Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988) 308 p.

Taking a break from the Booker Prize 2011 Challenge with some classic science fiction. William Gibson, incidentally, comes up with the most awesome titles.

Mona Lisa Overdrive is a more direct sequel to Count Zero than Count Zero was to Neuromancer. It picks up several years later, following a number of different characters, the most important of whom is probably Angela Mitchell – the gifted teenager rescued from a mesa arcology in Arizona in Count Zero, who has subsequently become a world-famous simulation star. We also meet Kumiko, a Japanese girl sent to London for protection while her father is threatened by a Yakuza war; Slick, a robotics mechanic living in an abandoned factory in a rusted-out wasteland somewhere in America’s heartland; and the titular Mona, a Cleveland prostitute who gets entangled in a dangerous scheme far beyond her understanding. From these disparate threads, Gibson generates one of his complex storylines.

Gibson’s novels, to an extent, feel formulaic: the same story structure, with different threads converging into one climax, the same quick and neat resolutions, the same grungy low-lifes coming into the orbit of somebody with a lot of money and nefarious plans. If Neuromancer followed this formula, I don’t remember it – or maybe it did, but it’s okay to do it for the first time. In any case I recall Neuromancer generally being far more creative, gripping and flat-out awesome than any of Gibson’s other books. Again, though, that’s a catch-22. Perhaps all his books are brilliant, but Neuromancer was the first, and eclipses all else.

But I’m inclined to believe that Neuromancer really is superior. The second two are very similar to each other, and different from their predecessor. As with Count Zero, the European scenes in Mona Lisa Overdrive struck me as not quite belonging in the world of the Sprawl. Neuromancer was a grungy, filthy, terrible place to be, whether one was in Japan or New York or Istanbul. There were some brief scenes in Paris, but I don’t recall them salivating over the Old World splendour in the way that Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive do. Count Zero had Japanese tourists snapping photos of the regal old buildings and famous landmarks of Paris; Mona Lisa Overdrive has warm, smoky British pubs, people selling junk on Portobello Road, wealthy mansions in Notting Hill and noble history seeming “the very fabric of things.” I suspect that Gibson, a New Worlder like myself, is somewhat in awe of Europe’s historical grandeur. But this makes his London barely different from the real London (or, for that matter, the London of Pattern Recognition) and that simply doesn’t gel with the 1980s cyberpunk Sprawl of Neuromancer.

I think that’s the problem I have with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive: they fail to live up to the vision of his first novel, and not just in terms of plot and innovation. They feel less outlandish and futuristic than Neuromancer. More recognisable, more down to earth, more near-future rather than distant-future. Either I’ve become more acutely aware of our society’s myriad fucked-up problems since I read Neuromancer three years ago, or Gibson radically shifted gears when designing his fictional world.

Having said all that? Mona Lisa Overdrive is a good book. It has well-developed characters, an intriguing plot, and a tone consistent with Gibson’s unique style of writing. No author, science fiction or otherwise, captures our logo-soaked, corporate-controlled and technology-driven society quite as well as William Gibson, and he’s up there with J.G. Ballard as an author who deserves to have his surname turned into an adjective. Mona Lisa Ovderdrive fails to live up to Neuromancer, of course; nothing could, because Neuromancer is one of the most important novels of the 20th century. It’s a good book nonetheless.

I feel like I’m repeating my review of Count Zero here. These novels leave me with very mixed feelings; they’re much better than most stuff I read, but they come nowhere near to generating the feelings in me that Neuromancer did. It may be rose-tinted retrospect, but I recall that novel being a blinding kaleidoscope of ass-kicking glory and unprecedented awesomeness. I need to read it again.

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