Monday, October 4, 2010
The Bigend Trilogy-- Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History by William Gibson
The uniting character in all three novels is Hubertus Bigend. He is not the main character. All of the books are about special projects contracted by Blue Ant, Bigend's company to find secrets. Secrets are the essence of cool to Hubertus Bigend. His advertising company and viral marketing company Blue Ant, searches for cool things; thus he is often after secrets. In the novels, the Blue Ant figurine even contains a listening device. Bigend creates the backdrop for the stories.
Each book uses the concept of steganography, finding secret things in the larger pattern of things. Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition must find a hidden producer of video clips. What is ultimately interesting is that Bigend uses the secrets for marketing purposes. In Zero History, we learn the video clips in Pattern Recognition are used to sell shoes. Hollis Henry in Spook Country seeks to find a hidden shipping container. This leads to cool technology also used for marketing called localive art. In Zero History, Hollis Henry must track down a secret brand which is an article of military clothing. This is of course is sold by Hubertus Bigend because military clothing sets the fashion of the street. I rather like the idea that secrets sell.
The backdrop of the stories is a post 9/11/2001 world where change is accelerating. Things happen so quickly it becomes hard to recognize the world of a week ago. The cold war has ended and espionage has moved into the corporate boardroom with various loose factions vying for control. We get to see this in the novels. There is a kind of hidden war that is about directing peoples attention. Reading the books together exposes a pattern in the writing. In the first book, Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard steps into the shadowy post soviet world of the business oligarchs in Moscow. Many of them are ex-kgb. In the second book, Spook Country, Milgrim, interacts with two organizations, one a right wing christian conspiracy, and another a family of operatives that have left Cuba to go into business for themselves. In the third book, Hollis Henry deals with both corporate espionage and a shadowy military contractor who is trying to go into business for himself after operating in various third world countries. This creates a very different kind of story about secrets.
The action takes place in hotels, factories, shipyards, art spaces, bars; places at the edges of every day life that are easy to miss. The characters who thread themselves through the story would be easy to walk by and not notice in New York, Moscow, or Tokyo. Voytek who sells antique calculators, and Inchmale who was part of the Curfew make for excellent background characters that help create the setting. The descriptions of the backgrounds have a baroque quality to them that are often quite intricate. It is a juxtaposition of fashion, technology, and every day objects; tweed jackets, tortoise shell glasses, zx81 calculators, GPS, cell phones, 501 Jeans, and other objects mix into a time frame that seems to head toward evening and night.
In each book, as the secrets are revealed, the characters emerge more as themselves. This is best expressed in how Milgrim moves from being a drug addled captive to being sober and deeply indebted to Hubertus Bigend. Also, the characters have their goals fulfilled. Voytek starts seeking out zx81 calculators in Pattern Recognition for his art exhibit and is directly helped by Hollis Henry to build the final exhibit in Zero History. All of the main characters hired by Hubertus are indebted to him. A lot of this debt is focused on medical help. Milgrim is helped in a Swiss drug clinic and Garreth has his leg reconstructed.
Some people view Hubertus Bigend as being immoral on many levels. I find him quite moral, but often hiding it behind other ulterior motives like profit. He actively moves against a right wing military organization in Zero History, and prevents a right wing organization from getting its money in Spook Country. He also arranges two people to be cured of their medical problems.
This trilogy is well worth reading. When I read Zero History, I realized I could not adequately write about it as a single book when I found there were two other books in the series. Because the publication of the books was spaced so far apart, it was not obvious that they were a trilogy at first. Pattern Recognition was written in 2003, Spook Country was written in 2007, and Zero History was written in 2010. There is a very different feel to them when you read them one after another in a series. You get to see how the characters change as secrets are revealed.