Originally published on Blue Ant, August 31, 2015.
Victorian English literature is filled with angst about what chaos lies behind proper and unassuming exteriors. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow says Brussels always reminds him of a “whited sepulchre,” a biblical reference to hypocrisy by which things “appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”
William Gibson’s London puts a psychedelic twist on this notion, with all manner of sinister weirdness lying in wait behind plain facades. This is most true in Cabinet, the hotel and private club that serves as home base for our heroes in Zero History.
Cabinet is “(h)alf the vertical mass of an eighteenth-century townhouse, one whose facade reminded her of the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway,” with the interior decor “ragingly, batshit insane.” Read More
Surveillance is a part of how we live now, and how we respond to that runs throughout the Blue Ant trilogy. The books are laced with true developments like widespread CCTV, drone surveillance, and computer spying. Like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Zero History traffics in crafty ways to dodge prying eyes. One of these techniques, at the time of the book’s publication, was entirely fictional, but perhaps less so today. And of course, since it’s on the surface a book about fashion and marketing, the secret weapon in question is a T-shirt. Read More
Originally on Blue Ant blog.
Gabriel Hounds is a brand of jeans in the same sense that Zero History is a book about fashion. Both statements are technically accurate, but only as a gateway to something…slippery. In Gibson’s 2010 novel, the Gabriel Hounds are a “secret brand.” The Kaizer Soze of pants. The smoke monster of denim. The brand is the MacGuffin in a hunt for truth beyond brand names, knockoffs, seasons, and flickering atemporality in a world that is evolving faster than we can focus our eyes.
Setting aside for a moment the product itself, and the very concept of a secret brand or a microbrand, a line of products marketed through non-marketing and secrecy (we can get to that later), the concept of a Gabriel Hound is a fitting one for the brand at the center of Zero HIstory. Read More
For all of technology’s efforts to improve upon nature, sometimes the most challenging feat is simply matching it, or even coming close. Take, for example, the endlessly versatile muscle, or the light and load-bearing bone. Imitating the latter poses a unique problem for surgeons repairing damaged, aging or diseased bones in humans, leaving us with metal or ceramic replacement parts that are imperfect or intolerable to a patient’s system, often needing to be replaced with painful and debilitating surgery. A solution to that mismatch may be on the horizon, as researchers in Italy have turned right back to nature, albeit a different kingdom, to find what may sound like an archaic bone replacement—wood. Rattan, to be specific, a flexible palm wood used in furniture and baskets.
In William Gibson’s Zero History, a novel laced with technology just barely within reach, one unlucky daredevil is the beneficiary of such a rattan bone replacement after a base-jumping stunt gone awry. Read More
Rhenium is the last stable element to be discovered, found in 1925, before all of the nuke-y ones. It’s extremely rare, and one of the densest of elements. It’s used in alloy form, primarily in high-tech purposes like combustion chambers, turbine blades, and exhaust nozzles of jet engines.
And darts. Read More
A HERF gun, or an otherwise-nicknamed personal electromagnetic device, is the fantasy weapon of anti-government drone-haters and corporate saboteurs. As in William Gibson’s Zero History:
“Ekranoplan,” said Gareth. “A ground effect vehicle. He’s mad.” … The ekranoplans reminded Milgrim of the Spruce Goose, which he’d toured in Long Beach as a high school student, but with its wings largely amputated. Weird Soviet hybrids, the ekranoplans; they flew, at tremendous speeds, about fifteen feet above the water, incapable of greater altitude. They had been designed to haul a hundred tons of troops or cargo, very quickly, over the Black or Baltic Sea. This one, an A-90 Orlyonok, had, like all the others, been built in the Volga Shipyard, at Nizhni Novgorod. Read More
How do you camouflage an inflatable mylar drone in the shape of a penguin? You really can’t, but for the climax of Zero History, one character opts for a disruptive paint job known as “dazzle” as a way to break up its gestalt.
“The result wouldn’t conceal the penguin against any background at all, particularly the sky, but broke it up visually, made it difficult to read as an object.”
Dazzle, or “razzle dazzle” is a form of camouflage invented in World War I by British artist and naval officer Norman Wilkinson. The Royal Navy, unable to conceal its ships, went for something altogether different by painting them with loud, irregular black-and-white patterns. The result was a floating Picasso, certainly visible, but hard to make out its size, shape and speed. German submarines needed to know all three to successfully calculate a hit with a torpedo, so turning British ships into a series of discordant shapes did a far better job of protecting them than trying to make them blend into their surroundings. Read More
In a subplot of Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard uses a rare prototype of an early computing device as a bargaining chip for a crucial email address. She makes a straight offer to a menacing, drunken ex-spy — even trade, email address for the Curta.
It’s described as a black, cylindrical hand-grenade, “a precious instrument…performing calculations mechanically, employing neither electricity nor electronic components. The sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five millimeter camera. It is the smallest mechanical calculating machine ever constructed.”mputing device as a bargaining chip for a crucial email address. She makes a straight offer to a menacing, drunken ex-spy — even trade, email address for the Curta. Read More