Review of Count Zero by

Book cover for Count Zero

William Gibson can write. I keep exploring this in different ways and different words as I read through Gibson’s oeuvre, but in the end it comes down to two appropriately alliterative words: William Gibson has voice and vision. He has a way with language that not every writer, even really good ones, ever manages to master. He knows how to use and manipulate words and phrases to create cultures. With this talent, he creates novels that conjure up pocket universes of our future.

Count Zero is much more spiritual and emotionally evocative than its predecessor, Neuromancer. There are three main characters and three intertwined plots. Turner is a mercenary hired to manage the defection of a scientist from one transnational to another, but he ends up with the scientist’s daughter instead. Bobby, who is attempting to establish himself as a console cowboy by the name of “Count Zero”, finds himself neck-deep in a situation far more serious than he ever desired to encounter. And Marly is a curator hunting up the provenance of an intrigue art object at the behest of a reclusive collector. At the risk of sounding reductionist, the three plotlines conveniently symbolize three of the primary themes in Count Zero: a weary mercenary confronting the emptiness of his chosen profession; a new, untested youth struggling with his coming-of-age; and a young woman pulled inexorably deeper into the grey and black areas of the art world, pulled by a man who is not entirely human anymore.

So there is no denying that Count Zero is a complex book, when one really stops to consider everything that happens in it. The language that Gibson uses can often conceal this fact, because sometimes it is difficult to follow the train of the story (or at least, I found this to be the case). There is a lyrical, almost dream-like quality to his prose; I encountered this in some of his other novels, but it seems particularly noticeable in this one. Sometimes this vagueness is advantageous. For example, Gibson does not go into detail when he explains how the consensual illusion that is cyberspace is generated, nor how the “decks” that console cowboys use work. This lends a timeless quality to the setting (though his use of the term tapes stands out as an exception).

With that in mind, then, I don’t see Count Zero as the best or the easiest of Gibson’s novels. But that’s almost like saying The Tempest is neither the best nor the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays—this is still a fine book. In particular, I love the hints and whispers at post/trans-humanism that permeate the story. They never quite overwhelm the narrative (Gibson’s vagueness can also be a consequence of the fact that he is so damned subtle). Yet they crop up at the most interesting moments. In Neuromancer Gibson raised questions regarding how an AI that is essentially an alien being would co-exist with humanity. He never quite re-visits the fate of the Neuromancer/Wintermute construct, but he drops all these tantalizing hints about strange things happening in cyberspace, not to mention the odd god inhabiting space junk in orbit.

On the other side of the divide, we have humans like Turner or Angela or even Bobby, people who have jacks that allow them to download data directly into their brain. I honestly don’t know why N. Katherine Hayles has had such an effect on me, since I only ever read a single article by her so far—but I keep seeing the motif of embodiment show up all the time in my posthuman fiction. Turner might be a cyborg, and his body might recently have undergone dramatic reconstructive surgery. But he still has a body. And so, unlike the shady Josef Virek, who is more of a construct than a human being any more, Turner is still human—or at least, seems to perform as human in a way that satisfies the rest of us. Gibson is good at asking these questions without beating them over our heads. There is a refreshing lack of pretentiousness to books like Count Zero, even as they force us to think about difficult ideas.

The second instalment in the Sprawl trilogy also recalls Gibson’s post-national corporate-driven vision of the future. In this case, it’s tech giants Hosaka and Maas Industries competing for a brilliant researcher by the name of Mitchell. He has been developing revolutionary biochip technology for Maas, but now apparently he wants to defect to Hosaka. This little game of industrial brinksmanship has its precedent in present-day industry, of course, but I suspect that few companies go to the lengths that Hosaka does, hiring mercenaries and a medical team to extract any destructive implants Maas might have installed to dissuade Mitchell from walking. In this future, the companies might not own you outright, but they almost certainly own you in any way that matters. And this vision has never been more compelling, because as Gibson himself has famously said, “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed”. I can’t speak to what Gibson had in mind when he wrote Count Zero or what contemporary readers might have imagined, but it certainly resonates with some of the events that are happening globally today, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and, in general, the growing awareness that corporations have a great deal of influence in the political process.

Although not my favourite aspect of Count Zero, its spiritual component deserves consideration as well. Science and secularism seems to go hand-in-hand these days. Certainly, I consider science’s foundation on rational principles one of the influences on my transition to agnosticism and eventually atheism as I grew to adulthood. Yet this partnership has not, historically, always been the case. Science and spirituality have a much longer history, and many science fiction authors acknowledge this fact. In this book, some of the minor characters are involved in a techno-voodoo worship of loa that inhabit cyberspace. These loa manifest at unpredictable moments and “ride” a chosen human body, a point that becomes important at the climax of the novel. Gibson declines to pull back the curtain and explain the true nature of the loa (there are certainly hints that they are related to an AI or even to Neuromancer/Wintermute itself). So it’s a worthwhile question: regardless of the existence of an actual deity, what are we going to encounter if we continue to create and inhabit digital spaces? What will happen as we allow programs to go feral, to roam, and to mix code in unpredictable ways?

I don’t always love Gibson’s novels, but I do always appreciate them. Quality triumphs over quantity, and while Gibson has not been as prolific as some of his contemporaries, his novels are always worth reading. He has a grasp on the ways in which technology challenges and changes our society, the ways we react to these changes and initiate our own. His characters feel real and always have interesting, diverse voices, whether it’s Turner, Bobby, or even a minor character like the Finn. Gibson provides a general vocabulary and dialect, but inflection and idiom are always the character’s own. Such attentiveness! Such style! Count Zero is interesting and cool, and it’s a well-written piece of science fiction. Although it did not quite manage to capture and hold my attention like Pattern Recognition did, I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

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