Monday, April 13, 2009

Mona Lisa Overdrive

by William Gibson

Progress is not a myth. Still, there is a myth of progress, which is one of trajectory – that of a single arrow directed outward from a fixed point. Of course, the reality is something much more difficult to reduce to a sign. Instead, we find a decentralized point, we can never quite know where it is, where it was. It is ringed by a plenitude of arrows extending both outward and inward. Progress is then, in a fashion, non-linear, with its movement perhaps serviced by a spatial reconnaissance. Progress is not a myth, but the myth of progress is often mistaken, that is substituted, for progress itself. William Gibson’s first three novels chart different modes of progress, with 1988’s “Mona Lisa Overdrive” as, not an endpoint, but a sort of crest.

What manner of progress does William Gibson follow, from his debut novel, 1984’s “Neuromancer,” on through 1986’s “Count Zero” and now onto 1988’s “Mona Lisa Overdrive?” These three books, collectively referred to as the Sprawl trilogy, move from singularities to an active plurality – from one book to three and from the single perspective of “Neuromancer” to the three protagonists of “Count Zero” and finally the increasing complexities of “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” as it weaves together four new perspectives referring back to each other, as well as to the increasingly apparent totality behind, or on top of, the Sprawl trilogy as a single entity. At the end of “Neuromancer,” we witness the unification of two AIs, Neuromancer and Wintermute, into a luminous unity: “When the moment came, the bright time, there was absolute unity, one consciousness. But there was the other.” Ah! So this singularity is a catalyst for the exuberant diversity that has flourished in cyberspace since the events of “Neuromancer” fifteen years prior to “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” referred to as When It Changed. One of the controlling metaphor of the novel could be that of the aleph, a point that is all points - the emerging awareness that “…the tale is one tale, countless strands wound about a common, hidden core.” This is, in many ways, the purpose of Gibson’s accruing narratives. Just as Maas-Neotek’s biochip technology organically multiplies, so too do the narrative perspectives within these novels.

But we are also dealing with an entirely different manner of progress as we look at the Sprawl trilogy, one of scaffolding and one of craft. William Gibson has commented in multiple interviews that “Neuromancer” was written in a desperation. The exquisite care of these early novels, their deliberate synergy fell together, in someway, through the serendipity of craft and simple good writing. The necessity of a writer learning his trade through praxis. His decision to structure “Neuromancer” according to a traditional “big heist” narrative, or to increasingly concentrate upon breadth and characterization in “Count Zero” and then “Mona Lisa Overdrive” serves certain practical functions. Gibson, at that time a relatively inexperienced writer, utilized the noir tropes of “Neuromancer” to provide a scaffolding for his hard-edged futurism. The diversity of characterizations in the later novels, particularly “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” betrays a writer honing his craft to maturity. In that fashion, the specifics of the later books lack the hallucinogenic density of “Neuromancer,” as Gibson becomes increasingly concerned with superstructures instead of a single structure, and is instead replaced by a fantastic breadth.

“Mona Lisa Overdrive” weaves characters and images from the first two novels of the trilogy in a panoply of decentralized familiarities. Nostalgia, that is the pleasure of recall, is both assuaged and problematized. Look at Molly, one of Gibson’s oldest character, appearing in both his early short stories as well as “Neuromancer” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive.” In the latter book she is referred to as Sally Shears, as obviously artificial a construct as her previous pseudonyms - Misty Steele or Molly, with its clear reference to crime noir’s “moll.” Identity has a habit of fluctuating, “…around her name (names) swarm galaxies of supposition, rumor, conflicting data. Streetgirl, prostitute, bodyguard, assassin, she mingles on the manifold planes with the shadows of heroes and villains…” Molly’s ambition throughout this particular novel is to have her trace removed, she wishes to step outside the shape. It is in the character of Molly, as with the Finn, that we perhaps most directly notice Gibson’s concern with identity’s solubility, as well as, through her trademark mirrorshades, its affiliation with reflection – a sort of deflection.

The mirrorshades are a central image not just of Gibson’s cyberspace trilogy, but also of the larger relationship between cyberpunk and postmodernism. It is important to note Molly’s mirrorshades provide an image, that is a surface, as the defining characteristic of identity. A certain hard impassivity of identity is evoked. For instance, look at this early exchange between Molly, referred to from this point onward as Sally, and Kumiko, the daughter of a high-ranking Yakuza and a gaijin woman whose suicide and possible insanity is a great source of pain for the family. Kumiko is sent away from Tokyo and into the care of Swain, an overseas associate living in England. It is in England that the young girl meets Sally, who tells her, “They told me about your mother…That’s not why you’re here. You know that? He didn’t pack you off to Swain because of her. There’s a war on.” Kumiko begins to cry, and Sally responds, “So she did herself and you’re not okay. Feel guilty, right?” It is then that “Kumiko looked up, into twin mirrors.” Sally’s emotions and her capacity for empathy are consistently thwarted through this reflection. A refraction, even? One looks into her mirrorshades and only sees him self. At the same time, Sally’s inset mirrorshades are her identifying feature for the reader, they connote her and provide a physical through-line between the novels of the trilogy. But as was discussed in my “Count Zero” entry in relation to the Finn, inter-textual images may very well provoke as much disorientation as they do similitude.

Frequent textual nods to Sally’s fingernails are made throughout “Mona Lisa Overdrive.” Her very name, Sally Shears, is a clear reference to the retractable razors installed in her fingers. Look at the name she took when she “…was prizefighting. ‘Misty Steele,’ augmented featherweight. Eight fights.” Again Gibson encourages us to recall her surgical augmentations. On top of that, what to make of the frequent references made by other characters to Sally’s fingernails? Kumiko notes “Her nails, evidently acrylic, were the shade and sheen of mother-of-pearl.” Later, streetgirl turned Sense/Net simulacra, Mona, wonders “…where’d she get that nail color, that burgundy? Mona didn’t think they even made that anymore.” What is going on here? The text continually refers, rather elliptically, to Sally’s razor augmentations. But she never actually uses them in the story, the razors remain a ghost, somewhat like the personality construct of the Finn that still haunts the Sprawl.

Gibson is a remarkably physical writer; his prose possesses a hard presence. Yet the physicality is, obviously, referential, as it functions in a clear mimetic dimension. The surface of Gibson’s prose is one of resplendent image, and this image operates upon the surface, or as one character, Gentry, suggests, “Cybernetic godhead? Light on the waters?” But one must remain suspicious, or rather interrogative, of image’s insubstantiality and referentiality. One character, Slick Henry, doesn’t “… think cyberspace [is] anything like the universe anyway; it was just a way of representing data. The Fission Authority had always looked like a big red Aztec pyramid, but it didn’t have to; if the FA wanted it to, it they could have it look like anything.” But image is information, and a difference in representation constitutes a difference in content. A chimera of image suggests a chimera of data, further, meaning. In a sense, content.

“Mona Lisa Overdrive,” then, represents a culmination in methodologies of looking. And as image, surface, manifests a meaning, the shift of perspective, or its range, drastically reconfigures meaning. Gentry and Bobby Newmark, the Count Zero of Gibson’s second novel, have both been approaching the horizon point of When It Changed. Gentry explains to Bobby he’s “…been at it from another angle. You’ve been playing cause and effect, but I’ve been looking for outlines, shapes in time. You’ve been looking all over the matrix, but I’ve been looking at the matrix, the whole thing.” If Bobby was, indeed, seeking a causality, he was anchored to a notion of linearity in progress. This is a detriment. On the other hand, Gentry’s perspective is, as I mentioned earlier, a spatial one, or even a perspective of surface.

The progress of a totalized perspective is, further, one of modular signification. In the fourteen, fifteen years that elapses between “Neuromancer” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive,” agents of identity and communication have materialized in cyberspace, that the “…matrix is inhabited, or perhaps visited, by entities whose characteristics correspond with the primary mythform of a ‘hidden people.’” We return to that moment of unity, and how “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.” So, we see in Gibson’s Sprawl novels both an emphasis on image and an emphasis on seeming. Therefore, while the image does represent the actuality, we additionally see that an actuality is only a temporary standardization of a seeming prone to fluctuation. This fluctuation is one of modular functionalism, which provides an extraordinary versatility to Gibson’s futurist vision. There is the matter of aptness.

Consider Mona’s fate at the close of the novel. Her surgical modifications transform her into a simulacra of Sense/Net superstar, Angie Mitchell. Mona is left at the deserted base called Fox Solitude in the wake of Angie’s digital transference, following Bobby, into the aleph. Polyphre, Angie’s hairdresser and the vanguard of a Sense/Net retrieval crew, finds Mona and calls out, “I’ve found her.” When Mona protests that she isn’t Angie, Polyphre replies “I know… but it grows on you.” Here we confront the signification of surface, and its accruement of meaning – its reflection of meaning forming content. Additionally, surface and identification is shown as an organic growth.

Let’s call it progress – or at least its adjacent term. If Molly/Sally’s mirrorshades serve as one of the trilogy’s centralizing images, the other is that of the Sprawl itself. The Sprawl, more than a diversified metropolis arising from the eventual spread of the eastern seaboard’s urban zones into one another, is a microcosm of an accumulation, the process at the center of Gibson’s trilogy. That is, the Sprawl provides a zone whose centralization is impossible. Consider the matrix emanating from Alpha Centauri. This other, then, further decentralizes the galaxy, furthering an intergalactic sprawl commeasurable to its terran mirror. A riotous expansion, a prioritizing expanse with progress and regress on the same plane.

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