The Sprawl: Cyberpunk Ground Zero

You can argue about who counts as the first cyberpunk author – some would advocate for Philip K. Dick, others might make a case for John Brunner, Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty is often cited as a potential influence on the genre – but it would hard to say that William Gibson wasn’t the definitive cyberpunk author. Quite simply, if Gibson’s seminal work in the genre does not count as cyberpunk, then the term is pretty goddamn meaningless.

That said, as the world has caught up with the requirements of his fiction, Gibson’s writing has become less stylised, less science fictional, and more like modern-day techno-thriller material: computers are now at a point where Gibson can tell many of the stories he wants to tell without resorting to science fictional departures from current tech. When it comes to Gibson’s cyberpunk writing, the truly definitive stuff is his work from the 1980s, and specifically the stories of the Sprawl setting, “the Sprawl” being in-setting slang for the continuous urban development extending from Boston down to Atlanta along the East Coast of the US.

Though the Sprawl itself is not as central to most of these stories as you’d think – they tend to be more globe-trotting affairs – the tales keep looping in and out of it, so it’s a fairly apt term for the series. It’s now some 40 years after these stories first started being published, and we are now very much living in the sort of future Gibson was envisioning, so let’s see how well these have aged.

Burning Chrome

Before we get into the Sprawl series itself, it’s worth looking at this short story anthology. Collecting more or less all of Gibson’s short fiction up to 1986, the majority of the material here predates Neuromancer and finds him developing ideas he’d later use there, and three of the stories actually take place in the Sprawl setting and provide little prequel snippets to the Sprawl trilogy itself. Some of the other stories have sufficient thematic overlap that they feel like they could be Sprawl stories, but only three – Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome – are the subject of significant callbacks in the Sprawl novels.

The collection leads off with Johnny Mnemonic, the very first of the Sprawl stories, and it’s a good choice lead with; here, right in one single story, is the origin of so many conceits which would ultimately become cyberpunk clichés. You have computer programs as highly sensitive data; you have leather-glad sexy assassin chicks in the form of Molly Millions, who Johnny offers a very generous cut of his score in return for her protection; you have a significant presence from Japanese corporations and organised crime, with the Yakuza being the party who want to get their stuff back from Johnny; you have various exciting examples of cybernetic enhancement to human beings.

What you don’t have yet is an actual computer network; messages are sent by communications satellite, snail mail, or (bizarrely) through Johnny’s strangely augmented mind which allows him to be a living data receptacle, though one who can only retrieve the data when he is presented with the passphrase. The passphrase is the name of an out-of-fashion band, which is astonishingly silly – what happens if Johnny runs across it by accident? – but then the entire concept is rather daft when considered in the cold light of day.

But daylight is not where the story takes place. In a shadowy world of large urban areas enclosed in geodesic domes, Johnny seeks sanctuary among a “Lo Tek” clan of new primitives occupying the upper reaches of the dome framework; in a dingy backroom he regurgitates his information; in a run-down fairground he interacts with Jones, a cybernetically uplifted dolphin rendered utterly bizarre by the extensive surgical interventions made on him by the Navy for the sake of getting some odd strategic advantage until the program got canned and Jones was out on his ass and working a dingy fairground for heroin.

Despite the fact that more or less the entire cyberpunk genre subsequent to this ripped off Johnny Mnemonic to some extent – arguably, the entire Sprawl Trilogy is little more than an elaboration on themes introduced here – the story retains a certain power to get under your skin. For one thing, the cyberware – so commonplace in latter-day cyberpunk material that it becomes easy to gloss over – is intrusive, unusual, and alienating.

Sexual fetish subcultures exist based on absurd muscle grafts. Molly has mirrorshade lenses embedded in her face; Johnny has that chip in his head; Jones is a mutilated dolphin. The intrusive nature of the enhancements is consistently hyped up and they’re all just a couple of notches weirder and nastier than the standard “I cut off my arm so I could have a better prosthetic arm tacked onto the stump”. Does it make sense to design technology like this? Not necessarily, but the thematic notion of people transforming themselves extensively through repurposed technology is an interesting one in its own right and raises such vivid questions about our relationship to our tools that it’s possible to forgive the poetic licence here.

Early on in the story there’s a glib mention that Johnny can’t remember which of a pair of well-known security guards “used to be male”. We can regret the choice of words, but this was 1981 – 40 years of discussion hadn’t taken place, many of the now-accepted terms in relation to trans folk had yet to even be coined.

What’s more interesting is the fact that it appears at all. On the one hand, it is a tiny scrap of representation, and representation which suggests that in Johnny’s world gender transition is sufficiently commonplace that Johnny can’t keep it straight in his head which of the two transitioned (despite them also using a colour scheme which should make it simple to distinguish them). On the other hand, it’s someone’s gender status being used to establish an atmosphere of “oooh, this is edgy and weird”.

On the cybernetically grafted third hand, in 1981 trans folk were marginalised to an extent which even today’s transphobe-riddled landscape pales in comparison to, so one could argue that a scene where a trans person’s presence is accepted without question is in and of itself inherently going against the social norms of the time Gibson was writing.

More broadly, like I mentioned a lot of the features of the story which would eventually become cyberpunk clichés are not yet clichés here – and don’t function as such even despite the development of later works. The sort of imitative genre cliché I am thinking of – the type which is at best a deliberate engagement with the hallmarks a well-defined subgenre, at worst just plain lazy writing – serves the function of signalling that the type of artistic creation you are interacting with exists within the subgenre those clichés correspond to.

You cannot do that signalling if there is no pre-existing body of work you are deliberately imitating and trying to call to mind with that signalling in the first place, and that’s the case here. Sure, there’s works we can point to and say “this pre-Gibson thing is a type of early cyberpunk” – or, at the very least, identify them as proto-cyberpunk works paving the way for the genre. But it’s Gibson’s very distinctive combination of ideas which really defined classic-period cyberpunk as a recognisable subgenre.

One could accuse later Gibson works in this vein of deliberately using cyberpunk tropes – self-imitation is a thing, after all – but Johnny Mnemonic is not worrying about being anything other than Johnny Mnemonic. Sure, the Yakuza are here, and are depicted as being extremely powerful, but the Yakuza exist in our own world and throw their weight around there too. Sure, Molly’s a bit of a fantasy figure, but the type of fantasy she’s pandering to hadn’t yet become omnipresent in the genre.

The term “cyberpunk” wasn’t circulating when the story came out, but whilst later cyberpunk works sometimes have forgotten the “punk” part, Johnny Mnemonic absolutely has not. Grimily fusing the darkest and grittiest sort of crime fiction onto the body of science fiction, Gibson’s first significant cyberpunk story could well have ended up being a genre milestone all by itself even if followups like Neuromancer had never happened.

Floating around in the middle of the book is New Rose Hotel, from 1984, having been published in Omni in the same month that Neuromancer was published. It’s a fairly brief story, and on the verge of not even being science fiction; if it came out today it could well qualify as a straight-ahead techno-thriller.

Again, cyberspace is not apparent; the story involves a nameless industrial espionage freelancer sitting around in a derelict capsule hotel, reminiscing about the job arranging the defection of a top-flight geneticist from one corporation to the other – a job which has gone bad, and now has corporate assassins tracking him down. I’ve never seen the Abel Ferrara movie adaptation of this, but reputedly it’s much more loyal to the original than the Keanu Reeves adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic was, and (because it’s Abel Ferrara) very horny.

That’s fine, though – this story is pretty damn horny, since it largely consists of the narrator moping about his sadness boner for Sandi, the woman who double-crossed him, and the tantalising opportunity he had to stop her (having discovered something in her possessions which it really didn’t make sense in the context of the plan for her to have) and just sort of letting it slide.

Though it works in the term “zaibatsu” a lot (it’s basically Gibson’s way of saying “megacorporation” because he’s a bit of a weeaboo like that), it’s in the depiction of Sandi where, if you’re looking for signs of orientalism, exotification, and fetishisation of Asian women in Gibson’s writing, you’ll find ample things to make you go “hmm”. It’s in the narrator’s ruminations on Sandi that the story becomes more than a thinly-plotted techno-thriller: instead it’s a thinly-plotted techno-thriller whose story unfolds as a sad boy is sad about his girlfriend leaving him.

It’s rather prettily written, but in the cold light of day I’m not sure adding the sadness boner to the equation is an improvement. I mean, I understand being sad about being dumped, I really do, but pining for your ex-girlfriend to come along and hold your hand as the corporate assassins close in on your location suggests a terminal failure to prioritise.

The third Sprawl story here is Burning Chrome, the collection’s title story, and the last entry in the anthology. This is the only story in which cyberspace – or, indeed, a computer network of any type – proves to be a crucial element of the story. It’s got another big dose of sadboy with sadboner here, as the narrator – Automatic Jack – tells the tale of how he and Bobby Quine, his partner in crime, both became infatuated with this teenage girl called Rikki was they were in the process of putting together a major raid on the finances of Chrome, a Mafia boss.

The computer hack works fine thanks to a Russian icebreaker program that comes into Automatic Jack’s possession – ICE, or Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, being the computer security systems of Gibson’s world – but despite being the story where Gibson debuted his conception of cyberspace, the hack itself seems almost secondary to the emotional arc of the story, which is a shame when it boils down to another “I had a boner for you but you went away so now my boner is sad and lonely” arc, which as we’ll see was something of a recurring schtick for Gibson at this point in time.

Gibsonian cyberspace is, let’s make this clear, a very silly concept. It just doesn’t make sense that a full-on VR simulation would be a more efficient way of visualising and manipulating information about even a very complex computer network than a regular computer screen. OK, sure, contextually it seems like when hackers are using cyberspace they’re making decisions at a very, very rapid pace, but even then surely the distinctive technological leap there isn’t so much the VR as it is bestowing on people the capacity to act and react at the speed of powerful, fast computer processors, so the same tech ought to allow them to do the same thing looking at an ordinary screen.

Still, it’s undeniably a vivid way of visualising the layout of a computer network, which was probably necessary when the story came out in 1982, an era when even technically savvy readers wouldn’t necessarily have had much interaction with networking. From our perspective, of course, it’s a little absurd, but that’s largely because a lot of the underlying concepts are things which we’d take for granted these days and simply don’t need explaining to us in the way they needed to be conveyed vividly (if not necessarily accurately) to readers back then. It’s like the somewhat off-the-mark depictions of flying machines in Victorian science fiction: they recognised that powered flight would be important, they didn’t necessarily nail what form it would take.

The first non-Sprawl story in the collection is The Gernsback Continuum. Set in the present day and providing the story of a photographer who, working on a project on “raygun Gothic” – the future the way 1930s America imagined it, rather than how it actually happened – finds he’s catching glimpses of an alternate 1980; specifically, the one depicted on the cover of the Hugo Gernsback pulps.

This cuts to the root of dieselpunk, steampunk, and all those other periodpunk subgenres which are based around exploring the aesthetics of predicted futures which never happened (said futures nearly always incorporating a strong dose of the era that first imagined them – which you’d expect because a lot of the time when people are predicting the future they’re really commenting on the present).

At the same time, The Gernsback Continuum does not romanticise this future; the story emphasises the aesthetic crossover between 1930s pulp SF, Futurism, and fascist propaganda; the narrator declares that his most sustained vision of this world has “all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.”, the inhabitants being concerningly blonde haired and blue eyed.

The resolution has the protagonist dissolve the visions by taking in a strong diet of shitty media, pornography, and current-day news – reacquainting himself with the flawed and troubled real world, rather than the creepily perfect fantasy. The moral is that if science fiction is not saying something relevant about the problems of today, then it’s trading on empty pie-in-the-sky and pandering to stale and discredited political visions at best, potentially reviving them at worst.

This feels like a Philip K. Dick homage. You have the character who accidentally steps from one timeline into another which appears in so much of Dick’s work, perhaps most famously in The Man In the High Castle. You have the blending of modern-day America with esoteric visions of other worlds, as in latter-day works like the VALIS trilogy. And most of all, you have a strong mistrust of science fiction which doesn’t move forward, but instead tries to formulaically provide cover for ideas we should be leaving behind; Dick wasn’t keen, for instance, on John Campbell’s insistence that mutants in science fiction must necessarily be superior forward leaps in evolution; there was too much of the Master Race about that notion. Less than a year after The Gernsback Continuum was published in June 1981, Dick would be dead, but it’s clear that Gibson and others were more than ready to take up his standard when the man himself fell.

Fragments of a Hologram Rose comes from substantially earlier, having crept out in 1977. Though it isn’t specifically a Sprawl story, it’s got a lot of crossover with the Sprawl material – you have a protagonist living in a dreary, run-down city in a traumatically changed near future, and a major theme based around the emergence of a new information medium. (In this case not a computer network, but a means of putting people’s full sensory experiences on tape so other people can experience snippets of their lives through their eyes.)

There is not much of a plot beyond “dumped guy sits around, is sad that his girlfriend has left him”, but it’s interesting to see Gibson’s distinctive style coming together to this extent four years before his fiction really began to make waves. Thinking about it, it could almost be a spiritual prequel to New Rose Hotel – it’s not the same setting and there aren’t many shared themes on the science fictional side of things, but the general emotional angle of “my girlfriend left me and now my boner is sad” is the same.

Hinterlands, originally published in the October 1981, feels much closer to traditional science fiction than cyberpunk. Yes, the main character has some cybernetic implants and is anxious to tell us that he’s a dope-smoking sex-haver, which is somewhat cyberpunk, but it’s basically a social science fiction story about a space enigma – like a response to Pohl’s Gateway. At a point in space a strange enigmatic zone has been discovered, where if a ship goes there and lets off a hydrogen flare it’ll (possibly) be taken somewhere else, and then returned some time later.

The logic behind which ships get taken and which don’t is not apparent to the joint US-Soviet effort to study this. Some rules of thumb do exist, however. Only ships with a single human occupant are taken – you can’t take a buddy on the ride. You can’t send an AI – whatever it is behind the anomaly won’t take ’em. Recording devices sent along won’t function. The human you send off will come back with some sort of item or bit of information – maybe of only academic interest, maybe not. (The cure for cancer showed up on one trip.)

They will also be massively, massively psychologically broken, to the point where the biggest danger to them is not the trip itself, it’s suicide when they get back. Toby, our protagonist, works on the space station that studies the anomaly as a surrogate – someone whose job it is to bond with a returnee and try to help them to get it together long enough to maximise the useful data that can be got out of them.

The information that comes out of the anomaly is too useful not to continue this strange sort of human sacrifice – a human sacrifice made acceptable to the governments of the world because it brings back genuinely revolutionary and undeniably beneficial information from time to time. But the arrangements made to support it are the focus of the story, and it’s clear that the station’s staff are essentially fumbling in the dark here; Earth has become a cargo cult, the superpowers suspending their hostilities to engage with what is ultimately the most minimal, narrow interaction with more advanced cultures you can imagine, just because they want what they have to offer so badly. It’s a fumbling disaster of first contact – the benefits are technologically and scientifically priceless, but the ethical cost is ruinous.

Perhaps the punchiest part of the story is the revelation at the end that the surrogates were picked to go through the anomaly but were not taken – and both the ones we meet attempted suicide after this. Perhaps not going on a cosmic rollercoaster ride which will break your brain utterly at best, kill you at worst is that disappointing: the guilt of not bringing back another world-changing discovery might be that bad. But I suspect it’s also a hint as to who gets chosen for these things (or who volunteers): people with a tendency towards suicidal ideation in the first place.

After all, the anomaly is destructive enough that most people would decide it’s not worth it – but it also provides a route to self-destruction which is not only endorsed by the governments of the time, but also brings with it such benefits that it could be seen, from a certain perspective, as noble self-sacrifice. That would be extremely appealing to anyone who had some level of suicidal impulse, particularly if part of what is holding the back from that is guilt arising from religious ideas about the sanctity of life or concern about the effect on others.

Like the best of older-school science fiction, the story kicks off a plethora of possibilities and interesting notions to think through despite being a fairly short piece with a minimal plot: man wakes up, told he needs to do his job, he does his job, it’s much like any other time he does his job. The meat is all in the world details we learn through that process, and in the thought experiment established through those details. Aimless worldbuilding for its own sake is often criticised, and can be a slog to read through unless you are very keen on the world being built, but Hinterlands is a great example of the opposite: targeted, purposeful worldbuilding in which the details of the world support the central theme of the story.

The Winter Market follows its protagonist – a skilled editor of people’s dreams and subconscious images, which after appropriate filtering are used as an entertainment medium, reminiscing about Lise, a young woman dying of a congenital illness exacerbated by drug use, whose dreams were the basis of the next big hit and has now died, with her brain uploaded to a mainframe computer. It’s the standard transhumanist mind uploading concept, complete with philosophical questions about whether the thing on the computer is actually meaningfully Lise or merely a computer running a clever simulation of her; it is suggested that if the Lise-program is able to dream like Lise did, it would be a strong sign that it really is her, though the protagonist dreads the interaction.

This feels like another throwback to Fragments of a Hologram Rose, particularly with the “sadboy with mind recordings of the woman he lost” angle. The protagonist and Lise never had sex, though she aggressively came onto him in their first meeting, which he later realises is a sign of her ambivalent attitude to the whole mind-uploading thing: it’s not unambiguously an improvement for her, she still wanted some kind of engagement with her body even though her condition made her somewhat detached from it, yadda yadda. Written on commission and appearing in a 1986 issue of Vancouver Magazine, it’s perhaps most valuable these days as a benchmark: if your mind-uploading story isn’t doing anything more insightful than a B-grade William Gibson story from over three decades ago, maybe work on it a bit more.

The anthology also includes some collaborations. The Belonging Kind was written with John Shirley for a horror anthology in 1981, and comes across a bit like a David Cronenberg adaptation of a Ramsey Campbell short story: a linguistics professor who’s never been good in crowded social settings discovers an underground of people who are preternaturally good at it, and then discovers something horrifying about why that is. The most significant connection to the rest of Gibson’s work is probably the noirish feel of it; overall, though, John Shirley’s larger body of work sits closer to horror than Gibson’s does, so it may be more representative of Shirley than Gibson.

Red Star, Winter Orbit is a collaboration with Bruce Sterling. Despite Sterling arguably being a bigger booster of the cyberpunk genre than Gibson was – his Mirrorshades anthology, despite my reservations about it, was one of the earliest attempts to produce a specifically cyberpunk collection – this is essentially straight-ahead science fiction – hard on the technological front (it doesn’t advance space technology all that much), but with its main interest on the social and political side.

Set on an aging Soviet space habitat on the verge of being shut down, due to the Soviets losing interest in human space exploration (the US space program has already shut down; the Japanese are doing much better thanks to pivoting to robots for offworld mining), the story chronicles a mutiny led by the first man on Mars, who due to injuries sustained on the Mars mission can only enjoy full mobility in zero-gravity. So far, so J.G. Ballard – though Ballard was more interested in positing a decline and shuttering of the US space program, applying the same exercise to the Soviet Union and considering how at decline might go down in that political structure is an interesting concept.

I am less sold on the ending of the book, where the Colonel is rescued from desperate danger by, essentially, space-squatters, who noticing the abandoned station had jumped ship from an American low-orbit habitat in order to set up a new colony in the new frontier. It buys into the American frontier ideology too much. (In case you had not noticed: the myth of the American frontier and the ennobling virtue of life on the frontier was a lie designed to send volatile people out of polite society to genocide the local populations of the American West.)

I strongly suspect that part was a Bruce Sterling idea. Red Star, Winter Orbit came out at around the same time as he was writing the short stories of his Shaper/Mechanist setting, which he’d later depict more fully in the novel Schismatrix. These tales depicted a future in which factions of forward-thinking futurists now lived on a disparate range of offworld habitats across the Solar System, with Earth a toxic wasteland inhabited by backward refuseniks; this strikes me as the sort of future which Red Star, Winter Orbit might be supposed to be pointing towards (and it isn’t impossible that it’s a stealth prequel to it).

The general message here is that a true frontier doesn’t need the hand of government behind it – it just needs people willing to go out and explore and settle with that good ol’ pioneer spirit. (Never mind that the pioneers of the American West that this sort of rhetoric is clearly meant to remind us of were, in fact, backed by a government…) This is the sort of “no government is good government” libertarianism which has degraded these days into corporate bootlicking and people who will never be billionaires running interference for people who definitely are billionaires.

To be fair, the government most in evidence in this story is the Soviet government, and Reagan’s legacy of deregulation wasn’t necessarily immediately apparent at this point in time. The nuance that taking oppressive power away from government risks leaving oppressive power in the hands of private individuals and corporations is a point many miss today, and was a point many missed in earlier decades. Clearly Gibson grasped the idea – that’s why the megacorporations are a big deal in the style of cyberpunk he crystallised.

The major reason I think the ending of the story was Sterling’s is that this “brave future-oriented frontier people thrive, ground-bound dinosaurs fail” dichotomy is not only a central idea of the Shaper/Mechanist universe, but also doesn’t seem to fit Gibson’s wider ethos; people like Johnny Mnemonic in his stories do thrive in the shadows and in hijacked little spaces in the nooks and crannies of the wider social system, but the key words there are “wider social system”: they need the wider society they exist in to create those spaces for them to occupy in the first place. The space-squatters seem to be cutting themselves off from that.

Gibson collaborates with Michael Swanwick on Dogfight, in which a drifter prone to petty criminality goes to extremes to get any edge he can in playing an aerial combat videogame based around holograms produced and controlled through mental concentration, having discovered a subculture of gambling around the game. He gets his big score, but only at the cost of burning a ton of bridges – including torturing and (possibly) raping his only friend in order to obtain her dose of a drug which gives him the focus necessary to beat his opponent.

It’s a nasty, grim, downbeat story, and is consciously designed as such. The point of the story is largely about how awful the protagonist is, but the concept of mental block technology – and how once you’ve discovered someone else’s blocks imposed by the authorities you can use that to exert a hideous pressure on them – is an interesting one.

On the whole, Burning Chrome sums up early Gibson as a writer of great promise, intent on using science fiction to explore social and emotional landscapes the genre had overlooked, and prone to repeatedly revisiting particular motifs or emotional angles (cyberware, Japan, sadboys with sadboners). When those repetitions work, you can see them as cultivating recurring themes, but when they don’t hit the mark it just comes across as having certain bad habits as a writer.

In particular, writing women seems to be a weak point at this stage; though Gibson’s women seem to have a bit more personality and depth to them than, say, the women in a Philip K. Dick story when he was letting his misogyny and hangups get the better of him, that’s not exactly a high standard.


Cyberspace hacker Case tried to screw over his sponsors after his last job, so they did a number on him with a designer mycotoxin, destroying his ability to patch into cyberspace. After blowing all his reserves on a failed attempt to get this hideous thing that has been done to him cured, Case has been running scams and hustles in Night City, the grungy cosmopolitan crime quarter of Chiba City in Japan.

This all changes when Molly – last seen in Johnny Mnemonic – steps into his life. (Johnny, we find out later, is dead.) Molly is working for the mysterious Armitage, and he wants Case working for him too; he sent Molly to pick Case up, which she does with her usual finesse. After agreeing terms with Armitage, Case finds himself cured, and with a brand new pancreas which will take the edge off that speed and cocaine habit he’s been distracting himself by rendering the drugs ineffective on his body chemistry.

He also has some little sachets in his bloodstream, slowly dissolving, with the same mycotoxin that did this to him to begin with inside. They will last long enough for Case to complete the job, however, at which point he’ll be provided with the enzyme that will prompt them to detach from his capillary walls; a full blood transfusion after that and he should be safe and sound.

That’s if he survives that long. For Armitage’s boss is Wintermute – an AI created by the Tessier-Ashpool megacorporation – who has gained the services of Armitage, Case, and Molly to conduct a raid which will allow Wintermute to evolve beyond the limitations placed upon it by its creators. Messing with megacorps is trouble enough: doing so in conjunction with a wayward AI risks the involvement of the Turing police, who are tasked with preventing just this sort of situation.

It gets worse. To complete the job, physical access to some equipment inside the Tessier-Ashpool headquarters will be needed – and they’re based out of the Villa Straylight, their impregnable mansion that is part of the space habitat Freeside. So after some short heists in the Sprawl and Istanbul to obtain the other key members of their team – a simulated version of the late Dixie Flatline, the hacker who taught Case the trade, and Peter Riviera, a sadistic hologram whizz – and a quick stopoff at the Rastafarian-operated Zion space colony to pick up a pilot (Maelcum, steering the space tug Marcus Garvey), Armitage’s team will have to infiltrate the glamourous resort-casino section of Freeside and from there mount their infiltration of Straylight.

It’s an astonishingly dangerous proposition, not least because in the isolation their wealth has bought them the Tessier-Ashpools have been getting very, very strange. Will Wintermute get its way? Will Case get away with his cyberspace skills intact? And what of the other Tessier-Ashpool AI which is taking an interest in the run – the mysterious Neuromancer?

Neuromancer, in some respects, makes a few concessions to more typical science fiction, which perhaps explains how a grimy crime thriller inspired as much by Velvet Underground albums and William Burroughs as it was by Alfted Bester’s The Stars My Destination became such an immediate hit within the field. You have spaceships and space stations, you have hard SF considerations like how gravity works on Freeside (the Freeside section takes up about half the book), you have exciting scientific speculation about AIs and computer networks and whatnot.

Nonetheless, Neuromancer is the quintessential cyberpunk novel for reasons beyond its strong emphasis on cyberspace. Between Molly’s cybernetic enhancements, the grim near-future setting with corporations a law unto themselves, and the main protagonist and his immediate allies being hired guns from the criminal underworld rather than anyone with better social standing, the novel crystallised a whole swathe of the genre conventions of the nascent field and became widely imitated. (The Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop RPG which provided the basis for Cyberpunk 2077 has “Night City” as its default setting in a particularly shameless lift.)

Sometimes this imitation has involved taking Gibson’s bad habits and deploying them more thoughtlessly than he does here. A certain mixture of weeabooism and buying into 1980s fears about Japan buying up everything and massively outcompeting the US with its more relentless work culture is in evidence; 3Jane, the acting boss of Tessier-Ashpool, has an honest to goodness ninja working for her, for crying out loud. At the same time, it doesn’t dominate to the same way it does in some cyberpunk texts – Africa, South America, and the global South in general seems to have become more important in this world, and the Tessier-Ashpools are a European combine. Gibson’s cultural tourism extends to the Rastafarian community, so he’s not just being full weeaboo. I’m not really placed to judge how well he depicts any of the communities he touches on, but an effort is at least made to depict a genuinely diverse and heterogeneous world.

Likewise, a certain amount of adolescent wish fulfillment is in evidence. Molly and Case end up banging pretty damn soon after they meet – even as Case is recovering from surgery! – so we’re two for two on Molly being a protagonist’s fantasy sex pal as well as a badass fighter. On the other hand, Molly being the muscle of the group is undeniably a change of pace from much prior science fiction, and it does at least somewhat make sense that Molly and Case would feel this sense of connection: they are both specialists from the criminal underworld who largely define themselves by their mostly-illegal job. Case defines himself by hacking, Molly defines herself through violence, and their affair lasts as long as violence and hacking are both factors of their lives. Moreover, Case himself is kind of a mess and not really the sort of person readers would necessarily fantasise about being. Plenty of hackers over the years have tried to see themselves echoed in him, but that doesn’t say a whole lot that’s positive about them.

In addition, some of the inspiration that the various cyberpunk also-rans took from Neuromancer feels like it is based more on a misreading of the text than anything which is supported by the text itself. People talk about how in cyberpunk the various hackers and street samurai and whatnot seem so very, very cool. Case certainly isn’t cool – he’s desperate. Molly is somewhat more cool, but even here Gibson himself sort of parodies that cool in the holographic caricatures Riviera makes of her – spoofing himself years before Neal Stephenson spoofed Gibsonian cyberpunk with Snow Crash. And under the cool of Molly is also the desperation. Armitage isn’t cool – he’s going to pieces. Riviera isn’t cool, he’s a sociopath.

Even to the extent that some of the characters are cool, they are never glamorous, which is I think the crucial mistake much Gibson-imitating cyberpunk makes. You wouldn’t want their lives – not the experiences they are having here, not the stuff they went through to get here, not in this world. There’s a run-down griminess to Gibson’s cyberpunk; yes, the wealthy parts of the world are insulated from that somewhat, but the marginalised areas are extremely marginalised. They are rough like the bad parts of a shanty town, not the fake-rough of a goth club or a death metal concert, and I think few writers manage to capture that.

The upper echelons of society here are outright weird too. The Tessier-Ashpools have a bizarre arrangement involving cloning and cryogenics when it comes to their governance, and between this and the secret purpose for which Neuromancer and Wintermute were designed and the bizarre murder-suicide of Mr. Ashpool himself that Molly stumbles into mid-infiltration, there’s signs of an interesting story in its own right which you can figure out through what Case and Molly are able to pick up but which isn’t the main story of the novel, even though in much prior science fiction it probably would have been the main tale.

In relation to this stuff, the crucial difference Gibson draws between old-style ROM-based personality constructs, which have the memories and psychological profiles of the individuals in question implemented and can seem plausibly alive, but can’t grow or change in the way truly living people can (which is the status of the Dixie Flatline for much of the book), and RAM-enhanced personality constructs which can grow and change and therefore are more genuinely “alive” (and indeed can make decisions surprising to the systems hosting them) is an interesting distinction to consider, and is also thematically interesting. In this future, the distinction between “haves” and “have nots” extends to your digital afterlife.

It also helps make a lot of the plot make more sense in retrospect. Neuromancer is the half of the Tessier-Ashpool AI project that handles that stuff; Wintermute not only doesn’t have that capacity but is Turing-locked against developing that capacity, and it’s only once the Turing locks are released and Wintermute and Neuromancer merge that they reach their full potential. This explains a whole slew of the mistakes and failed gambles Wintermute makes over the course of the novel; it can make educated guesses about people based on personality profiles and amassed data, but there’s a crucial component missing in its ability to come up with novel personalities or unexpected tangents. This is why Wintermute can’t talk to people except through personas based on real individuals, and this is why Wintermute doesn’t figure out that Armitage will crack up before the mission is over, or doesn’t realise that Peter Riviera is too sociopathic not to betray the party at a critical moment.

Gibson in retrospect notes that he was trying to fumble his way into learning how to do a novel with this one, and some of the devices in the story exist solely to provide Gibson with a means of smash-cutting between different parts of the narrative whilst keeping the story primarily filtered through Case’s perspective. Nonetheless, it works – despite many of its conceits having been reduced to cliché by its many imitators, Neuromancer has that lightning-in-a-bottle, just as the first Velvet Underground album: both inspired many followers, but none of them ever quite managed to sound the same.

Count Zero

Turner is a specialist in the dangerous art of corporate extractions – assisting highly-placed personnel who wish to defect from one megacorp to another to make that leap, in an era when corporations have private military resources and elite assassins at their disposal. His latest mission requires him to aid the escape of Mitchell, a key designer in the field of next-generation biochips, to defect from Maas Biolabs to Hosaka – but after being blown to pieces and arduously rebuilt after his most recent mission, Turner is feeling jumpy and paranoid. He is right to be.

Marly Krushkhova used to operate a small but chic art gallery in Paris – but her (now ex-)lover Alain conned her into selling an artwork which turned out to be a forgery, and the disgrace has caused the collapse of her business. However, the astonishingly wealthy Josef Virek doesn’t mind: he appreciates her artistic instincts, and wants to make use of them to track down a mysterious artist whose work has come to Virek’s attention. Little does Krushkhova know that her search will take her into orbit, delving deeply into the fallout of Neuromancer and its effect on the Tessier-Ashpool clan.

Teenage dirtbag Bobby Newmark fancies himself a cyberspace whiz, and calls himself Count Zero because he thinks that bit of now-outdated programming lingo sounds totally cool and badass. After fucking up on his first hacking run, he was saved from getting killed off by black ICE by the intervention of a mysterious entity – however, he’s fairly sure his cyberdeck has been traced. Grabbing his deck, he exits his home (an apartment he shares with his mother) a couple of hours before it gets blown up by a missile attack. Soon Bobby finds sanctuary with a mysterious clique of movers and shakers who espouse a belief in voodoo, and who claim to have a business relationship with the loa – or rogue AI entities which enjoy presenting themselves as the loa, at any rate, which these operators are only too happy to play along with if it gets the job done.

Turner, Marly, and Bobby’s stories shouldn’t, on the face of it, have any real reason to cross over… and yet they do. And ultimately, the fate of all three of them will rest on the shoulders of Count Zero – or something opting to act through him…

Though Count Zero, Gibson’s 1986 sequel to Neuromancer, is named after Bobby’s cyberspace jockey alias, it’s as much Marly and Turner’s story as it is Bobby’s – and indeed, of the three protagonists Bobby may well be the least important in the grand scheme of things, at least until the climactic sequence when, as the only decker among them, he has to jack in to try and get a crucial bit of communication accomplished that would allow him, Turner, and their allies to get out of the jam they’ve got themselves in – and along the way is essentially hijacked by a powerful AI to lay down some vengeance and rescue Marly from her own peril that Bobby isn’t even aware of.

In fact, one of the more amusing features of the book is how much of an utter dipshit Bobby actually is. He bullshits about his own competence to look cooler than he is, he conceals information from his buddies because he’s worried about how it’d make him look, he’s basically awkward and insecure in a very teenage boy sort of a way. People talk up how much Neal Stephenson lampooned Gibson-esque cyberpunk in Snow Crash, but I think with this Gibson lands a fairly decent parody of the sort of edgelordy-cool cyberpunk protagonist which had proliferated since he’d made it big (and which he was partially responsible in his own way for propagating).

Who’s really in control, then? Ultimately, the novel is the story of how these three disparate stories are all part of one big happening that’s been prompted and directed by Wintermute – or, rather, the shattered remnants of Wintermute. We don’t get a full blow-by-blow chronology of exactly what has been going on since Neuromancer – Gibson is way more interested in showing than telling – but you can piece together that the Wintermute-Neuromancer gestalt, after merging with the very stuff of the Matrix, has now split into a collective of rogue next-generation AIs. Some of them are making art. Some of them are pretending to be loa. Some of them are developing new technology and passing it to humans to develop, for an agenda that is not yet fully developed but seems to involve a more perfect union between cyberspace and flesh.

In effect, the Singularity has kind of happened – but in a quiet, secret fashion, rather than in the world-transforming way that transhumanists get all horny about, largely because the AIs are more interested in pursuing their various little personal projects and don’t have enough of a human perspective to want to bother to mess with humanity all that much. But they’re happy to make deals, which is why they do the loa thing with Beauvoir, Jackie, and the other members of the voodoo sect of well-connected underground operators that Bobby gets in touch with. In essence, it’s not so much that they are the literal, actual loa, but it’s an appropriate analogy, and this places Beauvoir and his crew in a privileged position to cut this sort of deal because they have the cultural grounding necessary to deal with it. (There are likely techno-savvy Goetic magicians and other occultists in this setting who enjoy similar advantages, but Bobby doesn’t meet them.)

This is all rather fascinating, but large amounts of the novel will go over your head completely if you didn’t read Neuromancer: this is emphatically a sequel, not just a new standalone story in the same setting, and I recommend reading it reasonably soon after reading Neuromancer so that you can have things fresh in your head, pick up the references to Molly and the infiltration of the Tessier-Ashpool headquarters, know who the Finn is and what his connection with all that was, and so on. (For that matter, you probably also want to have read Burning Chrome fairly recently in order to catch connections to Burning Chrome and New Rose Hotel.)

Gibson here has grown appreciably as a writer since his early short stories and Neuromancer; in the earlier novel it felt like he was tying himself in knots a little to keep Case as the sole viewpoint character, rather than just using multiple, but here he not only manages to effectively juggle three viewpoint characters but also give them three apparently disconnected stories which assemble together rather elegantly. The fact that one of them is a women, sympathetically portrayed and not egregiously fetishised, is also a useful step forwards. (Turner having a certain emotional response to a 17 year old girl in his plotline feels slightly more skeeve, but Gibson ultimately steers hard away from this: I think I was concerned more with the direction Gibson could have taken it in than where he actually went with it.)

Is the voodoo stuff cultural appropriation in retrospect? Mmmmaybe. Bobby as this white kid who gets accepted by the loa as their agent in the long run feels like it risks following a “white guy stumbles into a colonised culture, does better at its particular schtick than the locals” angle, as seen in so much crappy colonial adventure fiction, but I think it just about avoids this pitfall from the fact that Bobby is clearly kind of a fuckup who lucks out a lot and the book knows it. And it’s less clumsily handled than, say, the rather heavy-handed depiction of Rastafarianism in Neuromancer.

On the whole, whilst Neuromancer was the breakthrough novel of the Sprawl series, I am strongly tempted to say that Count Zero is quite simply a better book. Gibson applies more finesse, he puts together a genuinely complex plot in a way which seems deceptively simple, there’s a somewhat better handling of the diverse cast, and it takes the ideas of Neuromancer forwards in interesting ways. There’s some respects in which it feels a bit less prophetic than Neuromancer – in particular, Gibson more or less entirely fails to realise how ubiquitous mobile phones would become, and there’s several instances in the book (including the final conflict) in which the existence of omnipresent mobiles would make everything so much simpler. On the other hand, the book feels like in some respects it has a better understanding and appreciation of human beings.

Mona Lisa Overdrive

It’s 15 years after Neuromancer, some seven or so years after Count Zero. Kumiko is the daughter of a Yakuza boss. Her mother just committed suicide, she and her dad are both depressed in their won way, and dad’s got a gang war to fight, so he packs her off to London to be looked after by Swain, his UK franchisee. Swain’s loyalties, however, are a bit murky – but fortunately, Kumiko has an unlikely new protector in the form of Sally Shears, who is in fact the asskicker formerly known as Molly Millions.

Why would Molly, rich off the back of the Neuromancer job, be slumming it working as a bodyguard for Swain? Does Swain only intend to use her for that purpose? Does Molly intend to go along with it? All these are questions well above Kumiko’s head, since she’s largely been shielded from her father’s criminal world and isn’t used to this sort of cloak-and-dagger business – but she’ll need to think about some of this if she’s to avoid being used as a pawn in a grander scheme.

Slick Henry lives in a run-down factory out in Dog Solitude, a junkyard-desert in the wastelands surrounding the Sprawl. An ex-con whose memory has been screwed with by the prison system, he keeps it together producing robotic art pieces. His de facto landlord is Gentry, the cyberspace cowboy whose hacking allows stops the electric company cutting off the factory’s supply.

He also owes a favour to Kid Afrika, who calls it in one day when he shows up with Cherry, allegedly a doctor, and her patient – a man wrapped in bandages and hooked up to some kind of advanced computer equipment, who has paid good money to be kept plugged in like this on a long-term basis. Gentry becomes fixated on the idea that this strange figure might hold the key to certain mysteries of cyberspace Gentry has been obsessed with. Slick just wonders why Cherry refers to this figure as “the Count” – not realising that that’s not Count as in Dracula”, it’s Count as in Zero…

Angie Mitchell – the daughter of the defecting scientist in Count Zero – used to date the Count, despite this annoying her employers at Sense/Net, the top-flight purveyors of VR full-sensory experiences. Since the events of that novel she’s become one of Sense/Net’s biggest stars, and the voices of the AI loa that she could constantly hear due to her father engineering a connection to cyberspace direct into her brain have fallen quiet. Then they perk up again, and Angie finds herself becoming increasingly interested in the legacy of Tessier-Ashpool.

And then there’s Mona – the illiterate product of a deprived upbringing, a teenage prostitute living in a miserable squat with her abusive pimp, Eddy, with a drug addiction of her own but no big Sense/Net cheque to pay for rehab. More or less the only thing she has going for her is that she looks a bit like Angie. Now some big money guys have come along, convinced Eddy he’s going to make a big score if he lets them give Mona a little cosmetic surgery to look a lot like Angie. Soon it becomes apparent that someone plans to use Mona as a decoy in a kidnapping attempt on Angie – and they intend to use Molly/Sally to get the job done…

Set together, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive are both ultimately novels which further explore the outcome of Neuromancer, except Mona Lisa Overdrive doesn’t feel like it take things all that much further than Count Zero did. Sure, there’s all the fun of electronic afterlives and the fused Neuromancer-Wintermute system merging with the substance of the Matrix itself and making contact with another Matrix-AI associated with Alpha Centauri and, as a result of this contact with an alien consciousness, remanifesting as a set of computer-deities taking the forms of the loa as an appropriate cultural approximation to what they’ve actually become. But we’ve already seen all of that in the last two books – heck, aside from the loa stuff, we saw all of that in the last few pages of Neuromancer.

In that light, it’s perhaps understandable that Gibson abandoned the Sprawl after this, despite it being the setting which gave him such a monster hit: it really comes across like he’s written himself into a corner. The ending of Neuromancer has these incredibly huge implications for the setting, and Count Zero sort of starts exploring them, but here the well seems to have run dry: there doesn’t seem to be much particularly new happening, it just feels like Gibson moving the pieces around his chessboard and trying to find a new combination which might break the creative deadlock.

It also seems like, having gained some confidence in his ability to juggle multiple narratives in Count Zero, Gibson decided to repeat the trick but make it a bit more impressive by stretching from three viewpoint characters to four. Unfortunately, the page count doesn’t increase by a third to account for this, and the result is that you end up with four narratives which all feel, in their own way, to be slightly underexplored, and when it comes to bringing them all together at the end it feels a bit more stilted and artificial than it did in Count Zero.

In other words, it comes across as Gibson showing off his increased technical chops as an author, to the detriment of crafting a cohesive novel – the literary equivalent of a very proficient prog metal band putting more effort into doing technically intricate solos and key changes and whatnot but neglecting to incorporate them into compelling compositions. (So, you know, anything Dream Theater have done post-Images and Words.)

Part of the problem may have been that even in the short span during which he’d written the series – remember, Neuromancer dropped in 1984, Mona Lisa Overdrive emerged in 1988 – the world had already moved on. The World Wide Web was not yet a thing, but electronic bulletin boards absolutely were and they were gradually starting to seep into the public consciousness from the margins. The idea of doing complex hacking jobs using a highly distracting VR interface rather than typing into a keyboard was starting to become less necessary to convey the idea – and had been so widely imitated that it no longer felt fresh.

Under such circumstances, even though Mona Lisa Overdrive doesn’t really push the Sprawl setting forward much further, you could make an argument that to do so would be wasted effort: it’d be building further upon a foundation which was quickly becoming redundant. Abandoning the setting entirely – to my knowledge he hasn’t even gone back for a quick short story, and he certainly hasn’t set any new novels there – was 100% the right call. (Gibson would instead get together with Bruce Sterling to pen the steampunk palette-cleanser The Difference Engine before debuting his new setting, the Bridge, in Virtual Light.)

Some of Gibson’s old bad habits return here too. Molly seems less fetishised, but on the other hand writing a Japanese protagonist leads to galling moments like Molly explaining some Japanese concepts like the structure of the Yakuza to Kumiko, a Japanese person born into a Yakuza family. OK, sure, Kumiko has had something of a sheltered upbringing, but even taking that into account it still feels like Molly’s whitesplaining Kumiko’s own culture to her. When Kid Afrika shows up, Slick refers to him by the N-word, and Kid Afrika’s general description comes across like a pimp from a 1970s blaxploitation film.

The combination of lingering bad habits, a failure to really push things forward to even the modest extent that Count Zero did, and an overall sense that the Sprawl setting has kind of already run its course make Mona Lisa Overdrive probably the least interesting of the Sprawl novels. There are some fun aspects to it – it probably has the best-written action sequences in the entire trilogy – but other than that you can’t really point to a lot it does well which wasn’t done better by Neuromancer or Count Zero. It’s worth it if you want to see the final payoff of the trilogy, but it feels like a payoff which could have come at the end of Count Zero as an epilogue rather than needing to base an entire novel around it.

4 thoughts on “The Sprawl: Cyberpunk Ground Zero

  1. William Burns

    Been a while since I read any of this but when it first came out (I first read Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic in Omni) it just blew up the field. People had no idea you could do this with science fiction.

    More specifically:

    I thought Jones was an actual dolphin who’d gotten a cybernetic implant.

    The thing that really impressed me about Mona Lisa Overdrive is the Mona plotline which is one of the very few examples in all science fiction of a sympathetic, three-dimensional character who’s just not very bright. Considering that SF from the beginning has defined itself as “stories about smart people for smart people” the idea of treating a person of average or even slightly below average intelligence as a protagonist whose life mattered was arguably the most revolutionary thing Gibson ever did.


    1. Re: Jones – double checked the story and I think I must have misread it as meaning that he was a human being hacked into some sort of dolphin-like form, but you’re right, he’s an uplifted dolphin. I think Gibson dropped the cybered-up animals pretty quickly (there’s electric sheep in Mona Lisa Overdrive, though), hence the misreading. Good catch, I’ll correct.

      Re: Mona – Yeah, that’s legit. I think the major thing which stops me giving Gibson much more credit for that than I already have is that, because of the whole four viewpoint characters thing, it’s kind of buried alongside all the other narratives. He’s trying to tell too many stories at once and it means they all end up kind of smothering each other.


  2. Jake

    FWIW, Gibson certainly got better at writing women who served as more than diegetic (as in Sandi, Rikki, et al) or extradiegetic (Molly) fantasy figures as he honed his craft. It looks like he at first took a lateral from sexual/romantic fantasies into paternal fantasies (Chevette and Chia, from Virtual Light and Idoru, are both explicitly teens, and there’s definitely a protective vibe there, in-story from Berry in the first case, and in the narrative tone in the second), but he also made them reasonably well fleshed-out viewpoint characters. By Pattern Recognition and The Peripheral he was doing a pretty respectable job with his female main characters.


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