“Eyes open, he pulled the thing from his socket and held it, his palm slick with sweat. It was like waking from a nightmare. Not a screamer, where impacted fears took on simple, terrible shapes, but the sort of dream, infinitely more disturbing, where everything is utterly wrong …” (p.30)
Count Zero is the second book in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy. It is not a direct sequel to Neuromancer, but it does develop some of the themes and ideas Gibson used in his seminal first novel. It’s a more mature, more ambitious work than Neuromancer, telling the stories of three main characters: Turner, a mercenary-for-hire; Bobby, a young console-cowboy; and Marly, a former art gallery owner.
Like its predecessor, Count Zero is not an easy read. Gibson has no time for info-dumps, being a proponent of the “show, don’t tell” school of storytelling. This means we are dropped into the middle of the author’s universe and need to hit the ground running as we try to keep up. It can be challenging at times, and may require a few re-reads of parts of the book, but it is so worth it.
“… You got ghost stories, sure, and hotdoggers who swore they’d seen things in cyberspace, but he had them figured for wilsons who jacked in dusted; you could hallucinate in the matrix as easily as anywhere else …” (p.48)
Strange things are happening in cyberspace. Unexplained encounters with sentient beings are being reported by console cowboys travelling through the Matrix. Are they simply hallucinations or could there be ghosts in the machines? Whatever they may be, they have attracted the attention of some powerful individuals. I was intrigued by the forms Gibson used to represent these entities, which I won’t mention here.
Out in the “real” world, two powerful zaibatsus, “Maas Biolabs” and “Hosaka”, are fighting over an emerging new technology called “biochips”. The creator of said technology, Christopher Mitchell, is attempting to jump ship from one multinational to the other. This is where Turner comes in as he is hired to run the team handling the extraction.
“‘Silicon’s on the way out, Turner. Mitchell’s the man who made biochips work, and Maas is sitting on the major patents. You know that. He’s the man for monoclonals. He wants out. You and me, Turner, we’re going to shift him.’” (p.11)
At the same time, wannabe console cowboy, Bobby Newmark, has just stumbled on “something vast” during a routine run through cyberspace. He has no idea what it was, but it may just have saved him. This encounter sends him on the run for his life as malign forces are alerted to his existence.
“Another thing you have to watch out for, maybe it’s a military icebreaker, and that’s bad heat, too, or maybe it’s taken a walk out of some zaibatsu’s industrial espionage arm, and you don’t want that either. You takin’ this shit in, Bobby?” (p.99)
The third storyline follows Marly Krushkova. After a forgery scandal leaves her out of work, she is offered a job by rich and reclusive art patron, Josef Virek. He wants her to find the mysterious artist behind a series of exquisitely created “boxes”. Marly’s search will eventually take her to “Freeside”, a place that will be familiar to readers of Neuromancer.
As any readers of this blog will already know, I am a huge fan of Neuromancer. It took me three separate, spaced-apart reads to fully appreciate Gibson’s 1984 game-changer. Is Count Zero as good as Neuromancer? It’s difficult to say. Count Zero is a brilliant book, which is more ambitious than its predecessor. But its complexity might put some readers off.
Speaking subjectively, I prefer the younger, rawer Neuromancer, though only just. It was a brave move by Gibson to resist the temptation to pen a direct sequel to it. He could easily have continued the adventures of the characters from the first book. Instead, he has written a complex, mature, original cyberpunk thriller set in the same Sprawl universe, with just enough notes of familiarity to any neuromancers out there.