#19 – Count Zero, by William Gibson

There are a couple of things about Count Zero that have never quite ticked over for me. It’s not that they don’t make sense, it’s more that they don’t make the right kind of sense to sustain my willing suspension of disbelief. The idea is that you can find anything in the Sprawl, and I suppose they fall under that umbrella, but Gibson doesn’t strike me as the kind of writer who does things just because he can.

The first of those two things is the least significant, and that’s Bobby Newmark’s mother. Gibson’s narrators are always third person in his novels, so we never get the unfiltered personality of any of his characters, but it’s pretty clear that we see Bobby’s (Count Zero’s) mother the way he sees her, and two things are plain: she’s a lost cause, spending all her time drinking and jacked into serial simstims on her Hitachi, the Sprawl equivalent of the daytime soaps, and that she doesn’t have a job. Bobby’s father isn’t in the picture, hasn’t ever been in the picture, to hear him tell it, and Gibson’s Sprawl, of which Bobby seems to live in some kind of tertiary, low-income, low-density annex, is not the kind of place with public health insurance and welfare cheques. The Sprawl borders on outright anarchy, and even in a place like Barrytown, things cost money. How does she pay for rent and simstim? How does she pay for the trip out (I couldn’t find the passage, a tangential remark, a background broadcast making it temporarily through to Bobby’s consciousness) to what I think was a casino with friends, that ultimately saves her life? I have friends today who manage to live that way, travel all over and go to bars and restaurants, but never seem to have a job. I don’t know where the money comes from, and it’s equally unclear when it comes to Bobby and his mom.

The other thing is the loa. Now, I know what the loa are. In Neuromancer, bits of the two Tessier-Ashpool AIs were capable of acting more or less autonomously, parts of a whole that wanted to become parts of an even greater whole, a joining that has no human analog. If the unsophisticated Tessier-Ashpool AIs (unsophisticated in relation to what they became) were able to break off into distinct functional units, it makes perfect sense that the thing that came of their union, the artificial entity that some of the console cowboys think of as the god of cyberspace, would be capable of doing the same thing, especially after what it found at the end of Neuromancer, what it touched. But why would it latch itself on to the hacker Vodou culture? Why masquerade as the loa? (A more interesting question, though: did the various AI fragments eventually come to see themselves as the loa, defined by how Lucas, Jackie, Rhea and Beauvoir saw them?) The choice of Vodou (as Gibson spells it) as the religion of the Matrix makes a little bit of sense, because as one of them explains, the other religions are like the Yakuza or the big corporations, playing so big a game that your problems will have to be absolutely huge before they will even notice your pleas, never mind decide to act on them, whereas Vodou is about getting things done down at the level of the street, probably the single most important part of life in the Sprawl.

I am surprised that there’s no real discussion about whether or not seventeen year old Angie is human. She’s been genetically engineered unknowingly by her “father” at the behest of the loa-AIs (it’s unclear to me whether or not she has a mother, or if she’s just straight up vat-grown; Angie’s own recollections are not to be trusted in this matter, and everything about her life before the instant she meets Turner happens “off stage,” as it were), built with biological constructs inside her that are invisible to most scans but are tumor-like, and allow her to access cyberspace in a kind of dream-state, not with much in the way of conscious control, but rather so that she can be ridden by the loa, provide flesh and blood access to the flesh and blood world. Young and pretty or not (and it isn’t until Turner’s reaction to her, long after she’s entered the picture, that by “young” they mean “young adult” and not “child”), can such a creature really be human? Gibson doesn’t seem interested in that question, which is a little odd, because it’s the sort of question that one would think he’d be all over. Count Zero is a lot more about blowing things up and being on the run than Neuromancer was, so maybe he had other things on his mind. Thinking about it now, Angie could be a kind of dry run at Rei Toei, the artificial idoru of, well, Idoru, an entity on a personhood spectrum, closer in this case to the “traditional person” end of the spectrum, built to meet the expectations and uses of artificial life, but eventually taking control of her own destiny by becoming an aspect of cyberspace in Mona Lisa Overdrive. (Rei Toei being on the opposite end of the spectrum, an artificial person created to meet the needs of flesh and blood people, who takes control of her destiny by becoming flesh and blood in All Tomorrow’s Parties.)

There are two other characters in this story who could be considered dry runs for characters who show up in later Gibson books. Marly is quite clearly a prototype of Cayce from Pattern Recognition, a character type that reaches its logical extreme in Colin Laney from Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. She’s been hired to find the origins of Cornell-like boxes (though in Count Zero, Cornell boxes take on a whole other significance, being the work of an artist, but at the same time representing also the rote digital creation of an image of physical space by a machine and the faithful rendering, through the juxtaposition of physical objects, of subtle human emotion), and she does, up in the old clean rooms of Straylight, where the Tessier-Ashpool corporate servers were housed, the boxes the result of squatters tapping into an echo of the Singularity Case and Molly triggered in Neuromancer.

The other dry run is Josef Virek, a man nearly as wealthy as Lady 3Jane’s whole corporate clan, his wealth allowing him to survive as he becomes less and less human in a Stockholm support vat, his body ravaged by an exotic cancer that’s turning him into a creature like Tetsuo at the end of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a metaphor, perhaps, for what his wealth has already done to him. Virek is seeking immortality in the bodiless Matrix (the kind of immortality achieved by the Wintermute and Neuromancer AIs, or Rei Toei, who he resembles in that he has many choices as to how he may manifest). He manipulates his employees, who sometimes find themselves working at odds, towards ends that the reader knows (or can guess at) but that are rarely clear to others in the novel. He is a bloated, extreme, inhuman version of Hubertus Bigend of Blue Ant from Pattern Recognition.

Count Zero ends happily for nearly all the surviving protagonists (it’s a truly ensemble cast), but such happiness is mostly conditional. Turner raises a child with his brother’s sort-of girlfriend, but their relationship (and the child) are the result of Turner’s emotional betrayal of his brother when he visits him seeking shelter for Angie, that visit being the direct cause of his death. Marly owns her own gallery in Paris, but must do so with the knowledge that perhaps the most profound art she has ever encountered in her life was created by an unthinking, unfeeling machine, not even a simulation of consciousness, but the echo of a simulation. Bobby and Angie are dropped into every teenager’s fantasy of sex, wealth, and fame, but… well, their but is the subject of the third Sprawl novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Count Zero was my seventeenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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