Monday, January 09, 2023

the last book I read

Count Zero by William Gibson.

Turner is a man who Gets Shit Done. Usually the messy kind of shit the big corporate overlords don't want to get their hands messy with as it involves activity on the borderline of legality, or well on the other side of it, like stealing stuff,  shooting people in the face, that sort of thing. Only one thing hampering Turner's acceptance of further work in that line at the moment: he hasn't got a body! Well, he has, or most of one, but it's in a a preservation vat in more separate pieces than he would ideally like at the moment. 

The benefit of being extremely useful to lots of rich and powerful organisations, though, is that they have an interest in seeing you get grafted back together after being messily exploded, and Turner's body (or all the bits of it that could be scraped off the street in New Delhi where he was dispatched, anyway) is soon rebuilt, his memories gradually re-enabled, and soon he finds himself recuperating in Mexico with a lady sharing his bed. You can't trust anyone, though, and it turns out she's just been testing him out to ensure he's fully recovered in every department, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Having reported back to her superiors that Turner seems fine, he is quickly picked up for a new assignment: arrange the pick-up and recovery of a guy called Mitchell who wants to defect from one slightly shady bio-software mega-corporation to another. This involves Turner and his team hiding out in the Arizona desert with a team of medics who will scan Mitchell for any bio-booby traps (his brain is wired to explode, his hair has the plague, his entire leg is a missile, etc. etc.) before he is jetted off to his new employers to do all the new joiner stuff like being shown where the coffee machine and toilets are.

Needless to say, things don't go entirely according to plan and the person that arrives at the desert location in a rickety ultralight is Angie, Mitchell's daughter. Realising something dodgy is afoot Turner grabs Angie and scarpers in a high-powered jet, just in the nick of time as the hideout and everyone and everything in it is vaporised in an explosion.

Let's park what we might call Plot Strand #1 for a moment and pick up the next: Bobby Newmark is a fledgling hacker and cyber-jockey, surfing the collective virtual reality of the matrix under the moniker Count Zero, which would be a lot cooler if it were not self-applied. Pretty much the first actual cyber-job he takes on, testing out some security-penetrating software for a contact, nearly ends in his death as he encounters some black ICE which attempts to liquidise his frontal cortex, and he is only saved by the intervention of a mysterious entity with a female voice. After this close encounter Bobby has become known to certain powerful entities and has to make use of some of his (not entirely trustworthy) contacts to facilitate escaping and staying hidden.

Meanwhile, Marly Krushkova, former art gallery owner currently in disgrace in the art world for inadvertently passing off a forgery as real (thanks to the shady activities of her no-good ex-boyfriend) is contacted by the agents of a mega-rich art enthusiast called Josef Virek with an assignment: find the artist responsible for the real artworks that her fake was modelled on. Budget effectively limitless, no particular set method, just follow your instincts.

Bobby's attempts to find out where his dodgy software came from take him to the Sprawl, the partly-derelict, mostly-lawless mega-conurbation that occupies most of the east coast of North America from Boston to Atlanta. Turner and Angie eventually make their way there, too, via a brief stop-off to hole up with Rudy's brother, a brilliant engineer and chronic alcoholic, and "borrow" his armoured hovercraft for the trip, something that immediately comes in handy as they are attacked by a couple of guys in a helicopter and Turner is able to use the hovercraft (and a great big gun) to shoot the 'copter down and ram it, killing the occupants, who turn out to have been sent by the people who hired Turner in the first place to tidy up some loose ends.

Turner and Angie end up holed up in the same apartment as Bobby and his friends, whereupon it turns out that Angie is the female voice who saved Bobby earlier, and that moreover she has some bio-implants that enable her to jack into the matrix without having to engage with any computer hardware. Furthermore both she and Bobby have had cyber-encounters with mysterious beings of seemingly limitless power who seem to adopt the personas of voodoo gods when interacting with humans. 

Marly, meanwhile, has travelled all the way into low-earth orbit to discover the creator of the artworks, which turns out to be an AI entity inhabiting an old mainframe satellite. It further transpires that Virek doesn't have much interest in art for art's sake but instead has detected some AI/bio-software elements in the artworks and wants to make use of that stuff to get him out of his vat and give him effective immortality. The various protagonists of the various strands of the story have to come together to stop him.

Count Zero is a sort of loose sequel to Neuromancer, one of the seminal works of 20th-century speculative fiction (as I have banged on about tediously here before). It doesn't share any major characters with the earlier book but is clearly set in the same fictional universe, a small number of years later (its relationship with Neuromancer is similar to Idoru's with Virtual Light, if you like). There is just a tangential mention, easy to miss in passing, of a couple of people who are clearly meant to be Molly and Case, Neuromancer's principal protagonists, and Turner's physical disintegration and rebuilding here is very similar to Case's neurological destruction and rebuilding at the start of Neuromancer. The mysterious AI entities who control much of the plot (the squishy puny humans merely scuttling round enacting their plans in the physical world) are presumably meant to be fragmented versions of Wintermute and Neuromancer, the earlier book's twin AIs.

Purely as a rollicking adventure story Count Zero probably works better than Neuromancer; just as with Bring Up The Bodies and Eternity part of this is down to being a sequel and therefore being able to skip a lot of world-building exposition and just crack straight on with the plot. If you're only going to read one it should probably still be Neuromancer, though, just for its genre-redefining cultural significance. There is a third book, Mona Lisa Overdrive, in what's generally called the "Sprawl trilogy", although if you can read the green text at the top of the accompanying image here you'll see my edition renders it as the "Neuromancer trilogy". Anyway, Count Zero is tremendously good fun and still startlingly prescient about the internet, rampant commercialism, societal decay and the dangers of AI given that it'll be 37 years old this year. 

A couple of cultural echoes of other stuff: firstly the "slamhound" that catches up with Turner in the novel's first paragraph is very reminiscent of the Mechanical Hound from Fahrenheit 451 which was used for a pretty similar purpose, although it was all about the stealthy lethal injections rather than the more messy exploding. Finally the voodoo entities crop up elsewhere as well, Baron Samedi featuring heavily in Live and Let Die, and Papa Legba in the late-period Talking Heads song of the same name

No comments: