Retro Review: William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy

Wes Unruh wrote this review.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” — from Neuromancer

The future world of the Sprawl series is a world of crumbling governments supplanted by multinational corporations, a world where horses are extinct, where money stratifies people into a global caste system. Artificial Intelligences (AI) are fully functional entities, acting on behalf of these corporate bodies. Personality constructs, taken from the living as a sort of template of personality, are owned and stored deep in the corporate heart of a media empire called Sense/Net. Cities have grown together along the east and west coasts of America, forming the Sprawl, a vast metropolis, yet not as extreme a place as Night City, near Ninsei and Japan’s coast, or Chiba City, a relentless autonomous zone, where surgeons and augmentation specialists operate unregulated, and where the unlucky can easily wind up involuntary organ donors in a black market body modification clinic. Even in space itself the Zionist Rastafarians have assembled their own orbital archipelago out of abandoned satellites and way-stations, where Freeside, a space spa, provides luxury in lower gravity for the super-rich, and Straylight, a corporate merger and eccentric marriage, has created … something.

Strip away the technology, the jacking in, the cyberspace decks, the body modifications, and the black markets from Neuromancer, and you’ll find camouflaged ghosts, demons, gods, zombies, vampires, evil magicians, voodoo priests, and golems. Elements of Greek myth and high fantasy are intertwined within the overall motif of mimesis and syncretism, of mimicry and abstractions in search of unification. I’m not implying that Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive are something other than science fiction, but rather that there is something deeper going on within their action-packed casings.

cover artThe writing in Neuromancer is distinct, with traces of William Burroughs’ cut-up and the hard-boiled pulp of Raymond Chandler. Mixed with a Pynchon-esque penchant for plot density, riddled with subtextual clues, it makes for a fascinating read. Winner of three major awards (the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards) as well as awards in both Japan (the Seiun) and Australia (the Ditmar), Neuromancer was responsible for lending validity to a subset of science fiction now home for works (occasionally of disputable quality) like the Max Headroom television series, the Matrix trilogy, the two Lawnmower Man movies, books by Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Jack Williamson, Rudy Rucker, and R. U. Sirius, as well as comics by Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan), Grant Morrison (The Invisibles), and Jamie Delano (World Without End) to name just a few. At least three table-top roleplaying game companies produced cyberpunk-themed products. Several songs, (including an entire album by Billy Idol entitled Neuromancer, which has a vibrant, super-charged interpretation of Heroin. Lyrically, however, the original compositions leave something to be desired: a refund, usually), and a variety of computer games also arose in the wake of Neuromancer‘s success, and in a very real way the book has become eclipsed by its own impact. The technology introduced initially in the pages of Neuromancer is now seeing realization twenty years later, somewhat sapping the full effect that this book had upon publication. Yet in a way this acts to reinforce the relevancy of the book, and by extension the trilogy as a whole.

Forget about Lupus Yonderboy (an elf of sorts, with his pointed ears and his chaotic Panther Moderns), the principal players in Neuromancer include Case, once the best of the up-and-coming console cowboys until he double-crossed his boss and got caught. His nervous system is now burnt out by mycotoxin, and he can no longer touch the matrix that had been his drug and addiction. Then there’s Molly, the tough-as-nails razorgirl whose reflexes are sped up, and who works security for Armitage. Armitage seemingly has no history: he’s the guy with the money, bringing together a team to do a run on Straylight, the heart of Tessier-Ashpool, one of the richest corporations in the world. Peter Riviera is an insane performance artist addicted to heroin, who can project his own imagination with the aid of implanted holoprojectors, a technique called “Dreaming Real.” And then there’s Dixie Flatline, a ghost, a personality construct of a legendary cowboy. The four of them (or five if you count the ghost) intend to break into the network of Tessier-Ashpool’s computers, but not to steal anything: they’re looking for a name, a name that a voice on the other side of a ringing bank of payphones cannot know, cannot say, and cannot grow without.

Count Zero begins some seven or eight years after the end of Neuromancer, and Gibson’s approach has cover artchanged. Rather than the linear narrative of Neuromancer, Count Zero follows three separate plot threads, each spearheaded by the point of view of the three main characters. The style is different as well, filled out, fuller than in Neuromancer. The technology has aged, with biochips out of Maas-Neotek far outstripping anything any of the other companies have been able to produce. Turner, the first character to whom we are introduced, is a freelance extractor for the multinationals, and is hired by Hosaka to extract Maas-Neotek’s best biochip researcher, the man who invented them. Then there’s Marly, once a gallery owner, until a forged Cornell Box ruined her reputation and her love life, and who is now working as an agent of Josef Virek. Virek is the richest individual in a world where money can buy nearly anything, and he exists only through avatars, projections of himself. Physically he is trapped in a tank that keeps his body alive by only the slimmest margin. He wants Marly to find the forger of the Cornell Box. Finally, there’s the title character, Bobby Newark, a.k.a. Count Zero Interrupt, or at least that’s what his console cowboy handle was going to be if he hadn’t gotten himself killed on his first real run with blackmarket software. Fortunately something brought him back to life, something that turns out to be the focal obsession of a group of voodoun priests.

Stripped to its core, Count Zero is a meditation on the quest for immortality, questioning what consciousness is, and what it means to ride and be ridden. Gibson refers to it as his favorite of the three books, and I’ve seen this opinion expressed elsewhere as well. As for me, I most enjoyed Mona Lisa Overdrive, set seven years after the events of Count Zero. Mona Lisa Overdrive is a true capstone to what is an unexpected, incidental trilogy. There is also a sense of the self-referential, of self-consciousness in the writing. Ghosts, vampires, and even a golem of sorts all appear within these pages, while the voodoo gods from Count Zero are still out there in the matrix.

cover artWhere there were three overlapping plot lines in Count Zero, there are four in Mona Lisa Overdrive. It is the longest in the series, and not only neatly integrates the history outlined in the first two books, but also succinctly ties them together in the end, with a cast of characters that includes several from the previous two books. Bobby Newark returns, only now he’s been jacked into a massive piece of biosoft, disconnected from the matrix, attended by a determined medic named Cherry. He washes up in a barren waste near New Jersey called Dog Solitude, a trash heap, scrapyard, construction site. Next is Mona, who grew up on a catfish farm and can’t read. Mona’s sometime boyfriend, sometime pimp, is Eddy, who hooked her up with a serious suit, a corporate man named Prior, who wants to make her look just like Angela Mitchell, also from Count Zero. Angela is rich, a star for media multinational Sense/Net. She hasn’t seen Bobby since becoming internationally famous and has just recently kicked an expensive drug habit. The drugs kept the Loa, the voodoo gods, out of her head, but now that she’s kicked the habit, she finds the voices have returned to warn her. Kumiko, a young girl from Tokyo who has been sent to London, has a “ghost” named Colin to watch over her, an AI only she can see that has been provided by her father, a wealthy Yakuza widower, in the wake of her mother’s death. Kumiko finds London an exciting yet troubling place, and finds herself in the capable hands of Sally Shears, a.k.a Molly. Someone has blackmailed Molly into kidnapping Angela, but Molly is determined to find out who’s behind it all. It turns out that that person might just be dead to begin with.

Taken as a whole, the Sprawl Trilogy remains cutting-edge science fiction even though it is over a decade old. It challenges while entertaining, and explores cyberspace as if it were Tartarus, a demanding land where ghosts and spirits interact with data, where riches are to be had as credit, or information, where Baron Samedi, Papa Legba, and their cohorts manipulate the land of the living. It is certainly worth reading, and will likely remain a benchmark, a staple of science fiction, for years to come.

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