Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
William Gibson made great strides for the cyberpunk genre when he published the first entry in the Sprawl Trilogy, and he continues his foray into the near future with the second book in the series, Count Zero. It follows the story of a mercenary who wakes up with a reconstructed body and is then activated by Hosaka Corporation to help extract a defecting chief if Research & Development, and most importantly, the new biochip he has invented.
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William Gibson Starts a War Between Corporations
The cyberpunk genre might be a fairly new one, but it has caught our collective imagination like few others, exhibiting like none other the harmful influence of our accelerated technological development and the potential spirals it might lead us down into. William Gibson has proven himself a valuable contributor to the genre when he first published Neuromancer, the first entry in the Sprawl Trilogy, and in the second book, Count Zero, he raises the stakes up to an inter-corporate war.
Though I would highly recommend you take the time to read the first book if you’re a fan of the genre, I’d say it isn’t entirely necessary to enjoy this novel. You would be missing out on a good chunk of background information about the world and way in which it functions, but it’s definitely not the end of the world if you choose to skip over it.
In any case, this time around the story has us following a mercenary, one who has recently undergone a bodily reconstruction after his last mission left him worse for wear. Though he wakes up with a beautiful woman by his side and the promise of rest, the Hosaka Corporation reactivates him to send him on a mission far more dangerous than his previous one.
He is tasked with helping the defection of a chief on Research & Development working for a rival corporation. However, more important than the man himself is the biochip he has managed to engineer, promising to revolutionize the world in untold ways, the key to the world of tomorrow.
Naturally, there is a reason a mercenary was needed for this job: there are other parties willing to pay any price to get the chip into their own hands. What’s worse, some of those parties aren’t exactly human, and there is no predicting what sorts of dangers or challenges our protagonist might face as he becomes embroiled in a no-holds-barred war against some of the world’s most powerful corporations.
A Disjointed Exploration of a Bizarre World in Count Zero
No book out there can be completely perfect, and while this certainly applies to William Gibson as much as anyone else, there is one thing he will never be accused of: lacking a distinct voice. Some authors have such a unique and memorable way of writing they can be recognized simply by their text, and in my opinion Gibson stands firmly in this exclusive category of writers.
How exactly does his style stand out from the rest? To begin with, and this is especially true for the first half of the book, I had the impression the narration was more akin to a stream of consciousness rather than having a concrete structure. The prose is quite simple and almost reminiscent of Hemingway in certain segments, but they way in which it’s all delivered feels rather disjointed, an effect amplified by the nature of the world we’re exploring.
It can take a bit of time to get used to the way William Gibson writes, even if you have read the previous chapter of the Sprawl Trilogy at some point in the past. While I didn’t personally see it as much of a hurdle to overcome, I do think some of you might be put off by his writing style, at least at a first glance; it does take a bit of time and effort on the reader’s part to really be appreciated.
Speaking of the setting itself, it feels like we’ve gotten dropped smack-dab in the middle of a semi-alien world, and nobody is intent on holding our hand or explaining anything to us. There is a lot of technical jargon the meaning of which we are left to decipher for ourselves through context rather than exposition.
I quite enjoyed this approach because it adds a layer of mystery on top of everything, covering it in a veil we are encouraged to lift ourselves. While I do admit it was a little frustrating trying to follow what was happening at certain times during the story, on the whole I’d say I had quite a bit of fun trying to put together all the pieces of the puzzle to make my own picture of the setting in Count Zero.
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.― William Gibson, Count Zero
The Pawns on Corporate Chessboards
Make no mistake, a good deal of the book is dedicated to giving us a glimpse into the world and the many complex dynamics in play, but the further we get into it, the more the focus begins to shift on the actual plot I described at the start of this review. The mercenary, Bobby Newmark, takes an increasingly central stage in the story, and past the halfway point I’d say the action starts to pick up a fair bit.
The battle waged between the corporations is exciting to follow, and while in classic William Gibson style we’re to figure plenty of things out for ourselves, there is more than enough information to allow our imagination to fill in the blanks. While some of the decisions made by characters do seem a little questionable overtly, everything makes complete sense within the logic of the universe depicted in Count Zero.
As far as the main character goes, he comes across as somewhat juvenile when we first meet him, but he does undergo a slow arc of transformation from start to finish. The events he is made to endure shape him bit by bit, and in my opinion made his character development feel quite realistic in most respects. While I think it would have been best to make him rely a little less on luck on more on his personal capabilities, he still remains the kind of protagonist I mostly enjoyed following.
The secondary and tertiary characters are also given their due diligence in terms of development, and while we naturally don’t learn as much about them as we do about our protagonist, they are still fleshed out beings, rather than cardboard cutouts. They have a certain weight in the world they inhabit, and this allows us to better appreciate the stakes surrounding the fate of the biochip.
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I think perhaps one of William Gibson‘s greatest strengths is creating a sense of anticipation, even if we don’t really know what it is we are anticipating. The many elements he leaves up to the imagination play on our natural fear of the unknown, and there is a constant creeping dread as if something terrible might happen any moment, and I found it to be just as exciting as anything an action-packed thriller could offer.
The Final Verdict
Count Zero by William Gibson is certainly a unique and quality continuation to the Sprawl Trilogy, taking us on a ride through a new story in a cyberpunk world rife with mysterious wonders. Though the writing style might take a bit of time to get used to, the experience it delivers is one I wouldn’t hesitate to qualify as truly original.
If you’re into cyberpunk novels and are looking for a work which really stands out from the crowd, or have enjoyed the first entry in the series, then I do advise you to give this novel a shot.
The child saw things that were too evident, too obvious for the trained eye.― William Gibson, Count Zero
William Gibson is an American-Canadian writer and essayist whose greatest contribution to literature, to many, was pioneering the sub-genre of cyberpunk. Neuromancer is his most widely-acclaimed novel, his other notable works including Count Zero and Agency.
He is the recipient of the 1985 Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick, 1995 Prix Aurora and 2016 Inkpot awards, not to mention his countless other nominations.