Book Review 58: Count Zero

She nodded, her mouth full. Swallowed. “A little bit. I know that a lot of people don’t work for Maas. Never have and never will. You’re one, your brother’s another. But it was a real question. I kind of liked Rudy you know? But he just seemed so ...

“Screwed up,” he finished for her, still holding his sandwich. “Stuck. What it is, I think there’s a jump some people have to make, sometimes, and if they don’t do it, then they’re stuck good . . . And Rudy never did it.”

Page 205

Count Zero is part of William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy of novels that also includes Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Each book can stand on its own, however.

I always have mixed feelings about Gibson’s books. Often it feels like a chapter or two is missing towards the end. Count Zero is a little different. It’s much better paced than than most of his novels, and he seems to tie up most of the loose ends by the time the book stops. That makes this one my favorite Gibson novels.
Gibson’s strength is the world he creates. While the characters often lack depth or seem cliched, the environment they inhabit is fascinating. Gibson’s advanced weapons, early take in the Internet, post-governmental capitalist society, space travel, and advances in computer technology are a fantastic playground for his characters to run around in.

In Count Zero, the various story lines include an amateur hacker who gets in over his head, a discredited gallery owner seeking a mysterious artist for an uber-weathly collector, and a mercenary hired to “rescue” a researcher from a medical facility.

Medical advances are used as both liberators and prisons in this book. Although even when the liberate, they still seem to imprison.

Herr Virek communicates with people through virtual reality technology. His body had been failing him for some time.

“Please.” He patted the bench’s random mosaic of shattered pottery with a narrow hand “You must forgive my reliance on technology. I have been confined for over a decade to a vat. In some hideous industrial suburb of Stockholm. Or perhaps of hell. I am not a well man, Marley. Sit beside me.”

page 16

"I speak as one who can no longer tolerate that simple state, the cells of my body having opted for the quixotic pursuit of individual careers. I imagine that a more fortunate man, or a poorer one, would have been allowed to die at last, or be coded at the core of some bit of hardware. But I seem constrained, by a byzantine net of circumstance that requires, I understand, something like a tenth of my annual income. Making me, I suppose, the world’s most expensive invalid. I was touched. Marly, at your affairs of the heart. I envy you the ordered flesh from which they unfold.”

And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.

Page 20

While the wealthy can benefit from thing to supplement their biology, corporations also use technology to keep employees from leaving. The mercenary in the story discusses with a medical team what they will do once they get an employee away from his employer.

"Cortex charges, that sort of thing?”

“I doubt,” said the other man, “that we will encounter anything so crude, but yes, we will be scanning for the full range of lethal devices. Simultaneously, we’ll run a full blood screen. We understand that his current employers deal in extremely sophisticated biochemical systems. It greatest danger would lie in that direction .

“It’s currently quite fashionable to equip top employees with modified insulin-pump subdermals,” his partner broke in. “The subject’s system can be tricked into an artificial reliance on cer-tain synthetic enzyme analogs. Unless the subdermal is recharged at regular intervals, wit employer—can result in trauma.”

Page 87

The stories take place in a highly capitalistic society where everything can be bought and sold. In order to move the story along, Gibson has to take those obstacles out of the characters’ way. He throws loose-walleted sponsors at the characters to address this concern.

“Certainly, Herr Virek! And, yes, I do wish to work!”

“Very well. You will be paid a salary. You will be given access to certain lines of credit, although, should you need to purchase. let us say, substantial amounts of real estate—”

“Real estate."

“Or a corporation, or spacecraft. In that event, you will require my indirect authorization. Which you will almost certainly be given. Otherwise, you will have a free hand. I suggest, however, that you work on a scale with which you yourself are comfortable. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing touch with your intuition, and intuition, in a case such as this, is of crucial importance.” The famous smile glittered for her once more.

She took a deep breath. “Herr Virek, what if I fail? How long do I have to locate this artist?”

“The rest of your life,” he said.

Page 19-20

In the hacker thread, he is aided by a major organized crime organization.

Our mercenary is able to draw on the resources afforded him by his employers.

One thread has characters chasing a character called The Wig. One thing I like about his story is the casual way Gibson discusses the power a smart, skilled hacker can wield.

Silicon doesn’t wear out; microchips were effectively immortal. The Wig took notice of the fact. Like every other child of his age, however, he knew that silicon became obsolete, which was worse than wearing out; this fact was a grim and accepted constant for the Wig, like death or taxes, and in fact he was usually worried about his gear falling behind the state of the art than he was about death (he was twenty-two) or taxes (he didn’t file, although he paid a Singapore money laundry a yearly percentage that was roughly equivalent to the income tax he would have been required to pay if he’d declared his gross).

The Wig reasoned that all that obsolete silicon had to be going some where. Where it was going, he learned, was into any number of very poor places struggling along with nascent industrial bases. Nations so benighted that the concept of nation was still taken seriously The Wig punched himself through a couple of African backwaters and felt like a shark cruising a swimming pool thick with caviar. Not that any one of those tasty tiny eggs amounted to much, but you could just open wide and scoop, and it was easy and filling and it added up. The Wig worked the Africans for a week, incidentally bringing about the collapse of at least three governments and causing untold human suffering. At the end of his week, fat with the cream of several million laughably tiny bank accounts, he retired. As he was going out, the locusts were coming in; other people had gotten the African idea.

Page 155-156

I like Count Zero because I think I understood what happened in the end. Gibson wrapped up many of the loose ends in the plot and I didn’t feel frustrated when the book suddenly stopped like I do with many of his novels. Count Zero didn’t disappoint me. Of course, when I went back and read the Wikipedia article about the book, I discovered that I missed a great deal of the what was happening in it. It some respects it seemed like Wikipedia had a chapter I didn’t. I guess I’m lucky I’m not taking a test on it. But I'm not sure that matters.

The bottom line is that Count Zero is a good book, and one well worth reading if you have interest in the Cyberpunk genre. It includes Gibson’s fantastic universe and has what I thought was an unusually tight ending.
Now I suppose I should reread all three books in the trilogy to see if they make more sense as a set.

You can read more of my book reviews here.

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