This is probably old news but if you haven't seen it yet you should certainly go watch An Invocation for Beginnings. Heck even if you have watched it's worth watching again. If you're stuck on something don't spin your wheels beating yourself up. Just watch that and I bet you'll come unstuck before the video is done …
(via Twitter. I first saw it from Len Peralta, but it's been well retweeted since then.)
On a whim last week I reread Pattern Recognition. I was about halfway through Cayce's story when I had an epiphany about Spook Country and Zero History. The thing about PR is that it genuinely is Cayce's story. It's chock full of other stuff about advertising and 9/11, and corporate espionage and the like, but that is all revealed through the lens of a major event of the protagonist's life. ZH has multiple protagonists but they are both involved in the core story of the novel. In contrast, SC's story isn't really the protagonists's story - it is really the story of this offstage character who the reader sees briefly but never really identifies with. Hollis Henry is very passive and seems hardly changed from beginning to end. Milgrim has a significant change, but the nature of his events is that he passively watches the majority of the story and he pretty much drops out of the book just when the real story shows up.
The whole point of Spook Country is really that the movers and shakers of history are often hidden and not recorded. The main story is a shadowy fight between a couple of spooks and our viewpoint characters have no real agency in the matter. That makes it a very passive book. That's why Gibson can take many of the same characters in Zero History and I like the book so much better. Hollis Henry isn't just watching in mild bewilderment in ZH - she's doing things and make shit happen.
So there you have it. After two lengthy book reviews where I sort of hemmed and hawwed my way around what the difference was I can boil it down to that: Spook Country isn't about the protagonists and they don't really undergo a transformation.
William's Gibson's new book Zero History is out on iBooks and I assume the usual assortment of dead trees. I grabbed it, read a few pages and realized that it was starting off with characters from Spook Country and I didn't really remember them. Le sigh. So I grabbed my copy (SC predated my Kindle so I have a hardback version) and reread it first. I've just gone back and read my review of that and I have to say I liked it more on the reread. Perhaps I'm mellower, perhaps my expectations were in line so I wasn't disappointed, most likely a combination of both. But anyway, let's talk about Zero History.
The first paragraph dealt with the first point in that SC had some loose connections to Pattern Recognition but ZH is much more closely tied to SC. I think you could enjoy SC cold (and indeed, not expecting either cyberpunk would be a benefit) but you'd have to have passing familiarity with SC to enjoy ZH. I liked what Gibson did with the characters in ZH and I'd go so far as to say it like SC better having read the sequel.
I still am not wild about Gibson as mundane SF as I talked about before. There's quite a lot of stuff in here about smartphones and the usage for corporate espionage, as well as some weird fetishization of cellular modems and discussion of how to get on Twitter while in the Chunnel. That still reads as oddly as the virtual reality stuff in SC did. As I wrote this having just reread my Spook Country review I realize that the action moved back to Europe and that Zero History takes place largely in London or Paris. I think that helps because it lets Gibson do alienation and truthfully writing about alienation one of the things that Gibson does fantastically well. The parts that have a specific time frame are still awkward overall (I'm not sure it's specifically set in a time, but SC was in 2006, so I'd put this in 2008 or so? Plus the fictional iPhone analog feels about 2008-2009-ish.) It's not terrible but it still has that weird vibe of somebody trying to "do" Gibson's style without actually pulling it off that I found so off-putting in SC. There's less of it in ZH so it's less distracting but it's still present.
I can't write a whole lot about the plot of the book without spoilers of course. There's one obvious "I really should have seen that coming, but I didn't" that filled me with delight and will reward long time readers. I wrote in the last review about I was tired of Gibson writing about 9/11 and this book moves on (thank goodness). It's a post 9/11 book in the sense that the culture reflects it, but not in the sense that 9/11 themes are involved in the book.
This is the part where I should wrap up. Well look if you've read Gibson's other works you're likely to pick up Zero History just on strength of knowing it exists and I don't think you'll be disappointed. If you don't remember a ton about Hollis Henry or Milgrim I'd advise you to reread Spook Country first (or if you didn't read SC before then definitely tackle it before ZH). It's not a place for a new Gibson reader to get on board. It's not his best work I don't think (that's actually a tough call. Something from the Idoru line maybe?), nor is it even the best of his recent "mundane" works (that would still be Pattern Recognition in my opinion). I definitely liked Zero History better than Spook Country on either read-through. The MacGuffin plot that kickstarts the real story isn't as wince-inducingly "ripped from Wired magazine" as SC's was and in fact is much closer to PR's story elements. I liked the book and it probably leaves more looking forward to his next work than his last one did. That's seems sort of faint praise-y, but that's not my intent. I enjoyed reading Zero History and if you got any value of of Spook Country then I think you would enjoy it as well.