#20 – Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson

For reasons unknown I am always confusing Mona Lisa Overdrive with one of the Bridge Trilogy novels, conflating some of its plot elements with bits of Idoru (most notably the portable AI known as Colin, and the nanotech assembler), which is odd, because Kumiko Yanaka and Chia Pet Mackenzie (yes, really) couldn’t be any more different as characters, but the confusion always stems from plot elements relating to them.

Mona Lisa Overdrive didn’t get quite as good a critical reception as Neuromancer and Count Zero, and it’s not difficult to see why. It lacks the focus of the other two books, and the characters are not as central to the events as science fiction and fantasy generally demands. Instead, Bobby and Angie excepted, they nibble away at the edges, sometimes pushed around like pawns, and sometimes acting as channels for greater forces that are making moves in a game that neither they nor the reader can see the shape of. It’s actually the condition that makes the most sense in Gibson’s fictions, where the level of paranoia shoots through the roof and unheard of sums of money and strange, beautiful technology makes the rich and powerful into the gods of ancient Greek drama. Childish in their desires and their moods, cunning, sophisticated, and brutal in their scheming to see those desires realized. Science fiction is very much about change, and science fiction fans like their characters to be at the very centre of that change; it’s not that difficult to see why it would be harder for them to accept a novel in which the most active characters are merely caught up in it, largely inconsequential to the outcomes. It is very literary, though.

The novel opens seven years after the events of Count Zero, and fourteen after the events of Neuromancer. Molly Millions is here, under the alias Sally Shears, and so is the Finn, dead now, but manifesting as an oracular AI with a laser rifle, a local god in some back-alley of the Sprawl. Bobby and Angie are here too, their love and their lives collapsing because of the demands of a corporate media with opaque ends beyond even the massive power of an entertainment empire, Bobby’s stubborn pursuit of the console cowboy mythos that nearly cost him his life in the opening pages of Count Zero, and the jealous intervention of what’s left of Lady 3Jane. The titular character is street prostitute Mona Lisa, who like Kumiko Yanaka is so removed from the causes of her shifting circumstances that even if the people moving her on the board were to explain things to her (not that they could, being themselves ignorant of the first causes), she would simply be unable to understand. The whole book is about not being in control, and about not being able to understand why. But that’s the Singularity, isn’t it? That’s the whole point. The hackers call it “When It Changed,” but even they can’t tell you how or why. There’s a character, Gentry, who has escaped to Dog Solitude to find the Shape, the greater outward form of the Matrix, believing he’ll find a kind of Truth there. That, in effect, is what nearly all the characters in Mona Lisa Overdrive are trying to do: see the shape of the world they live in. Except perhaps, for Bobby, who is plugged into the aleph (a digital universe in a bottle, a direct and somewhat obvious Borges reference, missed in every single article I’ve ever seen about this novel) and trying, like the readers of the Sprawl Trilogy itself, to piece together the story of When It Changed by escaping into a false world and connecting the various histories and narratives as best he can.

Kumiko’s story is the most interesting to me, perhaps because she is the least consequential, and serves mainly as another reader analog, an excuse to use Sally as a tour guide not just to future-London and the Sprawl, but to the tissue that connects most of the physical elements of Mona Lisa Overdrive‘s plot. One hopes that Sally/Molly finds some measure of happiness somewhere after the closing pages of the trilogy, as twice now she’s had it in her grasp and lost it (first with Johnny in the short story, “Johnny Mnemonic”, and then with Case in Neuromancer). She’s rough and tumble, violent yet graceful, always on the move and with a richer, deeper story than even the other characters dare look too closely at, but she is easy to like, and easy to trust, for all that. (And I have to ask: does anyone else think that Porphyre used to be one of the Panther Moderns from Neuromancer, like Lupus Yonderboy? He has that same kind of reshaped, shark-cartilage skull…) Anyway, Kumiko still has what the reader should recognize as child-like innocence, something that virtually no other character in any of Gibson’s novels has, and she gets to wander through London playing spy with gruff-but-lovable toughs who have names like Petal, Colin at her side, the ultimate guidebook/toy/imaginary friend. Kumiko and Colin are grittier precursors to Nell and A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer from Stephenson’s 1995 novel, The Diamond Age.

I’m not entirely certain what happens at the end of Mona Lisa Overdrive. Mona is clearly going to go on to become the next Angela Mitchell (who was once the next Tally Isham, and so on), Slick and Cherry are going to have themselves a good time in Cleveland, Kumiko will return to her father, and Sally/Molly gets her longed-for anonymity, but what happens to Gentry? And really, what about Bobby and Angie? They both die, in a way, and enter the aleph, but two contrary things are implied: first, that they have access to the Matrix as a whole (something that wasn’t true of the aleph earlier in the novel), and so therefore will continue to live on as constructs or AIs themselves, inside the Matrix, but also that their consciousnesses are actually contained only inside the aleph, the model universe, and that even though they are going to connect with the other Matrix in Centauri that the Wintermute/Neuromancer AI made contact with at the end of Neuromancer, they will not survive once the battery runs out, about a year, by Slick’s estimation. It’s the sort of ending that could be sad and hopeful all at once, stubbornly refusing to provide closure.

Mona Lisa Overdrive was my eighteenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Virtual Light, by William Gibson.


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. i didnt see the porphyre/lupus connection until i read that, so thanks.i remember the older journalist lady mentioning his name, lupus, i think. i was hoping at the end, by saying she would leave the aleph and solar cells in the sun, they would work as long as the sun did, i have a feeling all there consciousnes’s transferred to the centauri system. hard to get into at first, but only relized that by taking semmingly uniteresting characters like mona and kumiko, and strange ones [slick] that gibson was showing how good of a writer he was by writing by making you love mona and kumiko, half-dim slick, and even gentry haha, but yeah, my end; all our cyberspace ghosts from the aleph go to centauri, and gentry gets on with a former domestic terrorist named porphyre/lupus.sorryforthelongposy

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