The street tries to find its own uses for things

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.

Count Zero


Filed under Gibson, William, SF

21 responses to “The street tries to find its own uses for things

  1. How is this cyberpunk? I always thought cyberpunk meant espionage capers in blown-up versions of the internet (well, I thought it at least had to involve computers in a big way).
    And if this is cyberpunk, does Richard Morgan’s executives-slaying-each-other book that you wrote about count too?

    Btw, I have an example that brilliantly subverts your genre talking to itself problem.
    It’s a graphic novel by Mark Millar called Superman: Red Son, which is an envisioning of what would have happened if Superman had landed in the Soviet Union. It is heavily steeped not only in the genre but also in a specific universe, of DC, and he uses relation between his storyline and the traditional mythology to develop his themes, but the book itself ends up being a transcendental work of science fiction, commenting on the human condition and the war between capitalism and communism in an incredibly nuanced manner.
    Also, many of the greatest genre works are heavily steeped in the genre, a prime example being Moore’s Watchmen, which I can’t see someone loving unless they have some knowledge of superhero comic books and (more importantly) their themes. And I still haven’t figured out if LotR is supposed to be related to the real world at all; it’s just an examination of mythology, and almost completely concerns itself with a specific one at that.
    Btw, I remember telling you that I was reading Charles de Lint’s The Little Country. It’s beautiful, and it turns out to be a deconstruction of fantasy (among other things) too.

  2. By “transcendental work of science fiction,” I mean that it transcends conventional genre boundaries; some books just break them, but in this case we actually see the transcendence happening during the course of the book.

    I apologise for how bizarre my comments are.

  3. Freelance mercenaries, hackers and rogue online intelligences doesn’t sound like espionage capers on a blown up version of the internet Ronak?

    In part though it’s cyberpunk because it part-created the genre. It’s cyberpunk almost by definition. I think there’s an argument to be made that Cyberpunk is the child of Neuromancer, Schismatrix and Hardwired (those other two involve no real internet element as I recall).

    Morgan’s work is clearly born of cyberpunk. Market Forces for me wasn’t quite, but it clearly had that sensibility. To be honest, for me it’s a genre that is no longer really with us, it’s largely been replaced by transhuman sf.

    I’ve heard of Red Son. The problem I personally have engaging with it is I don’t know the material it relates to. I have the same issue with Warren Ellis’s Interplanetary. I can tell it’s very good, but I’ve no idea what many of the references are to.

    Watchmen is certainly heavily steeped in the genre, but it’s also a gauntlet in the face of the genre. It deliberately subverts it and pushes it forward. Great genre works don’t follow genre, they change it.

    I’ve not read de Lint, I should though. I had heard how good he was before and your comment is an intriguing one.

    Nothing bizarre in your comments by the way. They all made sense to me.

  4. bat

    When reading early William Gibson one feels how close it is (albeit in a VERY sanitized way) to one of his prime influences: William S. Burroughs.
    The razor precise descriptions of minute detail, the manner in which characters are described, the low drumbeat that explodes into action and the very pace at which the stories move are very reminiscent of most any W.S.B. novel.
    By placing the stories in another genre one gets an excellent feel of the fast-paced writing style that conveys a story in a novella instead of a Stephen King-sized manual.

  5. Neuromancer’s been on my list specifically because I haven’t read any cyberpunk yet and what better introduction than Gibson? Sterling is also on the list.

  6. I’m sorry, I tend to skip plot sections of reviews. Didn’t notice the word computers there, so I was wondering.

    I can imagine having that problem with Red Son. I have a feeling though that you can still get the basic idea of the dichotomy and the question of whether it exists anyway, but some of the complexities will be lost on you.

    My only point with these examples was that genre writers looking inwards can create good as well as bad.

    I was referring to how I commented about Mark Millar and de Lint in a post about Gibson without even bothering to connect the two. 😉

  7. May I ask an odd question ? Why are you all so eager to store books in so precise genre boxes ?
    It’s been on my mind for some time now, after reading discussions on SF and crime fiction.
    It’s strange to me, I’m not very good at it.
    When I read book reviews in French cultural magazines, they rarely discuss or define a book genre so precisely.

  8. More for fun than due to prejudice, I assure you, bookaroundthecorner.
    Besides, classification is never perfect, but it makes life easier many a time anyway.

    And if you think we want precise genre boxes, you should read intros to these “100 best novels.” The other day, I was looking through the fantasy one, and the hate for the name sf/f was extraordinary. Apparently, if it has fantastic elements, it necessarily has no traces of sf.

  9. I’m not judging. I’m genuinely curious.

    As I usually don’t read SF or fantasy, I don’t understand the difference.
    And in fact, I don’t care, as long as it is well written and entertaining or exploring human condition.

    If books were stored in alphabetic order without thinking of the genre, that would be convenient too. Kurt Vonnegut wouldn’t have been in 2 different sections in my bookstore the other day. Why some in SF and some in general English literature is still a mystery to me. But it was obvious for the English salesperson of this international bookstore.

  10. Book: I am not a bookseller, but I think genres are categorised and then targeted towards audience for sales purposes. That’s my impression.

    Some books cannot be neatly compartmentalized so easily (as you point out), and there’s no problem with that, of course. In fact a genre-mad book business is a rather sad thing. However, it is sometimes annoying when I see a film or book advertised as noir and it doesn’t contain a whiff of noir. In these cases either the people who dreamed up the sales pitch have no idea what they are talking about or they don’t care.

    When it comes to crime, I’m all for sub-categories as there are so many sub-types and people have definite tastes–the Cosy, for example.

  11. Dare I ask why you decided to read it again?

    I haven’t read Gibson yet, though Neuromancer is on the TBR – well it was until son came home a week or so ago and took away his book collection. There are things I wanted him to remove, but his book collection wasn’t necessarily among them!! It is now on the virtual TBR.

    I like your introduction about genre. I tend not to read a lot of genre. Those that I do tend to read – with the odd exception – tend to be ones that do play with the conventions. That’s usually why they’ve been brought to my attention!

  12. Bookaround, for me leaving aside simple pedantry it’s because sometimes one has to discuss genre to really get at what the book is trying to do.

    Part of the importance of Gibson’s work is how it shook up SF, but I can’t really talk about that without talking about the SF genre a bit or how Gibson changed it.

    Also, some works deliberately engage with their own genre. Ronak’s example of Watchmen is a classic. If you don’t examine the superhero genre you miss much of what that comic seeks to achieve.

    So that, plus pedantry of course.

    WG, because I had a stinking cold and couldn’t make an inch of headway in the Byron.

    Ahem, I mean because it’s a classic SF text that I thought well worth revisiting.

    Actually, a bit of both plus I’ve noticed most book blogs only cover one book by each author they discuss – the latest or prize nominated one or whatever. I’d like with the authors I look at to try to read more than one of their works.

    But mostly it was the cold on this particular occasion. This book may not be perfect, but it’s a pageturner and when you feel lousy that’s an attribute not to be sniffed at (in fact it’s an attribute to be sneezed loudly at, but I digress).

  13. GB Steve

    I thought Count Zero was a bit of a mess at the time. It was so rich in detail that the big picture, the story, didn’t really emerge for me, although that may have been more because of the disjunction between the rich and AIs and the meat-people.

    In fact, I’m not so sure that Gibson is strong on plot. I mean, he has a lot of it in his novels but the plots don’t necessarily bear up to much examination. I see them as more zeitgeisty, and becoming more so as he progressed. And I think his more recent novels are better because he’s not so hung up about plot and action. In many ways Stross seems to have taken over the early Gibson niche and his future is slightly more out there. I wonder if Stross will go the same way as Gibson, becoming less futuristic as the future catches up with him?

  14. Thanks for the explanations, I understand better.
    My ignorance of SF is responsible for my questions, I apologize if they seem rude, but I like to understand things properly.

  15. I thought Pattern Recognition flawed Steve, and it didn’t help when I realised here that he’d nicked the plot wholesale from Count Zero.

    But I don’t really disagree. I criticise this one for its total lack of resolution, which is a big problem. As I said, I didn’t like it at the time either, though I enjoyed it a lot more this time (probably in part because I know now it all does get resolved, back then it just was what it was).

    I think Stross may well go the Gibson route of moving to contemporary fiction over time. That said, I know Stross was contractually locked in to producing more books than he was comfortable with which I think hurt his writing. Frankly, he could use a break.

    Morgan shows Gibson’s influence most for me, he’s running the transhumanist vibe of authors such as Stross but infusing it with a distinctly Gibsonian touch. Altered Carbon has a lot in common with Neuromancer and Broken Angels has the whole voodoo aspect lifted from Count Zero. He clearly intends the reader to get the reference.

    bookaround, all your questions are welcome. Genre isn’t that important ultimately, the only real question is whether a book is good or not. Sometimes though it’s interesting, but sometimes too it’s a tedious constraint or a distraction from the real issue of whether a book actually works.

  16. LOL Max, that’s as good a reason as any!

  17. Neuromancer is one of those books I have been meaning to read for years now. The book that made me sit up and take notice of the fact that I was likely missing an interesting eddy of fiction in the great river of literature was Cryptonomicon. I really enjoyed that book, though I have not (yet) picked up another Neal Stephenson work. Have you read Cryptonomicon and, if so, what did you think? You actually have some knowledge of the genre and, therefore, can meaningfully compare.

    At any rate, you have moved Gibon’s entire trilogy onto my TBR and bumped Neuromancer up a bit. I am still trying to get to Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia, though. I need a year of reading sci-fi, I think.

    I really enjoyed the review, in other words.

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