Thursday, July 26, 2012

Middle Shelf Selection: William Gibson's Count Zero

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. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco fa├žade of a place called the Khush-Oil hotel.
No doubt many critics consider William Gibson's second novel, Count Zero, inferior to its predecessor, the award-winning Neuromancer. The two books do possess similarities. Densely detailed, dystopic, near-future settings. A cast of cybernetically enhanced thugs, grifters and ne'er-do-wells. An intricate, poetic prose style, one almost hallucinogenic in its complexity. But while such elements felt fresh on Neuromancer's pages, Count Zero seems content to tread the same grimy genre alleyways as its predecessor. Perhaps that's why tastemakers failed to shower it with kudos. But it took a big step forward in one area. Instead of meandering through a fantastic SF setting, Count Zero takes the plot threads of three seemingly disparate characters and twines them together into a breathtakingly good story.
Her hand, in the pocket of her good jacket -- a Sally Stanley but almost a year old -- was a white knot around the crumpled telefax. She no longer needed it, having memorized the address, but it seemed she could no more release it than break the trance that held her here now, staring into the window of an expensive shop that sold menswear, her focus fading between sedate flannel dress shirts and the reflection of her own dark eyes.

Surely the eyes alone would be enough to cost her the job.
When an explosion catches the mercenary named Turner on a street in India, it doesn't spell the end for him. He's good at his job of breaking corporate talent out of lifetime indenture contracts, and that merits him a three month stint in a Singapore hospital plugged in to the simulated stimuli of an idealized twenty-century boyhood while a Dutch surgeon pieces his body back together. See, Hosaka Corporation wants Turner for one more job -- snatching a brilliant pioneer in biosoft technology from under the nose of Maas Biolabs.

Meanwhile, disgraced gallery owner Marly Krushkhova wanders through a Paris that has suddenly turned hostile. Her wily one-time lover Alain had convinced her that he'd found a previously unknown art box by sculptor Joseph Cornell. Only the entire thing was a forgery, and Alain conveniently vanished once the fraud was discovered and the press caught the scent of blood. Now Marly's reputation lies in tatters. Strangely enough, that doesn't discourage the astonishingly wealthy German billionaire Josef Virek from hiring her to find the creator of a group of suspiciously similar objets d'art.

No one could imagine that the life orbit of loser Bobby Newmark would ever intersect with those of people like Turner or Marly. Yet a chance occurrence during his first failed hacking attempt draws big-time hustlers (and mysterious enemies with a penchant for violence) into his life. See, he was just supposed to jack in to the Matrix, slot the security-cracking program, and scan this particular database. Only the thing's defenses snagged him fast, locking him into a seizure while they slowly burned out his brain. Yet in the moment before the lights went out, Bobby felt something huge, massive and other fall over him, breaking the connection. Impossible, but it happened. Now there are two gangsters who want to have a talk with him, because they seem convinced that in cyberspace he encountered Vyej Mirak, the voodoo Virgin of Miracles.
It was such an easy thing, death. He saw that now: It just happened. You screwed up by a fraction and there it was, something chill and odorless ballooning out from the four stupid corners of the room, your mother's Barrytown living room.

Shit, he thought, Two-a-Day'll laugh his ass off, first time out and I pull a wilson.

The only sound in the room was the faint steady burr of his teeth vibrating, supersonic palsy as the feedback ate into his nervous system.
Watching Gibson weave the tales of Turner, Marly and Bobby into a single thread is truly engaging. On my first read, I was perplexed as to how the misadventures of this motley crew would ever come together. Then, quite suddenly, the pieces fell into place. Without spoiling anything, let me say that Gibson pulls off the best kind of literary magic trick, combining corporate espionage, brutal double crossings, the rarified worlds of art and high commerce, a lonely artificial intelligence, high-octane cyber warfare, and indigenous Haitian religion into a coherent whole. A few criticisms are in order, though. Marly's narrative doesn't engage quite as much as the other two, and one has to venture into the sadly lacking sequel, Mona Lisa Overdrive, to learn that the things Bobby encounters in the Matrix aren't voodoo spirits in the least. All the same, while Count Zero doesn't innovate like Neuromancer did, it manages a story that's exponentially more engaging, and one with a feature missing from much of Gibson's work: an unambiguously happy ending.

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