The early novels of William Gibson, one of the two founders of cyberpunk, have one theme: what's next. This "what's next" happens in the realm of cultural evolution. Cultural evolution extends from biological evolution. Biological evolution extends from geological evolution (life comes from rock and returns to rock). And geological evolution extends from cosmic evolution. Each stage is made possible by a society or alliance or conspiracy (to use Frank Wilczek's term) in the previous stage. For geological evolution to happen, cosmic evolution must have reached a point where stars are manufacturing—by nuclear fusion, main sequence, and detonation (supernova)—the heavy elements. Each stage leads to greater and greater complexity. As cosmologist Martin Rees points out in his book Our Cosmic Habitat, an ant is more complex than a star.
In Gibson's work, the plots are cultural elements (technology, information, communication systems) that conspire in such a way as to make the next stage of complexity possible. The books in his first two trilogies (Sprawl and Bridge) take us to the point of (and sometimes leap into) what's next. In the Bridge trilogy, this next is the fusion of the real with the virtual—Idoru. The popular futurist Ray Kurzweil would describe this event—as seen in All Tomorrow's Parties (1999), the last book in the Bridge trilogy—as "the singularity," the point at which the cultural evolution of the last 10,000 years of human development converges and leaps into something totally different from, but still linked to, the previous stage—society, alliance, conspiracy.
There is, however, an important theme-shift between Gibson's first two cycles and the latest one, the Bigend trilogy, which begins with Pattern Recognition (2003), continues with Spook Country (2007), and ends with Zero History (2010). Whereas the theme of the first two cycles is "what's next," the Bigend cycle (named after Hubertus Bigend, a mysterious and powerful owner of a global marketing firm in the books, Blue Ant) takes the cultural elements of the present, the world we live in, and sets them into narrative motion with the goal of revealing "what's now." These books are about decoding the core of the contemporary, the first decade of the 21st century. In Spook Country, for example, the core turns out to be money in a shipping container. This money was meant for (or was redirected from) the reconstruction program in Iraq, a country whose war forms the historical background for the novel.
"The [Bigend] books sample the zeitgeist of the year they were written," explains Gibson during a phone interview (he is only 119 miles from me—roughly the distance between Seattle and Vancouver, BC). "Pattern Recognition is obviously 9/11; Spook Country is about the Iraq war, or perhaps more properly, the deep end of the Bush administration. With the new book, it's clearly the global financial collapse. But the global financial collapse is not an event in the way that 9/11 was an event. 9/11 was an event: It happened in a very specific location, occurred in a relatively short period of time, and then had a big effect. The financial collapse was not local but global, and it didn't really happen on a given day. You became aware of it over a number of days. It was a very big and slow-moving thing. So the different sorts of situations affect the characters in the books quite differently. In [Zero History], the characters are living in the climate of the aftermath."
The main character in Zero History, a book that has all the pleasures that one finds in Gibson's other works, is Milgrim, a drug addict just released from a very expensive treatment program in Switzerland (the person who paid for the treatment is, of course, Bigend). Milgrim has two advantages in the hypermediated, hypervirtual, hypermonitored world: He has no history ("Zero history, as far as ChoicePoint is concerned. Means you haven't even had a credit card for ten years"), and he is able to blend into his surroundings so well that he vanishes from them. Milgrim is coupled with Hollis Henry, a former punk musician who has become a writer and a next-hunter. Both are hired to figure out the source of new jeans called Gabriel Hounds. Bigend suspects that the people behind this product are imitating marketing techniques ("secret branding") that have made him the ruler of the commodity universe. But it turns out that his potential rival is a shadowy military organization that's trying to retain and increase military power in a post-Iraq, post-economic-collapse world.
"Part of the book," explains Gibson, "is an expression of the mystery of the role of the military-industrial complex. I find it mysterious and fascinating, and the same time I have no idea where it's going... A friend of mine, Bruce Sterling, wrote a book in which all that's left in the United States is a sort of nomadic military presence. It roams the world as a small fleet looking for employment. That might be a sharper commentary than what I do in my book."
Page 142 contains one of three core moments. What happens is this: Milgrim is in a cafe communicating on the internet with a woman who works for a policing arm of the Defense Department. Milgrim is in Paris; the woman is somewhere in the world. Milgrim has just bought a cup of white pear tea and petites madeleines (the small cake Marcel Proust famously eats in Remembrance of Things Past). The two communicate by Twitter, the star technology of the book (for Pattern Recognition, it's Google; for Spook Country, it's the iPod):
He dunked the plain one briefly in this tea, perhaps out of some vague, Proust-related superstition, then quickly ate them all, as is. They were very good, and the white-drizzled one was almond. Finished, he washed the capsules from Basel down with white pear tea.
Then he remembered to refresh the browser.
In Remembrance of Things Past, the tea-dipped cookie instigates the vast resurrection of Proust's personal and social history—his childhood, lovers, family, learning, society, and historical events. With Milgrim, this massive amount of personal history is crunched into the surface of a refreshed webpage. Is this what Gibson believes history now amounts to? The refreshing zero? "When I chose the title of the book," Gibson says, "it had more to do with Milgrim's condition and not the state of everything. But to me, as a futurist, the declaration that history is over is an abuse of futurism. It's a primary example of a futurist getting it wrong. The future doesn't stop."