The Recent Works of William Gibson
You might recognize the Futurama reference, in which a technician theatrically welcomes the recently un-frozen to the future, but here’s the rub: the future? You’re already living in it. That’s the point William Gibson makes with his most recent series of books: Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History.
Collectively known as the Blue Ant Trilogy, the mysterious marketing agency that is featured in them, each one takes place in the year before it was written, starting after the terror attacks of 2001.
Gibson’s most well known novel, Neuromancer (first in the Sprawl Trilogy that includes Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), gave us the term cyberspace and created a new category of science fiction, cyberpunk—much to Gibson’s chagrin. The label, he felt, allowed the industry to both accept this dissident rejection of traditional SF (which he called “a folk propaganda for American exceptionalism”) into its fold, while simultaneously pigeon-holing it safely away so as to leave the mainstream genre untouched.
Leap ahead to his Bridge Trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties) where the focus was no longer on the distant future but the next decade. Perhaps most surprising about this series was the number of tech advances (I hesitate to call them predictions) that are currently coming to pass—such as the Virtual Light glasses (Google Glass) and bicycles made out of compressed cardboard (look it up). A bit behind schedule perhaps, since the series takes place from 2005 onwards, but still impressive.
I hesitate to call these tech advances predictions because in science fiction you’re lucky if one idea in a hundred ever actually comes to pass. Nobody remembers the ninety-nine others. Even when you are right it’s never exactly the same. The cyberspace of Neuromancer is nothing like ours, nor do Google Glass and Virtual Light match up exactly. More importantly, the actual application of technology is far harder to predict than the technology itself.
As Gibson puts it: “The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and use it for criminal purposes and all the different things people do.” Determination got us the iPhone, but Steve Jobs couldn’t predict the value of apps.
And that in a nutshell is what drives the Blue Ant Trilogy—looking at what we have and using it in a way that probably never occurred to you. And behind it all is Blue Ant, and its owner Herbutus Bigend, trying to find an angle to profit by.
Each of these books have what might be called a “mundane mystery” attached to them. In Pattern Recognition we have Bigend hire Cayce Pollard, a woman unusually gifted to recognize the “stickiness” of logos in the public zeitgeist, to track down the source of a number of anonymous viral video art clips. In Spook Country, a former rock star and photographer, Hollis Henry, is hired by Bigend under the guise of an emerging magazine to track down the brains behind some unusual locative art (art that exists virtually, and can only seen in a specific area via GPS enabled computers). And in Zero History, Hollis is again brought in to find the source of a secret, but trend setting, clothing brand.
Of course there is much more going on than that. Each story has a subplot with more intrigue, either involving the Russian mafia, former spies, or mercenaries. But more interesting to me are the themes these stories explore: art vs commercialization, interpretation of history, and above all, looking at emergent technology in ways we may not have even considered. And each of these “mundane mysteries” are windows into our culture, asking us questions about what we value and why.
Blue Ant and Bigend are perhaps the most compelling element of these stories. Blue Ant is portrayed not as a villain exactly, but they are an enigma, even when their motives are explained.
I don’t think this is just a literary device to keep your interest. It’s possible Bigend himself is riding a wave of uncertainty, all the while convincing himself he’s on solid ground, and making you believe it too. He is charming and interesting, and in all three books his motivation is curiosity—profit seems to be a byproduct once he loses interest.
But you worry around him, too, because this is what he really is: an extremely eager kid in a science lab full of things labelled “DO NOT TOUCH.” You can’t help but worry about leaving him unsupervised in the room. Now imagine he’s in charge.
That is the world these books are showing us. We have, perhaps for the last hundred and fifty years, been living in technoshock—where we no longer know what direction the next advance will send our culture spinning off in, or how it can be used in ways never dreamed of by its creators.
But that never stops us from trying.