Review of Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson
Mona Lisa Overdrive
by William Gibson
It’s common to accuse a writer of writing the same thing over again. In many cases this merely means the writer sticks to variations on a theme. Sometimes, though, it feels like each novel is another installment in an iterative process designed to get at a central idea. As I continue to read William Gibson’s novels, I continue to get a better idea of the novel he is trying to write. Mona Lisa Overdrive mixes the legacy of the previous two Sprawl books with a corporate espionage–fuelled plot worthy of Spook Country. The result is a novel that bridges these two aspects of Gibson’s writing, providing a pivot around which his work revolves.
Neuromancer was fundamentally a caper. Fondly remembered now for introducing cyberspace and cyberpunk, it’s an adventure across the world and into low-Earth orbit at the beck and call of an AI seeking to escape from itself. In contrast, Count Zero is almost more grounded in the petty machinations of we lowly humans. Mona Lisa Overdrive reconciles these two universes: in the years since the events of Neuromancer, something strange has been happening in the matrix. People have noticed, and they are trying to find out. But Angie Mitchell—daughter of the late Christopher Mitchell from the previous book—has risen to no small fame of her own, and her interesting abilities with the Sense/Net have made her a target. Mona is likewise a target—because she looks like Angie. Kumiko? Doesn’t look like Angie, but as the daughter of a powerful Japanese businessman, she is a target all the same.
I love how Gibson writes excellent women characters. I mentioned this a little in my review of Pattern Recognition. Can we take a moment to stop and reflect on the fact that Gibson features great women in all of his novels? Molly/Sally, Chevette, Marly, Chia, Hollis, and Cayce (my fav). It’s not a fluke. Gibson is proof that a white man can not only write women like they are people (because they are), but he can do it over, and over, and still write good books. And he’s been doing it since the 1980s.
This is relevant to Mona Lisa Overdrive in particular because of how three main characters are targets, as I explained above. Angie and Mona are being constantly manipulated, one by her corporation and the other by the people plotting to kidnap her. Kumiko (who is 12) has been shipped off to London—literally halfway around the world—because it should be safer for her, yet she gets embroiled in the power plays there and finds herself on the streets with a semi-sentient biochip personality guiding her. (I don’t think it’s an accident that the youngest of these three women also fares the best and, in the end, exhibits the most independence and resilience.)
Gibson once again shows his ability to quickly establish a character with some broad but careful strokes. Mona in particular spends time ruminating on her days in Cleveland, and we quickly get a sense of the experiences that have shaped her as a person. I wish we had more time to spend with her; of all the characters in the book, hers feels like it had the least time to develop. Kumiko learns a great deal in London; Angie is gradually coming out of her shell; Slick is shocked, I would say, out of the torpor he has fallen into in Dog Solitude. Mona, arguably eponymous, is afforded only the briefest of opportunities to shine.
The ending is both open-ended and curious. I’m fascinated by the dual culmination: Mona becoming Angie, Angie joining Colin and the Finn and Bobby, echoes and whispers again of that Centauri intelligence first hinted at in Neuromancer. Gibson frustratingly refuses the play the game: there’s so much more story he could tell, but he leaves off—that’s not the story he’s telling here. This is not a book about AI evolution or posthumanism so much as it is a book about the way that people’s lives can be influenced by the most esoteric and indirect events. There are times when Gibson’s characters, though always with agency, seem to lack much power. Even Sally—aka the venerable Molly Millions—is manipulated, by someone else who is himself manipulated by a higher power. Where does it stop? It probably doesn’t, is the implication. And so even as our technologies advance and we hurtle forward towards our bright and grimy future, we continue manipulating each other at the same fundamental levels we have for thousands of years.
I enjoyed Mona Lisa Overdrive as an adventure. It’s fast-paced, a little emotional and brutal, and very engaging. It’s not as adept as some of Gibson’s other novels at portraying the strange, usually unanticipated consequences of our exploration of digital technology and cyberspace. That’s OK, though. I don’t mean to discount this novel for that, only underline that within the margins of tolerance that define a “Gibson” novel, this one adheres to some parameters more than others.