Count Zero (1986) by William Gibson

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Neuromancer (1984) Book Review
Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) Book Review
Available works by William Gibson


Count Zero is William Gibson’s second book in his Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988), set in the same universe as Neuromancer which envisions a world where people routinely jack into Cyberspace, a term coined by Gibson. His Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988) – spaced out over 16 years – explores the interstices between mind and computer, as well as the infancy of advanced artificial intelligence, specifically the point at which it starts to become sentient.

Seven years after the events of Neuromancer, a number of people get caught up in a battle between two nefarious corporations, Maas Biolabs and Hosaka, which are fighting for control over a powerful new biochip technology. In the desert of Arizona, mercenary Turner is hired by Hosaka to facilitate a job defection of a high profile scientist from Mass Biolabs. In Brussels, ex-gallerist Molly Krushkova is hired by a dying, extremely wealthy entrepreneur to find the unknown artist responsible for a number of Joseph Cornell like boxes he has been collecting. In the Sprawl, young hacker Bobby Newark (who calls himself Count Zero) almost dies while testing a piece of icebreaker software in the matrix. At first these narrative threads are unrelated, but as the novel progresses and weird things start to happen in the matrix it becomes clear that there are powers at play that go beyond the two corporations’ stratagems.

While Cyberpunk as a literary style was starting to take shape before the publishing of Neuromancer, it was Gibson’s work that solidified Cyberpunk as a subgenre. The dark, claustrophobic landscape of the Sprawl, as fleshed out in Neuromancer, is emblematic of much Cyberpunk literature: profusion of plastic and neon, rife trade in proscribed pharmaceuticals and software programs, abundance of recreational drugs, and plethora of small shops providing cosmetic surgery, body modifications and brain implants. It is a world where mind and body can be augmented or refashioned at will. In Count Zero the reader is further introduced to holoporn (interactive holographic porn) and mind numbing soap operas broadcast by the actors’ camera implants (simstims) allowing for POV immersion. 

Cutthroat capitalism, corporations routinely resorting to espionage to gain an advantage over the competition are major themes in Count Zero. When Turner, supported by military and medical outfits, is hired to facilitate the extraction of Christopher Mitchell, this is just another day’s work. Corporations are known to equip top employees with medical implants that induces drug addiction dependency or cruder implants which outright kill the employee should he/she defect. Evil corporations have become integral to much Cyberpunk literature and it is a theme that was later supercharged in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) as well as in Charles Stross’ Accellerando (2005). 

In the seven to eight years since the events of Neuromancer, reports have started to filter through in the tech community of Haitian voodoo-like ghosts and voices haunting the matrix. Thought to be remnants of the AIs Neuromancer and Wintermute, but a mystery as to why they choose to manifest as voodoo gods and what their purpose are, there are those in the tech community who have started to communicate with them, even establishing a voodoo cult based on the premise that God now reside in the matrix. It is also hinted that the voodoo gods gave Mitchell the information to develop the biochip and instructed him to implant it in his daughter's brain. In other words, it is a classic case of deus ex machina, even if the voodoo gods’ objectives remain a mystery. These are important themes in the novel, not least when viewed in the context of the critically acclaimed postmodern space opera which started to make a name for itself in the late 1980s onwards. Here AI godhood and the concept of deus ex machina are explored as major themes, in fact whole narratives revolve around them, notably in Dan Simmons Hyperion Cantos series (1989-1997), David Zindell’s Neverness Universe series (1988-1995) and Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebas (1987).