William Gibson’s book Zero History explores fashion, branding, and the curious intersection of designer clothes and military procurement. The book completes a trilogy that brings Gibson’s trademark science fiction obsessions with objects, design, and technology into an examination of contemporary life. The first book, Pattern Recognition introduced an evil marketing supremo called Hubertus Bigend, and his search for some mysterious online video footage. The second, Spook Country, followed the adventures of an ex-rock musician also working for Bigend in pursuit of locative art - which uses a technology we’d now call augmented reality. Zero History pitches two of the characters from the second book on another mission for Bigend, in pursuit of a mysterious clothing brand called Gabriel Hounds.
GQ met up with Gibson in the urbane elegance of Covent Garden Hotel, a milieu very much like the expensive account hotels frequented by his characters. In person he’s a tall, clear, and comfortable presence and he spoke with great charm about the fashion, brands, and special forces gear of Zero History.
GQ: In a way Zero History is partly about dress codes - the ways in which people use the language of clothes to talk about themselves. Do you think it’s always been like this - the politics of the cut of the bishop’s robe?
William Gibson: I think it has always been like this, but I gather that we sort of swing in and out of the overtness of our awareness of fashion. There are different periods where we are more overtly aware of it, and there’s more permission to discuss it. In other periods it sort of goes away and people still know the codes and need to learn them, but it becomes bad form to mention it.
The secret Gabriel Hounds label, so hip that nobody but the inner circle knows anything about it, gives you a way to talk about fashion and brands - Bigend has a great line about Ralph Lauren being rumoured to shop at Hackett. What do you think about these big fashion brands?
The Ralph Lauren brand is a simulacrum of something that was an American simulacrum of something that was originally British - it’s sort of a receding hall of mirrors. But Ralph Lauren and Hackett both look astonishingly, hyper real when viewed through Tommy Hilfiger… There’s a kind of infinite recession of simulacra going on. I don’t know what I think about it, but it’s there before me - and part of the way I deal with that is to write books like this. I hope I give the reader some perspective in which to frame the experience of that sort of simulacra, which is a huge part of daily life in this century. As soon as you step out the door you’re confronted and informed by narratives, all of which have been very, very carefully crafted to attract you and their crafters would hope to convince you of the genuineness of the narrative - and the desirability of its applicability to self.
In some ways the book is partly about an evasion of that - the secret Gabriel Hounds brand is an attempt to step away from the merry-go-round of consumption and do something pure…
I have really brought together two things in that - one is the actual strategy of secret brands, which exist. Part of my audience thinks it’s fantastic and probably assumes that it doesn’t exist, and part of my audience knows perfectly well that it exists and that it’s a viable strategy. The other thing is the obsessive hunt for actual, genuine artifacts in the world today.
The idea of the honest maker who has craft, and does something special that has a high aesthetic value comes up a lot in your books, - the AI in Count Zero that makes beautiful found objects, the film maker in Pattern Recognition. You seem to admire these honest craftsmen…
Well, yes, I do have the hots for them, but I hope a little more self-consciously than that. I’ve always assumed that’s our version of the Arts & Crafts movement, and that the Arts & Craft movement couldn’t have happened prior to Modernism - so William Morris was a full-on modernist, and it expressed itself in the fetishization of traditional crafts and their makers. I find that more interesting than some sort of Granola home-spun craftsiness of the Sixties. I don’t feel it’s a nostalgic impulse. I find it more a desire for atemporality. If you look at the entire history of American work-wear until now, genuine American work-wear has been hugely influential in how the world is dressed, and I think it’s possible to argue that 1965 might have been the absolute peak of it. But I don’t see my interest in that being about an interest in 1965 or the values of 1965, but in taking a clinical, atemporal view of it. It’s a very long “now” - the “now” is the entire history of this sort of product, and some people argue that that time was the best, so why can’t we have that right now?
Isn’t that a slightly conservative lament? You have one character say that any shirt made in 1935 is likely to be better made than anything you can buy today. There’s a sense of loss, that we don’t get the good stuff now because of industrialization and consumerism…
That actually occurred to me in the writing, when I was writing passages like that - is this the way that I finally express a kind of conservatism? I don’t know if I did! Maybe it’s something more perverse than that - something like the sort of Modernism that caused architects designing Bauhaus-style social housing in the 1930s to virtually specify the sort of hand-loomed sturdy tweed jackets its ideal inhabitants would wear, and how many straps their sandals would have.
As much as I’m afraid of being that way I’m not entirely convinced that I am. We live in a world of shrinking resources and one in which the use of energy is an increasingly crucial factor. Something like the high street shop where a fashionable young woman would wear a dress once is lovely in its way, but it’s scarcely sustainable. My position is more or less like my character Meredith’s. I don’t think she’s operating from a conservative impulse - she just doesn’t want her sneakers to fall apart, and in the course of pursuing that she falls in love with the knowledge required to build better sneakers.
There’s a healthy way to approach the idea of using the right materials to get the job done - but you also talk very funnily about the “gear queer” - people who fetishize slick military materials and gear. Science fiction has been “gear queer” for decades of course…
That’s part of the joke for me! With gear queer I think there is a big appeal in things that provide an illusion of control. The actual “gear queer hits the street” look is crazier than that - I don’t really understand it… As near as I can tell it’s the look of people who aren’t carrying a gun but want to make you think they are. It’s a mad look - the people they imagine they are dressing up as will never be caught dead in any of that gear, because they are carrying guns. Their uniform is baggy khakis, a striped polo shirt and a faded ball cap. It’s called “grey man” and it’s this look that’s in-between everything. Are they tennis playing tech executives, or are they there to fix the air conditioner? You sort of can’t tell. It’s designed to attract absolutely no attention and project as little law enforcement and special forces vibe as possible. It’s become so popular that now when I see anyone wearing that uniform I check for the bulge of a weapon. In Afghanistan I’ve been told that with a very specific trim of beard that look will get you in trouble unless you genuinely are the real thing.
You write so much about desirable objects - I saw a reader tweeting that whenever they read your books it made them want to go shopping - so what do you like to shop for?
Well, I think there is something that changed for me between these two books. This particular visit to London I’m less inclined to even window shop here, because I have already figured out what I want, and it’s either not available here or it would cost more here. That’s sort of a breakthrough for me. It’s kind of a relief. It doesn’t mind that I wind up spending less, it just means I’ll be buying directly from a designer in Berlin…
The book tour has changed now that you can talk to people on twitter when you’re on the road - has that changed the feel of book tours for you?
It makes it much, much more bearable and pleasant for me. It’s completely new for touring authors to get afforded something like the form of feedback that musicians or comedians or theatre actors have always been able to receive from their audiences. You get audience feedback almost immediately and if not immediately the morning after, and if it’s positive, it’s incredibly pleasant! This is really a discovery for me, because there’s never been any possibility of that before.
The previous experience is that you go in, you do the reading, you have the conversation with the audience, and you go on to the next one. You never get to hear from anyone in the previous night’s town at all - it’s as though it never happened. I think that’s quite draining. It’s been replaced with this mostly pleased chorus of punters! I am sure there are fogies out there happy to declare this as a degenerate practice - that writers should be isolated and lonely and pay no attention to crowd. As one clothing executive at a big sporting good company said to me: “We have the worst results when we get feedback from the mall.”
We’ve talked about fashion, and technology and brands, and if you shake that cocktail you end up in the Apple store. Your characters use a lot of Apple gear - what do you think of the brand now?
The bloom is off the Apple. One of the things that surprised me about the reader response to Zero History and to previous books, and which is much more evident because of twitter, is that some people are quite pissed off about the ubiquity of Apple products. I got going with it purely out of a literary naturalism; it’s the choice of the milieu of the people I’m trying to depict. Then I sort of rolled with that because I wanted to capture the tedium of the ubiquity of a given brand.
There was an intentional irony in the extent to which it’s almost always Apple. Hollis would recognise an Apple because of the design, but Gareth’s laptop wouldn’t be Apple because he’s on the hacker side, but even if weren’t “ruggedized” she wouldn’t think “It’s a Dell.” That would be a failure of naturalism. Milgrim’s phone, the Neo, is actually a real product, and could be configured exactly as described. It was contrapuntal to all the various iPhones in the book.
There have been a couple of points over the last year where my personal Apple narrative has taken a fairly serious hit… “You did what? That really sucks!” It’s hard to get over the hump … What Apple has got going on is that they can transfer the whole thing from product to product. That may actually mean that they’ve come of age, as a brand. The hero worship may be gone, but the ability to produce something really novel and interesting and get that global attention and have them queuing around the block to grey import iPhones to the Middle East…It’s hard to argue with the market.