This is only the second William Gibson that I've read. The first, Neuromancer, I read more than a decade ago. Since then Gibson has moved away from sci-fi and into novels with contemporary settings that happen to be about computers and technology.
The central character here is Cayce Pollard, a 'coolhunter' who identifies street trends so that big brands can exploit them. Her work is slightly complicated by an allergy to branding and logos so that, for example, she can't stand to be in the presence of the Michelin Man. In her spare time Cayce is becoming increasingly obsessed with "the footage" - a series of short video clips that are being uploaded to the web by some anonymous filmmaker.
The novel opens with Cayce arriving in London to work for an agency called Blue Ant on a proposed logo for a shoe company. Blue Ant's founder, the improbably-named Hubertus Bigend, offers her another job - tracking down the maker of the footage. She's not sure that she wants the filmmaker to be turned over to the uber-marketer but she's far too curious about the origins of the footage to say no.
So begins a run-of-the-mill and fairly unthrilling thriller in which Cayce heads to Tokyo and ultimately Moscow in search of the elusive filmmaker. Along the way, Gibson ponders cultural differences and the way they are being eroded by global brands, the meaning of cultural artefacts and their place in our history and the power of information.
Those are all themes with great potential interest but Gibson doesn't do much with them. The first 50 pages or so are full of Cayce's observations about Britain as the "mirror world" USA but none of these observations rises about the level of perception of the average tourist. Likewise the cultural artefacts - a Stuka bomber, a ZX81 computer and a replica Second World War flying jacket, among other things - are simply there, lying around the plot. Gibson doesn't seem to know what to say about their significance so they just roll past in the hope that some depth will arrive.
Strangest of all is Cayce's brand allergy. You would expect such a weird plot device to take on some great significance but it doesn't. Gibson doesn't bother to explain its various inconsistencies - why some brands affect Cayce and others don't - or explore what it's supposed to mean. It's just another clever idea to nod at as the plot passes by.
The plot itself is pretty weak. It turns out to be surprisingly easy to track down the filmmaker and though Cayce seems headed for a very sticky situation as the book draws to a close, there's very little tension along the way. Indeed, just as the book reaches what you think will be the dramatic conclusion Cayce literally wakes up to find that everything has been set right.
Gibson writes well, however, which means that reading the book wasn't as unpleasant as the above makes it sound. It's not a bad book, just a bland one. In much the same way that Cayce delivers underground trends to her corporate paymasters, Gibson has identified a lot of significant cultural themes and turned them into the literary equivalent of a globally-marketed running shoe.