mona lisa overdrive

lance olsen
© 1992


Just wait till the Kid grows up.
—Bruce Sterling, The Artificial Kid


At one point in Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), Angie's leading man tells her that an artificial intelligence named Continuity is writing a book. When Angie asks what the book is about, the leading man explains that it "looped back into itself and constantly mutated; Continuity was always writing it." Angie asks why. "Because," she is told, "Continuity was an AI, and AIs did things like that" (chap. 7). This serves nicely as a gloss on Gibson's own attempt to conclude the cyberspace trilogy. The artificial intelligence, aptly called Continuity, suggests Gibson himself whose tremendously complex plotline involving Wintermute, Neuromancer, and their offspring has constantly turned back into itself and mutated throughout the course of his short stories and novels. To this extent, Continuity is simply one more artist figure in a fiction filled with them. Interestingly, there is also an edge of weariness, even frustration, present in the statement: Continuity, after all, is always writing because that's what AI's must do. If in Count Zero the artist has become an isolated mechanical manipulator endlessly generating junk-boxes, here the artist has become an artificial intelligence writing out of necessity rather than desire. The result of that writing might be technically efficient, but it might also be relatively colorless.

Certainly this was the perception of many readers commenting on Gibson's least critically successful novel. In one of the book's most negative reviews, Paul Kincaid notes that "Gibson wrote one book of stunning originality which caught the mood of the time so successfully that he has been condemned to repeat it. By this third volume he is showing clear and dramatic improvement as a writer, but is doing nothing fresh with his talent."(1) There are at least four reasons to account for this sense of a falling off on Gibson's part. First, the reader spends less time in cyberspace here than he or she did in Gibson's earlier works, and the time he or she does spend in it is far less dazzling and surreal than before; yet cyberspace is perhaps the most original and captivating element of the trilogy's geography. Second, there are virtually no new ideas or themes in Mona Lisa Overdrive; the reader has covered most of this terrain before. Third, for all of Gibson's concentration on characterization in Mona Lisa Overdrive, Kumiko Yanaka, Gibson's first fictional child, and a key figure in the novel, remains unconvincing to many. Fourth, despite his problems with conventional characterization, Gibson has continued his narratological move toward relatively more traditional story and discourse.

All four of these reasons might stem from the pressures exerted on him by the LA world with which he has become increasingly familiar. In interviews, he often makes the connection between beginning to work in Hollywood and beginning to write more about the intricate machine of Sense/Net. While he claims Mona Lisa Overdrive is "not autobiographical in any sense," he still admits that "there's a lot of the background for the Sense/Net stuff drawn from contemporary media life, and I simply wouldn't have had that material before [being exposed to Hollywood]."(2)

Set seven years after the central events of his last novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive is composed of forty-five chapters involving four intersecting plotlines. The first of these, containing thirteen chapters, focuses on Kumiko's rite of passage from childhood innocence to adulthood understanding. The basic plot structure takes the form of an Erziehungsroman. Kumi, daughter of a Japanese gangster, is sent to London on the eve of her thirteenth birthday to be housed and protected by Roger Swain, her father's subordinate, because of infighting among the Yakuza in Japan. There she learns someone is paying off Swain, who in turn is blackmailing Molly, to kidnap Angela Mitchell while making it appear as though she has been killed by supplying the body of a double. As events unfold, however, a twist occurs. Angie will be murdered and her double will replace her. Molly will also be killed. The person behind this conspiracy turns out to be an insane 3Jane. She wants Angie dead because she is jealous of her for having once come close to attaining a central position in the matrix through her biochip implants. 3Jane wants Molly dead in order to avenge her father's murder. Swain is eliminated for having gotten greedy with the information 3Jane began feeding him as payoff. Kumi is reunited with her father.

Kumi's education, like that of Marly in Count Zero, involves her exposure to the complex and deadly workings of a patriarchal system. With Molly as guide, Kumi learns to navigate among fathers, from her genetic one in Japan to her surrogates in London (Swain, Petal, Tick). She also discovers that women like her mother and 3Jane who attempt to struggle against the dominant order suffer awful ends. From her point of view, only Molly, who learns to abandon this invisible male hierarchy completely in her retirement, survives. Through Molly there is again at least some degree of hope for liberation from the male system. But, as in Gibson's earlier works, there is virtually no hope for liberation from the intricate machine of the megacorporate elect. While Molly appears to strike off on her own at the conclusion of the novel, accompanied solely by a robot and the aleph, she is in a way still employed by the loa or subprograms to guard the personality constructs that the aleph houses. In other plotlines, Angie and Mona aren't so lucky. The megacorporate elect kills the former and reshapes the latter's identity to meet its needs, transforming both women into conscious automata with only illusions of freewill.

Kumi's plotline also points to another major theme in the novel: the importance of the past. In Count Zero, Gibson began paying increasing attention to the presence and power of history in his characters' lives, carefully sketching in facts about Turner's childhood, his mother's death by cancer, and so on. Here, memory plays an even more pronounced role. Literal ghosts proliferate Mona Lisa Overdrive, from Kumi's mother to personality constructs such as Finn, Colin, and those of the previous Yakuza bosses kept by Kumi's father; these are emblems of memory which the characters cannot escape. If Japan stands for the future, then England, a dominant setting, stands for the past. While Tokyo nurtures what little history remains to it "with a nervous care," London celebrates history, a city where the past forms "the very fabric of things" (chap. 1). Angie tries to deny her past by throwing her father's biosoft dossier into the sea, but ultimately learns that she must literally live within history in the aleph. Slick Henry, whose short-term memory has been damaged by a technique administered while he was in prison, comes to realize how truly horrible the loss of history can be. Kumi discovers she must make peace with her past, with her mother's death and her father's possible role in it, to become a fully integrated personality. She understands that she is composed of her past, and that she must learn to value it and deal with it.

Bobby Newmark comes to understand much the same in the course of his twelve chapters. His education takes place primarily at Thomas Trail Gentry's and Slick Henry's Factory in Dog Solitude. Shortly after the events which transpired in Count Zero, Bobby broke up with Angie and appeared in Mexico City with a neuroelectronic addiction. He obtained the aleph, a huge biochip with virtually unlimited storage capacity, from 3Jane who gave it to him in order to get in touch with the loa or subprograms that have begun fading in the matrix. 3Jane, in a bid for immortality similar to that of her mother's, used most of her family's wealth to build the aleph. Upon completion, she put her personality construct inside it and died. A petty thief delivers Bobby to Dog Solitude jacked into the aleph. He asks Gentry and Slick to watch him. Gentry, a computer cowboy in search of the overall shape of the matrix, becomes interested in Bobby and the aleph because he believes the latter might provide the grail for which he has been questing. Mercenaries representing 3Jane's interests attack the Factory in an attempt to retrieve the aleph. In the midst of the ensuing battle, Molly appears with Mona and Angie, saying she has made a deal with the loa or subprograms to get Angie and Bobby together in the aleph. In return, the loa or subprograms will cause her criminal record to be erased. Angie's construct enters the aleph after her death. Slick, an artist who produces huge robots, sets up one of these called the Judge to carry the aleph for Molly, who sets out alone across Dog Solitude.

Bobby has come closer than anyone in the trilogy to voluntarily leaving the "meat" world behind and entering the pure realm of the mind. Existing almost solely within the aleph, he pays little attention to his body which slowly wastes away. The aleph, filled with all the components of his history, suggests memory itself. But it is significantly different from the cyberspace matrix. Whereas the matrix represents consensual or communal memory, the aleph represents personal memory. It is self-contained, and functions without having to be jacked into the matrix. Like Kumi, Bobby discovers he must enter, confront, and make peace with his past. He must come to terms with his relationship to Angie and 3Jane in order to find contentment.

Both Bobby and Gentry learn to live an increasingly spiritual and private existence. Unlike the soapbox evangelist in the Sprawl at which both Mona and Gibson laugh, both Bobby's and Gentry's quests for a transcendental signified are taken seriously. Bobby searches the aleph for an answer to why the matrix changed following Wintermute's union with Neuromancer. Gentry searches for the shape of the matrix that he believes will in turn lead him to its meaning. Both computer cowboys look for a metanarrative, an overarching story that will lend their lives significance. They look for an answer to the cosmos. At the same time that Gibson announces this spiritual dimension to existence, however, he also undercuts it in at least two ways. First, he indicates that the loa or subprograms have begun fading in the matrix. The spiritual has begun disappearing at the very moment it is sought, as though to seek after the religious is somehow to be doomed to miss it. Moreover, Continuity's attempt to create a new spiritual order fails. Second, Gibson doesn't allow either of his characters actually to attain the goals of their respective quests. The novel ends with Finn promising Bobby enlightenment "in a New York minute," while Gentry stays behind at the Factory to figure out what has just happened. Gibson thereby reminds the reader that the goal of the quest is the quest itself, that at best one must yet again deal with pieces in the absence of wholes.

Bobby, Gentry, and Slick are artists. They privilege the imagination while minimizing the material world. Bobby feels most alive within the aleph, Gentry within the matrix, and Slick with his robots. They share another trait: each has abandoned some form of community in order to pursue his art, realizing at some level that public creation is impure creation. Angie and Mona, on the other hand, never arrive at such a discovery. For them, art has become a business, a way of making good money. Their stories lead to a consideration of another central theme in the novel, public art as commercial sellout. This theme grows directly from the Hollywood world Gibson was experiencing at the time he was writing this novel, and it serves as a warning both to him and to his readers.

Angie's and Mona's storylines, each of which contains nine chapters, are so interdependent that they should be discussed together. The first focuses on events culminating in Angie's kidnapping, death, and marriage to Bobby in the aleph. The second involves Mona Lisa's education regarding the horrific nature of the Sense/Net world. After remaining free of the loa or subprograms for three years, Angie is approached by Mamman Brigitte, most ancient of the dead, with a warning that someone has tried reworking the biochips in her brain so that most of the loa or subprograms can't reach her; this someone is Continuity, which has attempted without success to restructure her biochips to bring about a new order of AIs in the matrix. Angie leaves her Malibu beach house, where she has been recuperating from an addiction to a drug that allows her to "feel normal" (a drug supplied by Continuity as part of its scheme), and heads to the Sprawl to begin a new simstim project. There she is kidnapped by Molly, taken to Dog Solitude, and sacrificed by the loa or subprograms so that she may join Bobby; the exact reasons for this are unclear. Behind the kidnapping and sacrifice are two people. Robin Lanier, her leading man, is in league with 3Jane; he is jealous of Angie for her simstim fame while 3Jane is jealous of Angie for her central position in the matrix. Mona's plot is less complicated. One of Swain's men flies Mona and her pimp-boyfriend Eddy from Florida to the Sprawl, where Mona undergoes plastic surgery and becomes Angie's double. Eddy is murdered. Following her deal with the loa or subprograms, Molly breaks into Mona's room, takes her to the abduction site, kidnaps Angie, and drives them to Dog Solitude, where Mona becomes Angie's replacement.

The commercial universe of Sense/Net thus devalues selfhood by manipulating identity. While it is not actually responsible for initiating the metamorphosis of Mona into Angie, it does look the other way when that metamorphosis occurs, because it perceives that to do so is in its best financial interests. Consequently, value in this novel falls not on who characters actually are, nor what they do, but on who they can seem to be. Like Angie and Mona, most play roles rather than living honest lives. Reinforcing this idea, disguises proliferate. Kumi wears her mother's mask, while Molly pretends to be Sally Shears. Danielle Stark, the interviewer, appears to be in her thirties, but in fact is closer to ninety. Even the New Suzuki Envoy Hotel seems to be something it's not, a mountain from the Hudson Valley region that comes complete with engineered strains of flora and robotic fauna. The artificial and the real are fused and confused. Such a notion echoes that of philosopher Jean Baudrillard who argues in "The Precession of Simulacra," his seminal essay on postmodernism, that mass media have neutralized the idea of "reality" in our culture. They have done this, according to Baudrillard, by generating so many re-presentations and false presentations that the concept of "the real thing" has been lost. Through advertising, media hype, television, and so forth, these simulacra of "reality" have taken the place of the authentic. They have finally not only begun to mask "the real thing," but have also even begun to mask the absence of "the real thing."(3)

Appropriately, the title of Mona Lisa Overdrive looks back to Leonardo da Vinci's 1503 painting that has become an icon of Western humanism, beauty, and pure art. Leonardo labored three years on this tribute to the wife of a prominent Florentine citizen. His subject's famous suggestion of a smile embodies Baldassare Castiglione's norm of aristocratic behavior, sprezzatura, a word that derives from disprezzo or disdain. As Frederick Hartt comments, this is not the condescending disdain for others, "but the serene unconcern about economic realities or financial display that often denotes inheritors of wealth and power."(4) Leonardo's Mona Lisa thereby displays disinterest before the commercial world. Gibson's Mona Lisa, on the other hand, displays the opposite. She can only conceptualize her world in monetary terms. By adding the high-tech word overdrive to the name Mona Lisa, Gibson disfigures and devalues Leonardo's icon. He hollows out the Western tradition in the same way that Kumi's ghost, Colin, is hollowed out so that its data on Shakespeare and Dickens can be replaced by defense strategies. A name associated with humanism is applied to a novel whose core concerns corporate finances. A name associated with authentic beauty is applied to a novel whose core concerns the multiplication of simulacra. Its protagonist's name becomes a kind of bad joke played on the Western heritage. Pure art has become a sixteen-year-old nude dancer and prostitute from Cleveland, Ohio, who inherits the wealth and power of a simstim star. Pure art has become a pale re-presentation of the genuine. The Sense/Net universe of power games, designer drugs, and vicious innuendo transforms art into a business where form rather than content is important. Fittingly, the Austrian director Hans Becker no longer needs real people to make his documentary on the Tessier-Ashpool empire. Impure art no longer needs the human to be financially successful.

Two motifs emphasize this theme of art as commercial sellout: books and vampires. Registers of tradition and serious ideas, books have become devalued in Gibson's futureworld. Mona, the essence of the Sense/Net cosmos, can't read. Her father kept remnants of books in plastic baggies, and when he read to her, he evinced "a kind of hesitation in his voice, like a man trying to play an instrument he hasn't picked up in a long time" (chap. 11). Gentry, another eccentric, keeps ancient books as well, an act seen as quaint by those around him. These two men suggest an antiquated system of interpretation and values. In the Sense/Net universe, tradition and serious ideas are viewed as no more than curious cultural detritus. Images of vampires, the second dominant motif, run throughout the novel. Little Bird, for instance, worries that Bobby might be one, while Kumi believes there is "something vampiric" about her room at Swain's (chap. 2). The Jack Draculas who try to mug Kumi appear twice. Related to this, eating and sucking imagery is also prevalent. From Slick's point of view, the aleph literally feeds on Bobby's brain. "You don't have to be scared of Swain," Molly tells Kumi, "Yanaka could have him for breakfast" (chap. 9). Kumi's mother tells her that old men "suck our breath away. Your father sucks my breath away" (chap. 34). Sense/Net in particular, and the corporate world in general, has transfigured through the course of Gibson's novels from wasp nest, to intricate machine to vampiric entity that drains the life from the living. Yet this world has a very real allure for such characters as Angie, Mona, and Hilton Swift.

The conclusion of Mona Lisa Overdrive enacts the ambivalence Gibson feels toward this cosmos. Emblematically, it registers the often contradictory impulses between the pressures of publishing financially successful novels and the need to produce interesting art. The first of these impulses is embodied by the sense of completion and fulfillment that pervades the last third of the text. "Order and accord are again established," as Kumi's father asserts (chap. 41). Peace is made among the Yakuza in Japan, as well as between Kumi and her father. Angie learns to forgive 3Jane. In a disconcertingly idyllic last chapter, Angie and Bobby are happily married after death, a futuristic version of Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Molly, the embodiment of cyberpunk consciousness, retires as mercenary. All of this seems to add up to Gibson's attempt, as he explains it, to "find my way into the mainstream of fiction" and "out of [science fiction] without losing a sense of what it is I'm doing."(5) Yet at the same time that Gibson speaks of moving away from science fiction and toward mainstream literature, he also writes his fourth, longest, and most complex science fiction novel, The Difference Engine (1990), with Bruce Sterling. No longer set in cyberspace, it revolves around an alternate universe where the Victorian inventor Charles Babbage builds a computer early in the nineteenth century.

The need to produce innovative art is embodied by a number of disjunctive components also at work in Mona Lisa Overdrive. Not only does Gibson once more give the reader a series of highly complex interconnected plotlines, but he also continues to experiment with technique and language, as when in chapter eighteen he attempts mimicking Slick's short-term memory lapses on the page. One must also keep in mind that Bobby and Angie's "marriage" in a "France that isn't France" (chap. 45) may be read parodically, that the cosmos of the aleph may serve as a ludicrous image of the conventional novel that exists in a radically different world than that of Dog Solitude. As Slick reminds the reader, the cosmos of the aleph is "not a place . . . , it only feels like it." Rather, it feels more like a "fairytale" (chap. 24). At the instant Gibson gives the reader a traditionally happy ending, he also reminds the reader of the artificiality of such simplistic and innocent structures. Moreover, on the last two pages of the novel, Gibson once more raises the possibility of intergalactic cyberspace, hence echoing the close of Neuromancer. He thereby generates inconclusiveness at the very moment of apparent conclusion (which, however, calculatedly cries out for yet another financially successful sequel).(6)

Given the relative tameness and complacency of Mona Lisa Overdrive, the reader must wonder about the future of Gibson's work.(7) What are its chances of continuing to challenge what readers take for granted about language and experience, particularly if Gibson himself claims he is "scared of being typecast if I make SF my permanent home"?(8) The answer is probably that it's still too early to tell. Mona Lisa Overdrive may simply be the product of a single science fiction writer of the 1980s who has suddenly achieved success, and who suddenly needs to rewrite paler and paler versions of the same book in order to continue that success. Or it might be a literary register of an increasingly conservative era. Certainly Gibson's next book, The Difference Engine, enacts Manny Farber's dictum for the "termite school" of art: "termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement."(9) In any case, William Gibson's work will remain central to our understanding of science fiction approaching the millennium, raising as it does essential questions concerning a genre that until recently has been marginalized, but that now has begun to move into a central — and perhaps therefore uninteresting — position in our culture.


1 Paul Kincaid, "Mona Lisa Overdrive," Times Literary Supplement (August 12, 1988), 892.

2 Leanne C. Harper, "The Culture of Cyberspace," The Bloomsbury Review 8.5 (September/October 1988), 30.

3 See Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra," in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (Boston: Godine, 1984).

4 Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1987), 457.

5 Larry McCaffery, "An Interview with William Gibson," Mississippi Review 16.2 & 3 (1988), 236.

6 Gibson maintains that there won't be any more sequels.

7 Gibson disagrees that MLO is relatively tame and complacent. Rather, he senses a certain "interstitial nastiness" in the novel. "Stylistics aside," he wrote me, "I find the implied human world here both realer and uglier [than the previous novels]."

8 McCaffery, 236.

9 Manny Farber, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," in Negative Space (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1971), 135-6.