Portrait by Michael O'Shea
William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, completes a trilogy that began with 2003’s Pattern Recognition and continued with 2007’s Spook Country.
In these three works, Gibson explores the dark, dark world of marketing, advertising, and trend forecasting. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty scary stuff.
Marketing has reached such a fever pitch of aggression and insidiousness today that it’s easy to feel like we’re the victims of a full-scale military campaign of propaganda, one in which slimy guys in modern glass cubicles decide that they know exactly how all of our brains work and what we all want, all the time. What it might come down to is that they think they are smarter than us. William Gibson manipulates that feeling perfectly, and shows us an all-too plausible—and often so frighteningly accurate that it’s also genuinely hilarious—idea of what the reality of marketing could be.
In Hubertus Bigend, the sort-of-antagonist of these three novels, Gibson has created the ultimate marketing man. He’s powerful and shadowy, and he seeks out young “creatives” (more on that word toward the end of this interview) the way a wolf seeks sheep. Now, in Zero History, Bigend’s world brushes up against another 21st century growth industry: the private military. And what’s all the fuss about? Pants. And how compelling is it? In the hands of Gibson, it reads and feels like a matter of life and death. It convinces one that we might be heading for a world where the right to market quasi-military pants is as fiercely contested as national borders once were.
Vice: I feel a little bad because I read your Twitter, and there were a couple of posts on there recently about how the process of doing interviews for new books is sort of torturous for you.
William Gibson: That will come later, toward the end of the tour. But you’re at the front of the queue. [laughs] I’m saying things here more or less for the first time, and I still haven’t been compelled by repetition to pointlessly change what I’m saying.
Hopefully I’ll get this out before that time comes for you. In your last three books, you’ve developed this world where marketing is treated like espionage. There are agents and double agents and intrigue upon intrigue, but it will be in the service of something like a new denim line. Is this approach intended to be satire? Or is it closer to the truth as you see it?
If something really is satire, I don't enjoy it. It can’t be satire and be that good. What I like is something that’s closer to a useful, anthropological description that has a really, really sharp satirical edge. Satire, traditionally in our culture, pushes the exaggeration past where the edge really hurts, and you sort of just goof on it. But other cultures, like the British, totally get it. Where you want to be with satire is right on the razor’s edge, where it really hurts and you can’t tell whether you’re being put on or not.
One of the easiest illustrations of the differences between their satire and ours would be the two versions of The Office. The British Office had a genuine humanity to it. It could be totally moving. The American take on it is far more buffoonish, and the attempts at humanity in it are maudlin.
Yeah, absolutely. The original Office is heartbreaking, it’s totally heartbreaking. And it’s not that we can’t do it, but that sort of work doesn’t have the prominent foregrounding in American culture that it does in British culture. And it’s something that can often scare Americans the first time they discover it.
Maybe it’s that most people prefer to know what they’re getting beforehand. They don’t like to feel confused about genre or intent.
I think that I am kind of functionally incapable of staying absolutely true to genre or form. Sometimes I feel sorry for somebody in the Atlanta airport who’s just bought one of my books when what they really want is Ludlum or Clancy. They get on the plane to the other side of the world and all they’ve got to read is this screwy shit about designer blue jeans.
But as the plots of your last three books reveal themselves, you do bring in some pretty traditional action stuff. There are sniper rifles and MMA-style takedowns.
There is some, yeah. It wouldn't be right to not have the right count of espionage vitamins.
But of course there’s still not enough for people who would rather have a Lee Child book.
I like it where it sort of lives on the edge, in the borderland between a spy novel and something that talks about fashion, or marketing, or whatever else.
You used the word “anthropological” a minute ago, and that feels really accurate to me in terms of the way you approach culture in these books.
It’s me trying to figure out territories that I’m not completely conversant with.
But also things, like marketing, that infect all of our lives to such a huge degree.
Yeah. We all live in it. It often seems to be mainly what the culture does. And it seems to spin off higher and higher iterations of itself. Like now, the hottest entrepreneur would be offering marketing of marketing of marketing. [laughs]
Which is scary, and which reminds me of the character that runs through these books: the marketing genius Hubertus Bigend. At the end of Zero History, you refer to him as almost like a Bond villain, which is something I’ve thought of too. He’s a very different sort, for sure, but he shares some DNA there. But there’s also a gray area with this character, because I can never fully read to what degree you think he’s evil.
Increasingly, he comes with the trappings of a Bond villain. But the thing about Bond villains is that they just don’t make any sense emotionally. They’re one-sided cardboard things in Ian Fleming’s ludicrous, infantilized universe.
And in William Gibson’s perhaps equally ludicrous, infantilized universe, the Bond villain has all kinds of stuff going on. [laughs] Like, he took care of his mother in fine style until she died, and he prides himself on knowing everything and being able to discover everything. But he frequently blows it and is defeated, sometimes by his hired help.
And Bigend seems to be able to rationalize anything, like defeat is just another part of what he would call his process.
You know, when he arrived for me, when I was writing Pattern Recognition, I didn't think he was going to be that big a deal. I just thought he would sort of walk onstage, give the character of Cayce a credit card and some esoteric assignment and then not play that big a part in the story. But, as it often happens, he took over quite a bit of the piece. It was like I didn't need to invent him. He just kind of expanded exponentially from his entry point, and then I rolled with that, and his world kept getting bigger and bigger.
Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition, was literally allergic to corporate logos. Milgrim, in this book and in Spook Country, has a sort of blissful unawareness of brands. And then Hollis Henry, also from the last two books, is alternately repulsed by and interested in the market-speak and research that Bigend gets her involved with. These are the heroes and heroines of your last three books—people who have complicated and almost sort of adversarial relationships to being marketed to. Is it like a heroic thing now to be turned off by marketing and branding?
That’s not so much my intention with it. It just grew that way. It would be difficult for me to identify with a character who was… not so much brand-averse, but who wasn’t immune, in large part, to most advertising.
I get it.
We’re immersed in the stuff. But I don't feel like much of it has an effect on me as I walk through it. Most of my friends aren’t affected by it either. It’s like, if I go down the street and there’s some big Prada ad, I don't go, “I gotta get some of that shit.” For very complex reasons, I’ll probably never buy a piece of theirs. It’s just not what I would buy. But it’s easier and more fun to represent some other kind of, like, pathological response to advertising. Regret is too strong a word, but something that I think about Cayce is that her pathology is not coherent throughout Pattern Recognition. The text says that she’s got an allergy to logos and that she’s got a phobia regarding the Michelin Man. But it also says that she’s more inclined to barf at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger advertising than she would be with something else. So I kind of slopped it. But I think that I was having so much fun with it that I didn't want to let any of it go.
It’s been a few years since the last time I read Pattern Recognition really closely, but I remember it pretty well. If Cayce had been fully allergic to the entire spectrum of advertising that we come up against in the world, she wouldn’t be able to leave her house. She wouldn’t even be able to open her eyes. I felt like you gave her specific allergies that locked into a specific sort of marketing. You get into the concept of secret brands in Zero History. What do you see as being the appeal of a secret brand?
I think that the Japanese probably pioneered this. They understand it. It’s about a world in which you can buy almost anything. If you wanted to go and buy some really expensive status apparel, you could probably do it in Kansas City, or somewhere in Nebraska. You just have to find a mall that has a big enough flagship store, and you can go in and get that stuff. And if you can’t get it there, you can get it on the web and have it sent to your door. So we have a situation where the devious idea of luxury goods has been undercut by its own total ubiquity. When you get a bunch of people displaying those goods in a pressure cooker like Tokyo, what they start to notice is that they’re all wearing the same shit. They may be differentiated by their ability to spend the price of a small car on a pair of pants, but they’re all wearing the same pair of pants. So the original idea of exclusivity has gone out the window. The secret brands idea says, “You’ve got a lot of money, but you can’t have this shit because you don't have the right information.” It suddenly becomes exclusive again. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about very expensive luxury goods. It works because it gives people a powerful sense of individual involvement.
It’s a way more intimate connection.
It’s a way more intimate connection in the way that happy endings in life, and in fiction too perhaps, are really about where you decide to roll the credits. [laughs] If you followed the person behind a secret brand down the road long enough, they would get to a point where they would either have to sell their brand to a multinational or opt to maintain control, but never really get the big money. Or, as it often happens, there can be a combination of both, where the designer does sell their brand to a multinational, but stays on.
As a consultant, or a creative director, or some equally meaningless title.
Over the last ten years or so of working in the media, I’ve crossed paths with the marketing world more times than I would have preferred to. There’s this one bit toward the front of Zero History where Bigend is throwing out marketing terms to Hollis—things like “brand vision transmission,” “trend forecasting,” and “youth market recon.” And then he says, “Consumers don’t buy products so much as narratives.” This stuff is so attuned to the real banter that gets thrown around. It almost triggered PTSD in me. Did you research this stuff, or is it just out there enough in the culture now that anyone can grab it?
I’m really just good with Google. I know how to find things. But I also have enough real world experience that I think I’m able to recognize what’s the real stuff. The things that strike my eye are often the things that are just so utterly and unintentionally pretentious that I just have to file the serial numbers off to some extent and then put them in Bigend’s mouth.
Do you think that this sort of marketing shit follows culture? Or does it create it? They tell themselves that they’re creating things, but I don’t think so.
I have to kind of get down in the trenches with that one and get really specific. Is the reborn and highly successful J. Crew creating anything? Is it even furthering the aesthetic which it ceaselessly bites? [laughs]
Like that sun-bleached WASP, Nantucket, John Cheever thing?
Yeah. It doesn’t all necessarily go in that direction, but they’ve got that covered. They also do the denim, like 1940s workwear, and the military stuff. That’s all stuff that, just because I like it and I’ve been aware of it all my adult life, I kind of know a ridiculous amount about. And when I go into J. Crew, I’m walking through this astonishingly complex act of quotation. But almost none of the stuff is as heavy or as well made as the real thing. It’s all simulacra. It’s like they’re singing an aria over the score of this very traditional American dream thing. It fascinates me because what they’re doing has become like a traditional act in American culture. Ralph Lauren did it. He really invented it.