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Literature / Sprawl Trilogy

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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 the 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 Soviet collapse, 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 by Abel Ferrara starring Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe and Asia Argento.

The trilogy provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Girlfriend: Molly is an Action Girl who has a very casual sexual relationship with Case in Neuromancer and also relates how she became Johnny's girlfriend after the events of "Johnny Mnemonic."
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Wintermute. Later, Neuromancer.
  • The Alternet: The Matrix is probably one of the first, and the Trope Namer for Cyberspace.
  • 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.
  • Dystopia: The world of the books reads as such nowadays, but in a 2021 interview with Cory Doctorow, Gibson said that this wasn't his intention when he wrote Neuromancer. In fact, given how that time coincided with the last bout of US-Soviet nuclear brinkmanship, Word of God is that the book was meant to be an optimistic portrayal of the future, where a nuclear war did occur, but the Mega Corps — of all things — had stepped in to limit its scope and effectively prevented an all-out apocalypse.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: the Finn construct in Count Zero mentions offhand that Case got out of the console jockey business, and the last Finn'd heard he was married with four kids. Turner from the same novel counts as well.
  • Explosive Leash: In Neuromancer, Case is fitted with implants that will inject him with deadly toxins if he falls out of line.
  • 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.
  • Extinct in the Future: Horses die out of an equine plague, some thirty years before the events of Count Zero.
  • 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: The Finn, a significant recurring character in the series, is an accomplished fence.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Industrial Ghetto: The Sprawl itself, officially known as Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, is a massive city on the east coast, running as far north as Boston and as far south as Atlanta.
  • Inside a Computer System: Again, cyberspace in general, though Case manages to do this with a few particular systems.
  • Japan Takes Over the World: Written in the 1980s, the series was written on the assumption that the then-current power of Japanese technology would continue unabated, to the point that Japan becomes one of the world's premier economic superpowers. The Sprawl is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and technology.
  • Left Field Description: Gibson is a master of this.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Lady 3Jane, and arguably Angie Mitchell.
  • Master of Illusion: Riviera.
  • MegaCorp: A hallmark of the cyberpunk genre, massive corporations are now the most powerful entities in the world.
  • Neural Implanting: The Trope Maker.
  • Pretty in Mink: Averted Fur and Loathing by noting all furs were from cloning.
  • Private Military Contractor: Turner.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Deke from "Dogfight" forces Nance to give him the dose of Hype she was holding for her exam by intentionally invoking her panic-inducing neural block. Then he loses the crowd while competing against Tiny Montgomery and it's only when he is savoring his victory afterwards that he realizes he has nobody left to celebrate with.
  • 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.
  • The 'Verse: The Sprawl is the setting of all of the books in the Sprawl series. Some characters carry over in multiple stories.
  • Un Reveal: Gibson often leaves many things ambiguous, the most talked about example probably being Molly's eye color.
  • Virtual Ghost: The Dixie Flatline. Finn in Mona Lisa Overdrive.
  • 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.
  • Yakuza: Because Japan Takes Over the World, the Yakuza is an N.G.O. Superpower.