Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

So here is the conclusion of the Sprawl Trilogy, begun in fine style by Neuromancer and continued in adequate style in Count Zero.  In my post on Count Zero I mentioned that one was almost entirely self-contained and didn’t really require any knowledge of or interest in the events of Neuromancer to understand.  In this final volume Gibson’s come full circle and I think you’d really have to have read the first two to understand what’s going on here – or at least to make the attempt.

This one continues Gibson’s strategy of split up plot elements which merge together in the end, only this time instead of three threads, we’ve got four.  The first follows Angie Mitchell, daughter of the Maas scientist that Turner was hired to extract in Count Zero.  Her father made a deal with the fragmented Wintermute/Neuromancer entities in cyberspace to help his career, in return he modified his daughter to access cyberspace without using a computer.  Somewhat creepily, the neural implants that allow her to do this aren’t detectible because the AIs in the matrix know if she has a brain scan and falsify the results.  She’s become a huge media star, and finds that the drugs she’s been taking interfere with her ability to commune with the AIs.

In the last novel, Angie was in a relationship with Bobby Newmark, a.k.a. Count Zero, who’s also back in this novel, although they’ve broken up in the interim and they’re both somewhat carrying torches for each other.  The specific reason that they’re not together at the moment – or at least why Angie can’t seem to locate him - is revealed in the second thread, which finds Bobby immersed in a comatose state in a vat, constantly accessing the matrix.  A raft of secondary characters finds themselves having to take care of him, and we’re left wondering why exactly he’s done this to himself and what it is that he's trying to access or discover in there.

The third thread deals with Mona, a young naïve prostitute with an uncanny resemblance to Angie Mitchell, who gets mixed up with some bad people in a plot to kidnap Angie.

And the fourth deals with Kumiko, the young and innocent daughter of a Yakuza high-up who is sent to London for a while so her father can get through a spot of unpleasantness.  While there, she meets up with a lady by the name of Sally Shears – formerly known as Molly Millions, who’s running around on her own, trying to get out of some of her own problems.

That’s just the main bits.  Each of these threads also contains a fair number of supporting characters who are all trying to jockey for position or achieve goals of their own.  Just listing all these people and what they want would make this post a surprising percentage of the original novel.  Perhaps the most surprising returning character is Lady 3Jane, whose body is dead but whose mind is still somewhat around – for a given value of around – in a device called an aleph, which theoretically contains a simulation of the entire universe.  (I believe that’s a reference to a short story by Borges, only in that case you could go to this one spot and experience the whole universe at once.  It appears in comic books fairly often too, most recently in Mike Carey’s Lucifer.)

I haven’t read Gibson’s entire bibliography, but none of the ones that I have read have quite so much going on.  My guess would be that this one proved to be a little much and he scaled back from here; it’s got so many characters all trying to accomplish so many different things that it is very hard to keep track of.  If I had one critique of this novel, and in fact I have several, it would be that it lacks focus.  But that’s sort of a big one, in my estimation.

The other major critique that I have is also simultaneously something that Gibson does really well, paradoxically.  In many cases, when some person or entity is supposed to have “a plan beyond human comprehension”, it turns out that it’s totally comprehensible, just sort of dumb and pointless.  Gibson obviously realizes this tendency, and veers out entirely in the other direction.  In this book (and in the others in the Sprawl Trilogy, for that matter), if some entity is said to have a plan beyond human comprehension they mean it.  In Count Zero, the AI entities in the Matrix wanted to kill a guy and went through a lot of hoops to do it, but this was just a sub-goal on their ultimate aim, which was unclear.  In this one, we’re told that they have some unfathomable reason for some of their actions, but Gibson never tells us what it is.  At the very end of the novel, some of the characters are going to go find out Why It Changed, but even the conversation leading up to that suggests that even with the new information they’re about to get they’ll still have to guess.  And then they go off and the novel’s over.  I felt at the end of Count Zero that I had some idea as to what happened, but here not only do I not have any confidence that I understood, but also think that the text affirmatively states that I couldn’t reasonably understand it.  I’m not even really sure who survived exactly, or if they did how long they will continue to survive in whatever form they continue to exist in.

Thematically, that’s all right, because the whole point of this novel as far as I can tell is struggling to understand your place in an incomprehensible world.  As literature goes, that’s cool.  As SF, perhaps not so much – I like to see people taking actions and solving problems.  But I have to give credit to Gibson for realizing that if the plan is beyond human ability to understand then he can’t know what it is, and if he somehow could then he wouldn’t be able to explain it to me.

Now that said, there are some nice setpieces here where people manage to solve human problems by more direct means, such as Molly kicking the ever living hell out of people who irritate her.  She’s an awesome character who’s developed quite a bit from the rakehell cartoon she was in Neuromancer.  Having lost her first love to the Yakuza and the possibility of love with Case to her own wanderlust, she’s thought a lot about her situation and matured remarkably.  She also gets to have one of the better endings on her own, human terms.

Some of the other characters I don’t think are as good.  Mona’s all right, but she’s kind of dim, takes a lot of drugs, and isn’t educated.  Even if the plot she is involved with was explained to her (which it isn’t), she probably wouldn’t really understand anyway.  I guess she gets a happy ending, if you consider celebrity to be something to aspire to (personally I'd rather jump off a bridge.)  Kumiko’s a lot sharper, but I found her to be so sheltered and reserved that I couldn’t really relate to her.  In both cases these characters are passive and having things done to them for reasons they don’t really understand.  The characters who are actually taking the actions have motivations which sort of make sense (e.g., they’ll get some money out of it), but they themselves are being manipulated by other, sinister forces, which are sometimes explained and sometimes not.

Angie Mitchell gets manipulated directly, when she’s not drug-blocked, since the AIs can take control of her body, which means that at any point they can intrude on the narrative directly, and sometimes they do so.  Nonetheless, Angie’s experience of a super-saturated media world is probably the most interesting story told here, and her desire to reunite with Bobby is both a human and comprehensible desire.  I liked both her and Bobby far more in this novel, not least of which because they had more to say and do.

This may very well be the best written of the trilogy, but it lacks the direct urgency of Neuromancer and the character moments of Count Zero.  There’s one especially interesting thing revealed here, which is the ultimate fate of Case – we find he made a couple of additional scores then got out of the game, settled down and moved on.  Gibson chose to do the same thing, moving on to other pastures, having given some sort of closure to this one, even if it’s not exactly what I’d like to see.  So I respect that, even though I thought this one was a little fragmentary.

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