The best way to view a William Gibson novel isn’t as a full-length narrative, but as a group of catalysts that combine to create a series of reactions, which together form something like a cohesive plot. This isn’t as dry as it sounds. Gibson is extremely sharp, and he’s one of the few novelists working today who manages to balance clever concepts with effectively gripping pulpy storytelling. The balance isn’t perfect: Gibson’s proclivity for letting stories develop in their own time gives his work a loose, vaguely apocalyptic feel that doesn’t always deliver on what it promises. And yet when the journey is this smooth and engaging, it’s hard to get stuck on the lack of a clear destination.
Zero History reunites two major characters from Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country: Hollis Henry, rock-star icon turned investigative journalist, and Milgrim, a former drug addict with a penchant for grasping complex systems. History forms a trilogy with Pattern Recognition and Spook, so it’s no surprise that Gibson’s personal P.T. Barnum, Hubertus Bigend, drives the action. Hubertus hires Henry and Milgrim to track down the Hounds, an über-exclusive clothing line known for its lack of promotion and its deeply satisfying aesthetics. While Hollis and Milgrim turn over various rocks, other players heave into view, and the mystery becomes less a question of the Hounds’ curious provenance, and more one of figuring out how to stay healthy and happy in a world where product and advertisement are increasingly irrelevant distinctions.
History wouldn’t be a Gibson novel without its share of forward thinking, from the influence of military uniforms on the outfits of modern youth to high-tech monitoring machines to Twitter’s value as a secure communication device. Much of the story is given over to the hunt for the Hounds, but what starts as a standard plot hook loses immediacy, so that by the time the source is revealed, it’s almost background noise. Which may be intentional; both Hollis and Milgrim are struggling to create new lives for themselves, and Hubertus’ wishes are secondary to their own need to establish precedence in their lives as a foundation for their future. History isn’t as tight as it could be, and it lacks Spook Country’s political immediacy, but it’s engaging and smart. In a world where shifting electronics makes continuity even harder to come by, it’s nice to know that some things never change.