Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spies in black jeans

kw: book reviews, science fiction, near-future, fashion

William Gibson can be relied on for a good read, regardless of genre. While his books are typically shelved with Science Fiction, some are and some aren't. Zero History is a case in point. It's a style I call "plausibly now sci-fi". Nothing in the book seems beyond current technology; it may not exist yet, but it plausibly could.

The surveillance devices, for example, include helium balloons shaped like mantas or penguins with lightweight electronics and flap-control so they can "swim" through the air using nearly no energy (makes for lightweight batteries). There is also an eight-rotor mini-copter platform with shorter battery life but more maneuverability. A modest improvement in battery technology, and such a device could loft a webcam for a good chunk of an hour.

The setting is industrial espionage in the fashion industry. Chapters alternate the viewpoints of Milgrim and Hollis (male and female, respectively), working for a corporate trend-setter named Hubertus Bigend (explained as a French name pronounced something like "bay-zhond" at one time, but now the gentleman in question likes to say it "big end").

Mr. Bigend has noticed that youth fashions usually follow the styles of military gear, and hopes to anticipate the trend by contracting to make combat wear for the world's armies, then duplicate the patterns a year or two later in the fashion world. This puts his enterprise crossways with an arms dealer who is working towards the same conclusion from the other end. Kidnappings and other derring-do result, and Hollis's temporarily estranged boyfriend Garrett is employed to help double-cross the arms dealer during a hostage swap.

There are a number of other subtexts: London motorcycle courier culture, a budding romance or two, and some spy-vs-spy machinations. Par for the course in a Gibson novel. One really does need to pay attention. The title, by the way, comes from something a U.S. agent says to Milgrim, that he is an unknown, with "zero history". What is an American field agent doing in this mix? The fashion espionage has been mistaken for a more national-security sort, for a while, after which the agent weighs in to aid Bigend's people in the chicanery and help bring down the illegal arms dealer.

You know, I wish this kind of stuff really was fiction…

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