Novel * William Gibson * Cyberpunk * 1986
In Count Zero, William Gibson returns to the world of Neuromancer to tell an entirely different story about completely different people. Anyone wondering what happened to Case and Molly will be disappointed, because other than some vague allusions to the first story, Count Zero is a whole other deal. That said, this novel has much in common with its predecessor. The book follows the viewpoints of three people all connected by strange doings tangentially related to the artificial intelligences from Neuromancer. First up is the action man, Turner. He’s a free agent who does mercenary work for various corporations. The second is Marly, an art lady hired by a mysterious ultra-rich man named Virek to research some, well, art. The third guy is a hood rat named Bobby who aspires to be a cyber cowboy. His handle is, naturally, Count Zero.
As the novel begins, two things are immediately apparent. The first is that Gibson retains his flair for language. Nothing here is quite as good as Neuromancer’s opening, alas, but the novel is still quickly paced and punchy. The second thing is that Count Zero is a more straightforward tale than Neuromancer. This book is a little more action-oriented, and there is a more human element present. Everything about Case and Molly felt a bit detached from their own humanity. As if interfacing with their strange cyber-reality robbed them of their emotion. Not so here. Each of the three main characters has a vital emotional core, which makes it easier to follow their motivations for doing what they do. This leads to a weird place where I think Neuromancer is the greater achievement, but Count Zero is the better read. If that makes sense.
All right, enough about the previous work. Count Zero begins with Turner the corporate mercenary getting blowed right on up. He is then reassembled and sent to Mexico to recuperate. He swims in the ocean and has a nice little affair, but eventually Turner has to go back to work. This time the case has to do with a science-man who would like to defect from one company to another, and for this operation a man of Turner’s talents is needed. The scientist is responsible for creating bio-chips, or living computer hardware. This is the new hotness, so he’s a valuable commodity. Therefore, extracting him will be very difficult. Meanwhile, weird things are happening in cyberspace. Bobby, on his first cyber run, encounters an anomaly that almost kills him. After this, he takes his deck and attempts to locate the middleman who gave him the equipment. Shortly after this, his entire housing development is exploded. Oh no!
Marly the art girl is probably the least essential of the three narratives. I’m still a little unsure of what she’s doing the entire time, which is fitting since neither does the character. As the story moves along, it becomes apparent that the rogue AIs from the first novel are trying to become acclimated to being independent intelligences. Neuromancer and Wintermute are not named in the novel, but it seems like the pseudo-religious entities that pop up occasionally in cyberspace are an aspect of those AIs. Despite some ambiguity and vagueness, Count Zero still seems like a more solid story. There are satisfying action scenes, and watching these characters figure out what they’re doing is feels right. As ever, though, I think I’m more interested in the world of The Sprawl and beyond.
The world of Count Zero is a techno-dystopia. The world is run by corporations, and there is no mention of local or national governments. The world is mostly urbanized, although there is mention of in-between places in this novel that have some semblance of the rustic. It’s difficult to really focus on the structure of society, if only because Gibson tends to focus on those individuals on the periphery. Turner, to be sure, is unlike the vast majority of citizens. He roams the world doing freelance work for the highest bidder. His home is whatever hotel room he’s in that night. Bobby is of the underclass, and is perhaps representative of the largest number of people living in the The Sprawl.
The defining feature of this techno-dystopia is the income inequality mandated by the corporate model. Curiously, however, this model is presented as a sort of counter to the idea of an aristocracy. It’s understood that while corporations hold all of society’s wealth, individuals within each corporation are borderline irrelevant. Everyone plays their part, toes the line, because they know they’re imminently replaceable. This is true for anyone within the organization, from the janitor to the CEO. Anyone who’s worked for a large company knows this is true. On the other hand, in the aristocratic model, one person holds all the wealth and is in effect indispensable. Virek, one of last singular aristocrats left in the world, is shown as an example of this phenomenon.
Virek is repeatedly said to be no longer human. It’s never really said if he’s now more than human or less, but either way his vast wealth has distorted his ability to relate to actual people. Biologically, he’s said to be very old and keeps himself alive with various technologies. Despite the limitations of his body, he is able to keep tabs on his business interests by interfacing with cyberspace and whatnot, and is thus able to exert his will upon pretty much every aspect of society. Yet he’s an anomaly. If and when he dies, his great holdings will be thrown into chaos, given that there is no corporation in place to absorb the loss. Of course in the end this is exactly what happens, having been killed by one of the rogue AIs. It’s kind of mystical and strange, but then so is every aspect of cyberspace in these novels.
Presented as a counter to Virek is our own Count Zero, Bobby from the Projects. His life is one of survival, although he’s certainly not as desperate as others around him. He has a home, and the means to live day to day. Still, his mother is a useless automaton who spends most of her waking hours jacked into ‘stimsim’ shows, which are described as a sort of interactive soap opera (not unlike the story walls in Fahrenheit 451). Bobby has a healthy resentment towards his mother, although he can’t help but be a little bummed when she’s seemingly blown to bits early on. Beyond his own home, his life is extremely localized. Too poor to travel beyond his own neighborhood, he is restricted to making his fortune in only a few ways. He could join one of the two main gangs in the area, or he can work as a freelance hustler. Bobby chooses the second, deciding he wants to be a hotshot cyber-cowboy. This almost gets him killed, but it also shoots him up the underground ladder faster than he could have imagined. Regardless, he’s still the most ‘human’ of the characters, with the possible exception of Marly. He has very grounded motivations, and despite the roughness of his surroundings and upbringing, seems to be the most morally-centered.
All of this is to highlight the moral ambiguity of a corporate-run society. The closer to the power-source of money and resources one is, the more compromised one’s humanity is. Virek is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man corporation. He is utterly amoral. Not exactly evil, certainly not good, he does what is in his best interest without much concern for anything else. This is precisely how a corporation is set up to work. Turner, who doesn’t work for any particular company, still works in close proximity to them. As such, his life is that of subterfuge and violence. The closest he gets to happiness is the two weeks or so in Mexico that the novel opens with. That is, until he gives up the life. The novel closes nicely with a quiet moment in the woods, with Turner teaching his son to shoot. Having moved beyond the corporate structure, Turner regained his humanity.