Thursday, February 23, 2012

Count Zero by William Gibson

I guess this is the red-headed stepchild of the Sprawl trilogy – everyone has heard of Neuromancer and I’d heard of Mona Lisa Overdrive, although I’d never read it.  But this middle volume connects the two and is a pretty good read in its own right, although hadn’t even known about it until poking around some resources for my last blog entry.

But it’s unfortunately not as good as Neuromancer.  Sorry, Mr. Gibson, it’s true at least in this instance.

Right off the bat there are a couple of unique things about this sequel.  First off, it’s set in the same universe approximately twenty years after Neuromancer, but aside from one fairly minor support character (the Finn), there aren’t any of the same human characters involved, and even the Finn doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what went on before.  He wasn't there when the final action went down and he basically says that he knew this group of crazy people who were up to some insane plan and he's not sure how it eventually worked out.  So it’s not the further adventures of Case, Molly, and the Jamaicans.  From my perspective this is a win; sequels have their place but they also lead to sloppiness in some cases.

Structurally this is where Gibson begins to create the meta-plot that he tends to use in his later works.  So instead of one protagonist, this time we’ve got three.  Also as in Gibson’s later works, these three are basically doing their own thing and then these plot threads come together at the end for a resolution.
The three protagonists are:  Turner (no first name given), a mercenary; Marly Krushkova, a disgraced former art gallery owner; and Bobby “Count Zero” Newmark, a wannabe cowboy.

I mentioned in my Neuromancer review that Gibson has a thing for people being approached for Faustian deals, and this is fully matured here.  Marly, in particular, is given a corporate job and an expense account by one Josef Virek, who has a pretty nice setup in cyberspace but in real life is something like the captain in Revelation Space, a big cancerous mass kept alive in some vats.  He’d like to get out of those, if he can.  He’s hired Marly ostensibly to track the location of some unusual artworks, but she doesn’t think that it could realistically be worth what he’s paying her just to find some art.  And of course she is right.

Turner is a mercenary specializing in corporate extractions.  The corporate structure first introduced in Neuromancer is fleshed out here – these companies are fictionalized 1980s Japanese scare-corporations, where you have a job for life, but as a downside have a job for life.  Once you sign up you’re indentured and can’t leave.  Therefore headhunting in this world is a little more intense than meeting for coffee – it’s sort of a paramilitary affair which results in your extraction from one place of business to the protective cocoon of the security forces of your new employer.  In previous jobs Turner is stated to have used truck bombs and gunfights, and it’s not too surprising that someone tries to assassinate him before the events of the novel.  (There are actually quite a few targeted assassination attempts in this novel, which actually suggests why you’d want to use a pay phone this far in the future – when people know where you are they can blow that location up.)  Anyway, Turner’s got a new gig to extract a scientist working at a somewhat shady company named Maas, which has been making astounding biotechnological breakthroughs as a result of a research scientist who wants to leave.  Turner’s got some bad feelings about this job, and of course, for good reason.

Then there’s Count Zero, who is what we would call a script kiddie, got some software from a guy he knows, followed a suggestion to try and hack a particular installation, and nearly gets himself killed with black ICE like an idiot.  He’s saved by a young girl avatar in cyberspace and spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what’s going on.

Let me say that I actually like the Count.  He’s young, he grew up in a bad part of town, so he’s semiliterate and kind of a dumbass.  Nonetheless by virtue of not dying during his stupid stunt he attracts the attention of some connected and powerful people.  He quickly realizes this, shuts up, and tries to learn something.  He has some cowboying potential, and does make a pretty awesome run toward the end, but he also realizes that he’s out of his depth and is much, much less obnoxious than almost all characters of this archetype are.

I said that there aren’t any human characters that come back.  But the Neuromancer/Wintermute gestalt entity sort of does.  It’s not entirely clear what happened, but the union didn’t stick; instead of separating back into two components, now there are lots of them.  These entities apparently aren’t as powerful as the gestalt, but they also don’t seem to have the limitations that Neuromancer and Wintermute had, in other words they are complete personalities.  In interacting with humans they tend to take on the forms of Voodoo spirits because that’s what our puny minds can comprehend.  People who deal a lot with cyberspace have noticed the changes since the reunification and subsequent split, in that it used to be filled with human data only but now it’s basically an ecosystem with a bunch of crazy non-human oriented stuff flying around.  They don’t like to talk about it with outsiders because it seems crazy and they don’t like to talk about it too much with each other either.  Sort of a trade secret.  There are rumors that you can meet these entities in cyberspace and do deals with them, which is what the cowboys both hope and fear is true.  These spirits are connected with Maas, but their ultimate purpose isn’t exactly a human purpose at all.

I’m pretty sure that I figured out what was going on in this novel and what everyone wanted, but you really have to pay attention in order to keep up here – even more so than in Neuromancer.  Many characters keep their motivations secret, and you just have to infer what they’re up to by what other characters guess they’re trying to do.  It also ends somewhat abruptly, almost in the middle of the resolution – having started Mona Lisa Overdrive, I understand that’s because the third book in the trilogy is more of a direct continuation of this one.  I’m torn about this to an extent.  I don’t need everything spelled out for me, but it also seems like Gibson was experimenting with just how much he could remove and still be coherent, and may have stopped just a little short of the line.  I couldn’t recommend this one to someone without a pretty extensive SF background just because so much is left unsaid.

Nonetheless, Gibson’s writing here is more surefooted and there’s less random action.  It’s definitely worth looking into if you have an interest in cyberpunk at all.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Blast from the past time.  I’m revisiting Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive next in line, because why not.  I hadn’t read Neuromancer in many years and for whatever reason I’d never read the other two at all, so this seemed like as good a time as any.

Anyway, Neuromancer was Gibson’s first novel and swept all the relevant awards, winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick all in the same year, something which hadn’t happened before and I don’t think has happened since (although I could be wrong about that).  Gibson was coming off a pretty promising start writing short stories, so everyone was expecting good stuff from him, and he didn’t disappoint.  Apparently Gibson’s somewhat distanced himself from this work, calling it “adolescent”, which I guess is accurate but maybe a little harsh.  After all, adolescence is the time in your life when you are capable of doing almost anything but before you realize why it’s probably a bad idea to, and some of these things turn out really horrible but others are good things that more reasonable people wouldn’t have thought of.  So it’s not without uses, at any rate.  And of course Gibson’s had a successful career and is continuing to write some pretty good work, so it’s probably pretty frustrating to have everyone consider the very first novel you ever wrote to be the pinnacle of your abilities and always think you’re coming down from there.  But it’s also one of those very, very rare works that is so absolutely foundational that everything which comes afterwards is influenced by it.  There’s nothing written subsequently that hasn’t taken a little bit from it or from something else which did.

Make no mistake, Neuromancer is a little adolescent.  It’s not a model of character development and contains a bunch of random violence and sex scenes which don’t necessarily flow that organically.  One of the things which I found most interesting, though, is the start of the theme which is nearly universal in Gibson’s work, namely the Faustian bargain between someone with a skill and a rich, powerful character who needs something accomplished.  It doesn’t necessarily cost the poor person their soul but that’s generally only because the Mephistopheles character isn’t into something as tawdry as that, having been isolated by their great wealth into finding such petty concerns as of no account.

In any event our hero here is Case, what we’d call a computer hacker but who is called here a console cowboy.  Gibson writes in milieus filled with technology but isn’t really into details of it, apparently being a cowboy requires certain animal cunning, fast reflexes and a good computer but not lots of tedious math classes or algorithm design or anything like that.  And that’s OK, this is literature, not a systems manual.  Your average cowboy enters into the matrix of cyberspace via a neural link and interacts with the data directly, as well as various security systems (ICE).  Like any magical world, screwing up here can actually kill you for real.  Case wasn’t average, he was much better – until he embezzled some money, and his employers generously let him keep it but messed up his ability to enter cyberspace by poisoning him with some sort of neurotoxin.  So he burned through his doubly ill-gotten money in black-market medical clinics trying unsuccessfully to find a cure for his condition, and as the novel opens is in deep with some scary dudes and probably a couple of days or weeks away from being killed as an example to other deadbeats.

So when he’s approached by a fellow by the name of Armitage who says they’ll cure him in return for him performing a job, he doesn’t take too long to sign up.  First fishy sign – Armitage pays for his medical treatment by giving the clinic the technology to actually perform the treatment, which allows them to file a bunch of patents and become world-renowned in neuroscience.  Second fishy sign – after they’re done, Armitage tells Case that while the doctors were in there anyway they implanted more toxin bags, and if Case tries to run he’ll end up right back where he started.  You know, just in case he was having any second thoughts about this.

Also on the team is a “street samurai” going by the name of Molly Millions, who takes something of a liking to Case and sleeps with him for no particular reason (see ‘adolescence’, above).  She’s the muscle of the operation, being filled up with various sorts of combat enhancements.  The three of them also collect a couple of other items and people for the team, all at the behest of their mysterious employer, who is fairly quickly revealed to be an artificial intelligence by the name of Wintermute, who’s trying to boost his intelligence by merging with another artificial intelligence (the titular Neuromancer).  This is strictly against the law.

A couple of words of praise for Wintermute here.  It’s often hard to write characters like aliens and artificial intelligences, things which have (at least) the mental abilities of humans but not necessarily the same sort of perspectives.  Many times these differences are glossed over, but not here.  Wintermute wants this unification because it’s in his programming, he can’t really rationalize it and he doesn’t try to, just says it’s something he has to do.  (Molly says pretty much the same thing about everything she ever does too – claiming it’s just the way she’s wired.  Ooh – symbolism!  Shiny!)  Anyway, Wintermute’s actually kind of funny in a cynical, sociopathic way, even more so because he’s basically got a legitimate gripe against the powers that be which threaten to execute him for trying to increase his intelligence further.  He’s got access to lots of money and resources, so he could try to hire some lawyers to take his case to court, maybe hire a PR firm to make the public think better about AIs in general, something like that.  One of the perks of intelligence is that it gives you options.  But no, instead he goes straight for the shadowy special ops team and physical violence.  His reassurances to Case are, in fact, hilarious.  At one point he is telling Case that everything is all right after he massacres a bunch of cops with robotic gardening equipment.  At another point Wintermute ejects one of his own team members out an airlock into space then tells Case there’s a change in plan, that Case needs to go somewhere and kill a guy and that everything will be fine after that.  There’s also the small side-effect of conversing with Wintermute in cyberspace, namely temporary brain death.  And he concedes that if he succeeds then he will probably cease to exist as he currently does and can’t 100% guarantee that his successor will follow through with the promised payments.  Given all this it’s pretty funny that Wintermute actually expects people to go along with his plans.

But what separates this from a lesser novel is that there’s actually good reason for them to.  Wintermute’s pretty good at predicting people’s reactions and he’s chosen his team not necessarily for their strengths but for their psychological manipulability, something which was much more apparent to me on this reading.  Case is the weak link so Wintermute throws in the extra implanted-toxin-sacs thing; Molly’s easily influenced by her pride, Armitage for plot reasons, one of the characters is dead and entirely predictable.  And so on.

Another spanner in the works is Neuromancer, who is Wintermute’s opposite in most ways.  Wintermute tends to treat people as science projects, dissecting their motivations and manipulating them, but he doesn’t have much of a personality of his own, simply directives and goals.  Neuromancer is capable of running accurate simulations of humans in RAM that grow and change and does have his own personality.  For whatever reason the drive to unify wasn’t programmed into Neuromancer and he’s not really that excited at the idea of being absorbed into some sort of gestalt.  However, while he has the capacity to deal with people far more effectively than Wintermute’s threats and manipulations, he doesn’t have the same sort of ability to directly interfere with events in the so-called-‘real world’.  So his attack, when it comes, is far more subtle than an automatic weed whacker.

For a book that I dogged a little at the beginning for its juvenile tendencies, this book contains quite a bit of this subtlety.  Neuromancer’s psychological attacks are just one element; the whole world is another.  Gibson quite deliberately eschews exposition in most cases and simply lets the characters trade references to things that they’re all quite familiar with.  We know there was some sort of armed conflict between the US and the USSR, which ended with the nominal victory of the latter – there are references to trials of various Pentagon officials afterwards, but the US wasn’t conquered or anything.  (Armitage was a veteran of this conflict.)  Bonn was destroyed by nuclear weapons, presumably in this war.  There were also plagues that exterminated various animal species, particularly horses, although whether this was natural or caused by humans isn’t explained.  And generally, Gibson doesn’t waste words explaining exactly how things are working, it’s expected that the reader will figure it out and can keep up.  Thematically it’s great, since Case has been out of the game for a while and is struggling to catch up too, and the narrative puts you right there with him.

As a product of the 1980s it’s sort of surprising how not-dated this is.  There’s the USSR reference, of course, and a little bit of the scare idea that Japan’s culture would dominate the future, but since Gibson’s more interested in concepts rather than technology as such most of it doesn’t exist in any particular time.  (Possible exceptions – the reference to the sky being the color of TV static, which is now a solid blue, not the grey he’s looking for, and the one actual number given, when Case has three megabytes of stolen RAM, which is portrayed as being something pretty impressive.  I mean, I guess we can just assume there was some pretty astounding data on it, after all they’ve got artificial intelligences running simulated people.)

And in the end it comes to a great climactic showdown aboard a space station where Case argues that they should do something which is probably not a great idea and may kill everyone but at least will accomplish something.  Not such a great argument, perhaps, but against a bored aristocrat insulated by her wealth into a kind of eternal stasis – indeed occasionally the literal kind – perhaps the best persuasion of all.  It also contains a really great wrapup wherein a shuriken isn't used at all as expected and Case finds out the limits of godhood.  Things are, apparently, still things, no matter what you know.

All in all this was a lot better than I remembered it, and definitely deserving of its reputation.  I feel a little bad that I’d never read the sequels, and will be correcting that posthaste.