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Count Zero by William GibsonUK edition4 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundA followup, though not a direct sequel, to his career-launching Neuromancer, Gibson’s second novel handily avoids the sophomore slump. Count Zero shows the once and future cyberpunk warming to his technocentric themes and becoming more comfortable in the kinetic language and balance of cynicism and satire that would become some of his trademarks.

Set several years after NeuromancerCount Zero energetically meshes three story threads. In a future where people defect from company to company the way they did from country to country during the Cold War, Turner is a freelance mercenary who specializes in helping technologists flee the monolithic corporations to whom they are indentured. On a mission to help extract a top R&D man from the deserts of Arizona, everything suddenly goes horribly wrong and Turner barely escapes with his life, with the frightened daughter of the researcher in tow. Meanwhile, far away in the gang-ridden east coast slum of Barrytown, a punk kid named Bobby Newmark, who has big dreams of escaping his dead-end life by becoming a hotshot cyberspace cowboy with the handle “Count Zero Interrupt,” is loaned a piece of software to test by his local dealer. The minute Bobby jacks in — once more with feeling — everything suddenly goes horribly wrong and he barely escapes with his life. The software turns out to be a powerful icebreaker that nearly fries Bobby’s brain with feedback. But just in the nick, the mysterious apparition of a young girl appears to him out of the matrix and rescues him. 

On the other side of the world, Marly Krushkhova, a disgraced former art dealer, is hired by an enigmatic billionaire collector named Virek to trace the creator of a series of art pieces, boxes containing assortments of objects. (Gibson, already developing his own archetypes, would later resurrect and expand upon this character in Pattern Recognition.) But who is Virek exactly, and how has this quest managed to attract the attention of Marly’s ex-lover, the one who ruined her career in the first place by selling a forgery out of her gallery? And why are people turning up dead in what is supposed to be a simple search for an artist?

What ensues is a taut and energized action story that takes us from the congested urban grunge of the Sprawl to the decrepit orbital stations of the zaibatsus, the financial noble houses of the information-age future. Gibson keeps the book’s pace brisk yet controlled, never letting it exhaust his readers or overwhelm narrative cohesion. And the expertise with which Gibson ties his disparate storylines together is something to behold. It’s a kick that this book, despite featuring cyberpunk tropes that have since been co-opted by the mainstream and become cliché (even hearing the word “matrix” in this day and age makes you think of only one thing), still packs as much solid entertainment as it does. First-time readers will be wowed by Gibson’s talent and authority when he was still a fresh face on the SF scene. And those of you who haven’t read it in 15 years, as I hadn’t before re-reading it for this review, will be delighted at how easily you slip back into it like donning a favorite, well-worn old VR headset.

Followed by Mona Lisa Overdrive.