“On receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero.”
-Programming The Z80 by Rodnay Zaks (1982).
The other night, I finally finished book II in the Sprawl series by William Gibson. Kindle for iPad, not paperback, which in itself was kind of a bummer. Somehow, I still haven’t made the transition for hard copies to ebooks. Probably never will. In any case, it was a rewarding experience which reminded me why I like Gibson in the first place. After getting through the Bigend Trilogy and the Bridge Trilogy and having somewhat mixed feelings, I got back to the trilogy that started it all, and was interested by what I found…
Count Zero is number two in the series that picks up after Neuromancer, the book which started it all for Gibson and which I read first. Set in the Sprawl – a.k.a. the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (or BAMA) – this cyberpunk story deals with themes familiar to classic Gibson fans. Cyberpsace jockeys, freelance mercenaries, corporate monopolies, the street, and people so wealthy that they are able to cheat death and transcend humanity. In between, there’s all the familiar lexicon which Gibson invented himself: microsofts, biosofts, decks, trodes, jacking, jockying, ice, black ice, icebreaker, the matrix, Turing Police, cores, and all that good stuff.
However, there were also a few elements which put me in mind of his later work. Really, I could dedicate an entire post to the parallels between this book and his Bigend Trilogy. Again, there was the notion of the transformative power of wealth, how it means so much more than just having money and the freedom to use it. Given how much importance is placed on this in the book, how it serves as a sort of motivation in itself, one would get the impression that this is a serious preoccupation of Gibson’s. But then again, it was serious preoccupations of Fitzgerald’s, and for good reason! As he and Hemingway are rumored to have said to each other:
F: “The rich are different than you and me.”
H: “Yes, they have more money.”
The story takes place seven years after the events of Neuromancer and centers on the lives of three people: First, a mercenary named Turner who has just recovered from a near-death experience and is beginning to question what he does. However, while attempting to flee his life, he is picked up and told he must do one final job. A scientist named Mitchell, working the company of Maas, wants to defect from his job and join the rival company of Hosaka. It’s up to Turner to pick him up and transport him back to Japan where, presumably, he will be safe to pursue his work in biosofts – a revolutionary biological form of technology. However, the run goes terribly awry when they find that the evacuee is in fact his daughter, and the company destroys its own fortress and kills Mitchell rather than let him fall into their rivals hands.
Second, we have a disgraced Parisian art dealer named Marly Krushkova who has been hired by a fabulously wealthy man named Virek to track down the maker of some mysterious art boxes. One of these boxes, which are based on Joseph Cornell’s artwork, apparently contain indication of biosoft construction. Virek, who is currently alive in a vat somewhere in Scandinavia, wants the technology so he can ressurrect his body and live forever. Using his dime and his contacts, Marly begins to follow the clues which will lead her to the abandoned station of Freeside, the once proud holding of the Tessier-Ashpool clan, where she will learn the shocking truth of the boxes.
Third, a young New Jersey boy named Bobby Newmark, hacker alias “Count Zero”, who is new to the jockeying game and comes across some “black ice” that nearly kills him. He discovers that the friend who gave it to him, “Two-A-Day”, received it from a questionable source and pawned it off on him to test it. When looking into this, he finds that Two-A-Day’s backers are a group of Haitain hackers who are interested in investigating a bunch of apparitions in cyberspace that appear as Voodoo gods. One of these “gods”, it seems, was responsible for saving Bobby’s life when he jacked and encountered the black ice, which was apparently of Maas construction. Their group must now move quickly, because it becomes clear that anyone who knows about the ice is being murdered.
Sound familiar? Well it should. This is classic Sprawl Gibson at his best! In time, all three threads, supposedly unrelated, weave together to the point where it becomes clear that Josef Virek, the wealthy mogul is pulling all their strings. For starters, we learn that Mitchell is not the genius he was rumored to be. Apparently, he was being fed all the information he needed to produce the biosoft technology. The person feeding him this info was apparently working from Freeside, and turns out to be one of the “apparitions” that is haunting cyberspace.
In addition, this same apparition instructed Mitchell to place biosoft technology in his daughter (Angie’s) head. Turner learns of these enhancements shortly after rescuing Angie and performing a routine scan on her. As a result, she is able to access the matrix anytime she wants without the need for a deck. Often, when she’s asleep, she is heard muttering things in Creole and having odd dreams which appear to coincide with events in cyberspace. For one, she remembers helping a boy named Bobby when he was being attacked by a malicious program. In short, she is the one who saved Bobby when he got into the black ice.
Last, Marly’s adventure to discover the box maker is related to the whole Maas/apparitions thing because Virek’s true agenda is to find the maker of the biosoft technology so he can use it to repair his dying body. As is made clear early on, he is alive only in the strictest sense, his remains being vet in a vat that keeps his vitals steady, and his brain wired to a Sim-Stim link that allows him to communicate with the outside world. It is also revealed that he intervened in Mitchell’s defection by paying off some of the mercenaries. However, his plans were upset somewhat when Mitchell chose to free his daughter instead of himself. So for the remainder of the novel, it becomes a race to capture her.
In time, she asks to be brought to the Sprawl where Bobby and his Voodoo friends are holding up inside a club. When they see Angie, Bobby recognizes her as the girl who saved his life. The Voodoo hackers also recognize her as one of the chief deities they have been observing in cyberspace. With some outside help, they make a stand against Virek and the mercenary Captain that was helping him and take them down. This they do by locating them both in cyberspace and arranging for their hiding places to be destroyed.
In the course of all this, it is revealed that these “apparitions” or Voodoo deities are in fact the splintered personality of the AI’s from book I that went by the names of Wintermute and Neuromancer. After coming together at the end of the story to form the first, fully-functional AI, the combined personality split itself up into several smaller constructs so that it would not be alone in the matrix. They adopted the form of Voodoo deities because they felt these suited them best, which is what attracted the interest of the Haitain hackers in the first place.
In addition, it was they who sent the Maas icebreak down from Freeside, as part of their wider plan to smoke out Virek. Knowing that he was trying to cheat death, they decided to intervene so that he wouldn’t be able to achieve the immortality and godlike power he had been seeking. A sort of “Tower of Babel” or Icarus-type scenario there, where a god or gods punish mortals for overreaching and trying to taste divinity.
As I said before, this book reminded me of why I turned to Gibson in the first place. His abilities at world-building, at submerging the reader in a world of megacities, megacorporations and cool and potentially frightening technologies is what established him as a master of cyberpunk in the first place. I was also happy to return to his world of familiar gadgets and tools, a la simstims, microsofts, decks, jockeys and mercenaries; not to mentions shadowy agendas and double-crosses. After having read through the Bigend Trilogy where the agendas were pretty benign and unclear, and the Bridge Trilogy where the settings were kind of inconsistent and really not that dark, it was a real treat to get back to the dirty, dystopian world of the Sprawl!
However, there were some bumps along the way as well. For one, Gibson’s penchant for portraying wealthy moguls as people who have ridiculous amounts of control and influence was something I was overly-familiar with at this point. In fact, substitute a desire to cheat death with immense curiosity and Virek easily becomes Bigend. However, I could see how this was the result of reading his later works first. Had I read the Sprawl Trilogy in its entirety before tackling the more recent Bigends, I might have seen this a bit less critically.
Ah, but there was another signature Gibson trait in this book. The anti-climactic ending! After quite a bit of action in getting Turner, Angie, Bobby and the Voodoo priests all in the same place, after all the growing tension as we are told that the club is surrounded by goons, not much happens. Bobby contacts another jockier who lost her boyfriend in the raid on Maas, because of the Mercenary Captain’s betrayal, she kills both him and Virek, and the goons dissipate as they realize the people they are working for are gone. The word “abortive” seems appropriate here, for that’s what you call an ending that is building towards and explosive climax, then fizzles out!
Still, I loved the setting, the themes, and the feel of the story. It reminds me of why I love cyberpunk and was the perfect addition to a month that has been characterized by dark, dystopian and technologically-driven literature! Much of what I had to say about Gibson’s Sprawl in my Dystopian Literature post was taken from this very book. After Neuromancer, it helped to complete the picture of what Gibson was all about in his early writing career. In building the world of tomorrow, where corporate monopolies rule, people live in dirty, overcrowded environments, where the rich are barely human and the poor struggle just to live and retain some essence of their humanity, Gibson epitomized the cyberpunk ideal of “high tech and low life”!