Tag Archives: William Gibson

ancient cans rusted thin as old leaves

Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson

Mona Lisa Overdrive is the third book in Gibson’s famous “Sprawl” trilogy, following up on the extraordinary Neuromancer and his somewhat less successful Count Zero.

The key problem with Count Zero is that it’s very much the middle book of a trilogy. The plot doesn’t stand on its own feet, leaving much of what’s going on to be explained or resolved in the next novel. It’s still a mostly rewarding read, but it’s not a standalone work and on its own doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

Mona Lisa Overdrive provides the resolution that Count Zero lacked, and more than that it makes the whole trilogy greater than any of its individual parts. I still remember being blown away by it when I first read it, and reading it fresh now almost 30 years later I’m still impressed.

mona_lisa_overdrive

The story is set some years since the events of Count Zero, which itself was a few years on from Neuromancer. The book opens with Kumiko, daughter to a Yakuza boss, being sent to London for her own safety. Technology has advanced and she now has an AI in a pocket device, a combination of local guide, adviser and security software. She runs into Sally Shears, who readers recognise as being Molly from Neuromancer now under a new name but just as deadly as ever.

Back in the US a young prostitute named Mona with a marked resemblance to major star Angie Mitchell (from Count Zero) has attracted the attention of some very dangerous and very rich people. Her pimp thinks that this is his shot at making some serious money and plans to trade Mona for a seat at the big table. Mona doesn’t know much, but she knows better than that. When big fish take an interest in little fish, the little fish tend to get eaten.

Angie herself is in rehab. She and Bobby Newmark (Count Zero) are no longer together, and she’s isolated in a world of luxury and people more concerned with her bankability than her welfare. She finds the drug she’s recovering from hidden where she’d be sure to find it, raising a question as to who might want her not to get clean. Angie starts to get concerned that she might be more valuable as a malleable addict than as a free agent with a clear head.

Finally, Slick Henry is a brain-damaged sculptor living in a contemporary wasteland of disused factories and abandoned industrial waste named Dog Solitude. He gets paid by local hood Kid Afrika to look after a seemingly unconscious man on life-support who’s hooked up to some new type of cyberdrive. Slick could use the money and he owes Kid a favour, but nobody would hide in Dog Solitude without some very good reason.

That’s four fairly meaty plot-strands, and every one of them comes with a web of supporting characters, antagonists and chance encounters. It’s a densely packed book. Gibson has to progress every one of those stories, bring them ultimately together and make sense of the previous two books. He pulls it off in just over 300 pages. Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell could take a lesson here.

In Neuromancer and Count Zero Gibson focused largely on characters who were outsiders – professional criminals, small-time chancers and has-beens hoping for a comeback. What they had in common was that whether they knew it or not they were largely caught up in other people’s schemes. They were protagonists, but they weren’t the ones actually driving the story.

He largely continues with that approach here, though with some modifications. Angie is the first viewpoint character who’s already at the top, not trying to reach it (or get back to it). Kumiko is essentially a very rich schoolgirl, albeit one born into an organised crime family. Mona and Slick also depart a little from the Gibson mould to date, with neither of them having any significantly greater ambition than not to be drawn into the book’s plot.

Put simply, over the course of the trilogy you can see Gibson expanding his range. Where in Neuromancer everyone is essentially a player, by Count Zero we have everything from international stars to cheap hookers. It’s a much more varied character palette. I don’t want however to oversell this point. Gibson has a greater range of characters, but none of them are particularly deep or nuanced. There simply isn’t space. Gibson is a writer of impressions, not details.

One problem with writing a review over a month after reading the book is that while it’s easy to remember plot and character it’s much harder to remember subtler elements such as themes. To an extent though that perhaps also reflects the fact that Mona Lisa is less interested in exploring issues of dehumanisation and how the rich and poor may as well be different species than it is in bringing the trilogy to a satisfactory conclusion. Gibson is still writing about the intersection of money and the street, but that’s a continuation of an overarching theme rather than the introduction of anything new (and arguably a strand running through his broader body of work).

Mona Lisa then is a novel for the existing fan. That doesn’t make it bad – I happen to think it’s very good – but it assumes you’ve already bought into Gibson’s world. It’s a wrapping up, not an opening out.

Gibson remains a brilliant conjurer of the detritus of modern industrial society. The title of this piece comes from the middle of a descriptive passage and seemed to me a quintessentially Gibsonian line. Similarly, this quote for me couldn’t come from any other writer:

Slick spent the night on a piece of gnawed gray foam under a workbench on Factory’s ground floor, wrapped in a noisy sheet of bubble-packing that stank of free monomers.

It’s not a Gibson novel if nobody’s sleeping on foam. It’s a sentence however which is classically Gibsonian not just in having a foam bed, but more to the point in its evocation of a whole world from an imagistic handful of details. It’s easy to see what Gibson’s describing, but more than that you can also feel it, hear it and smell it. Gibson is able to pack a tremendous amount of sensory noise into a very small space.

That, perhaps, is why his futures convince even though the details are nonsense. It’s because they feel lived in, and because they feel messy and full of people making do the best they can to get by. Here newspapers are distributed by fax which leads to huge piles of discarded fax paper, which is used by the poor as free insulation or bedding. It’s in one sense an incredibly dated idea. Here in 2015 writing this I can’t recall when I last saw a fax. It feels real though, because it fits with the world we do know. I travel to work on a tube train filled with discarded free newspapers which get collected up by the homeless to line their sleeping bags. The details are different, but the imagined future is still surprisingly prescient because it was really a mirror of the present.

Interestingly, where the book dates most isn’t the bizarre ideas of how computers work or the omnipresent fax paper but the descriptions of London and the Portobello Road. I grew up within a short walk of Portobello, and it’s oddly nostalgic to see Kumiko visiting markets I remember from childhood that have long since been priced out of what is now one of the most expensive parts of London.

Gibson didn’t predict the gentrification of the Ladbroke Grove area, which is fair enough because he’s not in the prediction business. He wouldn’t have been surprised by it though, because if there’s one thing Gibson does understand it’s what it feels like to have your face pressed up against the glass with people who have everything just on the other side and never giving you a single thought.

She remembered Cleveland, ordinary kind of day before it was time to get working, sitting up in Lanette’s, looking at a magazine. Found this picture of Angie laughing in a restaurant with some other people, everybody pretty but beyond that it was like they had this glow, not really in the photograph but it was there anyway, something you could feel. Look, she said to Lanette, showing her the picture, they got this glow.

It’s called money, Lanette said.

The Sprawl trilogy remains one of my favourite trilogies in fiction. As a whole, it’s a landmark piece of SF and it’s no surprise to me at all that it remains readily in print. This was perhaps my third rereading over the years, and I can’t rule out there won’t be more. Gibson’s future remains relevant because we are part of it, because we always were part of it. SF futures are often a refracted present, but rarely so much so as here.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of from any of the blogs I regularly follow, but please feel free to link me to some in the comments if you know of any particularly interesting ones.

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Its edge was bright as new chrome.

Burning Chrome, by William Gibson

William Gibson was made famous by his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Before that though he was already well known on the SF scene, and he’d had a number of short stories published.

1986 saw those short stories gathered together into one volume, Burning Chrome (also the title of one of the short stories). It’s an interesting collection to read today. Gibson’s short stories aren’t as good as his novels, but they are interesting historical documents and there is a certain pleasure to be had in seeing the seeds of the ideas that would later prove so influential when put in novel form.

The first story, Johnny Mnemonic, is probably the most famous of the collection, due to a frankly terrible film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves. Here’s the first couple of sentences from it, which give a good idea as to the style:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy.

Johnny Mnemonic is set in the milieu that would later be used for Neuromancer, and indeed Molly Zero who is a key character in Neuromancer makes her debut here. Already there’s casual violence, criminality and interestingly a brand reference – Adidas. In Gibson’s future brands matter and this will prove a recurring theme in these stories and in his work generally (most notably in the relatively recent Pattern Recognition). Gibson’s future was consumerist, and writing this in 2010 on that front he looks pretty accurate.

Johnny Mnemonic and Burning Chrome itself are both essentially crime stories. The characters may be hackers or have surgically altered brains, but in the end what they do and how they live would be recognisable to Chandler. These stories are fun and they’re interesting as a demonstration of how Gibson’s ideas were developing, but they’re not the best in the collection. The best oddly enough are those least typical of his later work.

In Fragments of a Hologram Rose a sleepless man contemplates a failed relationship and the debris of it remaining in his apartment and his memory. Published back in 1977 it’s a strangely elegaic work, about the impossibility of really knowing another person and the unreliability of recollection. There are elements of what’s to come later (“In the bedroom, Parker prods the brushed-aluminum face of his Sendai Sleep-Master.” – there’s those brand names again), but the mood is very different to what was to follow.

Other stories are more straightforwardly traditional SF. Hinterland is a solid tale of humanity’s first contact (of sorts) and of how alien aliens could be. It’s good stuff, but it’s not genre defining. Many feature what will later be almost standard Gibsonian elements such as capsule hotels, temperfoam slabs for beds. hostile corporate extractions and an awful lot of chrome (seriously, a lot of chrome). Again, most are fun but if it wasn’t for his later works these wouldn’t be remembered now.

There are exceptions though, and this collection includes what is probably my favourite story by Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum. Here’s the first paragraph:

Mercifully, the whole thing is starting to fade, to become an episode. While I do still catch the odd glimpse, it’s peripheral; mere fragments of mad-doctor chrome, confining themselves to the corner of an eye. There as that flying-wing liner over San Francisco last week, but it was almost translucent. And the shark-fin roadsters have gotten scarcer, and freeways discreetly avoid unfolding themselves into the gleaming eighty-lane monsters I was forced to drive last month in my rented Toyota. And I know that none of it will follow me to New York; my vision is narrowing to a single wavelength of probability. I’ve worked hard for that. Television helped a lot.

This is nothing like the other stories. Here there are none of the femme-fatales Gibson is so fond of (a lot of the stories feature women seducing men to get what they want then betraying them, Chandler again) and there’s no vision of the future. Well, that’s not quite right. There is a vision of the future but it’s not Gibson’s. It’s a previous generation’s vision of the future which now seems both absurd and vaguely threatening.

The Gernback Continuum is the story of a photographer in the then modern day who is given an assignment to photograph surviving remnants of the futuristic architecture of the 1930s. As he does so, he starts to see it around him for real – as if he’s falling into the shining future that was once imagined.

When I first read this story as a teenager I took it literally, as a tale of an alternate timeline intersecting with ours. It’s not though. Reading it as an adult it’s much more interesting than that. The photographer has clearly lost his grip on reality. He’s seeing the articles he’s read about his subject matter and their illustrations as if they were real. He’s seeing a future that never happened, something people once thought would be in place of the dull reality of what is.

It’s a great story, and there’s a huge irony in having it here. The Gernsback Continuum is a paean (and challenge) to an outdated form of science fiction and because it’s not about an imagined future (but about memories of a future that really was once imagined) it’s not dated at all. The other stories though feature Soviets in space, cold war politics continued, and now they’re as quaint as Edwardians with their dreams of frock-coats on Venus.

The only story in this collection which isn’t now a historical artefact is the one about how science fiction futures can become irrelevant and dated. There’s something splendid in that.

Otherwise, Gibson’s prose isn’t always stellar but it definitely has its moments. Gibson isn’t a master of dialogue and his characters are generally straightforward (though that’s often an issue with short stories). Gibson, like most science fiction writers, isn’t primarily interested in describing inner states.

What Gibson is interested in and where his real talent lies is creating and describing worlds. He writes in one story of “legless beggars with wooden bowls under animated holograms advertising French software”, and for me that captures the essence of the cyberpunk genre in one phrase. That right there is a whole brief literary movement in a part sentence.

Elsewhere, I liked a description of a holographic business sign being displayed “over a display of dead flies wearing fur coats of gray dust.” Gibson reminds us that the future is born of the present, and therefore unlike the perfection glimpsed in The Gernsback Continuum wherever we’re going will be much like now. It may have new machines, new vices and new crimes but it will still have rich and poor and in the end what will really matter will not be the technology but the people using it, and they will be much as we are now and much as we always were.

Gibson isn’t a psychological writer, but he doesn’t forget the human element. I think that’s a large part of why his fiction is outliving its period specifics.

Finally, while the part-sentence above encapsulated cyberpunk for me, there is one phrase which is generally seen as being the essence of the genre. It’s a phrase so classic that I used a variant of it for the title of my last blog entry on Gibson. It appears here for the first time, a harbinger of a literary wake up call that would shake the moribund SF scene of the late 1970s and introduce something new and much more interesting: “the street finds its own uses for things.”

Gibson’s stories here draw on a range of different traditions, some more successfully than others. The weakest are the most traditional, the best the least. In between are a handful where Gibson experiments with fusing crime genre concepts onto SF and it was those experiments which helped give birth to the cyberpunk genre (along obviously with writers such as Rucker and Sterling). This is where it began. If you’re not interested in what followed then the only story here worth seeking out is The Gernsback Continuum. If you are though it’s a fascinating insight into the shape of things then to come.

Burning Chrome

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The street tries to find its own uses for things

Count Zero, by William Gibson

It’s been said that genre is an ongoing conversation between a group of writers and readers with similar concerns. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. There are times though in the life of a genre where that conversation becomes insular, where compliance with the genre rules becomes more important than what the genre was trying to talk about in the first place. When genre is its own end, it’s irrelevant as fiction.

In 1984 William Gibson reinvigorated the science fiction genre. He discarded star spanning empires, distant planets and the generic trappings that readers had grown used to and instead presented Neuromancer – a novel set just around the corner which drew far more on the traditions of crime (particularly hardboiled and noir) fiction than it did on its SF predecessors.

A year later Bruce Sterling published his spectacular novel Schismatrix and in 1986 the famous Mirrorshades anthology was published. In two short years a new sub-genre had been created, cyberpunk. Now the term is a cliche itself, then it was a fiction that had a relevance the wider genre had largely lost.

1986 also saw the publication of Gibson’s follow up to Neuromancer, titled Count Zero. In 1988 Gibson wrote a third and final novel in the sequence, Mona Lisa Overdrive, turning his original work into the first of a trilogy (known generally as the Sprawl trilogy).

I read Count Zero at the time and I didn’t then like it as much as Neuromancer. In fact, I was very disappointed by it. That changed when Mona Lisa Overdrive came out, a book that for me not only worked in its own right but that also retrospectively made Count Zero a better book. On rereading Count Zero today, I find I like it a lot more but that’s partly because I know the problems with it are going to be resolved later. As a stand alone novel it still has problems.

Let’s step back a bit. Count Zero is set in the same future as Neuromancer and explores the consequences of the events of that earlier novel. Few characters overlap, and those that do are minor rather than the protagonists of the original work. Gibson here is pursuing ideas, not individuals.

Structurally, this is a more ambitious novel than its predecessor. Here Gibson sets up three different stories which eventually intertwine and become different facets of the same story. Each character’s understanding of what’s going on is limited, but the reader’s perspective encompasses all three strands and so sees connections the characters can’t. This allows Gibson to explore a fairly complex plot with a large cast in around 330 pages, making for a largely satisfying read. I’ll come back to that largely.

The first storyline follows a freelance mercenary by the name of Turner. In Gibson’s future corporations have become like nations, and where an employee is particularly valuable to them they indenture them to their service and potentially kill them if they try to leave. Turner specialises in extracting such high value employees, enabling them to defect to another employer (who will probably treat them no differently to the company they defected from).

Turner is introduced in the opening paragraphs of the novel, which set the tone for much that follows. I thought them worth quoting in full:

They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. Its core was a kilogramme of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.
He didn’t see it coming. The last he saw of India was the pink stucco façade of a place called the Khush-Oil Hotel.
Because he had a good agent, he had a good contract. Because he had a good contract, he was in Singapore an hour after the exposion. Most of him, anyway. The Dutch surgeon liked to joke about that, how an unspecified percentage of Turner hadn’t made it out of Palam International on that first flight, and had to spend the night there in a shed, in a support vat.
It took the Dutchman and his team three months to put Turner together again. They cloned a square metre of skin for him, grew it on slabs of collagen and shark-cartilage polysaccharides. They bought eyes and genitals on the open market. The eyes were green.

There’s a lot packed in there. Firstly, there’s pace. Just as the slamhound (whatever that is, we’re left to imagine it) races towards Turner so the prose races forward too. In three paragraphs we have self-guiding personalised bombs, an impression that Turner is transnational (his name suggests he’s American, he’s working in India, he’s taken to Singapore for treatment where he’s reconstructed by a Dutch doctor) and hints of black market medicines and emerging technologies. There’s also a suggestion of depersonalisation, Turner’s eyes and genitals are purchased for him on the open market. Welcome to the future.

The next character is disgraced art gallery owner Marly Krushkova. Marly’s career was destroyed when her boyfriend used her gallery as a cover for selling forgeries. Down on her luck, she is hired by a reclusive billionaire by the name of Josef Virek to locate the creator of a series of extraordinary but unattributed artworks that have come upon the market (a plot identical to that used in Gibson’s later, and less successful, novel Pattern Recognition). Here’s Marly, soon after getting her new job:

… the feel of her new outfit and the tidy click of her bootheels on marble kept [depression] at a distance. She wore an oversized leather coat a few shades lighter than her handbag, a wool skirt, and a silk blouse from Paris Isetan. She’d had her hair cut that morning on Faubourg St Honoré, by a Burmese girl with a West German laser-pencil; an expensive cut, subtle without being too conservative.

In what will become another theme of the novel Virek is no longer entirely human. His body is a vast mass of riotous cells kept in an ever growing industrial-medical facility. His mind lives online, existing in virtual spaces such as a meticulous recreation of the Güell part in Barcelona. Like the artificial intelligences who also populace the novel his only real life now is a virtual one, the gap between the artificial and the human narrowing yet further.

Finally, there is Bobby Newmark. Bobby lives in the Barrytown ghetto with a mother who spends her evenings locked into wholly immersive virtual reality soap operas (shades here of the multi-wall TVs in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). Bobby dreams of becoming a player and of escaping to the Sprawl, an Asian style supercity covering much of the US Eastern coast (cities like this do exist today, just not in the US). He styles himself Count Zero and sees himself as a talented hacker but the truth is he’s barely been online. Here’s Bobby getting ready to lie low for a while:

He had two hundred and ten New Yen stashed in the hollow plastic handle of a multi-bit screwdriver. Screwdriver and credit chip secure in his jeans, he pulled on his oldest, heaviest pair of boots, then clawed unwashed clothing from beneath the bed. He came up with a black canvas jacket with at least a dozen pockets, one of them a single huge pouch across the small of the back, a kind of integral rucksack. There was a Japanese gravity knife with orange handles beneath his pillow; that went into a narrow pocket on the jacket’s left sleeve near the cuff.

Bobby, the Count, is smart enough to see how trapped he is in Barrytown but young enough to think he’s different to everyone around him and that his dreams of escape are bigger than theirs. The reality, until a freak event throws him into a larger game, is that he’s just another wannabe with few prospects and likely no future. Bobby’s own view of himself is frequently contrasted with his reality as a teenager with no real clue as to what’s going on and whose ideas of what it is he wants to escape to are as fantastical in their own way as his mother’s soaps.

Gibson can write plot. The crime ancestry of his fiction shows in his taut descriptions of the setup for Turner’s extraction of a researcher who’s achieved unprecedented breakthroughs in computer research and in the squalid struggle of Bobby’s life at the opposite end of the grey and black markets.

That crime ancestry shows too in the tensions between the main characters who though very different (a highly paid mercenary, a gallery owner, a street punk) are as brothers and sister when compared to the ultra-wealthy such as Virek. Here, as in Chandler, the rich really are a different species.

Gibson is strong too at description. He’s excellent at creating surprisingly rich locations with few details. Here’s an example:

Marly checked into a small hotel with green plants in heavy brass pots, the corridors tiled like worn marble chessboards. The elevator was a scrolling gilt cage with rosewood panels smelling of lemon oil and small cigars.

That to me is redolent of crime fiction technique. As a reader I can absolutely picture that space, and yet I’ve actually been told very little. Gibson is equally at home describing derelict streets (I particularly liked some sleeping vagrants who seem “as though they were being slowly extruded from the dark concrete, to become mobile extensions of the city”), abandoned industrial facilities and orbital settlements. His world is a rich and immersive one, which feels fully realised even though actually much is never described.

Crime techniques figure too in the fact that each character is pursuing a McGuffin (Turner’s corporate defector, Marly’s artist and for Bobby a missing piece of new software technology) and the use of violence. There’s a lot of violence in this novel and many characters die. Here though the violence is typically sudden and offscreen. When characters die it’s more likely to be from a bomb they didn’t even know was there than from anything they have a chance of responding to. Gibson isn’t interested by and large in the violence for its own sake, he’s interested in its consequences and in what it says about his world.

Where Gibson is less strong is character. Characters aren’t one dimensional by any means, but nor are they fully realised. There’s enough to create a sense of them as people and to give them a degree of hinterland, but the characters are ultimately in service to the novel’s ideas and its vision and inevitably that means there is less focus on them than there would be in a typical work of literary fiction.

The weaker characterisation isn’t a problem for the novel because that’s not what it’s about. Gibson isn’t here to explore the human condition, he’s exploring the collision between the present and the future. What is a problem is the novel’s transitional nature. It works excellently as the middle book of a trilogy. As a standalone work though it’s less successful.

Strong plot requires a strong resolution. In Count Zero the characters discover that various entities now exist online that are vastly powerful but appear to be less than ten years old. The entities present themselves as voodoo deities (Loa), but as one character argues it seems much more likely that they’ve simply adopted an existing belief structure as a convenient means of dealing with the real world. Where Virek is now primarily a consciousness existing only in virtual space with his body largely abandoned, these Loa are consciousnesses which appear to have no physical form at all.

Introducing virtual voodoo gods to a novel is a big deal. It’s a major development in the setting and much of the plot is driven by their desires. To understand what’s really going on it’s necessary therefore to understand what they are and what they really want. The difficulty is those are questions Gibson leaves unanswered until the third novel. That in turn means that in this novel the main drivers of the plot and the causes of the changes to the setting are dei in machina. In a plot driven work that’s profoundly unsatisfying.

For me then there is a hole at the heart of this novel, and that hole is a proper resolution. The characters’ individual stories are all skilfully brought together and to a close. The pacing is good and it’s an easy and enjoyable read. But, and it’s a big but, the why of it all is missing. For that we have to wait for Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Even with that, this is a clever and rewarding read. With the benefit of near 25 years hindsight Gibson’s future is at times surprisingly prescient (residential buildings with installed wind turbines, the growth of teleworking, though the predominance of Japan marks it squarely as a product of the ’80s) but much more importantly than that it’s convincing. It’s no accident that he helped change a genre. He’s a skilled writer with a strong and clear vision and he isn’t afraid to look outside of SF for inspiration.

With Gibson (among others such as Sterling to be fair) for a while SF stopped talking to itself and started talking about the outside world again. The result was a brief explosion of creativity and works that remain powerful today. In a sense, there’s no greater compliment for a 24 year old science fiction novel than to say it’s still relevant.

Count Zero

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