For all the accolades he’s received as a visionary sci-fi author who coined the word “cyberspace” and first romanticized computer hacking, the Canadian author William Gibson is no longer a writer of science fiction in the classic sense. His early, postapocalyptic novels strove to outline a terrifying future ruled by criminals and multinational corporations (Neuromancer, his first, even took place partially in orbit), but of late he has found more than enough terror in the present day.
Gibson’s last three novels have been startlingly contemporary, seemingly pulled from next week’s headlines. They deal with surveillance, paranoia and pervasive consumerism, and revolve around an antihero who embodies all three—Hubertus Bigend, a billionaire Belgian advertising executive and slimy master manipulator whose firm operates like a hybrid of Wieden & Kennedy and Blackwater. He is frightening, because he is very much like the corporate and political operators who have apparently come to rule the world in the past decade.
Bigend’s hobby is hiring talented people in unrelated fields to find things out for him—weird and troubling things. His latest victim is Hollis Henry, a washed-up ’90s rock star, whom he contracts to seek out the highly secretive designer of a line of jeans so under-the-radar that they are only sold a few times a year at unpublicized drops, and so timeless in form that they constitute a sort of ur-style.
The search, which sets in movement a series of events too complex to attempt to summarize here, gives Gibson a platform to ponder his obsession with branding—his characters are thoughtlessly, instinctively materialist, and some chapters read like annotated shopping lists for the ultra-affluent. Brand names swirl past—luxury clothing labels, custom vehicle armor plating, a constellation of Apple products—but unlike many writers of potboilers, Gibson isn’t infatuated with gadgetry because he covets it, or because he lacks the imagination to draw detail from other sources than Sharper Image catalogs. He seems to find brand ubiquity threatening, as much a symptom of a deranged society as war profiteering.
The latter, along with the British surveillance state, figures prominently in the book. Gibson draws some interesting parallels between these and the fashion world—they share secrecy, fanaticism and a lot of deceit—and the combination of the three is thrilling. The writing of the book preceded The Washington Post’s recent report on the growth of Top Secret America, but you wouldn’t know it to read it. Gibson seems to be paying closer attention than most to the place our society is headed. Let’s hope he keeps listening.
READ: William Gibson reads from Zero History at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Sept. 8. Free.