Count Zero, by William Gibson
It’s been said that genre is an ongoing conversation between a group of writers and readers with similar concerns. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There are times though in the life of a genre where that conversation becomes insular, where compliance with the genre rules becomes more important than what the genre was trying to talk about in the first place. When genre is its own end, it’s irrelevant as fiction.
In 1984 William Gibson reinvigorated the science fiction genre. He discarded star spanning empires, distant planets and the generic trappings that readers had grown used to and instead presented Neuromancer – a novel set just around the corner which drew far more on the traditions of crime (particularly hardboiled and noir) fiction than it did on its SF predecessors.
A year later Bruce Sterling published his spectacular novel Schismatrix and in 1986 the famous Mirrorshades anthology was published. In two short years a new sub-genre had been created, cyberpunk. Now the term is a cliche itself, then it was a fiction that had a relevance the wider genre had largely lost.
1986 also saw the publication of Gibson’s follow up to Neuromancer, titled Count Zero. In 1988 Gibson wrote a third and final novel in the sequence, Mona Lisa Overdrive, turning his original work into the first of a trilogy (known generally as the Sprawl trilogy).
I read Count Zero at the time and I didn’t then like it as much as Neuromancer. In fact, I was very disappointed by it. That changed when Mona Lisa Overdrive came out, a book that for me not only worked in its own right but that also retrospectively made Count Zero a better book. On rereading Count Zero today, I find I like it a lot more but that’s partly because I know the problems with it are going to be resolved later. As a stand alone novel it still has problems.
Let’s step back a bit. Count Zero is set in the same future as Neuromancer and explores the consequences of the events of that earlier novel. Few characters overlap, and those that do are minor rather than the protagonists of the original work. Gibson here is pursuing ideas, not individuals.
Structurally, this is a more ambitious novel than its predecessor. Here Gibson sets up three different stories which eventually intertwine and become different facets of the same story. Each character’s understanding of what’s going on is limited, but the reader’s perspective encompasses all three strands and so sees connections the characters can’t. This allows Gibson to explore a fairly complex plot with a large cast in around 330 pages, making for a largely satisfying read. I’ll come back to that largely.
The first storyline follows a freelance mercenary by the name of Turner. In Gibson’s future corporations have become like nations, and where an employee is particularly valuable to them they indenture them to their service and potentially kill them if they try to leave. Turner specialises in extracting such high value employees, enabling them to defect to another employer (who will probably treat them no differently to the company they defected from).
Turner is introduced in the opening paragraphs of the novel, which set the tone for much that follows. I thought them worth quoting in full:
They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. Its core was a kilogramme of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.
He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco façade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.
Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the exposion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight, and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.
It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square metre of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green.
There’s a lot packed in there. Firstly, there’s pace. Just as the slamhound (whatever that is, we’re left to imagine it) races towards Turner so the prose races forward too. In three paragraphs we have self-guiding personalised bombs, an impression that Turner is transnational (his name suggests he’s American, he’s working in India, he’s taken to Singapore for treatment where he’s reconstructed by a Dutch doctor) and hints of black market medicines and emerging technologies. There’s also a suggestion of depersonalisation, Turner’s eyes and genitals are purchased for him on the open market. Welcome to the future.
The next character is disgraced art gallery owner Marly Krushkova. Marly’s career was destroyed when her boyfriend used her gallery as a cover for selling forgeries. Down on her luck, she is hired by a reclusive billionaire by the name of Josef Virek to locate the creator of a series of extraordinary but unattributed artworks that have come upon the market (a plot identical to that used in Gibson’s later, and less successful, novel Pattern Recognition). Here’s Marly, soon after getting her new job:
… the feel of her new outfit and the tidy click of her bootheels on marble kept [depression] at a distance. She wore an oversized leather coat a few shades lighter than her handbag, a wool skirt, and a silk blouse from Paris Isetan. She’d had her hair cut that morning on Faubourg St Honoré, by a Burmese girl with a West German laser-pencil; an expensive cut, subtle without being too conservative.
In what will become another theme of the novel Virek is no longer entirely human. His body is a vast mass of riotous cells kept in an ever growing industrial-medical facility. His mind lives online, existing in virtual spaces such as a meticulous recreation of the Güell part in Barcelona. Like the artificial intelligences who also populace the novel his only real life now is a virtual one, the gap between the artificial and the human narrowing yet further.
Finally, there is Bobby Newmark. Bobby lives in the Barrytown ghetto with a mother who spends her evenings locked into wholly immersive virtual reality soap operas (shades here of the multi-wall TVs in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). Bobby dreams of becoming a player and of escaping to the Sprawl, an Asian style supercity covering much of the US Eastern coast (cities like this do exist today, just not in the US). He styles himself Count Zero and sees himself as a talented hacker but the truth is he’s barely been online. Here’s Bobby getting ready to lie low for a while:
He had two hundred and ten New Yen stashed in the hollow plastic handle of a multi-bit screwdriver. Screwdriver and credit chip secure in his jeans, he pulled on his oldest, heaviest pair of boots, then clawed unwashed clothing from beneath the bed. He came up with a black canvas jacket with at least a dozen pockets, one of them a single huge pouch across the small of the back, a kind of integral rucksack. There was a Japanese gravity knife with orange handles beneath his pillow; that went into a narrow pocket on the jacket’s left sleeve near the cuff.
Bobby, the Count, is smart enough to see how trapped he is in Barrytown but young enough to think he’s different to everyone around him and that his dreams of escape are bigger than theirs. The reality, until a freak event throws him into a larger game, is that he’s just another wannabe with few prospects and likely no future. Bobby’s own view of himself is frequently contrasted with his reality as a teenager with no real clue as to what’s going on and whose ideas of what it is he wants to escape to are as fantastical in their own way as his mother’s soaps.
Gibson can write plot. The crime ancestry of his fiction shows in his taut descriptions of the setup for Turner’s extraction of a researcher who’s achieved unprecedented breakthroughs in computer research and in the squalid struggle of Bobby’s life at the opposite end of the grey and black markets.
That crime ancestry shows too in the tensions between the main characters who though very different (a highly paid mercenary, a gallery owner, a street punk) are as brothers and sister when compared to the ultra-wealthy such as Virek. Here, as in Chandler, the rich really are a different species.
Gibson is strong too at description. He’s excellent at creating surprisingly rich locations with few details. Here’s an example:
Marly checked into a small hotel with green plants in heavy brass pots, the corridors tiled like worn marble chessboards. The elevator was a scrolling gilt cage with rosewood panels smelling of lemon oil and small cigars.
That to me is redolent of crime fiction technique. As a reader I can absolutely picture that space, and yet I’ve actually been told very little. Gibson is equally at home describing derelict streets (I particularly liked some sleeping vagrants who seem “as though they were being slowly extruded from the dark concrete, to become mobile extensions of the city”), abandoned industrial facilities and orbital settlements. His world is a rich and immersive one, which feels fully realised even though actually much is never described.
Crime techniques figure too in the fact that each character is pursuing a McGuffin (Turner’s corporate defector, Marly’s artist and for Bobby a missing piece of new software technology) and the use of violence. There’s a lot of violence in this novel and many characters die. Here though the violence is typically sudden and offscreen. When characters die it’s more likely to be from a bomb they didn’t even know was there than from anything they have a chance of responding to. Gibson isn’t interested by and large in the violence for its own sake, he’s interested in its consequences and in what it says about his world.
Where Gibson is less strong is character. Characters aren’t one dimensional by any means, but nor are they fully realised. There’s enough to create a sense of them as people and to give them a degree of hinterland, but the characters are ultimately in service to the novel’s ideas and its vision and inevitably that means there is less focus on them than there would be in a typical work of literary fiction.
The weaker characterisation isn’t a problem for the novel because that’s not what it’s about. Gibson isn’t here to explore the human condition, he’s exploring the collision between the present and the future. What is a problem is the novel’s transitional nature. It works excellently as the middle book of a trilogy. As a standalone work though it’s less successful.
Strong plot requires a strong resolution. In Count Zero the characters discover that various entities now exist online that are vastly powerful but appear to be less than ten years old. The entities present themselves as voodoo deities (Loa), but as one character argues it seems much more likely that they’ve simply adopted an existing belief structure as a convenient means of dealing with the real world. Where Virek is now primarily a consciousness existing only in virtual space with his body largely abandoned, these Loa are consciousnesses which appear to have no physical form at all.
Introducing virtual voodoo gods to a novel is a big deal. It’s a major development in the setting and much of the plot is driven by their desires. To understand what’s really going on it’s necessary therefore to understand what they are and what they really want. The difficulty is those are questions Gibson leaves unanswered until the third novel. That in turn means that in this novel the main drivers of the plot and the causes of the changes to the setting are dei in machina. In a plot driven work that’s profoundly unsatisfying.
For me then there is a hole at the heart of this novel, and that hole is a proper resolution. The characters’ individual stories are all skilfully brought together and to a close. The pacing is good and it’s an easy and enjoyable read. But, and it’s a big but, the why of it all is missing. For that we have to wait for Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Even with that, this is a clever and rewarding read. With the benefit of near 25 years hindsight Gibson’s future is at times surprisingly prescient (residential buildings with installed wind turbines, the growth of teleworking, though the predominance of Japan marks it squarely as a product of the ’80s) but much more importantly than that it’s convincing. It’s no accident that he helped change a genre. He’s a skilled writer with a strong and clear vision and he isn’t afraid to look outside of SF for inspiration.
With Gibson (among others such as Sterling to be fair) for a while SF stopped talking to itself and started talking about the outside world again. The result was a brief explosion of creativity and works that remain powerful today. In a sense, there’s no greater compliment for a 24 year old science fiction novel than to say it’s still relevant.