Gibson's Internet of Things - A Précis on The Blue Ant Trilogy
In Zero History, main character Hollis Henry is “grateful for having had a pre-YouTube career.” She’s currently a journalist in the employ of a different character but at one time in the past was the lead singer of a short-lived punk band called The Curfew. Evidently there were scenes during the band’s career one wouldn’t want displayed on the ubiquitous video streaming website. The reader, then, is left to infer, throughout the course of the second and third books, what the band may have been like during those days and years.
The first book in the trilogy is called Pattern Recognition and it centers around a young woman trying to find herself and also the creator of a series of short, brilliantly-made snippets of video (her father’s missing too, I should add). With video central to the plot, the fact that no reference is made to the aforementioned ubiquitous website is unusual. And as Pattern Recognition was published in 2003, this makes sense. The most recent segment, #135, is released in chapter 3 and it shows the two silent protagonists, a well-dressed man and woman, meeting and sharing a kiss. YouTube was founded on Valentine’s Day, 2005. Perhaps this is more of Gibson’s prescience at work?
In Spook Country, Hubertus Bigend says “Secrets are cool.” He goes one further later on in the paragraph and says “Secrets are the very root of cool.” The only character from the trilogy to appear in all three books, he is the head of Blue Ant, a quietly pervasive and massively influential marketing firm. Secrets are his passion and he has the capital and the resources to find the answers to questions buried deep in the Western world’s 21st century consciousness. Pet projects, if you will.
“I want you to find him.”
“The maker. Whatever you need will be put at your disposal. You will not be working for Blue Ant. We will be partners."
He’s introduced to us in Pattern Recognition as a Tom Cruise-lookalike though enhanced by orders of magnitude due to his megawatt smile and intensity. He partners with Cayce Pollard, a 32-year old freelance “coolhunter”. That is, someone with “a sensitivity to the semiotics of the marketplace.” In what might be a superpower, of sorts, she has a near-metaphysical ability to know what’s coming in the realm of fashion and branding. She even remarks on the staying power of the word “cool” as it applies to her vocation. This ability comes at a cost, though: she refuses to display any branding on her person. One of her character’s endearing quirks.
Their partnership is our first foray into Bigend’s expensive, curiousity-satisfying hobby. Through a series of exploits, virtual and otherwise (during which Cayce becomes so jet-lagged that she imagines she is her own time zone: CPST), she finds the makers of the footage. They turn out to be two women—twins. Nieces of a Russian oligarch, one was critically injured in a bomb blast and is making the segments in silent, focused convalescence while the other releases it strategically. The ’T’ on the cover is a nod to the T-shaped piece of shrapnel lodged in the maker’s brain. I emailed the cover designer of the latter two books one evening and suggested they render one for Pattern Recognition more in keeping with the art style of Spook Country and Zero History. This isn’t to say the first book’s cover isn’t amazing, mind you. I thought there could be cohesion, a triptych maybe. I didn’t get a response. I digress.
Reading Pattern Recognition in 2018 is a brief step back to the beginning of our era. With the exception of YouTube’s absence, there are no glaring differences to the world then as now. It looks like the incipience of what we have presently, in other words. The plot has as its backdrop the September 11th attacks; Cayce’s father disappeared that morning (the brief elegiac scene with the withered rose is heartbreakingly beautiful). And while her mother—a “Virginian eccentric” to quote Cayce—believes he was killed and is sending her messages from the Other Side, Cayce can’t bring herself to believe it, to agree. It dawned on me the other day that maybe he knew the attacks were coming. A fan theory that so far hasn’t received any corroboration.
I’ve read it four times. Tied with After the Long Goodbye, by Masaki Yamada. Pattern Recognition, on the other hand, was to me upon reading akin to protein synthesis—something that meshed with me at a sub-cellular level. As it unwound into my head, each detail, each metaphor and curiously-terse sentence found a matching thought, opinion, or bygone reflection with which to attach itself. No novel before or since has had the same effect. I’ve read it on a plane to Austin* and in a busy independent coffee shop in Portland. I’ve read it looking out at the rain in a little Japanese restaurant in Ashland. I picked up my first, a paperback, copy in 2015 at a used bookshop (also in Ashland) and read the chapters in which Cayce goes to Japan while eating lunch at a Burger King in Medford. As such, these places, memories and seasons are infused with the gleaming, urban cool of the story. A temporal mile marker for that season of my life.
The discerning reader will note, in a possible nod to his very first character, Case, from Neuromancer, Gibson christened her “Cayce”. Case, a hacker and “data thief” shares an element with Cayce from Pattern Recognition in that both are hired to do something extraordinary in both the real and virtual worlds. She explains her name’s pronunciation to Voytek, and by extension, the reader, in a concise lesson. The way Gibson told you, however obliquely, to pronounce her name had a profound effect on me as a writer.
Also worth noting is Cayce’s sensitivity, her talent for cultural prediction. A character from his second trilogy has the same ability though it's drug-induced. It could be argued that near-future prediction is Gibson’s inherent ability as a writer. And it’s cool to see Cayce possess a trait and have it explained psychologically whereas before, it was something Colin Laney did with artificial enhancement. Either way, Pattern Recognition is the perfect title.
In reading Gibson’s prior two trilogies (Sprawl, Bridge respectively), my opinion is he took the fully-realized, finished product he helped envision, namely the world wide web, “Cyberspace”, and told a fresh story within its auspices. I’ve also read that it’s bad form, modernly speaking, to refer to the web as a place. For some reason, that admonition has always stuck with me. This trilogy has helped me not become legalistic regarding that rule, however.
The book is full of objects—things. Cayce’s jacket, a Buzz Rickson’s MA1, for instance—something “irreplaceable” that she ends up having to replace. As an aside, while Buzz Rickson’s is real, the style of jacket (black) that features in the book isn’t. Or, wasn’t, until they began getting requests for the model as it appears in the story. After some interaction with Gibson, they decided to replicate it.
Other objects that appear are the Curta calculator, a handheld mechanical adding machine from World War 2, Cayce’s Stasi envelope in which she carries various things of import. And “skirt thing”, a tube of sheer black fabric that serves as formal wear. We’ll see skirt thing again in Zero History.
He’s careful throughout to maintain a sense of place by describing in detail fabric, fashion, textiles and textures. Architectural features and the moods that go alongside (or within). In one sense, the settings and descriptions remind me of the Tlön language. From a short story by Borges, the language of Tlön (a fictional country in the Middle East) has no nouns. Everything, therefore, is spoken of using verbs and adjectives. The mode of communication, therefore, is like describing a void as well as everything that happens around it. However, Gibson evokes the tactile world of material so well it draws you into its depth in a way no novel I’ve ever read does, thereby giving shape to the void. And that he does so through severe economy of prose makes the trip, or trips, all the more enjoyable.
An idea whose time had come, it ends in Russia. While Deus ex machina is synonymous with “excuse”, that Gibson uses the former Soviet Union as the final power, the “big end”, is forgivable. The closure in this case is that Cayce and Peter finally meet and fall in love. The rest is a wide scale pan-out revealing the world as it is.
The main plot of Spook Country can be summed up in one sentence: Old man seeks shipping container full of money earmarked to finance the war in Iraq in order to shoot it with irradiated ammunition thereby devaluing it.
And Gibson has said that he didn’t know, immediately, what was inside.
By Spook Country, the world looks even more familiar. The primary image in my mind’s eye is that of Hollis Henry eating a simple meal of barbecue beef and broasted (“jammin’”) potatoes sitting on Blue Ant’s Volkswagen Passat outside Mr. Sippee. A real place, mind you, anchored to a Los Angeles Arco. Perhaps it has something to do with my growing up there, I don’t know. And that simple meal of meat and potatoes sounds so good. I bought my first car prior to reading Spook Country, by the way. It was a Passat.
Odile Richard, the French locative art curator says that Cyberspace is “everting,” meaning it’s turning inside out. Hollis mishears her, thinking she said “Cyberspace is everything.” I feel that Gibson rolled that word around in his head until he heard it in a French accent and so made Richard that nationality in order to supply the double entendre. Another fan theory, if I may, and a wiredrawn literary device that likewise had a profound affect on my writing.
Richard is the curator for Alberto, an artist who mocks up historical events and places them where they happened, albeit virtually via nearby routers. Gibson calls it “locative art”. We call it augmented reality. Turns out Alberto’s programmer is hard at work maintaining both the whereabouts of the aforesaid shipping container and also information intended to mislead anyone else looking for it. “Cyberspace is everting,” says Odile Richard. And it’s true. The “matrix” as imagined by Gibson in 1984 is now alongside us, glimpseable to the initiated.
“She always found it peculiar to encounter a time she had actually lived through rendered as a period. It made her wonder whether she was living through another one, and if so, what it would be called.”
The subplots, however, to Spook Country are where the meat is. The first being Hollis Henry and her zenith as the lead singer in a band whose fans were “virtually the only people who knew [they] had existed.” She was famous enough to have Anton Corbijn take her portrait though. It’s enjoyable nonetheless to see Gibson create this band from the ground up and show how their music infiltrated the late-20th century zeitgeist. A less-discerning reader might be fooled into thinking they actually existed.
Objects of note in this book would have to be Robert Ferguson’s nose, Hollis’s Blue Ant figurine and Tito’s iPod nano. As well as Brown’s “pistol, flashlight, and monocular.”
We are shown, early on, a nameless old man in a New York park, pocketing an iPod the way a “sagacious ape might accept a piece of…fruit.” (his analogies are second-to-none). And while Bigend is using his capital and connection to fulfill his curiosity, said old man is changing history by messing with the powers that be. His protégé calls it a “surrealist geste”. This is the impetus to finding the shipping container.
One of Gibson’s early influences is the Beat writer William Burroughs. The description we get of the nameless old man is that he looks like that writer. It’s the same physical description of Wingrove Pollard, Cayce’s father, from Pattern Recognition. The idea he’d remove himself from society to use his considerable knowledge and wherewithal to affect the course of history is powerful.
My initiation to Gibson is as follows: at my brother Jesse’s recommendation, I read Neuromancer and then All Tomorrow’s Parties. Upon realizing All Tomorrow’s Parties was third in a trilogy, I then read Virtual Light and Idoru. After that, infatuated with Gibson’s world and prose, I remembered Dollar Tree stocked Zero History, a whole shelf full, and had for a long time. I read it next, not knowing it was preceded by Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. I then read it again after those two. So inspired was I by Zero History that I bought up the rest of the copies (a dozen or so) at Dollar Tree and handed them out to unsuspecting passersby. One recipient thought I may have been the author. That’s okay.
It’s called Zero History for a reason. We were introduced in Spook Country to Milgrim. Indeterminate in description and utterly childlike in his outlook, he is heavily addicted to benzoates. The time between the events of Spook Country and Zero History, however, has seen him through an expensive and intensive Swiss therapy session. Cleansed of his drug habit, he has now reentered the world with “zero history”. This is pointed out to him, the phrase leveled by a federal agent who has him on her radar, his picture on her office wall.
He stole Hollis’s purse at the end of Spook Country and because of that is now in Bigend’s employ. He reemerges into the world with hard-won street-smarts and inchoate personality, to say nothing of his fluency in Russian. The scenes featuring his character are some of the most assiduously detailed and psychologically entertaining I’ve ever read. I cannot sum him up nor explain him any better than how he’s drawn, one moment at a time. At once lovable and unforgettable, his escape from Brown, his demons and, in a figure, Bigend’s manipulative employ, is my favorite part of the trilogy. The character with whom I associate most.
You’ll notice the spine of Zero History is blue camouflage. There’s a reason for this too. If Pattern Recognition is about media and Spook Country is about politics and war mongering (broadly, in both cases), Zero History is about fashion, plain and simple. The Curfew features prominently and we see Hollis reunite with the old man’s protégé, Garreth. And again, Milgrim is fully realized, reconciling dual personalities into something resembling “normal”. But if there were one synoptic sentence on this, the third book in the Blue Ant Trilogy, it’d be: “Fashion.” And while you won’t see the word “last” to refer to the form on which shoes are shaped and sewn, the argot is utterly authentic. I learned more about clothes from this book than from anywhere else.
And those are the objects, the things. Inchmale’s Gore-Tex and Milgrim’s whipcord trousers and brown brogues. Fiona’s yellow helmet. Bigend's suit. You hear about shoes and fabric and articles of clothing that never go out of style because they are somehow outside all of that (“skirt thing”). It’s not meant to be poetry but the poetic is woven throughout.
I have spoiled this series for you. And if you haven’t read it, I apologize. I realize this isn’t the only trilogy worth reading and Gibson isn’t the only author either. While my enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed since discovering him, some of my friends are tired of hearing about it. Again, I apologize. I leave you with this. In Zero History, Bigend wants to know the identity of another maker. Sadly, upon finding the makers of the footage from Pattern Recognition, he monetized and therefore cheapened what came of it; no one said he was a hero. In Zero History though, there is another jacket. This one, brilliantly made and of the highest quality. A dark indigo with elastic straps in the shoulders. I can’t say I’d wear one were it made, nor would I wear a Rickson’s, honestly, just so you know. But the individual making and marketing the jacket has talent and influence that Bigend wants. If there was a secret I’d refrain from sharing, it’s their identity. The secret at the root of this series’ cool. And Bigend doesn’t always get what he wants.
From the first scene of Pattern Recognition where Cayce wakes up in Damien’s flat through the mystery of Spook Country to the final dream wherein Hollis encounters the details and events of Zero History abstracted while walking up a winding staircase, the Blue Ant trilogy is amazing. The world as it is laid bare. And with the market-saturation of fantastic media, the abilities of the characters are about as close as one can get to a true, real superpower. Cayce’s sensitivity, Milgrim’s awareness, Win’s connectedness and Bigend’s sheer force of will. That being said, it’s the writing makes it worth reading. The small touches throughout that lend authenticity to the world as Gibson sees it.
When I finished it for the first time, I saw it as a graph made by the needle of a lie detector test situated within a clear cube against a background of a forest-green radar grid. This was the story out in the world, somehow encapsulated, symbolized in my mind. It burrowed down and lodged deep in my psyche (Did I tell you I once bought a jacket with my student loans in homage to Cayce Pollard?). But something deeper told me I needed to get it out so I could be true to what was already there.
With reference to Bigend’s curiosity and Pollard’s gestes, the idea that we can get almost any question answered with a quick Google search still blows my mind. In keeping with the physical representation of the internet as the leitmotif of the trilogy, Bigend’s and Pollard’s adventures are like the natural outworking of the question-and-answer utility of the world wide web. When I got my first iPod in 2011, a 4th generation Touch, my mind and imagination expanded exponentially. While I had a computer growing up, many years of technological stagnation caused me to miss the Web 2.0 boat. It happened and I was not there for it. I equate my experience learning about the web through my little iPod with Milgrim’s exposure to a wider world than he was theretofore unaware. To this day, that I can think up any question, answer any curiosity, find any factoid or piece of trivia—or find a person who might know—is startling. The realization dawned in me around 2011 and hasn’t dimmed since.
In closing, I tell you I am working on a novel. I confess I needed to read the trilogy again and write this gloss in order to…get it out of my system. I believe in two kinds of creativity. Firstly, there’s the “shoulders of giants” kind. The kind that takes inspiration from our forbears in order to produce something new. And I assure you Gibson’s writing affected and even strengthened my own (his style reminding me of my own upon reading). Then there’s the second kind. The other kind of creativity is innate and spontaneous, if inspired. And to be honest, I prefer the latter over the former: I’d rather create something new.
I’m grateful, however, for what came before. Thank you, Mr. Gibson.
*When I got to Austin and settled in to my friend’s apartment, he showed me the song “Pattern Recognition” by Sonic Youth. Obviously inspired by the book.