Count Zero (Sprawl, #2)

By William Gibson

47,106 ratings - 4.01* vote

A corporate mercenary wakes in a reconstructed body, a beautiful woman by his side. Then Hosaka Corporation reactivates him, for a mission more dangerous than the one he’s recovering from: to get a defecting chief of R&D—and the biochip he’s perfected—out intact. But this proves to be of supreme interest to certain other parties—some of whom aren’t remotely human...

... more

Book details

Paperback, 308 pages
March 7th 2006 by Ace Books

(first published 1986)

Original Title
Count Zero
0441013678 (ISBN13: 9780441013678)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


The coolest thing about reading Gibson is jacking in to his urbane and hip way of descriptive narration.

William Gibson, as prophet of cyber punk and also as the herald of his later Blue Ant works, returns to The Sprawl for a continuation of the setting he began in his masterwork, Neuromancer.

But like many of his books, this sequel is only that in regard to a return to the original setting, Count Zero works as a stand alone. The Sprawl, the megalopolis formed by the Eastern United States, from Boston to Atlanta, is his futuristic, over population setting where artificial intelligence spooks the Matrix, where cowboy hackers can jack into cyberspace and where corporate mercenaries compete in clandestine adventures.

Gibson also demonstrates his remarkable skill at depicting corporate espionage amidst an anarcho-capitalistic world dominated by multi-national corporations. Count Zero also explores the results of unrestrained individual wealth in a global economy and wealth as an analog for a new aristocracy as corporations melded into capitalistic clans. The super rich are not even human, so far removed from ordinary circumstances and from the constraints of mortality.

Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (completed in 1988 with Mona Lisa Overdrive) bridges the cyberpunk genre from the release of Bladerunner to the beginning of The Matrix films and is the cornerstone of this sub-genre.



“it involved the idea that people who were genuinely dangerous might not need to exhibit the fact at all, and that the ability to conceal a threat made them even more dangerous.”
― William Gibson, Count Zero


I haven't read Sprawl # 3 (Mona Lisa Overdrive), but after reading Neuromancer and now 'Count Zero', I think I will start referring to the Sprawl trilogy as the Sprawl Dialectic. 'Neuromancer' = Thesis. 'Count Zero' = Antithesis, so I guess I have to wait to see if 'Mona Lisa Overdrive' = Synthesis.

Gibson's warnings about cyberspace, the matrix, electronic hallucinations, corporate excess, etc., in 'Neuromancer' served only to codify/name the culture/future he was warning about. Instead of serving as a warning, Gibson ended up vibrating, slicking, sexing a whole webby nest of proto-cyberbabies into a real cyberpunk counter-culture. 'Count Zero' appears to be him trying again, but using a different tact. He spends less time with the easy, 'fun', matrix-fueled side of the future and instead spends more time examining the people, the fragments and residue of a dystopian future where corporations have become like people and computers and AI have become like gods.

Gibson trademarks, however, are still swarming all over 'Count Zero'. It is hard to read a page without a sentence where Gibson waxes poetic about an article of clothing, a fabric type, a piece of art, or a stylized way of wearing one's hair. But still, 'Count Zero' appears to be Gibson saying, yeah, that 'Neuromancer' book you are all so turned on about is fine, but it was an adolescent idea. Let me tell you the story again, but from another way, so you can understand that it isn't sexy, it isn't beautiful, it isn't glorious. The future is dangerous, manipulative, and has the potential to completely change our relationships with with each other, with art, with our history and even with our future. Let's just slow it down a bit and think.

I'm not sure if he changed the velocity of 'Neuromancer' or changed any minds, and I'm not sure 'Count Zero' was nearly as good a book (Not a 'Godfather, Part II'), but I'm glad he wrote it and it is interesting as a reader to see Gibson gain some real confidence in his art and his message.


I would perhaps complain that the ending was a bit to deus ex machina for my taste, but then the entire book is wound around the theme of god being in the machine. From the vodou loa who seemingly possess various characters and steer the entire plot; to the mad European trillionare who has reached near immortality through preservation vats and virtual reality; to the insane former net cowboy who now believes he has found god in the random yet deeply moving works of art created by long abandoned industrial robot; everything in Count Zero is about god, machines, and that perhaps the line between the two is not so clear.

Then again, Neuromancer was largely about sentient AI, and how if computers and the net become omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, that is pretty much the definition of God. I personally enjoyed Neuromancer a bit more, simply because I like the question of god to remain fuzzy, for the factor of faith to blur the interpretation of what occurs -- both see the same bolt of lightening, but to the atheist the lightening is just a meteorological, to the believer, it is a sign from above. In Count Zero the loas seem to actually haunt the net and actually seem to sculpt the events in the book. It could be that they are merely highly advanced AI manifesting as African gods, but Gibson seems to lean a bit more towards the divine here.

That said, Gibson is perhaps one of the best stylists writing sci-fi. I love the genre, but read less of it than I might like simply because the prose in most sci-fi is mediocre, if not down-right bad. There is this generic, functional "sci-fi voice" that the majority of "good" SF writers fall into, where the sentences and paragraphs are merely scaffolds to prop up their ideas: whatever intriguing plot they've devises, some moral or spiritual crisis explored through technology or alien species. As long as the ideas are good enough, I don't usually mind, and that's what SF tends to be about, both for the authors and their audience -- ideas. It doesn't matter that Canticle for Lebowitz, Anvil of Stars, or I, Robot all sound about the same, because the ideas are fascinating and hold you spell-bound.

Gibson, on the other hand, has ideas that grab you and prose can make you pause and re-read a sentence. He can craft brilliant, even quotable lines, and shift his style to near stream-of-consciousness to show the mind-blowing effects of hitting black ice, being drugged, or having one's memory artificially restored. He throws around lingo and slang just to the edge of being pretentious without (usually) falling over, with the effect of having a living, breathing world whose dirt and grime are familiar enough to make it immediate and real, yet just alien enough to be the exotic future.

Well, on to Mona Lisa Overdrive, then I can review the entire Sprawl Trilogy.


Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my FINISHING THE SERIES! list.

I loves me a good series! But I'm terrible for starting a new series before finishing my last - so this reading list is all about trying to close out those series I've got on the go...

A quick look at the numbers...
Why is it that Neuromancer , the first book in Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, has 137,000 ratings on Goodreads - but Count Zero , the second book, has just 22,000 - and the third book, Mona Lisa Overdrive , just 17,000?

That's roughly 16% of Neuromancer readers following on to the next book and just 12% making it to the end of the series.

You have to ask - why the big drop-off?

The series scores reasonably well - between 3.8/3.9 - so it's not as if everyone is reading Neuromancer and saying "that was horrible, no more, please!" - although, I'll admit it does spark a greater love/hate split than most books.

From what investigations I've had time to do, the more common attitude seems to be along the lines of "Wow. That was quite something. I'm glad I've read it, but I don't need to read any more. Job done."

A thought on character...
Count Zero isn't a direct sequel - it doesn't pick-up the same characters - but it's set in the same world, orbiting the same scene, with some common threads - but each stands alone perfectly well. For most series it's the characters which act as the hook, pulling you on. You want to read the next instalment to find out how they fare in their next adventure. Not the case here. Which, again, explains some of that drop-off rate.

But even if Gibson had rejoined Case and co, I don't think everyone would have read on because character empathy is not his strong suit. Gibson is a stylist; a poetic, lyrical, idiosyncratic and wildly imaginative dreamer. He sketches out his anti-heroes with the minimum amount of effective brush-strokes, and animates his stories with a kinetic energy and effervescence that I find enthralling.

Why not so good?
Everything I love about Neuromancer is still present in Count Zero - but the story type isn't quite as suited to highlighting those strengths. Neuromancer is a heist story - and I have a special fondness for those. Heist's make criminals likeable, so they're a common lens for antihero crime tales - especially in cinema. For a classic heist tale, you collect your gang of crooks together, each bringing their own specialist skills, and set them a seemingly impossible job, which can only by overcome through careful co-operation and the whole becoming greater than the sum of the parts. Exact same formula as the classic 'gang on a quest' fantasy - and it works for Neuromancer .

Count Zero is almost a portmanteau. Several unrelated characters, each with their own smaller adventure, are tied together by the ending and some thematic resonance. While I was reading it, I kept thinking that it actually made an easier introduction to Gibson's Sprawl than Neuromancer did. The characters are mostly 'innocents' - a newbie hacker, a betrayed art dealer, a genius daughter on the run... they're all being introduced to the grimey world of corporate war, cybercrime, and god-like ghosts in the machines getting cosy with the mob.

But the portmanteau is a more artsy format, and coupled with Gibson's approach, for me, it ends-up a little too dilute. No one thread packs enough of a punch to deliver the killer blow, and the resonance between the threads isn't strong enough to compensate.

But still pretty damn good?
Hell yeah! My personal highlight was the mash-up of fragmented AI personae with voodoo loa (such as Baron Samedi)! Made me wonder how much influence Simmons drew from Gibson. I love the idea of "god-like" technological entities interpreting themselves as spiritual intermediaries with God. It's a concept with far greater scope than Gibson has chance to explore here.

I have mixed feelings about the prominence of the corporate mercenary, Turner. He's the main driving force behind the plot action, but within his thread it's the scientist's daughter he rescues, Angie, who really keys into the common themes. Sadly she's massively overshadowed by Turner, which is part of the dissonance amongst the threads I alluded to earlier. But on the plus side, Turner is a very cool character in his own right and the primary inspiration (I would assume) behind Richard Morgan's Takeshi Kovac books. So - swings and roundabouts, eh?

No awards?
Sadly not. Count Zero went up against Card's Speaker for the Dead (the sequel to Ender's Game ) and it's hard to argue against that one. Speaker for the Dead is superb (I gave it 5 stars, hands-down) and it took both the Hugo and Nebula awards away from Count Zero .

Carry on?
Well, I clicked "buy, buy now!" for book 3 in the series, Mona Lisa Overdrive within about thirty seconds of finishing the book... so I think you can safely say I'm keen for the next instalment! But I'm pretty disciplined with my reading lists these days so I'll force myself to wait at last a month or two... but yeah... I'm definitely looking forward to it.

After this I read: A Feast for Crows


This is a "sequel" to Neuromancer. I use the term loosely.

There's really 3 stories here that all tie together at the end.

Marly, an art specialist, her world wracked by scandal, is a approached by an incredibly rich man and offered obscene amounts of money to track the origins of some art pieces he's interested in. But what has she really gotten herself into?

Turner is a badass mercenary who does his job ruthlessly and efficiently. Now he's been hired by a man named Mitchell. But when it all goes south, Turner finds himself as the protector of Mitchell's daughter. And there's something wrong with her...

Young Bobby Newmark desperately wants to be known as Count Zero, a cowboy hacker. But on his very first run he encounters some bad ice that nearly kills him. But he's saved by a skinny girl that he glimpses in the matrix. Later he finds out that she's called The Virgin and is worshipped for her many miracles. But no one knows who or what she is...

This book was amazing and I enjoyed every minute of it. Gibson has a great way of combining hard cyperpunk data with real and human stories. His writing is beautiful.

I didn't think this was as good as Neuromancer, but it was still good.

Another thing I love about Gibson is even though his world is grimy and grim, he always weaves a good bit of happiness and joy into his works. His endings never leave me feeling like life is meaningless. A lot of sci-fi is very sad and dismal - but not so with Gibson. His world certainly isn't bright or shiny, but it does retain it's basic human goodness.


When I was maybe halfway through this book, I wrote this elsewhere:


It’s funny reading “classic” William Gibson now because he basically imagined a version of the internet that was much less life-changing than the actual internet.

"There will be instant electronic full VR communication but there will be no communities or subcultures in it, people will still just be friends in real life and then talk on the (video) phone sometimes. Using the internet is sort of like playing a video game on psychedelic drugs, and it it is mainly used as a substitute for drugs, or for Crimes. Being good at this weird game has replaced actual technical skill so the ‘technical’ people involved in the Crimes are not nerds, they are edgy adrenaline junkies who wouldn’t be out of place in a bank heist story. Everyone uses information technology but it works flawlessly all the time so there is no reorganization of society where people who like ‘boring’ technical details can now provide a newly valuable service. The story could effortlessly be rewritten as urban fantasy where ‘the matrix’ is some dreamtime accessed through magic, and the result could be set at any point in the 20th century without changing anything."

It’s not just that it’s anachronistic, it’s that he didn’t actually imagine any social change (for the most part).


Having finished the book, that still sums up my reaction to it. It is essentially a generic noir story with some fantasy elements, onto which computer-themed wallpaper has been grafted. The one important change in social structure that Gibson imagines is the increased influence of powerful corporations, but this makes little functional difference; the characters who do dangerous jobs for corporations might as well be doing those jobs for governments, for all the difference it makes. Gibson imagines a world where cyber-security is important, but his world is one that couldn't accommodate Edward Snowden; the people who deal with security here are not tech geeks but macho adrenaline junkies, heist wheelmen with computer-themed makeovers.

I guess there is nothing wrong with a generic noir story. What makes this book frustrating is the intimation that it is something more. In hindsight, it's easy to see that it isn't. Gibson almost studiously avoids introducing real deviations from the noir template. Computer hacking is described so impressionistically that it bears no connection to real-world computing whatsoever -- it could be effortlessly rewritten as magic in a fantasy setting.

This renders one of the core elements of the book's plot largely pointless. Entities presenting themselves as Haitian Voodoo gods have appeared in the matrix, and there are arguments between those who believe that these are "really" the gods they say they are, and those that believe they are "merely" artificial intelligences pretending to be gods. However, the book's notion of "artificial intelligence" is already entirely fantastical and unconstrained by any information about real-world computing, so the difference is moot from the reader's perspective. Overall there is a complete sense that Gibson's choices of scenery have no consequences whatsoever. It makes no difference whether something is a "god" or an "AI," whether a character is "jacking into the matrix" as opposed to "casting a spell to enter the dreamtime." It makes no difference that Gibson has chosen a futuristic "look" for his noir story, because in the end it's just a noir story.

Near the end of the book it is mentioned that one character has resistors braided into her hair, which seems like a perfect summary of the weight technology has (i.e. doesn't have) in this book. In a different genre those resistors would be something else, but in any case they are non-functioning parts, used only for aesthetic value. Technology is non-functionally "tacked onto" this book like those resistors.

I remember being very impressed with Gibson's prose when I read Neuromancer at age 18. Either Gibson declined a lot between that book and this one, or I'm no longer as easily impressed by competent prose in plot-driven genre stories anymore (the latter seems more likely). The only way to determine which is the case would be to re-read Neuromancer, but I'm not eager to do that at this point.

One star is too harsh a rating for a competent if totally unremarkable genre story, but Gibson pretends to do so much more, and that's frustrating. He's pretentious, in a much more direct sense of the term than the kind of authors who more commonly get slammed with it. So this book gets one star for being so much less than it pretends to be.

Kat Hooper

ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

"They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods."

Several years have passed since Molly and Case freed the AI who calls himself Neuromancer. Neuromancer’s been busy and now his plots have widened to involve several people whom we meet in Count Zero:

Turner is a recently reconstructed mercenary who’s been hired by the Hosaka Corporation to extract Christopher Mitchell and his daughter Angie from Mitchell’s job at Maas Biolabs. Mitchell is the creator of the world’s first biochip, and he’s secretly agreed to move to Hosaka. Extracting an indentured research scientist is a deadly game, but Turner is one of the best.

Bobby “Count Zero” Newmark, who wants to be a console cowboy, has just pulled a Wilson (that means he majorly screwed up) on his first attempt at running an unknown icebreaker. He nearly died in the matrix but was saved by a girl he’d never seen before. Now he’s freaked out, on the run, and buildings are exploding behind him as he’s being hunted by a mysterious helicopter with a rocket launcher.

Marly Krushkova lost her art gallery after her boyfriend tried to sell a forgery. Now she’s been hired by Joseph Virek, the world’s richest man, to find the artist who’s creating and selling some strange shadowboxes. These expensive and enigmatic objets d'art seem like collections of random pieces of junk, but they speak to Marly. Using her intuition, and Joseph Virek’s money, she hopes to find the unknown artist.

Other memorable characters are the voodoo priests and priestesses, The Finn, Tally Isham the Sense/Net celebrity, the prophet Wigan Ludgate who thinks God lives in the matrix, a bar owner named Jammer, and a whole mob of Gothicks and Kasuals. All of their stories eventually collide as we discover who’s haunting cyberspace.

Count Zero is the first sequel to William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. If you haven’t read Neuromancer yet, you’ll probably be lost because Gibson just drops you into his world without instructions, explanations, or technical support. Even though you think you’ve been to his world before (it’s Earth after all), you haven’t, and Gibson never tells us what happened to make it unrecognizable. It appears that large biotech companies are in control (or maybe I should say they’re out of control) and there are no authorities to check their ruthless behaviors. What happened to the U.S. government? Why are so many cities ruined and abandoned? What is “the war” that people keep referring to? Where is the middle class? There are still rich people who buy art, wear stylish clothes, and set trends for the masses, but many of those who try to keep up are illiterate, addicted, and without electricity and clean water. They escape their lives with designer drugs and by plugging into cheap simstim fantasies.

It’s partly these questions, which are never answered, that make Neuromancer’s sequel work so well. Many sequels feel pallid because the world and the characters are no longer new and exciting, but Gibson avoids sequel stagnancy by creating a gaudy and grueling world that we feel like we should understand, and making us desperate for more information (but rarely delivering it).

It also helps that in each book of the Sprawl trilogy, we have new characters to get to know. And you have to admire Gibson’s characters. Not as people, perhaps, but as characters. For example, Bobby (Count Zero) is a total loser. He’s like that obnoxious kid in high school who was always trying so hard to make people like him. Gibson gets this just right, never explaining Bobby to us, but letting us gradually figure him out just by listening to him talk or by seeing things from his perspective. This is carefully and cleverly done for every character.

The plot of Count Zero is fascinating, unique, and unpredictable as Gibson finally brings together all of these weird and colorful events and characters. There are some answers in the end, and the story's connection to Neuromancer is eventually made clear. But there are many questions left to answer, so after you finish Count Zero, you’ll want to have Mona Lisa Overdrive, the concluding novel of the Sprawl trilogy, ready to go.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Count Zero which was read by one of my favorite voice actors, Jonathan Davis. He is always wonderful and his grimy and jaded male voices are perfect for this kind of novel. My only issue is one I’ve had with Davis before: he has essentially one female voice. I have listened to so many books read by Mr. Davis that I actually feel like this one woman is showing up in all these different novels. (Hey, what are Thecla and Agia and Vlana and Ivrian doing in the Sprawl??) Count Zero has only a few female characters who don’t overlap much, so Davis does well with this story, but I’ll be listening for Angie and Marly next time I’m in Lankhmar.


An interesting addition to the Sprawl trilogy started with Neuromancer, taking a look at similar themes from a different perspective. What makes us human? What effect is technology having on us as a species? What happens if technology develops beyond our understanding and of its own free will?

I wasn't blown away, in fact I found it quite difficult to read at times yet managed to read it what felt like no time at all. This sort of sums up the contradiction of my experience of this book. Bored yet unable to stop reading. Putting the book down every 15 minutes yet never able to leave it alone for very long. Seeing ideas that would go on to be developed in new, interesting, more entertaining ways, yet overwhelmed at the foresight and inventiveness of the author.

I want to believe in William Gibson, I want to be a massive fan of all of his work yet I find myself struggling with these early books. If this wasn't a Gibson I may not have even finished it, if the sequence wasn't important to the development of the genre I probably wouldn't have started this one after Neuromancer.

So what now? Maybe the Blue Ant sequence will re-affirm my allegiance to the man.

Simon Brading

Barely made it to 3*s...
Parts of the book were good and made me want to keep reading, but then invariably the chapter changed and we went back to people whose story I wasn't interested in.
And in the end it just kinda all fizzles out... If it's going to do that I at least want it to make me think, like a Philip K Dick book, but this one almost just left me thinking that I was glad it was over because I can forget about it.