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.

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