Count Zero by William Gibson (1986) 246 p.

Given that Neuromancer is one of my favourite books – one of many people’s favourite books, in fact, and one of the best books of the last thirty years – I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to read the rest of Gibson’s Sprawl series. Perhaps it’s because I suspected that he would never be able to live up to the outrageous standard of excellence set by Neuromancer. I was correct in that suspicion, although that certainly doesn’t mean that Count Zero is a bad book.

Neuromancer followed a single character as he was recruited by a shadowy figure assembling a team for the ultimate heist; Count Zero follows the familiar literary trope of separate, seemingly unrelated stories that merge together at the climax. Turner, a corporate mercenary, is sent to Arizona to aid in the defection of a senior scientist from one powerful corporation to another; Marly, a French gallery owner, is hired by the a man of great wealth to track down the creator of a series of art pieces; and Bobby, an amateur cowboy who styles himself Count Zero, is rescued by a mysterious woman while in the death-vice of cyberspace counter-intrusive measures. Once again present from both Neuromancer and Gibson’s much more recent novel Pattern Recognition is the theme of ordinary losers coming into the orbit of extremely powerful and influential people.

The world of Count Zero seems less fully realised, futuristic, and bleakly depressing than Neuromancer‘s. The settings in Europe, especially, seem barely dystopian at all; I don’t recall Neuromancer‘s brief Paris chapters much, but here I really noticed the discrepancy between Paris and the Sprawl. The Sprawl is painted as bleak, ugly and Ballardian, wracked with crime and poverty; Paris still seems to retain that Old World charm, as though Gibson couldn’t help but think of Europe as a place of beauty and dignity granted by age. Do Americans feel that same New World insecurity that Australians do – that lack of heritage, of venerable architecture?

For some reason I also noticed his failure to perfectly predict the future a lot more – Japan is a major world player but China gets barely a mention, there are no cell phones, the United States no longer exists but the Soviet Union still does… that’s an unfair standard to judge any science fiction writer on, of course, but the fact that I barely noticed these faulty predictions in Neuromancer, while I did in Count Zero, says something about how engrossing the respective stories are.

Count Zero does not precisely fail to live up to the world created by Neuromancer, but it does lack the same punch; not only does it feel like a mere variation on a theme, but it lacks the same urgency, excitement, and sense of epic importance that Neuromancer had. The characters are less likeable and memorable, the three-way plot effectively makes for regular interruptions to the stories, and the climax seemed quite rushed. According to Wikipedia it was apparently a serial before being published as a novel, which might help explain some of its flaws. As I said earlier, it’s not a bad book, and I still intend to finish reading the trilogy, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to Neuromancer.

A side-note: Count Zero fatures two Australian characters, both of whom, with weary predictablity, spout out “mate” and “bloody” and “bugger” a lot. (Oh, fine, only one of them does – but that’s one too many. The only other nation I can think of whose citizens must go about with such exhausting stereotypical albatrosses around their necks is Mongolia.

Another side-note: Surely there is no author who suffers a wider difference between the quality of his writing and the quality of his covers than William Gibson?

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