Literature / Sprawl Trilogy

The Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson is considered to be one of the earliest examples of cyberpunk, and as such is a major Trope Maker for the genre. The first book, Neuromancer, was published in 1984 and widely acclaimed, winning the Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K. Dick awards. It was followed in 1986 by Count Zero, and the final book in the trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive was published in 1988. All three have fallen victim to Zeerust and Technology Marches On to some degree, but remain quite readable thanks to more than a few of Gibson's ideas becoming reality, or at least a styled version of it.

Each book stands alone, more or less, though there is a distinct overlap in characters and all three share the same setting- the Sprawl. Which is nickname for the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, a massive city state on the East Coast of the United States. As is to be expected in 80s cyberpunk, the Sprawl (and, for that matter, Gibson's entire world) is decidedly dystopian in feel. They're set in a world of Black and Gray Morality, after the The Great Politics Mess-Up, but were published in a time when that was considered quite revolutionary.

Set in the same world are the short stories "Burning Chrome", which introduced the recurring character "the Finn"; "Johnny Mnemonic", the inspiration for the movie of the same name; and "New Rose Hotel", which was also adapted into a film.

The trilogy provides examples of the following tropes:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Wintermute. Later, Neuromancer.
  • The Alternet: The Matrix is probably one of the first, and the Trope Namer for Cyberspace.
  • Bad Ass: Gibson's world is full of these. Molly Millions/Sally Shears, the most famous example, is just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Brain Uploading: A key part of the plot since "The Winter Market".
  • Cassette Futurism: The series features things as complex as human memories recorded on tape. Not to mention that three megabytes of hot RAM is apparently valuable enough to kill for.
  • Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain" The infamous opening line to Neuromancer.
    "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
  • Depraved Bisexual: Lady 3Jane.
  • Disney Villain Death: In "Johnny Mnemonic", this is the fate of the Yakuza assassin.
  • Divided States of America: Implied. In the chaos following World War III, the United States don't seem to have a single cohesive government, and the country seems to exist as a loose conglomeration of urban city-states. At the very least, corporations have long since eclipsed the world's governments in power, to the point that many people don't take the concept of a "nation" seriously anymore.
  • Expy: Bobby Newmark, in Count Zero, is the new snarky-underacomplished-hacker to replace Case; Tick is the new eccentric hustler to replace the Finn, in Mona Lisa Overdrive.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: The second and third novels in the trilogy are known for this, though the first (Neuromancer) is surprisingly straightforward. Count Zero has Turner in one plot, Bobby Newmark in another, and Marley Krushkova in a third. Mona Lisa Overdrive has Kumiko and Sally/Molly in one plot, Angie Mitchell in another, Gentry and Slick Henry in a third, and the titular Mona in a fourth.
  • Friend in the Black Market: Perhaps a bit redundant to even bring this trope up, given the nature of Gibson's world. But the Finn, a significant character in the series, is the embodiment of this trope.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The Sprawl's official name is "BAMA"; it's pronounced like "'Bama" (the regional nickname for Alabama), but it actually stands for "Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis", so named because the Sprawl covers most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, from Boston in the North to Atlanta in the South.
  • Future Slang: Gibson coined a lot of terms that would later be used by other cyberpunk works.
  • Genre Savvy: Gibson's characters basically have to be this, in order to survive in his world. Two notable examples are Mona, a prostitute who's aware of how disposable the other characters consider her, and the Finn, a "fence" dealing in stolen goods, who practices extreme discretion, and knows how to defend himself.
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: By means of economic collapse. Centered around Operation Screaming Fist, where a group of U.S. spec-ops squads tried to hack a key Soviet system with experimental software. They failed, and started a war that lasted all of nine days. The Soviet Union is still up and running while America exists in name only, and mostly as a collection of city-states (for example, the Sprawl itself is an amalgamation of all the cities from Boston to Atlanta).
  • Hollywood Hacking: ZigZagged Hacking, and more specifically cyberspace, is like a virtual reality video game. Appropriately enough, that was what virtual reality was first tested for with military applications in mind. The portrayal of the actual hacking process, however, as being mostly a matter of getting the right hardware containing the right hacking tool software in the right physical location, and then doing some prodding and defending to keep it on track, is reasonably accurate.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Mona, one of the protagonists of the third book.
  • Immune to Drugs: Case, after receiving his new pancreas and liver with several filters built in to prevent him from being affected by cocaine or amphetamines. Subverted when he finds a new designer drug that can bypass the filters, and again when he gets another new pancreas and liver so he can resume his old drug habit.
  • Inside a Computer System: Again, cyberspace in general, though Case manages to do this with a few particular systems.
  • Japan Takes Over the World: Or, more accurately, its culture. It's implied that Japan emerged as one of the world's premier economic superpowers while the United States and the Soviet Union were busy trying to outspend each other on defense. (Gibson accurately predicted that, but apparently didn't anticipate America winning the Cold War)
  • Left Field Description: Gibson is a master of this.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Lady 3Jane, and arguably Angie Mitchell.
  • Pretty in Mink: Averted Fur and Loathing by noting all furs were from cloning.
  • Private Military Contractor: Turner.
  • The Scrounger: The Finn is a rare example of a smart, Genre Savvy one, who practices smart discretion and proves more than capable of defending himself when attacked. The Finn long surpasses the general life expectancy of this character type in most stories.
  • The Stateless: A lot of people have slipped through the cracks of society and lack a Single Identification Number (SIN), without one they can't vote, can't get a credit chip, so far as the government is concerned they don't exist.
  • Street Samurai: Molly Millions is the Ur-Example.
  • Whatevermancy: The title of the first book. Notable for technically being a proper usage of -mancy, in that they are using a neural connection to communicate with, obtain information from, and interact with another plane of existence.
  • World War III: A major part of the series' backstory, occasionally glimpsed in flashbacks and historical archives. Armitage in Neuromancer fought in Operation Screaming Fist, the military operation in Russia that precipitated the War. In Mona Lisa Overdrive, we get a few more details about it: Molly mentions that public hangings were common in London in the chaos after the War, Angie reads about Bonn and Belgrade being destroyed by nuclear bombs, and Petal recalls that cream was once impossible to get in England because nuclear fallout from Germany mutated the cows.