Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 17 June 2016
William Gibson, Count Zero 1986
They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tires. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallized hexogene and flaked TNT. He didn’t see it coming…
Count Zero opens with these words. Turner is one of the lead characters. Previously a security but now an executive extraction expert, he helps technical geniuses to move from one corporation or zaibatsu to another. In other words, as outlined in previous articles, his profession today would be called executive recruitment, but in the Indiana Jones style (just not archaeology).
The three previous articles Neuromancer, The Art of Prophecy and William Gibson’s Art of Prophecy are relevant and hopefully you will have read them before this one, as I will be assuming some things are known. Nevertheless, this Count Zero article should stand on its own.
Because Turner is good at his job he had a good agent and a good contract and presumably good insurance. A reminder always to have good travel insurance, specifically good medical cover.
[He] was in Singapore an hour after the explosion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.
Perhaps one disappointing aspect of Gibson’s writing after Neuromancer is that he moves from a relatively linear story format in Neuromancer to a story with three-threads, which alternate. Mona Lisa Overdrive is written on the same model. Much science fiction and genre fiction are written on this pattern. It is a good way to interweave a story of diverse parts, which eventually come together to form a denouement.
However, it is sometimes irritating for the reader no matter how well-written, because one gets hooked on one particular story which is going well and wants to rush through the other stories as irrelevancies to find out what happened.
I need to give a spoiler alert now. I gave very little of the story of Neuromancer away because it wasn’t necessary but for Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive I need to reveal the story to discuss the additional information contained in support of the Neuromancer world. I don’t think that it will spoil the story and may encourage you to read the books.
The name Count Zero, which is the cyberspace monicker that Bobby Newmark has taken, comes from the 1960s and machine code compilers. It stands for count zero interrupt, which are two instructions (useful on the universal Turing Machine to change the movement of the reading head). The instructions mean, if the count falls to zero, interrupt what you are doing and look for an instruction to do something else.
Bobby who is relatively uneducated found out this instruction somehow, whereas some debate I’ve read on the Internet gives the right direction, but the writers are confused because they only remember back to 1970s machines.
Count Zero begins seven years after the end of Neuromancer and cyberspace has changed. The Finn talks about when things changed, which refers to the end of Neuromancer.
The new jockeys, they make deals with things, don’t they. Lucas? he says.
Lucas and his friends originate from Haiti and they have an edge in cyberspace because they can talk to beings, who act like voodoo oungans or Gods, even though they are conscious that they are dealing with metaphors not real gods. These beings are presumably AIs, either from the amalgamation of Neuromancer and Wintermute, or even other beings who have escaped control or been liberated by that amalgamation.
Also, two powerful zaibatsus or corporations, Maas Biolabs and Hosaka, familiar from the New Rose Hotel 1984 story, and Hosaka from Neuromancer, are engaged in a battle for control of a powerful new technology (a biochip), using hackers, espionage and violence. (Wikipedia)
The Story in Count Zero
Thread 1 Turner recovers slowly. Conroy (whom he doesn’t like) seeks him out to perform an extraction of Christopher Mitchell, the senior biochip designer from a Maas Biolabs facility on a mesa in the desert. There are several things wrong with the plan. Turner is suspicious. In the end he gets away not with Mitchell but his daughter. The rest of the team are killed and treachery seems to be involved, so Turner doesn’t follow the plan and is on his own.
Thread 2 Bobby Newmark an amateur hacker in Barrytown, New Jersey, self-named Count Zero, is doing his first big job, with icebreaker software supplied by criminals to break in to what he has been told is a benign site. The site is not benign; the icebreaker doesn’t work. The black ice has Bobby and he is dying. Then an angel comes in the shape of a girl (Angie Mitchell) and saves him.
Bobby is still in real trouble people are after him. He is lucky to be saved by Lucas and his friends who have connections in the projects that tower over Barrytown. They repair his injuries with rough but effective medical techniques and educate him on what has happened.
Threads 1 and 2 combine eventually. Thread 3 does also at the end but almost off-stage.
Thread 3 Marly Krushkova was a small gallery owner in Paris until tricked by her boyfriend into trying to sell a fake Cornell box. She has become infamous and broke. She is hired by, the ultra-rich industrialist and art patron, Josef Virek to find the maker of a series of new Cornell-style boxes. The Marly story is an art detective story and quite different to the other two, but Marly is an endearing character as shown in her dealings with her ex-boyfriend, Paco who is Virek’s factotum and Virek himself.
The Key Characters
Turner is an interesting viewpoint character in thread 1 and despite being a mercenary is a powerful personality and we admire him. We learn through the story and his reminiscences in some detail about the executive extraction industry, and through his past security experiences some of the inside story of the Simstim industry.
Conroy is Turner’s boss and an unsavoury character. Turner no longer likes or trusts him much.
Christopher Mitchell is the techno genius that Turner is supposed to extract from the Maas Biolabs Mesa.
Angie Mitchell is what Turner actually gets on the microlite flying in. She is Mitchell’s daughter and has a head full of implants containing the new biochips, which makes her special and why, as soon as Turner gets her away, everyone is after her.
Bobby Newmark is a small-time hacker with ambition, just starting out. He is the viewpoint character of Thread 2 but is really only an observer of events flowing around him that he barely understands.
Beauvoir, Jackie, Lucas, Rhea. These are the team of shady entrepreneurs who deal with voodoo gods in cyberspace. Two-a-Day the man Bobby Newmark dealt with is shown as a minor player compared to these people. They are more civilised and helpful to Bobby, but they are interested in their investment and what happened.
A lovely quotation relevant here is Bobby working out that Lucas and Beauvoir despite their quiet manners are very scary whereas Two-a-Day for all his swagger is not:
…Bobby was working on a new theory of personal deportment… it involved the idea that people who were genuinely dangerous might not need to exhibit the fact at all, and that the ability to conceal a threat made them even more dangerous.
Voodoo Oungans, Voodoo Gods: Gran Met, Papa Ougou Feray (god of war), Legba (master of roads and pathways, the loa of communication), Baron Samedi (Lord of graveyards), Danbala Wedo (the snake) They are divine horsemen, the two girls are the horses for the gods to ride, Jackie is Danbala’s horse. The gods are angry with Josef Virek, when he is responsible for killing Jackie. These gods throughout the book are absolutely terrifying.
The Finn — The Finn is the same — an amazingly drawn repulsive but endearing character, who is a fence for stolen goods and a very skilled hardware and software technologist — but seven years older. He is a favourite of Legba according to Lucas, but he doesn’t know it.
Marly Krushkova Expert on Cornell is a charming character of inner integrity despite dealing with rogues. She is hired by Josef Virek to find the maker of wonderful contemporary Cornell-style boxes.
Josef Virek, super-rich confined in a vat by some runaway disease, is actually seeking immortality and a way out of his physical existence rather than merely wanting to find an artist.
Paco, Virek’s factotum, at times nice and thoughtful, a counsellor to Marly: he is entirely Virek’s creature.
Enlarged concepts and other quotations
Cyberspace an expanded explanation
The quotations below come out of Chapter 13 With Both Hands. The Chapter goes on in quite some detail about icebreakers, their covert criminal use on the black market. The story details how the icebreaker to be tested was taken down the chain to Bobby and a particular nasty database, protecting the accounts of a whorehouse, chosen for him to try to crack because it would test the software, but the attack would be of no interest to anyone else.
Bobby is brought up to speed about why Two-a-Day chose him and lied to him about the software and the easy database:
Still, an icebreaker that’ll really cut is worth mega, I mean beaucoup. So maybe you’re Mr Big in the market, someone offers you this thing, and you don’t want to just tell ‘em to take a walk. So you buy it. You buy it, real quiet, but you don’t slot it, no. What do you do with it? You take it home, have your tech fix it up so that it looks real average. Like you have it set up in a format like this — and he tapped a stack of software in front of him — and you take it to your joeboy, who owes you some favors, as usual…
Wait a sec, Bobby said. I don’t think I like —
Good. That means you’re getting smart, or anyway smarter. Because that’s what they did…
Lucas and Beauvoir go on to show Bobby a recording of what happened in cyberspace as the black ice grabbed him and he was dying…
Some professionals are watching Bobby’s attempt online and Beauvoir and Lucas show him a recording of bubbles (which is Angie) intermingling with the ice and saving Bobby. This is what everyone is interested in and scared about, because it is no longer under the radar.
Later as Lucas takes Bobby to meet the Finn, he tries to explain to Bobby what they do in cyberspace and how the Voodoo fits in.
Bobby, do you know what a metaphor is?
A component? Like a capacitor?
No. Never mind metaphor, then. When Beauvoir or I talk to you about the loa and their horses, as we call those few the loa choose to ride, you should pretend that we are talking two languages at once. One of them, you already understand. That’s the language of street tech, as you call it. We may be using different words, but we’re talking tech. Maybe we call something Ougou Feray that you might call an icebreaker, you understand? But at the same time, with the same words, we are talking about other things, and that you don’t understand. You don’t need to. He put his toothpick away.
Bobby took a deep breath. Beauvoir said that Jackie’s a horse for a snake, a snake called Danbala. You run that by me in street tech?
Certainly. Think of Jackie as a deck, Bobby, a cyberspace deck, a very pretty one with nice ankles. Lucas grinned and Bobby blushed. Think of Danbala, who some people call the snake, as a program. Say as an icebreaker. Danbala slots into the Jackie deck, Jackie cuts ice. That’s all.
Okay, Bobby said, getting the hang of it, then what’s the matrix? If she’s a deck, and Danbala’s a program, what’s cyberspace?
The world, Lucas said.
The darker side of Simstim
Turner in an earlier time was a security consultant for a small component of Sense/Net the mega-corporate entity that runs Simstim, which is where he first meets Conroy in the hotel bar:
You know, the man said, the way someone might comment on a team that wasn’t doing particularly well in a given season, those seismics you’re using really don’t make it. I’ve met people who could walk in there, eat your kids for breakfast, stack the bones in the shower, and stroll out whistling. Those seismics would say it never happened.
…The phrase ‘stack the bones in the shower’ was enough.
Turner decided to take the pale man out.
Look, Turner, here’s your leading lady. The man smiled up at Jane Hamilton, who smiled back, her wide blue eyes clear and perfect, each iris ringed with the minute gold lettering of the Zeiss Ikon logo. Turner froze, caught in a split-second lock of indecision. The star was close, too close, and the pale man was rising — Nice meeting you, Turner, he said. We’ll get together sooner or later. Take my advice about those seismics; back ‘em up with a perimeter of screamers.
Turner did beef up his security, but a week later Jane and three others were dead, outside his control, doing a scene in the jungle, something about a union dispute.
On the way home to the States Turner:
…encountered a man named Buschel, an executive tech from Sense/Net’s Los Angeles complex. Buschel was pale beneath an L.A. tan, his seersucker suit limp with sweat. He was carrying a plain aluminum case, like a camera case, its sides dull with condensation. Turner stared at the man, stared at the sweating case, with its red and white warning decals and lengthy labels explaining the precautions required in the transportation of materials in cryogenic storage.
…What’s in the case, Buschel? Seersucker bunched in his fist, knuckles white and shaking.
Damn it, Turner, the man jerking free, the handle of the case clutched in both hands now. They weren’t damaged. Only some minor abrasion on one of the corneas. They belong to the Net. It was in her contract, Turner.
Bobby’s mum is addicted to the Sense/Net soaps. We also meet Sense/Net at the end, when Tally Isham and the unit director look down on Angie and Bobby from above. It is obvious that Angie is the new star, but the director doesn’t approve of Bobby as a hanger on.
The smaller things & technologies
Elaborations of cyberspace and Simstim are the major conceptual additions to Count Zero. However, perhaps it is more the in-fill of ideas that make Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive worthy sequels.
The slamhounds at the start and the augmented dogs cobbled from spare parts by Turner’s brother (like the drug-addicted retired or supernumary military dolphin in Johnny Mnemonic) are fascinating. The technical construct in Brussels that Marly walks into to meet Herr Virek — an incredibly detailed Gaudi’s Park Güell simulacrum in Barcelona, with Paco as a small boy — is similarly amazing.
The medical centipede used to fix up Bobby in the projects is also wonderful. Each claw of which is a stitch to zip up Bobby’s gaping wound. One can imagine the beaded brown stuff being applied. Is it plastic or biological? The horror and the wonder are each overwhelming. As is the rough but incredibly sophisticated medical treatment use to treat Bobby. Yet, it is also part of the genre of noir detective fiction.
The projects themselves that tower over Barrytown are also inspiring, arcologies taken over by the inhabitants, make-shift perhaps, but self-sustaining and hi-tech.
Turner’s stealth jet provided to take Angie Mitchell away in — is amazing technology, as is Turner’s ability to fly it by putting a cable jack into his microsoft socket and having the expert system flood over him. We’d love to be in Turner’s position.
How cyberspace has changed, the new ‘gods’ to be found there, and a more detailed explanation of the Simstim and executive extraction industries are the major new concepts in Count Zero. Yet, there is a wealth of detail and a fleshing out of the scenario that begins with Neuromancer.
Despite some minor quibbles about the story-style and the fact that Count Zero simply can’t be quite as new and fresh as Neuromancer, Count Zero is a worthy successor to Neuromancer and fleshes out the scenario, the technology and advances the plot, that is, a logical progression is presented as to what happened next after Neuromancer.
Clouds a Goodreads reviewer makes the interesting point that Neuromancer has 137,000 ratings on goodreads, Count Zero only 22,000 and Mona Lisa Overdrive only 17,000 in 2014 but all score well on ratings 3.8 to 3.9. I can’t act superior because in these articles I’ve concentrated far more on Neuromancer too! And, it certainly is not the case, as it is with the sequels to Dune, for example, that the successors are unworthy. Clouds on further investigation thinks that people have thought:
Wow. That was quite something. I’m glad I’ve read it, but I don’t need to read any more. Job done.
I think he’s right, but I don’t know what it says about us. Count Zero is an excellent novel and it has stood the test of time. It is not dated in any way.
Key Words: William Gibson, Count Zero, cyberspace, Simstim, voodoo gods, oungans, Joseph Cornell
Unusually, I don’t have a wealth of further information to give.
In William Gibson’s Art of Prophecy I said: William Gibson’s Simstim is alluring. I for one would love to experience being inside Tally Isham’s body briefly, even for a relatively boring conversation on a Greek Island. I suppose one would get used to it too quickly.
The quotation from Count Zero that stimulated the comment is:
Tally Isham had been a constant in the stim industry for as long as Marly remembered, an ageless Golden Girl who’d come in on the first wave of the new medium. Now Marly found herself locked into Tally’s tanned, lithe, tremendously comfortable sensorium.
Tally Isham glowed, breathed deeply and easily, her elegant bones riding in the embrace of a musculature that seemed never to have known tension. Accessing her stim recordings was like falling into a bath of perfect health, feeling the spring in the star’s high arches and the jut of her breasts against the silky white Egyptian cotton of her simple blouse. She was leaning against a pocked white balustrade above the tiny harbor of a Greek island town, a cascade of flowering trees falling away below her down a hillside built from whitewashed stone and narrow, twisting stairs. A boat sounded in the harbor.
Wikipedia on Count Zero
Wikipedia on the New Rose Hotel
Goodreads with additional quotations on Count Zero