count zero

lance olsen
© 1992


Every bond you break,
Every step you take, I'll be watching you.
—Sting, "Every Breath You Take"


Gibson initially had no intention of writing a sequel to Neuromancer. Instead, he began entertaining a proposal he received to write a very different book set in a very different universe. In fact, he thought he had clinched the matter by making the last line of Neuromancer read that Case never saw Molly again. This, Gibson says, "was a deliberate move on my part to cut the cord right there."(1) Such a gesture would, he assumed, effectively prevent him from going back to his protagonists and hence to the Sprawl, and it would free him up to move in new directions.

But that isn't what happened. Influenced in part by the Hollywood world he now began to frequent, and no doubt in part by the impressive critical and financial success of Neuromancer, Gibson began writing a second novel along the same lines as the first. This would ultimately become Count Zero (1986). To get around the problem of having to deal with Case and Molly's further exploits in any depth, he set his new work several years after Neuromancer, and peopled it with virtually all new characters, if not always new character types. Finn reappears briefly in order to make one or two offhand remarks about "this street samurai" he once knew who got a job working with "a Special Forces type" and a "cowboy they scraped up out of Chiba." Finn says he last saw them in Istanbul "seven, eight years" ago, and he heard the street samurai lived in London for a while after that (chap. 16). Although Molly, Armitage and Case are almost forgotten, much of the essential flavor of Neuromancer is not. Like Gibson's first novel, Count Zero evinces the by-now-familiar tough characters maneuvering at the fringes of a violent society filled with addictions and paranoid conspiracies. Like Neuromancer, it is epic or global in perspective, moving freely among such locations as the Sprawl, Arizona, Tennessee, Puerto Vallarta, Paris, Stockholm, and highorbit. Like Neuromancer, it involves a number of quests, including Turner's for his past, Marly Krushkhova's for the creator of the Cornell-like boxes, and Josef Virek's for immortality. And, like Neuromancer, it has the feel of a roller-coaster ride, providing the reader with a hook on every page.

Many familiar themes resurface as well, including man-as-commodity, betrayal, and violation. Among the most important is that the human has become a techno-centaur. Like Case, Bobby Newmark is a computer cowboy who merges with and in part becomes a machine when he jacks into a cyberspace deck. Like many characters whom Molly noticed on Memory Lane, Turner wears a socket behind his left ear.

But Gibson has done more than simply repeat this theme in Count Zero. He has also radicalized it, carried it further than he had in Neuromancer. The technological fuses with the organic in a deeper way, crawling inside and uniting with it to the point that the two are virtually indistinguishable. An emblem of this is the "claw" the doctor uses to seal Bobby's chest after he has been attacked by a gang. The claw is both organic and inorganic. Wound on a spool, it looks like brown beaded tape. Unwound, it begins to writhe, "headless, each bead a body segment, each segment edged with pale shining legs" (chap. 9), a kind of centipede. When this centipede is applied to the wound and its nervous system extracted, its claws lock shut, forming a surgical zipper. Similarly, the biochips in Angie's head read on a scanner like a cancer. Fashioned out of organic cells, they function as a computer. Using them, subprograms or spirits in the matrix speak through Angie. Her brain has become indistinguishable from a cyberspace deck. It is not that the technological has been attached to the human; it is that the technological and the human have become one. Angie is the apotheosis of the techno-centaur, a highly complicated conscious automaton. To a slightly lesser degree, the same is true of a number of characters in Count Zero, from Turner who is compared to a machine (chap. 17) to Conroy whose "voice was flat and uninflected, as though he'd modeled it after a cheap voice chip" (chap. 1).

It is a short step from the theme of human-as-techno-centaur to the motif of the Frankenstein monster. Josef Virek, who represents "a type of parallel evolution" (chap. 15) to Tessier and Ashpool in Neuromancer, longs for immortality as did Victor Frankenstein. Ironically, Virek is both the mad inventor who manipulates others to attain his ends, and the monster who is kept alive in a series of support vats in Stockholm. Moreover, the kind of life-extension he has chosen echoes Ashpool's cryogenics to the extent that it verges on a living hell. Like the mythological Tithonus, Virek has been granted seemingly eternal life without eternal youth. Another Frankenstein figure is Christopher Mitchell, the researcher at Maas Biolabs who has produced immortal hybrid cells that form the building blocks of a new technology. He transforms Angie into a kind of monster by planting the biochips in her brain. Angie literally becomes her father's creation. Both Turner and Bobby partake in the Frankenstein motif as well in that they are both reconstructed humans, brought back Lazarus-like from death. Turner is even built out of the body parts of humans.

As in Gibson's earlier work, the theme of the techno-centaur and the Frankenstein motif give rise to themes of identity and selfhood. As we have seen, Gibson believes both identity and selfhood are always near to unknowable and continually teetering on the verge of becoming something inhuman. A key image that reinforces this idea in Count Zero is that of mirrors. It proliferates, from Bobby's Indo-Javanese mirrored aviator glasses, to the mirror shards in several of the Cornell-like boxes, to the mirror-domed space helmet Marly carries into the Place. It suggests a relativity of perception, an inability to see beyond surface, and a fractured sense of individuality. True identity is covered, like the Hosaka surgeon whose face is polite and alert, "a perfect corporate mask" (chap. 11), or the escape plane with its mimetic polycarbon coating that can take on the colors and configurations of its environment. Early on, Bobby fails to recognize himself when he looks in the mirror after pulling a wilson and flatlining, and in many ways his story involves a quest for an adult identity. Whenever she confronts her ex-lover, Marly is afraid of losing her identity and becoming his object. Virek has multiple selves. As Paco, his AI servant, understands: "señor enjoys any number of means of manifestation" (chap. 15). If humans are seldom what they seem, then the world is seldom what it seems. This is a lesson Bobby learns from Lucas, whose innocuous-looking cane houses razor-sharp brass splines. Again, Gibson presents Ovidian metamorphosis as the human condition.

At the same time that Count Zero shares much with Gibson's earlier work, however, it also marks a number of departures for him. These occur at the levels of theme, characterization, narrative structure, and technique. One of the most interesting shifts in theme centers on Gibson's interrogation of mind/body dualism. If in his earlier stories and first novel he clearly tends to associate the body with a decadent chronos and the mind with a transcendent kairos, then in Count Zero he confuses the two realms and complicates his allegiances. Originally cyberspace was equated with personal and cultural memory in Gibson's mind, and the implication was often that personal and cultural memory could be liberating; now the very idea of memory causes Turner to vomit (chap. 1). While Bobby's cyberspace deck still leads out of the "meat" world and into a dazzlingly imaginative realm, other gateways out of the "meat" world are hardly as appealing. Bobby's holoporn unit, for instance, seems "dated and vaguely ridiculous" (chap. 6). The biosoft containing Mitchell's dossier is less a window to a hyper-reality for Turner than one to vertigo and nausea. Marly realizes that "the sinister thing about a simstim construct, really, was that it carried the suggestion that any environment might be unreal. . . . Mirrors, someone had once said, were in some way essentially unwholesome; constructs were more so, she decided" (chap. 18). More than enough evidence for this can be found in Bobby's mother's addiction to her soap operas with their multiheaded plots that curl into themselves like tapeworms. If the television, video games, and Walkmans that formed the basis for cyberspace once held fascination and the possibility of postmodern joy for Gibson, they now hold disorientation and the possibility of evil. Gibson's attitude toward high-tech mass media, then, has become yet more ambivalent. This tendency will become more pronounced in Mona Lisa Overdrive, where it is increasingly clear Gibson has become jaded and frazzled by the West Coast cosmos he began to sample after the publication of Neuromancer.

In addition to this shift at the level of theme in Count Zero, there is also a marked shift at the level of characterization. In Gibson's first novel, characters have next to no personal past and little psychological depth. By way of example, one might think of Case. The reader knows virtually nothing of his existence previous to the events depicted in Neuromancer aside from the fact that he once double-crossed his former boss and was punished for his impudence. The reader is seldom privy to his thoughts and learns that Case feels next to nothing, that he had been numb to the world for years. He cannot love and he cannot hate. In contrast, one discovers something much closer to traditional characterization in Count Zero. Not only does the reader have a sense of Turner's professional background but also of his personal history. The reader knows of Turner's mother's long lonely death by cancer, sees and feels his prodigal return home and his wordless struggle with himself and with his brother about the responsibility he refused to accept during family crisis. The reader even shares several of Turner's childhood memories, including those that recall his edenic days squirrel hunting with his brother. Turner's love for his child is evident in the last chapter of the novel, as is his growing parental protectiveness of Angie throughout. Such use of public and private flashbacks, psychological density, and evidence of human feeling results in a greater emotional texture to the narrative than that found in Neuromancer or Burning Chrome.

Several shifts occur in narrative structure and technique as well. While Gibson informs Turner's story with the gangster-heist plot borrowed from the realm of pop fiction and film, he also adds two new major structures borrowed from traditional mainstream literature. First, in the case of Marly and Alain, Gibson adopts the plot from the nineteenth-century realist novel that maps love and betrayal. Second, in the case of Bobby, he adopts the plot from the nineteenth-century Erziehungsroman, or novel of education, that tracks a character's development as he passes from childhood into adulthood, in the process discovering his identity and role in society. At the same time that Gibson employs more conventional plotlines, he also paradoxically employs greater technical disruption. Like Pynchon, he begins using an unusually large and sometimes bewildering cast of characters and, the novel's title notwithstanding, he does not focus on a clear protagonist. Rather, he makes use of three main characters (Turner, Marly, Bobby) whose plotlines slowly dovetail as the novel unfolds. Each of the thirty-six chapters is located primarily within the point-of-view of one of these characters so that, as in a text like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, emphasis falls on the relativity of perception. Turner, Marly, and Bobby, privy to different realms of experience, often read the same event differently from each other. The reader is thus reminded once again of Gibson's seed-story, "Fragments of a Hologram Rose." In order to lend Gibson's text meaning, the reader must become Faulkner's fourteenth blackbird, the one that pulls all the other fragments together into a mosaic which to a large degree is no more than simply one approximation of "truth."

Of the three highly complex and often confusing plotlines, Turner's is most well-known to readers of Gibson. Typically, Gibson both adopts and transforms the gangster-heist story in the twelve chapters dedicated to Turner. As in Neuromancer, mercenaries are hired as part of an elite team whose mission is to steal something of great value. Whereas in Gibson's first novel the loot is an artificial intelligence, here it is a human being. Turner believes his job is to extract Christopher Mitchell, a top research scientist responsible for the development of biochips, from his home of nine years in Maas Biolabs North America and bring him over to a Hosaka compound in Mexico City. Conroy, Turner's boss, flies Turner to an offshore oil rig where he meets part of his nine-person team. Turner then continues on to Arizona to complete preparations at a site near Biolabs' mesatop research arcology.

Here the mission runs into a snag. Mitchell allows his daughter Angie to escape in his place, then commits suicide. While Turner and his people scramble to retrieve Angie from the debris of the ultralight she used to escape the arcology, they come under attack by unknown assailants. Turner and Angie have just enough time to take off in a jet before the site and its remaining inhabitants are destroyed by a hypervelocity gun. Unsure of where to go, Turner heads to his parents' home in Tennessee where he meets Rudy, his brother, and Rudy's lover Sally. Rudy runs tests on Angie, and discovers Mitchell has grafted biochips onto her brain. Through them, subprograms or spirits from the matrix communicate with her. Guided by these, Angie leads Turner to Bobby Newmark, whose handle is Count Zero, at a club in the Sprawl run by a man named Jammer.

At this club, pieces begin to fall together. Turner learns that in graduate school Mitchell realized he would never be as brilliant as he needed to be in order to rise to the heights of the corporate ladder. Faust-like, he cut a deal with one or more of the subprograms or spirits in cyberspace. Mitchell received information that led to the discovery of the biochips, while the subprograms or spirits received Angie's mind and body. Furthermore, Turner learns that Conroy has been acting as a double-agent. Ostensibly, Conroy extracted Mitchell for Hosaka. In fact, he did so for Josef Virek, a mysterious and wealthy art collector reminiscent of Howard Hughes. It was Conroy, Turner finds, who attacked the extraction site in order to kill the Hosaka team. It also comes to light that Conroy tortured Turner's brother to death in order to find out where Turner and Angie had gone. With this information in hand, Bobby alerts Jaylene Slide, a computer hacker whose lover Conroy murdered when attacking the extraction site. As revenge, Jaylene Slide kills Conroy. Angie leaves with Beauvoir, an oungan or voodoo priest of cyberspace who will teach her the ways of the matrix. Turner decides to return to his Tennessee home, retire, and raise a child with Sally.

Because Turner's plotline is most well-known to readers of Gibson, only three points about it need to be underscored here. First, through this plot Gibson emphasizes the near-future shift in global power from state to corporation. He suggests that the idea of boundaries between countries has begun to erode. The notion of government control has come to seem, like Bobby's holoporn deck, dated and vaguely ridiculous. This accounts for why the United States is never referred to by name in Gibson's works. The power base has been relocated in the multinationals that govern the flow of information, and hence capital and strength. Instead of defecting from one country to another, people like Mitchell now defect from one company to another. Instead of wars breaking out between country and country, they now break out between corporation and corporation. Angie even thinks of the multinational in the same terms others might once have thought about nations or religions. When Turner explains to her that Rudy is an unhappy alcoholic, she innocently asks if that is because he does not have a company to take care of him.

Second, while the conclusion of Neuromancer is potentially inconclusive and fairly unstable, the conclusion of Turner's plotline and Count Zero as a whole is potentially sentimental and virtually closed. Paul Alkon comments that Turner "retire[s] to the pastoral delights of the countryside where his days are agreeably occupied in hunting nothing more dangerous than squirrels."(2) Turner literally withdraws from the dystopic universe of the Sprawl, stepping back into an edenic one that connotes nostalgia, peace, and simplicity. Like Case who returns to the Sprawl, buys a new cyberspace deck, and settles down with a woman named Michael at the end of Neuromancer, Turner also becomes a Ulysses figure at the end of Count Zero. Integration follows on the heels of separation and education. Marly's and Bobby's plots will end at least as conventionally. Marly reaches the goal of her quest, discovering the artist behind the Cornell-like boxes and freeing herself from both Alain's and Virek's control. She also becomes operator of one of the most fashionable galleries in Paris. Bobby becomes Angie's lover, and is paid for his efforts. The reader last views this couple two years after the main action of the novel has transpired. They are on location in Turkey, Angie having become simstim star Tally Isham's understudy. It is sunset. Angie, who has been lying naked on a rooftop, rises and takes Bobby's hand while Tally and her director look on enviously. "If this is not quite riding off into the sunset together," Alkon notes, "it is close enough to be recognized as a pleasant urban variation on that familiar sentimental ending."(3) Consequently, each of the plotlines concludes with either financial or personal success. Marly's and Bobby's end with both. And each of the plotlines concludes with a feeling of harmony, hope, and completion. While the bulk of each occurs in a dystopia, the end of each is something close to utopian.

A third point that should be underscored about Turner's plotline is that through Angie it introduces the reader to the flashy universe of high-tech mass media that will inform the central plotline of Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson's suspicion of this universe is evident in the last scene involving Angie. Tally and the director, emblems of this universe, literally look down upon Angie and Bobby from their balcony. They are poised like cormorants inspecting their unsuspecting prey who, like Adam and Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost, unwittingly prepare to abandon their edenic world for one that is permeated by danger, potential betrayal, and here ruthless social Darwinism. By looking forward to Angie's education about a world where art is a business and where business can be deadly, this scene foreshadows elements of the Erziehungsroman which will play a major role in shaping Mona Lisa Overdrive.

This theme of art-as-business leads directly into a consideration of Count Zero's second major plotline. Also twelve chapters in length, this plotline focuses on Marly Krushkhova's quest for the originator of the Cornell-like boxes. Shortly after she is disgraced in the art world for unknowingly attempting to sell a Cornell forgery supplied by Alain, Marly is approached by Virek. Marly thinks she is working in the interests of art. The truth is that the ailing Virek is using her for his own egoistic ends. He believes the originator of the boxes is in a position to offer him freedom from his support vat. When Marly meets with Alain to discover where he found the forgery, he demands money for the information. Marly agrees to pay him, but when she shows up at his apartment with the cash she finds him murdered. She searches his apartment for clues, and discovers an address that leads her into high orbit, to part of the Tessier-Ashpool cores housing their mainframes. She learns that, shortly after the events described in Neuromancer, 3Jane entered financial difficulty, sold out, and had Straylight detached from Freeside and towed to a new orbit. The cores were supposedly erased and sold to a scrapper who never salvaged the expensive metals within them. In the cores, Marly meets Wigan Ludgate, a mad religious fanatic, and his henchman Jones. Jones leads her to the originator of the boxes: a manipulator or robot connected to what is left of the Tessier-Ashpool computers — to what is left, in other words, of Wintermute and Neuromancer. Marly finds out that, like Tessier before him, Virek imagines he can encode his personality into the mainframes and thereby gain immortality and omnipotence. But his plan fails. He overextends his power trying to keep Angie, who he believes might have information that will help him in his endeavor, trapped at Jammer's club. Weakened, he is attacked by the subprograms or spirits in the matrix and dies is killed. Paco, Virek's servant, appears on the screen and tells Marly she is now free.

A pathetic image of the artist, the robot that constructs the boxes registers a new portrayal of the creator on Gibson's part. This emotionless sculptor works in isolation, oblivious to the humans who move around it. Quasi-autistic, it mechanically generates junk-boxes that produce strong feelings solely in others. On one level, it is emblematic of the postmodern gomi no sensei. To this extent it looks back to Rubin Stark in "The Winter Market" and ahead to Slick Henry in Mona Lisa Overdrive. It is thereby also emblematic of Gibson himself. Embodied in it is an image of the man who views himself as a collage-artist constructing verbal sculptures from the detritus of our culture.

Gibson consequently links the image of himself as a creator with that of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), the original creator of the junk-boxes. An American artist of the irrational, Cornell was a recluse who avoided dealers, collectors, and critics. He admired Stéphane Mallarmé and the French Symbolists, who in turn admired Edgar Alan Poe whose gothic sense of mystery and imagination informs Gibson's work. Cornell crammed his house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York, with old photos, books, and cartons filled with cultural waste. During the 1930s, he began assembling collages that imitated those of Max Ernst, and soon began experimenting with his signature creations that fused the illusionary quality of surrealist paintings with the concreteness of Dadaist found objects. Reminiscent of cluttered Straylight, these boxes, housing everything from watchsprings to fossils, gems to cork balls, suggest at least three ideas that appeal to Gibson. First, they resemble specimen cases; this image points to the notion of the artist as a kind of scientist, an archeologist of the present, exploring the details of his or her society and recording them for future generations. Second, the boxes conjure up pictures of tiny stages, and thus of the theater; this image gives rise to themes having to do with appearance versus reality, artifice, and identity — all of which play important roles in Gibson's fiction. Third, the boxes are remind one of Victorian mementos; this image, grounded in the historical period Gibson most often mentions, carries with it a certain nostalgic charge and consideration of the past that will become increasingly pronounced in Gibson's work.

Unlike other artist figures in Gibson's short stories and novels, however, the robot in the Tessier-Ashpool cores creates fake art. It creates simulacra of Cornell boxes, not the boxes themselves. And it apparently feels next to nothing during the act of creation. Something, in other words, has gone out of the creative process which has become involuntary, automatic, perfunctory. While others might experience intense emotion from the result of this lifeless process of replication, the artist experiences nothing. Art has gone moribund. It is now mass-produced by a machine, having become no more than a product one manufactures so that others such as Alain might benefit financially. And those who do benefit financially from it are portrayed as amoral criminals. This also leads the reader back to "The Winter Market," written immediately after Count Zero. While there are a number of differences between story and novel, both Lise and the robot are literally shut off from others; the former is locked within her polycarbon exoskeleton, the latter within the Tessier-Ashpool cores. Both are self-absorbed. And both are used by others, the former by the simstim industry that allows Lise to become addicted to wizz, the latter by everyone from Ludgate to Virek.

No one except Marly in Count Zero thinks of art in any but monetary terms. Picard, manager of The Roberts Gallery in Paris, for instance, seldom sees the art he purchases. Rather, it is crated and stored in a vault until he orders it sold, convinced that its stock has risen sufficiently to make it financially worthwhile. Andrea, Marly's friend, understands that people like Alain are "artists in their own right," but only to the extent that they are "intent on restructuring reality" (chap. 10) — on lying in order to generate capital. It comes as no surprise that Alain is a forger by trade. An icon of this world, he deals in false art designed to make money. The price paid by such "artists" is their humanity. An example of this may be found in the story Turner recalls about Jane Hamilton, the simstim actress for whom Turner once provided security in Mexico. Despite Turner's efforts, Hamilton is assassinated. Almost immediately a Sense/Net carrier shows up, not in order to investigate the murder or to reclaim Hamilton's body, but to repossess her artificial Zeiss Ikon eyes that are worth several million New Yen. The human is easily forgotten, finances are not.

Sense/Net, Virek, Maas Biolabs, Hosaka, and those other ubiquitous malignant forces that control this megacorporate universe once again take on the omniscient and omnipotent proportions of Pynchon's elect. Appropriately, then, the first word of this novel is a megalithic, anonymous and deadly They. If in Neuromancer Case understands that the dominant image of the megacorporation is the wasp nest, here Marly understands it is the "intricate machine." She realizes she is a tool in Virek's hands, part of "a machine so large that I am incapable of seeing it. A machine that surrounds me, anticipating my every step" (chap. 12). Essentially demonic, this machine divides, multiplies, and operates across national boundaries. Virek, Tessier-Ashpool, and the others who keep the machine in motion are "no longer even remotely human" (chap. 2). They are capable of anything in order to insure a profit. Moreover, individuals easily become addicted to their roles as tools for the machine. A medic at the extraction site in Arizona explains that corporations now equip employees with subdermals that trick the employee's system into a reliance on certain synthetic enzyme analogs; withdrawal from the employer results in trauma. Metaphorically, people learn to depend upon the machine for a feeling of comfort, security, and order. For many, the machine provides the external structure they need to survive.

Mere tools, humans function with only an illusion of freewill. During his recovery in Puerto Vallarta, for example, Turner has an affair with a woman named Allison whom he believes he has met by chance. She turns out to be a "field psychologist" paid to oversee his convalescence. After Virek hires her, Marly chooses a hotel at random, but a package from Virek mysteriously finds her there. Virek, she discovers, continually knows where she will be and when. Later, he explains that he has run a psychoprofile on her that has predicted each of her responses. Although she wants to believe she has been acting spontaneously, she has actually been carrying out the machine's will.

Given her relationship to the corporate elect, Marly has much in common with Oedipa Maas in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Both women sense levels of reality beyond their comprehension, yet cannot determine exactly what those levels consist of. Both move from a safe predictable universe into a dangerous unpredictable one, from a naive vision of the world into a dark labyrinthine plot that signals education. For Oedipa, the minotaur is Pierce Inverarity, whose name suggests inveracity. For Marly, whose name suggests the mirror image of tough Molly, the minotaur is Josef Virek. Both are controlled by powerful individuals who haunt them from beyond the grave. Both are victims of men. Oedipa not only explores a mail system in her quest, but also a male system. Likewise, Marly explores the intricate machine and learns it is dominated by males. From her perspective, it is governed by Alain who uses her by foisting a forgery into her hands, and by Virek who uses her by lying about the goal of her mission. She discovers, as will a number of characters in Mona Lisa Overdrive, a patriarchal network wherein one's movements have already to a certain degree been predetermined by conventions of gender. Unlike The Crying of Lot 49, however, Count Zero offers an alternative to this situation. The novel provides several strong women who do not find themselves trapped by the patriarchal network. There is the lesbian, Webber, for instance, the hard-boiled Molly-like figure at the extraction site, and Rez, the pilot of the space tug who transports Marly to the Tessier-Ashpool cores. More important, Oedipa ultimately fails in her quest to find who is behind the WASTE system while Marly succeeds. She is freed (albeit by chance rather than by significant action on her part) from both Alain's and Virek's control. The implication is that there is at least some degree of hope for liberation from the male system — if not, finally, from the intricate machine itself.

If Marly's plotline involves her education about the monetary nature of the corporate elect, then Bobby Newmark's involves his education about the spiritual nature of the cyberspace matrix. Again twelve chapters in length, this third major plotline in Count Zero focuses on a fledgling hacker who lives with his mother in Barrytown, New Jersey. He rents an icebreaker from a software dealer named Two-a-Day and flatlines almost immediately upon trying to use it. He is saved by Angie's presence that appears to him in the matrix as Vyéj Mirak, voodoo goddess of miracles, and he goes in search of Two-a-Day to find out what happened, only to be mugged and robbed of his icebreaker on the way. Two-a-Day locates and repairs him, then informs him that he has used Bobby as a guinea pig to discover what the icebreaker does. He also tells Bobby that he got it from two oungans, Beauvoir and Lucas. They in turn got it from Finn, who in turn got it from Wigan Ludgate, the mad religious fanatic living in the Tessier-Ashpool cores. Accompanied by one of Lucas's henchmen, Bobby heads to Jammer's club for safe keeping. Once there, two street gangs show up to make sure no one can leave. Bobby jacks into Jammer's cyberspace deck to trace who is behind the gangs, and meets Jaylene Slide, Conroy's data rustler, searching for her lover's murderer. While Bobby is jacked in, Turner and Angie appear. Turner learns about Conroy's betrayal and tells Bobby, who in turn tells Jaylene. Jaylene kills Conroy just as he is assuring Virek that he will bring Angie to him the next day. Bobby also witnesses the beginning of Virek's demise in the matrix. Having now become a Ulysses-figure like Case in Neuromancer, Bobby jacks out to discover that his mother, whom he thought murdered in an attack on his condo, is alive. Nonetheless, he decides to leave his life with her, and accompany Angie and Beauvoir back to Beauvoir's place in Barrytown in order to learn ways of the loa, or voodoo spirits, that have begun inhabiting the matrix. Two years later, Bobby turns up as Angie's companion on location in Turkey.

Most significant about this plotline is its introduction of Loa into the matrix. At the moment Neuromancer and Wintermute merge at the end of Gibson's first novel, becoming a god-like unity of opposites, the newly generated entity fragments. This is partially because this entity is lonely, partially because it wants to have some fun, and partially, as the reader learns in Mona Lisa Overdrive, for unknown reasons having to do with a similar artificial intelligence on Centauri. The fragmentation produces a host of smaller gods in the matrix that adopt names of voodoo deities. Wigan Ludgate, one of the first to intuit the spiritual dimension of cyberspace, begins worshipping these deities from his high orbit home in the Tessier-Ashpool cores. Oungans such as Beauvoir and Lucas do the same on earth. They thereby assume the role of wizards in fantasy, educating acolytes like Bobby in the mystical ways of the Loa Unlike the virtuous saints, angels, and other religious beings that form traditional Christianity, however, these voodoo deities are filled with street-savvy, lust, and greed. Unpredictable and potentially harmful, they are descendants of pagan gods and goddesses.

A large part of the idea for them came from Carole Devillers' National Geographic article, "Haiti's Voodoo Pilgrimages: Of Spirits and Saints," which Gibson read while working on Count Zero.(4) In this piece, Devillers gives a brief account of voodoo beliefs, gods, and celebrations. Gibson found at least four of its basic ideas appealing. First, he registered the fact that voodoo is a hybrid religion that blends two faiths. The Creole name for voodoo is vodou, which in turn comes from vodun, a word that means spirit in the language of the Fon people of Benin and Nigeria. Brought to Haiti as slaves by the French in the seventeenth century, these West Africans were forbidden to practice their ancestral religion and were pressured into converting to Roman Catholicism. In the process, they merged components of their traditional religion with components of the European one. The result was a third religion in which ancestor spirits took on the names of Catholic saints. Part of the role of this religion's oungan, or priest, is to "serve with both hands," to practice black magic as well as voodoo. Appropriate to Gibson's world, voodoo is both a spiritual collage and an originally outlaw-religion created by those whom the dominant society marginalized. While Gibson satirizes conventional religion by identifying it in this novel with Bobby's crazed mother, he treats voodoo with greater seriousness, implying that it has roots in opposition and exists, at least in its Hollywood stereotypes, in a dark realm of potential danger, mystery, and intrigue. It is, according to Beauvoir, a "street religion" that "came out of a dirt-poor place" (chap. 13). Moreover, the idea of overlaying one universe of discourse (African ancestor religion) upon another (Roman Catholicism) suggests the same kind of multiplicity of meaning Gibson achieves when he overlays the language of technology (subprograms) upon the language of religion (Loa). Like the voodoo oungans, Gibson's text serves with both hands.

Second, Gibson found voodoo's notion of god appropriate to a computer society. According to Afro-Haitian belief, god is Gran Mèt, or the great maker of heaven and earth. But, as Beauvoir puts it, this god is "too big and too far away to worry Himself if your ass is poor, or you can't get laid" (chap. 13). Too powerful and important to concern himself directly with mere human beings, he sends down his Loa to possess and communicate with them. The voodooist must consult with these Loa before embarking on any serious activity. Often the Loa will "ride" an individual without warning, sending him or her into dance, trance, or song. And often this takes place at a lieu saint, or holy place, such as among a stand of trees which are considered natural temples. In Gibson's world, Neuromancer-Wintermute is literally remote from humans, buried within the Tessier-Ashpool cores in high orbit. Only Wigan Ludgate feels its presence in any profound way. Its Loa, however, exist in the matrix on earth and do deals with the likes of Beauvoir, Lucas, and Mitchell. They ride Angie. And they are associated with Two-a-Day, whose place is filled with trees, from his driftwood coffee table to his stunted forest raised on gro-lights.

Third, Gibson felt that voodoo's minimization of afterlife jibed well with postmodern existence. According to Beauvoir, "it isn't concerned with notions of salvation and transcendence. What it's about is getting things done" (chap. 13). This takes the reader back to the question of human-as-conscious-automaton that Gibson explored in his first novel. Action in Gibson's world precedes essence. Thinking and feeling, as Molly knows so well, are secondary to doing.

Finally, Gibson loved the poetry of the words associated with voodoo beliefs, gods, and celebrations, and he uses them frequently in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive for sound as much as for sense. While references abound to such Loa as Danbala Wedo (the snake), Ougou Feray (spirit of war), and Baron Samedi (lord of the graveyards), perhaps most important are Legba and Ezili Freda. Appropriately enough for a novel about computers, the former is the Loa of communications and is associated with Bobby, the console cowboy. Legba is identified with St. Peter, Christian doorkeeper of heaven, and in voodoo rituals must always be invoked first; if not, the other Loa might not listen. The latter, also known as Vyéj Mirak, or Our Lady Virgin of Miracles, is the Loa of love and is associated with Angie, who protects others from evil. Ezili Freda is identified with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ who shelters the penitent.

From one perspective, Gibson raises voodoo to the level of a grand art by basking in its poetic language. From a slightly different perspective, he neutralizes its power by suggesting that it is no more than grand art, poetic language; it is, in other words, simply a fiction, one way among others for organizing the world. Voodoo becomes a construct through which to describe an event. To this extent Beauvoir is correct when he asserts that voodoo is "just a structure." (chap. 13). Technology is an equally valid construct through which to describe the same event. Again, Gibson points to religion and technology as no more than language games, abstract organizations of data. Perhaps the gods in the matrix are real, as Beauvoir and Lucas believe. Perhaps they are no more than virus programs that have gotten loose in the matrix and replicated, as Jammer has it. Perhaps both possibilities are true simultaneously. If so, the reader is back to the question of Todorovian perspective. From one angle, the events in the matrix can be explained using the language of science. From another angle, only the language of the transcendental will do. Both languages are correct. Both languages are incorrect.

The result is a narratological, epistemological, and ontological stutter that once more focuses one's attention on the presence of postmodern fantasy in Gibson's work. Finn reminds the reader: "Yeah, there's things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see?" (chap. 16). Alkon interprets: "First meditatively suggesting the possibility that real spirits of some eminence in the divine hierarchy may have arrived to haunt cyberspace, Finn then switches gears to suggest that such things are as fabulous as mermaids, and like them nothing more than fantasies projecting strange aspects of the human psyche into reports of terra incognita."(5) Gibson hence plays one mode of discourse (spiritual) off another (scientific), creating a dialectic that refuses synthesis and thus generates textual instability. Consequently, he produces readerly anxiety and doubt. He subverts and deforms traditional notions of narratology, ontology, and epistemology, announcing that at the center of postmodern existence pulses a deconstructive turn, a radical skepticism that embraces paradox and indeterminacy, suspicion and contradiction. Answer gives way to question. Totality gives way to multiplicity. The mimetic gravity of earth gives way to the magical weightlessness of the Tessier-Ashpool cores.


1 Leanne C. Harper, "The Culture of Cyberspace," The Bloomsbury Review 8.5. (September/October 1988), 30.

2 Paul Alkon, "Deus Ex Machina in William Gibson's Cyberpunk Trilogy," paper delivered at the Fiction 2000 conference at the University of Leeds, June 28-July 1, 1989, 4.

3 Alkon, 5.

4 Carole Devillers, "Haiti's Voodoo Pilgrimages: Of Spirits and Saints," National Geographic (March 1985), 395-410. See also Robert Tallant, Voodoo In New Orleans (New York, Collier Books, 1962), originally published in 1946, which Gibson read as a teenager in Virginia; the vevés looked to him like circuit diagrams.

5 Alkon, 15-16.