In order to find these products, coolhunters are hired, people who are “sensitive” to emerging trends. Some coolhunters are sensitive to certain colors, having what can only be described as an allergic reaction. Some coolhunters have reactions to fabrics, to fragrances, some to technology, some to apparel. These coolhunters cover the world looking for the next big thing, and the hunt for highly-prized cool trends evolves into conspiracy, corporate espionage, and murder.
In Zero History, the Odeon Hotel becomes the stage for action early in the novel. (p129) Gibson uses real locations and real places to enrich his story-telling.
Later, on the way to a meet, Hollis and Milgrim have a driver who cautiously takes them on a circuitous route around downtown Paris, in hopes to confound the GPS tracker one or both of them might have embedded on their person.
During the driver to the meet, Hollis and Milgrim separate. Milgrim exits the cab to proceed with his plan to determine who is following him around Paris. Milgrim steps onto Boulevard Haussman to “disappear,” to draw attention to himself by disabling the GPS device in his cellphone.
Later, we find Milgrim on Rue Git-le-Coeur, waiting and walking toward the river Seine. Tea shops, an African shop stocked with folk art and fetishes. Milgrim stops in a camera shop and buys a Chinese card-reader from a “pleasant Persian man” wearing a natty gray cardigan. He stops and gazes into a “magical-looking” bookshop. He reaches the bank of the Seine as a light rain begins.
It is here, on the margins of the Latin Quarter, Milgrim sees the flying penguin, a silent, silvery drone swimming through the air as if an illusion.
Years ago, I played a video game called, The Getaway. The Getaway boasted a mapped environment borrowed from London city streets. The game mechanics allowed the player to drive around a detailed 16 square kilometer region of London (wikipedia) and engage in a few nefarious and illegal activities, a la Grand Theft Auto. These games were cutting edge at the time, setting the stage for today’s shooters incorporating real mapped geographies of places. The Getaway was one of the few games I found interesting in that a real road map of London would have been really helpful for navigating streets and eluding the other bad guys, the police, and whoever might be trying to hunt down my character.
To say Gibson incorporates geography into his novels is like saying humans incorporate oxygen into our lungs. Geography is essential to Gibson’s characters, to his novels, to the central message of his plots, the over-arching driving force preternatural force, the Midichlorians of Lucasian films.
Gibson writes about popular culture. The superficial nature of popular culture and the depth of the roots of culture. The stakes and importance many people place on cultural tropes and memes, to the extent of killing to be the first. The first to expose or reveal the new thing. To have this new thing.
When I first sat down to write this review, I felt like my tone would be scathing. I didn’t really care one way or the other about the characters, plot, the premise of Pattern Recognition or any of the later novels. I was bothered by felling this way as his earlier novels I recommend without hesitation. But, William Gibson’s reputation pushed me to read the second novel, Spook Country. Sheer momentum carried me through Zero History. Years ago, I read Mona Lisa Overdrive and Neuromancer. Great, intriguing, insightful and compelling books, those. Those books firmly placed him as a progenitor of cyberpunk. In spite of his past excellent endeavors, I simply didn’t find these stories very compelling. Interesting, yes; fascinating, not really. Just not my cup-of-tea, really.
Perhaps the boredom of reading these stories stems from me, honestly. I think about how technology infuses our society, its history, where it is now, how it is evolving, and how it might evolve frequently. I daydream a lot. So, when I read these stories I don’t see much I haven’t already thought about, I don’t see surprises. I do feel a certain amount of vindication I am not the only one who envisions the … current history, for lack of a better term, of the conditions detailed in this trilogy. And, yet, what draws me away from being interested is the focus on trends, on labels, on designers, on logos, and consumerism.
A person who finds mass-marketing, mass media, corporate branding and logos, styles, and trends fascinating, then, by all means, you nearly have no choice but to read this trilogy. I’m pretty sure some college and universities might require this collection of Gibson novels as mandatory reading to their Organizational Communication majors or their Public Relations majors. If not, they should. One message abundantly clear the importance of “trend awareness.”
The military and law enforcement trains people for “situational awareness,” always being on alert to changing circumstances, be aware, be awake, pay attention, watch people, watch crowds, where are people moving to, where are people moving away from, who is in front of you, who is around you, who has your “back.” Gibson basically takes this same philosophy and applies it to cultural tropes and trends. “Where did this fabric come from? Who makes it? How is it made? Who owns the rights? Does anyone own the rights?” and so on. The first to jump controls the message, controls the trend, controls the rights and privileges, controls the market. And in establishing control, controls the consumer, more or less.
Others may find these works more enjoyable than I. Gibson has a unique writing style; he offers few clues to who is speaking, changes voice and perspective, on occasion. A nimble reader will adapt but the style may be off-putting to those used to more traditional writing styles.
I’m glad to have read the series; Gibson is no doubt a talented author, worthy of his many accolades. The infusion of geography did enhance my appreciation of his books. If struck by the curiosity of what mechanisms lie behind how certain brands and logos can pervade society, you should take on this trilogy. You might enjoy them.
Check out William Gibson’s Amazon page for more details about the author and his books.