Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) by William Gibson

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Neuromancer (1984) Book Review
Count Zero (1986) Book Review
Available works by William Gibson


Mona Lisa Overdrive is William Gibson’s final book in his Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988), set in the same universe as Neuromancer which envisions a world where people routinely jack into Cyberspace, a term coined by Gibson. His Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988) – spaced out over 16 years – explores the interstices between mind and computer, as well as the infancy of advanced artificial intelligence, specifically the point at which it starts to become sentient.

The story weaves together several narrative strains featuring many of the characters from the prequels. Kumiko Yanaka, daughter of a Japanese mafia boss, is send to London to keep her out of harm’s way from an impending mafia rival war. Roger Swain, the London crime lord entrusted with Kumiko’s safety, has hired Sally Shears (formerly Molly Millions) to look after Kumiko. Angela Mitchell, the daughter of the late Christopher Mitchell (the scientist extracted from Maas Biolabs in the prequel), is now a simstim megastar, who as a result of her father’s biochip implants is able to access cyberspace without the use of a deck. Wanting to do a sequence on the orbital Freeside Torus, she is looking into the Tessier-Ashpool family, pursuing rumours that the last of the family line, Lady Jane, is still alive. Angela is also looking for Bobby Newark (aka Count Zero) who has disappeared, but as it turns out has only disappeared from the real world as he is now permanently immersed in the matrix, his body in constant need of a nurse to keep it alive. Meanwhile, 16 years old prostitute, Mona – caught in an abusive relationship with her pimp boyfriend – is sold to a group of criminals who are looking after Kumiko, simply because Mona looks like Angela Mitchell. 

Bobby’s character is representative of the overarching theme of the Sprawl Trilogy: the different transmutations the matrix goes through in the span of 16 years. Referred to as ‘When it Changed’, the matrix is becoming increasingly more complex and weirder, host to voodoo gods and omniscient Ais, even the presence of an extraterrestrial intelligence from the Centauri System known as the Other. As the matrix takes on a life of its own, with nothing ever fully explained, human agency is gradually eroded, and it is never really clear who or what orchestrate events. Bobby’s immersion, as he is trying to find out what led to the Change, adds yet another layer to the matrix. Jacked in via a biosoft, he now lives and operates inside a digital pocket universe known as the Aleph, separate from the matrix, yet with an online presence visible to matrix users. Immensely powerful, the Aleph is capable of running a simulation of all the data stored in cyberspace, allowing it to run a fully fledged virtual world indistinguishable from reality, an upgrade from the matrix’s crudely rendered geometric shapes. While its purpose and origin remain unclear, Bobby believes that the Aleph was originally developed by 3Jane (Tessier-Ashpool) just because she could, and who is now spending her ‘afterlife’ consolidating power in the virtual world, battling competing digital intelligences.

To users in the matrix the Aleph appears as a very big shape described as a white macroform, and soon it becomes evident that it attracts and spaghettifies shapes that come too close it. Gibson thus takes a motif usually used to describe black hole singularities to flesh out the technological nature of the Aleph. Mona Lisa however never allows the Aleph to evolve into an all-consuming singularity, just as Wintermute was never allowed to become all-powerful in any of the prequels. Gibson’s world of digital intelligences is more akin to a Cambrian explosion. It is as if he is suggesting that once the genie is out of the bottle, once advanced AI has been conceived, a difficult-to-control and vertiginous phase of rapidly changing technology will follow, sidelining human agency in the process.