:: Article

The Decline of the English Technothriller

By Max Dunbar.


Zero History, William Gibson, Penguin 2010

Accelerated technology poses new challenges for the conventional writer, not just in terms of publishing models but in the mechanics of storytelling. Before, say, 1998, one could write a country-house mystery in which twelve friends and relatives, estranged for many years, return to the isolated mansion for some party or probate issue. Lightning cracks in the sky, a couple of bodies appear, and it’s obvious there will be more to come. The natural thing to do is ring the police – but the killer has slashed the phone lines. Convenient for the bad guy and also for the author, who now has a group of people cut off from the world, alone with their old tensions and heartbreak and an unknown murderer among them.

Now imagine this story in 2008. Even with the landline down, most if not all of the characters will carry mobiles. Where does this leave the villain? Surely he can’t go round stealing and smashing the mobiles without revealing his identity at some point. Even if he could, someone might have a laptop, and can tweet for help or put SOS as their Facebook status. There are ways around this, but they are hard for the novelist to contrive, and in any case the glamour of isolation is lost. No question about it, technology has hastened the decline of the English murder.

For ten years contemporary authors have tried to get around the conundrum. Nick Laird’s psychodrama Glover’s Mistake hinges on a blog written by its embittered protagonist. The detectives of David Simon’s The Wire run themselves ragged trying to keep their surveillance on a pace with the telecommunications genius of the Barksdale and Stansfield drug gangs. William Gibson’s new thriller features Twitter, image searching and iPhones, but even this master of techno writing can’t make these elements integral to the book. This is because Zero History is a plotless humping of the zeitgeist, and a lacklustre performance at that – when was the last time you heard anyone talk about Bluetooth?

But here we go. Gibson’s protagonist is a recovering drug addict with a history of anxiety disorder who has got a job working for Hubertus Bigend, a businessman who is trying to track down some kind of exclusive faux-army fabric in which both government and criminal agencies have expressed strong interest. This is how the value of the material is explained:

The new Mitty demographic… Young men who dress to feel they’ll be mistaken for having special capability. A species of cosplay, really. Endemic. Lots of boys are playing soldier now. The men who run the world aren’t, and neither are the boys most effectively bent on running it next. Or the ones who’re actually having to be soldiers, of course. But the rest have gone gear-queer.

This is interesting stuff. Cool people hate wars but have a thing about military chic. There are also some good observations in Zero History: a ‘South Carolina state flag’ looks ‘oddly Islamic with its palm tree and crescent moon’; a character reflects that everything ‘had already been the title of a CD, just as everything had already been the name of a band’; a Dungeons and Dragons style game is ‘tedious and self-importantly arcane’. Gibson is a great reporter when he wants to be. Unfortunately, although it’s set in the heart of the metropolis, we see very little of the city. Gibson could be describing the novel’s general atmosphere when he writes of ‘a blur of abstracted London texture, as free of meaning as sampled skins in a graphics program’.

The same applies to his characters. Milgrim’s panic disorder would provide a great opportunity to explore the role of paranoia in shaping the modern city. Gibson consulted books on couriering and modelling for Zero History but there are no insights into his characters’ fascinating professions. The thing reads like a passing, iPod-fuelled fantasy of some Shoreditch or Chorlton hipster barrelling through busy streets and imagining himself fighting both sides of the law. But it is a conventional thriller in both structure and execution.

Another problem is the laziness of the prose. Gibson has picked up the habit of cramming exposition into the first line of his chapters, delivering passive run-on sentences riddled and sagging with redundancies and qualifications. ‘Milgrim, cleaning his teeth in the brightly but flatteringly lit bath room of his small but determinedly upscale hotel, thought about Hollis Henry, the woman Bigend had brought along to the restaurant.’ ‘And when she’d watched him, from her chair, the collar of his coat popped like a vampire’s cape, finally descend the stairs to Cabinet’s foyer, dropping further out of sight with each step, she put her head back against slippery brocade and gazed at the spiraled lances of the narwhal tusks, in their ornate rack.’ ‘Milgrim, with Hollis’s laptop clamped firmly under his arm, bag over the other shoulder, walked rapidly along a smaller street, away from the one where her vintage clothing fair was being held.’

I’m not cherrypicking. You can open the book at random and find stuff like this. Gibson can be pretentious (‘Homesickness, he thought, another feeling he’d tamped down beneath the benzos, in whatever unventilated chamber of the self, however abstract the notion of home might be’); cringe-making (‘Hollis was watching emotion in the woman’s face, a transparency that easily trumped her beauty, which was considerable’); or simply banal (‘Like urine samples but more frequent, meeting Bigend punctuated his existence’). It is as if The Matrix had been scripted by John Major.

Gibson has no doubt made a huge contribution to speculative fiction, having invented the concept of cyberspace, reality TV and various other things. Yet on the basis of Zero History, the great technomancer needs to return to his seeing-pool, and this time look a little deeper.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 9th, 2010.