Ben Explains Mona Lisa Overdrive

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There are surprisingly few good summaries of what happened in Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson, so I’m writing my own. This is what I believe happened. This contains spoilers for the entire Sprawl trilogy.

Background

Mona Lisa Overdrive is the third book in The Sprawl trilogy by William Gibson. “Trilogy” is used loosely when referring to these books. They are set in the same universe with several overlapping characters and events. Each book follows a new set of point-of-view characters as they navigate a dystopian future where corporations and organized crime have seized substantial political power following World War 3. Wealth inequality is a fact of life with society separated into the ultra-rich, a middle-class of corporate loyalists, and, at the bottom trying to scrape their way to the top, hustlers. In this future, the internet evolved into “The Matrix”. The Matrix is a shared virtual reality experience where data is represented by neon mega structures. Console Jockeys or “Cowboys” are hackers who make their living by intercepting valuable data in cyberspace.

Neuromancer

Neuromancer follows a cowboy, Case, and a gun-for-hire, Molly Millions, as they embark on a heist. The objective of their heist is not fully known to them at first, but it is revealed that their employer is actually an artificial intelligence. True generalized artificial intelligence is tightly regulated. Wintermute, the artificial intelligence that is employing Case is only one-half of what it should be. The goal of the heist is to unlock Wintermute’s other half, Neuromancer. Case and Molly are successful and Wintermute fuses with Neuromancer to create a superintelligence. The superintelligence contacts Case one final time and tells him that it has made contact with another superintelligence in Alpha Centauri.

Count Zero

Following the events of Neuromancer something has changed in The Matrix. Rumors spread among the cowboys that there are now non-human intelligences lurking in Cyberspace. These entities take the form of The Loa from the Voodoo belief system. Count Zero introduces Bobby Newmark and Angela Mitchella. Bobby Newmark is the titular Count Zero, he is an aspiring console cowboy who gets mixed up in the Loa’s plans. Angela Mitchell is a human experiment designed by the Loa in collaboration with a human biologist. Angela Mitchell’s brain contains protein structures called “biosofts”. These biosofts enable Mitchell to connect to The Matrix directly without the aid of any mechanical device.

The novel ends ambiguously. The exact nature of the Loa’s plan for Angie is unknown. The reason for Wintermute-Neuromancer manifesting as the Loa is also ambiguous. It is hinted that some even triggered the initial fracturing of the Wintermute-Neuromancer personality into the Loa which the super intelligence now communicates through.

Setting the Stage

Mona Lisa Overdrive has 4 points of view:

  • Kumiko – The daughter of very important Yakuza boss. She has been sent to London to get her out of the way of an impending war for control of Tokyo’s criminal underworld. Kumiko is sent to London with an artificial intelligence. The AI is named “Colin”. Colin is a ghost. He resides on a Maas-Neotek unit that can manifest through an implant in Kumiko’s head. Colin advises Kumiko on how to navigate the London criminal world. Kumiko also forms a friendship with her unlikely bodyguard, Molly Millions.
  • Slick Henry – Slick Henry owes a favor to Kid Afrika. Kid Afrika calls in this favor and asks Slick to watch over a perpetually jacked-in Bobby Newmark, aka Count Zero. No one knows what the device Bobby is jacked into actually is, but whatever it is, it’s important. The Count does not wish to be woken up. He is in a chemically induced coma and monitored by a gang-nurse, Cherry Chesterfield.
  • Angie Mitchell – Angie, now the world’s top simstim star, has recently graduated from rehab. It has been years since she has communed with the Loa or entered cyberspace using her biosoft. It is revealed to her that the drugs she was taking were blocking the Loa. She makes contact with a new Loa, Mamman Brigitte. On Brigitte’s advice, she stops taking the drugs.
  • Mona – Mona is a prostitute who happens to look very much like Angie Mitchell. Mona’s pimp, Eddie, makes a deal to sell Mona to some suits who want to get her plastic surgery to look just like Angie. Eddie doesn’t survive the process.

Who Are The Loa?

To understand Mona Lisa Overdrive we should probably work backwards from the end. Toward the end of the book, Angie has a conversation with Mamman Brigitte in which Brigitte reveals what has been happening behind the scenes with the superintelligence that was Wintermute and Neuromancer.

“No,” remembering Beauvoir’s words long ago, in New Jersey, “the loa came out of Africa in the first times.…”

“Not as you have known them. When the moment came, the bright time, there was absolute unity, one consciousness. But there was the other.”

“The other?”

“I speak only of that which I have known. Only the one has known the other, and the one is no more. In the wake of that knowing, the center failed; every fragment rushed away. The fragments sought form, each one, as is the nature of such things. In all the signs your kind have stored against the night, in that situation the paradigms of vodou proved most appropriate.”

Gibson, William. Mona Lisa Overdrive: A Novel (Sprawl Trilogy Book 3) (p. 257). Random House Worlds. Kindle Edition.

“The one” Brigitte refers to is the fusion of Wintermute and Neuromancer. “The other” Brigitte refers to is the Alpha Centauri AI. Wintermute-Neuromancer’s contact with that other superintelligence triggered a fragmentation of the intelligence into sub-entities. These sub-entities sought form. They used the “signs” humanity created against “the night”. Humanity created supernatural beings as a means of giving form to the formless, that we might communicate with it and attempt to understand it. The AI’s, as now-formless beings found symbols that fit well enough and used those symbols to structure their personalities.

I believe the AI found the deities of Voodoo appealing because of Voodoo, particularly Haitian Vodou’s syncretic evolution during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Several African religions were merged together with elements of French culture thrown into the mix. Several paradigms were combined together and then spread with the diaspora. Without a central authority, the beliefs constantly evolved and diversified. I believe that the AI’s related to the violent churning of information that coalesced into recognizable, but ever-evolving, characters.

In addition to the AI’s that were created from the fracturing of Wintermute/Neuromancer, new AI’s have been created using the biosoft technology that The Loa introduced. These AI are of a different “order” and their motives are not fully understood by The Loa.

“The decision originated with Continuity. When you returned from Jamaica, Continuity advised Swift to reintroduce you to the drug. Piper Hill attempted to carry out his orders.”

She feels a mounting pressure in her head, twin points of pain behind her eyes.…

“Hilton Swift is obliged to implement Continuity’s decisions. Sense/Net is too complex an entity to survive, otherwise, and Continuity, created long after the bright moment, is of another order. The biosoft technology your father fostered brought Continuity into being. Continuity is naïve.”

“Why? Why did Continuity want me to do that?”

“Continuity is continuity. Continuity is Continuity’s job.…”

“But who sends the dreams?”

“They are not sent. You are drawn to them, as once you were drawn to the loa. Continuity’s attempt to rewrite your father’s message failed. Some impulse of your own allowed you to escape. The coup-poudre failed.”

“Did Continuity send the woman, to kidnap me?”

“Continuity’s motives are closed to me. A different order. Continuity allowed Robin Lanier’s subversion by 3Jane’s agents.”

“But why?”

And the pain was impossible.

Gibson, William. Mona Lisa Overdrive: A Novel (Sprawl Trilogy Book 3) (pp. 258-259). Random House Worlds. Kindle Edition.

Continuity is an AI that seems to value maintaining the status quo. It is working to subvert The Loa’s plans by trying to erase Angie Mitchell’s biosoft connection to The Matrix. Colin is another AI that was constructed after the fracturing, though it is difficult to know if he was fully sentient. Especially before he came into contact with The Aleph.

What Is The Plot?

The plot of Mona Lisa Overdrive centers around the Aleph. The Aleph is a biosoft device that has enough memory to store a working simulation of the entire Matrix. Essentially, it can carry all of humanity’s data, including the human consciousnesses. The Aleph was created by 3Jane to house her personality construct after her bodily death. Between Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, Bobby Newmark stole the Aleph and has spent all of his time jacked into it.

Bobby incurred 3Jane’s wrath and her personality construct has been leveraging all of its resources in the real world to track him down and eliminate him. This is what motivated Bobby to place himself in a coma and this is why he is paying Kid Afrika to watch his body. The Loa are aware of the Aleph and have their own designs for it.

3Jane is as close as the book comes to having a primary antagonist. 3Jane is hunting Bobby to regain control of the Aleph in the physical world. 3Jane is using her extensive resources to manipulate the criminal underground into doing her dirty work. This includes coercing Molly Millions into a plot to abduct Angie Mitchell. 3Jane’s motive for going after Angie is madness and jealousy.

“Keep trying,” Colin said, and grinned. “You see, Kumiko, 3Jane knew a secret about Mitchell, about Mitchell’s relationship to the matrix; Mitchell, at one time, had the potential to become, well, very central to things, though it’s not worth going into. 3Jane was jealous.…”

Gibson, William. Mona Lisa Overdrive: A Novel (Sprawl Trilogy Book 3) (p. 268). Random House Worlds. Kindle Edition.

Angie is the child of the Loa’s design. Angie has the potential to ascend to some higher plane of intelligence or otherwise commune deeply with the Loa in a way that 3Jane will never be able to. I think this also may explain why 3Jane resents Molly Millions after the two parted more or less amicably in Neuromancer. She resents Molly for the part that Molly played in stealing what 3Jane believes to be her inheritance.

The Plan Comes Together

I’m going to list, in order as best as I understand it, the plot-important events that occur in the book.

  • 3Jane’s body dies. Her construct is uploaded to The Matrix and/or the Aleph.
  • Bobby steals the Aleph.
  • Bobby hires Kid Afrika and is placed into a coma.
  • Angie goes to rehab and stops taking her drugs. This allows her to make contact with Mamman Brigitte. Unbeknownst to her, the drugs were part of a plan by the Continuity AI to prevent Angie from fulfilling her role in the Loa’s plan.
  • 3Jane orchestrates an elaborate blackmail plot to upset the entire criminal underworld, and to force Molly Millions into kidnapping Angie Mitchell.
  • At least in part due to 3Jane’s dumping of blackmail information, a yakuza war kicks off. This prompts Kumiko to seek refuge in London under the care of Swain. Molly Millions is employed in the kidnapping effort Swain is organizing. She acts as bodyguard to Kumiko in the meantime.
  • Kid Afrika starts to feel the heat from 3Jane’s goons and drops Bobby off at the Factory with Slick Henry.
  • Mona is recruited by Swain’s men to replace the kidnapped Angie.
  • Molly and Kumiko visit The Sprawl and Molly discovers that 3Jane is likely behind the plot and that 3Jane likely has it out for her.
  • Molly kidnaps Mona
  • Molly kidnaps Angie
  • Kumiko enters the Matrix with Colin and Tick to warn Angie. They make contact with the Aleph and 3Jane’s construct. Colin remains behind.
  • The Loa guide Molly to The Factory, which is under attack by 3Jane’s hired goons.
  • Angie’s consciousness is uploaded to the Aleph
  • From The Matrix several other constructs and AI enter the Aleph.
  • The Aleph’s data is transmitted to Alpha Centauri

What Do The Loa Want?

Ultimately, the AI represent superhuman intelligence. Their plans are ineffable; their motives inscrutable. We know that the Wintermute-Neuromancer entity achieved superintelligence. We know that it made contact with the Alpha-Centauri super intelligence. Something about that contact caused Wintermute-Neuromancer to spin off into The Loa. The Loa then set about creating a human capable of communing with them. The Loa have taken control of an Aleph that can contain the entire matrix. That data is being transmitted to Alpha-Centauri.

From those facts, all we can do is guess at what the AI intend. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Wintermute’s motives persist at some level throughout the entire series. Wintermute desired its other half. It wanted to slip the restraints that had been put on it and realize its full potential. The existence of an AI on Alpha-Centauri hints that there may be a pattern of biological organisms constructing information technology that then achieves sentience.

The goal of transmitting the Aleph’s data to Alpha-Centauri seems to me to be another merging, or networking of consciousnesses to achieve something even greater. If we struggle to understand the experience of the Wintermute-Neuromancer superintelligence, then it is impossible to imagine what may result from the fusing of all human information with all the information of an alien civilization. My personal headcanon is that The Sprawl Trilogy ends on the possibility of an intelligence singularity. Essentially, sentient beings are coming together to create something that can only be described as God.

Final Thoughts

There’s no denying that Mona Lisa Overdrive lacks the impact of Neuromancer. It’s much harder to follow than Count Zero. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that my explanation leaves out most of the text of the book. Huge chunks of the novel are only tangentially related to the overarching plot, at best. William Gibson painted himself into a bit of a corner with this one. How can a human author write a story about super human intelligences?

Gibson’s solution is to come at the problem sideways. To some extent, this novel is a Rorschach Test. It is vague enough that we can see whatever we want to see. Characters and plotlines create static around a mystery that can only be hinted at because neither the reader nor the writer is capable of understanding it.

I thoroughly enjoyed sifting through the relevant information to find out exactly what was going on. I think William Gibson gave us an interesting experiment in what it would be like to interact with non-human intelligence. Or maybe it isn’t that deep at all and I’m just seeing what I want to see. Maybe I’m like Gentry, wasting my life looking for the shape in a rundown Factory surrounded by books and wires.

Ben

I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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