In the Sensorium
In the used bookstore I pick up a copy of William Gibson's Count Zero. Nothing about this book should speak to me: sci-fi, adorned with a stunningly ugly cover of a malformed and digitized male face, published in 1986, it's unlikely ever to come up in any conversation of mine. (If I were boning up to seduce computer geeks, I would start with Gibson's first and more famous novel, Neuromancer.) And yet the opening page sinks a hook:
It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square meter of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green.
If that doesn't do anything for you, you don't need to read the book, because it doesn't get any better than this, or really do much other than this: the ultra-cool, nearly humorless tone, the aura of worldliness, the slick noir-ish rhythms, all as seductive to put on as a new leather jacket. I read the book in a haze when I come home from work or when I'm lying in bed late at night, letting Gibson's high-speed and merciless future wash over the vagaries of the present.
Mostly, though, I realize as I get further in, it's not Gibson's future I care about; he's no prophet. And I don't care about his characters, still less about the plot. No, what I'm reading for is the atmosphere, an atmosphere built of language. Count Zero is a book of nouns -- biosoft, slamhound, g-web, hybridoma -- nouns, slang, noun phrases, word things. One character buys a purse, "black, cut from cowhide tanned thick and soft as Flemish butter." Another sees out a window a "condo wave" that "bristled with a fine insect fur of antennas and chicken-wire dishes." Gibson loves to make up words and he's quick to latch onto others' coinages and repurposings: arcology, or sensorium (an arcology is a mix of ecology and architecture, a form of building that shapes living; your sensorium is your entire sensory equipment). His welter of words is an antidote to suburban anonymity; I should record all my favorite bits and make a playlist for my commute.
In the best parts of Count Zero, Gibson's vision of the future and his whirling words entwine. He knows better than to try to describe any of his future structures thoroughly; instead he sketches the edges, then shows ruin and grime in close-up, leaving an impression of scale, history, power, working a cool enchantment. One character goes out to orbit to search for someone "hanging out in the hulks;" the hulk she's seeking turns out to be the former "corporate data cores" of a family called the Tessier-Ashpools, decayed magnates who erased their encoded lives and moved on to another orbit. Here she floats through the low-grav halls of lost and burned information in search of an artist.
In the meantime I'm digging through another view of the future: Ann Lauterbach's latest book of poetry, Under the Sign. Lauterbach, who is just past seventy, airs her distrust of our "inventoried world," which is full of items that "can be counted, they can be sent away." The binary, the digital, and the virtual disturb her; she complains that "techno-spirit adumbrates the human as avatar of the human," and worse, that "the grid" turns spirit to spit. I can imagine her friends warning her, "Ann, you sound like a curmudgeon. The kids will just make fun of you on their smartphones and Twitter feeds," and Lauterbach barreling forward nevertheless, and this makes me like her more.
Not that it's easy going: Lauterbach can be as abstract as Gibson's Internet, as forbiddingly cold as the Tessier-Ashpool cores. She's happiest deep in, stripping the world's flesh away to get at to some underlying structure or architecture; she likes prepositional phrases and archetypal un-places, as a quick perusal of her past titles suggests: Or to Begin Again; If in Time; On a Stair; And for Example; Many Times, but Then. When, occasionally, she comes to the surface where "the drab is walks by," she can be brilliant, as in her microscopic description of a "single oatmeal grain, with a slit up its center," but these moments of intent looking have the character of an exercise she's glad to be done with. Her still rarer plunges into self-revelation gape open like a slipped wrap dress; for all her experience, she reminds me of the girl who hasn't learned to lie. Sometimes I even suspect her of hoarding imaginary aces. At least some part of her poetry's torque derives from the sense of a forceful personality under constraint -- "You are waiting for me," she insinuates, "but I do not appear, even in disguise." What if she can't appear -- what if she's really got nothing in her hand?
Oh, but she does. She has her formidable middle ground, a place between the specific and the platonic, where words like "abridgement" take on nearly personal meaning:
In the dust of a former
moon, an abridgement.
If this were prose, little
agreements would obtain,
and you could turn toward the missed
like an angel on a fence.
She fights both sides of the battle between information and knowledge with Jedi precision, her strokes subtle beyond the shifting wind. "We need / objects on the table," she admits; she exhorts herself and us to
Give up the image!
Give up the announcement of the image!
Give up the spectacle!
but then turns to see "the swimmer -- you know the one I mean -- his torso! / Like a ship!" She wants to refuse whatever can be converted into code, made singular, discontinuous, turned to "practical utility or commerce," yet she still gives us the glorious single thing: "Wind sound: as if the dark were in motion, an inky processional bloom." I can't tell whether it's one final turn of the screw that this I-centered book ends with a poem of Os (a cento from Emerson's "Circles"), or whether the ones and zeroes have their way with her at last.
What Gibson misses about the future in Count Zero -- that is, the present -- is its bright, smiling, universal personalized selling machine. In his dark, gritty, post-apocalyptic, gothic future, there is no Apple store. There are no cute automated agents following you around, offering you shinier versions of whatever you last clicked on or typed in -- mirrored silver oxfords when you looked up plain cordovan loafers, "Seven Ways to Save Your Marriage" when you're writing to your lover.
More fatally -- because it matters more to the literary value of the book -- he underestimates the complexity and privacy of the body. Contrary to Gibson's fantasy, the body remains beyond the reach of the Net; we cannot jack in and share a sensorium, you and I.
Or can we? I haven't said yet -- because it spooks me a bit -- that I have a companion in Count Zero: a previous reader. This companion mind likes to underline words and phrases, often the same atmospheric snatches that catch me: "synchromesh," "jacked up so high above the neon hot cores," "a cheap steel stool with a tape-patched leatherette top," "a hypervelocity gun in a cargo blimp." He reads fast, I think. He connects page to page sometimes, as if he's planning an essay; sometimes he corrects Gibson, fixing a mixed metaphor here, critiquing the plot there. The handwriting, small and rather ragged, looks familiar. I have the feeling I'm chasing him, as if he's twenty, thirty pages ahead of me, and I'll catch him if I go fast enough. Where are you, love? What are you reading now?
The future past. The future perfect. What you thought was going to happen. Who you thought you'd be. Anything but now.