Mood Lighting in the Vegas Cube: William Gibson’s ‘Zero History’

By Scott Dickensheets
The cool-hunting PR mogul who’s not merely in the background of William Gibson’s Zero History, but who is the background, maintains a series of what he calls “Vegas cubes.” Secret rooms stripped down to their pristine essentials: “It looked to Milgrim like a very small art gallery between shows.” This allows utter control over the space. Someone explains: “He” — the mogul, Hubertus Bigend — “loves Las Vegas casinos. The sort of thought that goes into them. How they enforce a temporal isolation. No clocks, no windows, artificial light. He likes to think in environments like that.” 

Gibson likes his stories to unfold in environments like that, too — hermetic spaces, every element deeply conceived, exactingly controlled. Consider the quiet virtuosity of a passing detail like this, the stairs in a London boutique hotel: “marbled in shades of aged honey, petroleum jelly and nicotine.” Not on any color wheel you’ll find in the Lowe’s paint department, yet eerily perfect.

Zero History, the third novel in a trilogy* about the hidden structures of contemporary culture, follows roughly the same narrative arc as the other two, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country: Bigend, his seismos tuned to obscure flutters in the pop-culture marketplace, hires an unlikely surrogate to dig into some sub-underground phenomenon. In Pattern Recognition, it was snippets of enigmatic Internet film; in Spook Country, it was “locative art,” holograms you could only see at certain GPS coordinates and with the right equipment; this time, Hollis Henry (returning from Spook Country) reluctantly agrees to investigate a line of secretive clothing, Gabriel Hounds, so deeply recessed into anti-marketing philosophy that it doesn’t have a store, a catalog, a website — any kind of commercial presence. In each case, of course, something larger, more global and vastly more higher-stakes is going on.

For a thriller, there’s remarkably little action in Zero History. As with the others, there’s a little travel, some searching, a minor scrape or two, plenty of clipped conversations — Gibson’s characters speak with the condensed clarity, if not the comic zest, of the actors in His Gal Friday — in which the book’s ideas are nudged forward … and then, finally, a burst of violent action toward the end.

And yet, because of its squeaky-tight, Vegas-cube construction, Zero History maintains suspense. In such a rigorously controlled space, just fiddling with the mood lighting creates a rising sense of drama.

By chance, not long after I finished Zero History I belatedly read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and while there’s a limited value in playing a couple of random books off of each other, it still made for an interesting comparison. While Stieg Larsson infilled his story with plenty of context — extensive family backgrounds, historical summaries, lots of presumably character revealing actions unrelated to the plot (there’s a lot of eating and random smoking) — Zero History finally offers the more fully realized, lived-in world. Larsson smothers you in detail, and the problem isn’t so much that it all doesn’t advance the story — the color of the stairs doesn’t push Gibson’s story forward, either — it’s that a lot of these details don’t really do anything. They seem to be there out of a misguided sense of completeness, an unnecessary fully-roundedness. They’re there for the same reason a historian would put them in a nonfiction work. Inert, they’re just baggage. (And Larsson  doesn’t give you passages like this one from Zero History, describing a woman “whose intelligence protruded through her beauty, Milgrim felt, like the outline of unforgiving machinery pressing against a taut silk scarf.” It’s a startling simile and one that feels intuitively right: I’ve met women like that.) But Gibson’s stair colors, and hundreds of similar offbeat details, force you not only into a cohesive fictional world that’s both familiar and slightly off-kilter, but (allow me to go meta for a sec) a reading headspace in which the familiar is continually being overlaid with new, slightly exoticized detail. There’s an alertness to the prose that spills into the reading experience. It’s a crackling, electric place to be, despite the hard-to-buy plot twist at the end — spoiler alert: Bigend + Iceland + voodoo math — and even if you don’t care about fashion.

(*You needn’t have read the first two to get Zero History, but there is one scene — which still makes perfect sense — that will be deepened a bit if you’ve read Pattern Recognition.)

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Mood Lighting in the Vegas Cube: William Gibson’s ‘Zero History’

  1. Pingback: NODE

  2. Terry Greenfield

    Funny you should mention it, but the Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy, are Vegas Cubes, too!

    Great review. I think Gibson’s detaied set descriptions harken back to a movement called “Literary Naturalism,” where the detaiks almost dominate the story. As mysteries, the trilogy is a little bit flat considering the impact of his “Sprawl Trilogy.” I’m one of those guys who wants some more, despite what Gibson professed on the DVD.

    I enjoyed the three, but in Gibson’s “maturing,”
    he doesn’t hit as hard (More “commercial/accessible”?), which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the books, rather I’ll have to adjust. I’m on The Difference Engine right now and have bought one of Bruce Sterling’s anthologies. I’ve already read The Ultimate Cyberpunk and Mirrorshades, so Gibson has encouraged me to look beyond just one author.

    • Scott Dickensheets

      I can’t disagree, Terry; in some of Gibson’s earlier work, there was an electric sense of something new happening right in front of you. The stories and writing were harder and weirder and more innovative. But I like this recent trilogy, too, in a more diffuse way. There’s a slight edge of surreality to his depictions of the here and now that give it a different kind of charge. They’re flatter, I agree, but because the world they unfold in is more recognizably ours, they still work.

      Most importantly, thanks for stopping by, reading, and leaving a comment. Much appreciated!

  3. Terry Greenfield

    Hi, Scott. Thanks for your reply. I’ve reread all three, now, and appreciate them much more. So much so, that I’ve purchased a Buzz Rickson’s “William Gibson Collection” MA-1 jacket in black, just like Cayce’s! It is of top quality materials and assembly and I can understand why Cayce treasures it. It IS a rare item, but I didn’t need Blue Ant to get me this one. Not cheap (by any means…), but real quality never is. I needed a new outdoors jacket anyway, so the timing was perfect. So I guess I’m hooked on the new trilogy as well (so’s my pocketbook, OUCH!!!)’ Cheers, Terry

  4. Dennis

    Hey, been a Gibson fan ever since I found out there was a book that this game I was hooked on as a kid was based on, bearing the same title. Is he working on something new? Something edgier maybe? Btw thebenglosh translation of the girl wij the dragon tattoo does the original Swedish no justice….it is just bad bad bad

  5. Dennis

    Well, you try and write a decent text on an iPhone in an overcrowded coupe on the Oslo commuter train….not dun…too noisy to use dragon dictate.. And these folks do speak the queens tongue too

  6. bill

    Too bad the rich and famous loose it. Gibson is bigend and as irrelivant.

  7. Dec

    Of course Gibson is bigend – the 2 names have more than half of their letters in common: that proves it!

    Seriously, though: Gibson’s fascination with the BS1363 power sockets continues in this book. I didn’t think the fascination with strangeness (as seen in the “mirror world” items that Cayce Pollard notices in Pattern Recognition) could get any better, but it did. And I’m in a room with about 20 of these power sockets (double outlets, each socket with its own on/off switch) around the walls.

    Also, the Hanger Lane gyratory system is actually scarier in real life than it is in the book. Mainly because the lane count keeps changing as you go around it. And that’s above ground: Google Street View also goes through the underpass, where it looks very dark.

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