Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Count Zero is a science fiction novel written by William Gibson, originally published 1986. It is the second volume of the Sprawl trilogy, which begins with Neuromancer and concludes with Mona Lisa Overdrive, and is a canonical example of the cyberpunk sub-genre.
Count Zero was serialized by Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the 1986 January (100th issue), February and March issues. The black and white story art was produced by J. K. Potter. The January cover is devoted to the story, with art by Hisaki Yasuda.
Seven years after the events of Neuromancer, strange things begin to happen in the Matrix, leading to the proliferation of what appear to be voodoo gods (hinted to be the fractured remains of the joined AIs that were Neuromancer and Wintermute).
Two powerful multinational corporations are engaged in a battle for control (extending into space) over a powerful new technology (a biochip) using hackers and the Matrix as well as espionage and violence.
Explanation of the novel's title
The title of the book, other than being the pseudonym of the main character Bobby Newmark, was also claimed by Gibson to be a word-play on the alleged computer programming term count zero interrupt. According to a frontleaf of the book, in a "count zero interrupt", an interrupt of a process decrements a counter to zero. The exact quote is "On receiving an interrupt, decrement the counter to zero." (The term "count zero interrupt" or CZI could be found in the book: Programming The Z80 by Rodnay Zaks, 1982.)
As with later Gibson works, there are multiple story-line threads which eventually intertwine:
Thread One: In the southwestern USA, Turner, a corporate mercenary soldier, has been hired out to help Mitchell, a brilliant researcher, make an illegal career move from Maas' corporate fortress built into a mesa in the Arizona desert to another corporation. The attempt is a disaster, and Turner ends up escaping with the scientist's young daughter, Angie Mitchell instead. Her father had apparently altered her nervous system to allow her to access the Cyberspace Matrix directly, without a "deck" (a computer), but she is not conscious of this. She also carries the plans, implanted in her brain by her father, of the secrets of construction of the extremely valuable "biosoft" that has made Maas so influential and powerful. This "biosoft" is what multibillionaire Josef Virek (see thread three) desires above all else, so that he can make an evolutionary jump to something resembling omniscience and immortality.
Thread Two: A young New Jersey-suburbs amateur computer hacker, Bobby Newmark, self-named "Count Zero", is given a piece of black market software by some criminal associates "to test". When he plugs himself into the matrix and runs the program, it almost kills him. The only thing that saves his life is a sudden image of a girl made of light who interferes and unhooks him from the software just before he flatlines. This event leads to his working with his associates' backers to investigate similar strange recent occurrences on the Net. It is eventually revealed that Bobby's mysterious savior is Angie (see Thread One); the two only meet physically at the very end of the book.
Thread Three: Marly Krushkova, a small gallery owner in Paris until she was tricked into trying to sell a forgery, and newly infamous as a result, is recruited by ultra-rich, reclusive (cf. Howard Hughes) industrialist and art patron Josef Virek to find the unknown creator of a series of futuristic Joseph Cornell style boxes. Unbeknownst to her, the reason behind Virek's interest in these boxes is related to indications of biosoft construction in the design of one, which he suspects may be contained in the others.
All of these plot lines come together at the end of the story and Virek – the hunter of his immortality and unlimited power – becomes the hunted. It is hinted that multiple AIs secretly inhabiting cyberspace are the fragmented, compartmentalized remains of two AIs, Neuromancer and Wintermute, having joined together (introduced in Neuromancer, and designed by the head of this Rockefeller-like family, the Tessier-Ashpools). These AI units now interface with humanity in the form of different Haitian voodoo gods, as they have found these images to be the best representations of themselves through which they can communicate with people. Hackers worldwide are becoming aware that there is something weird loose in the cyberspace matrix, but most are understandably reluctant to talk about (or deal with), "voodoo spooks" supposedly haunting cyberspace. The "voodoo gods" have constructed the elaborate series of events in the novel, having originally given Mitchell the information for developing the biosoft, instructing him to insert a biosoft modification in his daughter's brain, and then sent the Cornell boxes into the world to attract, and enable the disposal of, the malicious Virek.
The Cyberspace Matrix, a synergistic linked computer database that encompasses all information on Earth, has become home to sentient beings. But most of humanity remains unaware.
At the beginning of the novel, Bobby is a small time "cowboy" (hacker) who wants to be a big name in cyberspace. He is given what he naïvely trusts is an "ICE breaker" (hacking software), unaware that he is in fact being used to test some unknown software to see what it does. He is directed to use the software to infiltrate a black ICE database which nearly ends up killing him. But at the last moment Bobby is rescued, while in Cyberspace and dying, by an image of a girl, Angela Mitchell, who is somehow able to enter cyberspace without using a "deck" (computer). The acronym ICE is shorthand for "Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics". The most formidable of these data defense networks are powerful enough to trace back and kill any hacker making an attempt to defeat them. This is legally sanctioned or is, at least, not illegal.
Bobby realizes his target must now know where he lives, so he flees. Shortly after leaving his apartment, he is brutally mugged for his deck and left for dead, only to be rescued and given medical attention by the owners of the software Bobby tried out, a small group who are very interested in what happened to him in Cyberspace. Bobby and Angela (who are roughly the same age) meet at the end of the book. Bobby makes a minor appearance in the third Sprawl novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Turner (the only name by which he is known in the novel) is a mercenary who is employed by various corporations to help vital employees of competing corporations "defect" to Turner's employers. The novel begins with an account of a job in New Delhi in which Turner was nearly killed by a Slamhound, a type of mobile bomb. After three months of reconstructive surgery in Singapore, Turner takes a vacation in Mexico, where he meets and becomes sexually involved with a woman named Allison. While on the beach with Allison, Turner sees a familiar yacht close to shore and a powerboat from the yacht approaching the beach, bearing the logo of the Hosaka Corporation. Turner tells Allison to leave while he waits for the raft's passenger to come ashore. He already knows that the passenger is Conroy, another mercenary with whom Turner has worked in the past. Conroy recruits Turner for another "extraction" job; this time, Conroy and Turner are to help a man named Christopher Mitchell leave Maas Biolabs for Hosaka. Mitchell carries with him the expertise to design and manufacture "biochips", a technology superior to the nearly ubiquitous silicon microprocessors of the era. Maas Biolabs holds the patents and secrets to biochip technology and will use every means it can to prevent Mitchell's escape. Conroy also reveals that Allison is a "field psychologist" working for Hosaka to monitor Turner and help his recovery.
Turner is a disciplined professional, but is troubled by memories of past jobs that ended tragically as well as his relationship with his gifted brother Rudy (who is a reclusive alcoholic and drug addict). Turner comes to realize that the unsuccessful attempt to "bring over" Christopher Mitchell from Maas to Hosaka resulted from a betrayal and suspects that Conroy is behind it. He also recognizes that Angie Mitchell was sent out from the Maas facility by her father, and she is in grave danger, and resolves to protect her while finding out who is pursuing her and why.
Marly, prior to the beginning of the story, operated a small art gallery in Paris. She was disgraced (and became notorious) when she attempted to sell a forged box assemblage that was supposedly a lost piece by the American sculptor Joseph Cornell. She was unaware that the piece was a fake; the forgery had been commissioned by the gallery's co-owner (and Marly's then-lover) Alain, who embezzled money from the gallery to finance the commission and then convinced Marly that the piece was an authentic long lost Cornell. Unemployed and living with her friend Andrea, Marly receives a job offer from the immensely wealthy businessman Josef Virek. During her interview, conducted via a very advanced simstim link, Virek informs Marly that he has collected several remarkable box assemblages similar to those created by Cornell. Virek then hires Marly to find out who is producing the pieces, offering her unlimited financial support during the course of her search.
Marly is not, however, easily led, and quickly realizes there is more than meets the eye in her new job. Though she welcomes the opportunity to get out of her current situation, Marly does not fully trust the mysterious and secretive Virek. This mistrust only deepens when it becomes clear that she is being followed and monitored by Virek's agents, in particular Virek's right-hand man, Paco. Marly tries to stay a step ahead of Virek and Paco while discovering the identity of the boxes' creator.
- "1986 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1986. Retrieved 2009-07-17.
- "Nebula Awards, 1987"
- "Hugo Awards, 1987"
- "1987 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1987. Retrieved 2009-07-17.