Mona Lisa Overdrive

Welcome back to the BAMA*! At long last, I’ve come to the end of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. For those who don’t remember, this began with Neuromancer and Count Zero many months ago. I had hoped to include this third and final review in short order, unfortunately other books got in the way. And by other books, I mean a tall stack that I’ve been reading, reviewing, and putting down to make room for even more! I tell ya, being a sci-fi reader/writer/reviewer can really burn your brain somedays!

Luckily, I concluded the book just yesterday and am ready to comment on it at last. And let me begin by saying that it’s very interesting, having read every novel that Gibson has written up until this point, to look back and see how his writing began and evolved over the years. It is also interesting to see how certain thematic elements which would appear in later trilogies – i.e. The Bridge and Bigend trilogies- made their first appearances.

Elements common to cyberpunk, such as high-tech and low liing, were common to all three books in this series, but were also an intrinsic part of Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The stark divide between rich and the poor and the transformative power of wealth, so important to the Bigend Trilogy, was also to be found in these earliest works. And of course, stories focusing on freelancers who find themselves in the employ of enigmatic figures, and the power plays that go on behind the scenes between various brokers, were present in all of his novels to date.

However, after completing this novel, I can honestly say that I felt let down. Prior to reading it, I was told that it was the greatest of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the reviews claimed that it was Gibson’s “most engrossing story to date”. I came away feeling that it was less than engrossing and definitely not the best of the three. For one, it seemed lacking in much of the cool elements that made Neuromancer and Count Zero so very fun and intriguing.

However, before I get into all that, I should summarize what this book is about. Here goes…

Plot Synopsis:
The story, much like all of Gibson’s works, contains multiple threads that are interrelated and come together in the end. In the first, we see a Japanese girl named Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza boss who has decided to send her to London in the midst of a war between the various crime families.Her only companion is a construct named Colin, a personality that inhabits a portable Maas-Neotek biochip.

Once there, she makes the acquaintance of a freelancer named Sally Shears (aka. Molly Millions) who has been hired out by her father’s people to keep her safe. In addition, Sally is being blackmailed by Swain, the head of the London mob, who has ordered her to kidnap the famous simstim star Angie Mitchell and replace her with the a body double.

In thread two, we meet the intended double, a 16-year old prostitute named Mona from Florida who travels to New York with  Eddie (her pimp) after he closes some lucrative deal. However, when they arrive, Eddie is killed and Mona is forced to undergo the surgery that will make her look exactly like Angie, whom she knows from all her simstim movies and admires greatly. Angie’s back story, about how she was the daughter of the man who invented biochips and placed bioenhancements in her brain (all of which takes place in Count Zero) is all recounted, as is her failed relationship to Bobby (aka. “The Count”).

In thread three, we learn that Angie has returned from rehab after developing an addiction to a designer drug her company was supplying. After a brief stay in Malibu, she learns that it was someone in her inner circle who was giving her the drug in the hopes that it would alter her brain chemistry, thereby disrupting her ability to access cyberspace and communicate with the AI’s now living there (the lao, or Voodoo god personas the AI’s had taken on).

In the fourth and final thread, we are introduced to three residents who live together in an abandoned factory located in “The Solitude”, an uninhabited area in the Sprawl. Gentry is the defacto owner of the place, a cyberspace jockey preoccupied with the way it has changed since events in Neuromancer where AI’s began to permeate it. Slick is his roommate, a robotics enthusiast who builds giant battledroids with the help of his friend redneck friend Bird.

Things for them become interesting when Slick’s associate, Kid Afrika, drops off a man who’s permanently jacked into cyberspace and asks them to take care of him. He leaves the man (Bobby Newmark) and a registered nurse (Cherry) with instructions to keep them safe. After examining the aleph (a biochip with immense capacity) that he’s plugged into, Gentry learns that it is an approximation of the whole data of the matrix.This is where he has been living for the past few years after breaking up with simstim star Angie Mitchell.

In the course of the story, we also learn that Lady 3Jane has died and now inhabits the aleph as a construct. At some point, Bobby stole the aleph and now inhabits it with her. After checking in with her jockey friend, Tick, in London, Molly learns that 3Jane is behind the plot to kidnap Angie Mitchell and replace her, and begins to work to unravel these plans. She travels to New York to meet with the Finn, himself a construct now, and learns that since her operation to Straylight, things have been changing drastically in cyberspace.

Now, 3Jane is looking for revenge, and Angie is intrinsic to that plot. After recruiting Swain and key members of Angie’s entourage to help her, she attempts to conduct the kidnapping while Angie is in New York. However, Molly intervenes and grabs Angie and Mona, who is being set up to replace her, and begins to travel to the Solitude. Angie, under the influence of the lao, is directed to Factory to reunite Angie with Bobby.

Meanwhile, Kumiko, who is alone in London, goes to find Tick and find out what’s going on. Ever since Molly left, she is advised by her Maas-Neotek construct Colin to seek refuge from Swain. When she finds him, she too learns about how cyberpsace is changing and how a massive data profile has entered into the matrix (which turns out to be the aleph). When they jack in, they are pulled into the aleph with 3Jane who attempts to hold them prisoner.

Things come together when Molly arrives in the Factory and Sense/Net mercenaries begin to show up to take Angie back. Meanwhile, in the aleph, Colin comes to their rescue by neutralizing 3Jane’s control over the construct. He also reveals 3Jane[‘s motivations. In the wake of her death, after a life of pettiness, greed and obsessive control, she has become jealous of Angie Mitchell and her abilities. Molly, since they know each other from the Straylight run, is pretty much on her shit list as well!

In the end, Angie Mitchell and Bobby die together, but not before their personalities come together in the aleph, to be forever joined by 3Jane and the Finn. Mona is picked up Kid Afrika who assumes that she’s Angie Mitchell, and is taken off to take over her starlet life. Molly takes the aleph and travels off into the distance while Slick and Cherry get together and head off to start a new life together. And finally, Gentry, who refused to leave Factory, stays behind to contemplate the matrix’s growing complexity.

Meanwhile, a final mystery is resolved. Inside the aleph, Angie, Colin and Bobby are picked up by the Finn who explains how and why the Matrix changed. After Neuromancer and Wintermute at the end of the first novel, the combined AI indicated that there was another like him, a construct similar to the Matrix in Alpha Centauri. Apparently, after he went there, he came back changed and divided into the lao, and the Matrix itself changed. Now, the Finn is taking them there, to meet the alien cyberspace and all the mysteries it holds…

Summary:
As I may have said already, this book was my least favorite of the Sprawl Trilogy. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, mind you. But it was diminished in that Gibson’s usual dark, gritty, and decidedly cyberpunk style – which ranges from opulent to gothic in its appraisal of technology and its impact on society – seemed to be watered down by a much cleaner narrative. In the end, it felt more like reading from the Bigend Trilogy, in that the settings and feel were quite similar.

Aside from taking place largely in London and New York, there was also a lot of buildup and not much in the way of action. And of course, the diversions into the fields of fashion, mass media and the cult of personality; these too felt like they would have been much more at home in the Bigend Trilogy. That was the trilogy that dealt with all these elements, whereas the Sprawl was all about the nitty-gritty, about cool gadgets, mercenaries, cyber-ninjas, deck jockeys, corporate bad guys, high-tech and low-life.

To top it all off, the ending felt quite abortive. Gibson is somewhat notorious for this, but whereas Neuromancer and Count Zero contained plenty of gun-toting and cyberspace runs, this book kept all the action til the very end. And at that point, it was complicated by a rather odd narrative structure and some pretty weak explanations. After learning that 3Jane was pulling all the strings and determined to wreak revenge, it seemed weak that it was all for the sake of punishing Angie out of jealousy.

If anything, I thought her motivations had to do with the Straylight run. That after fifteen years of waiting and plotting, she finally found Molly and decided to kill her and anyone else involved in changing the Matrix. To know that it was motivated by her jealousy of Angie’s abilities just rang hollow. In addition, I thought the usual motivations, like how the wealthy are constantly trying to cheat death, might have been a fitting motivation. I seriously thought at one point that her true intentions were to find herself a vessel, and Angie Mitchell proved to be the perfect choice due to the veves in her hand. Through these, 3Jane could simply download herself, provided she had her in custody and hooked up to the aleph… or something.

However, there was plenty of interest in between all that. While many chapters kind of dragged for me, I did enjoy the scenes where the history of the Tessier-Ashpool clan were reconstructed. The revelation about the Alpha Centauri matrix, which was only hinted at at the very end of the Neuromancer was also very cool. And the detailing of the lao and the evolution of the Matrix since Wintermute and Neuromancer came together, that too was interesting. In the end, I just wished there had been more of this.

And given that this novel did wrap up the previous two novels and brought closure to the whole Sprawl trilogy, I would highly recommend it. Regardless of whether or not it was the best or weakest of the three books, it is the final chapter and contains many important explanations and resolutions, without which the series would never be complete. On top of all that, it is hardly a weak read, and I know for a fact that many people consider it to be better than the others. So who am I to stand in anyone’s way of reading it?

Kudos to you William Gibson. I have now read every novel you wrote. I now move on to Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic, plus any other bits of short fiction and thoughtful essays I can get my hands on. Despite all the little things I have come to criticize about your work, you remain one of the best and most important writers in this reader’s bookshelf! And if I really didn’t like you, why the hell do I model so much of my work on your prose? Like Aeschylus said of Homer, any work of mine dealing in cyberpunk and high-tech is pretty much the crumbs from your table!

Good day and happy reading folks!

Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy

Well, it finally happened. After many interruptions, thanks to other books that made it into my reading pile, I finally capped off Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy with All Tomorrow’s Parties. And as usual, Gibson’s combination of high-tech gadgets, low-tech environments, and an assorted crew of characters are all there in full force. And, interestingly enough, I also noticed some decidedly Gibsonian traits that appear in his other trilogies.

For one, there’s that tendency of his where he switches main characters between the first and second novel, then bring them all together again for the third. And then there is his ability to end a story abruptly and in a way that’s both confusing and a little short on explanations. As you might be able to guess, I had a few problems with this book, but none to write home about. Mainly, I thought it was a fitting and faithful ending to his second trilogy, chock-full of insights, ideas, and cool concepts.

Synopsis:
The novel takes its name from the song of the same name by Velvet Underground, which was apparently inspired by their contact with the Andy Warhol clique. The story opens in a Tokyo subway station, where the character of Colin Laney (the protagonist of Idoru) is now living in an improvised “cardboard city” with other misfits. Inside this assemblage of boxes, he spends all of his time online, following the exploits of a media baron known as Cody Harwood. Consistent with the effects of 5-SB, the drug that gives Laney his ability to discern patterns of information, he has become obsessed with this celebrity figure. However, he also sees that a nodal point is fast approaching, and that Harwood is at the center of it.

What this node is and what it entails, he cannot say exactly. All he knows for sure is it will change everything, and is set to go down in San Fransisco. To uncover the details of this , and perhaps stop it as well, he enlists help from the people of the Walled City – a virtual environment in cyberspace – Rei Toei (the Idoru), and Berry Rydell (the protagonist from Virtual Light). Meanwhile, Chevette Washington, the bike courier from Virtual Light, is also on her way to the bridge. Her new roommate, a film maker named Tessa, wants to go there so she can do a documentary on the people, how they live, and study the phenomena known as “interstitial places”. Pursued by her jealous ex-boyfriend, she agrees to accompany Tessa and show her around, and maybe reconnect with some of her fellow Bridge dwellers.

In time, and with the help of his hacker friends from the Walled City, Laney learns that Harwood has also taken 5-SB. He too has seen the nodal point approaching, and wants to shape its outcome to his liking. Although it not quite clear what its about, it seems to involve the Lucky Dragon franchise, and their incorporation or nano-assemblers in each of their outlets. In time, Rydell and Chevette arrive on the bridge, which is becoming a tourist attraction, and has a Lucky Dragon located just beyond it, with Rei Toei’s mobile projector. Several men show up and try to kill him, but he is helped unexpectedly by an assassin named Konrad – a man who is ostensibly in Harwood’s employ, but has chosen to switch sides.

After rescuing him from the first assassin, Rydell and Konrad run into Chevette at a club. She takes them her old friend Fontaine’s watch shop, where he and a young boy named Silencio – an apparent mute who is obsessed with researching watches –  take them in. When Harwood is informed that they are holed up and their assassins are dying off, he orders them to set fire to the bridge. Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Laney and his Walled City friends find him and confront him. He manages to escape into the folds, but Rei Toei comes to the little boy and tells him to find a special watch – a task which is in reality a trek to find where Harwood is hiding. They track him down, and he is neutralized.

Laney and Chevette narrowly escape to Skinner’s old hideout at the top of the bridge, where they kill the last of the assassins and wait out the fire. Rescue trucks and airships begin dousing the flames, just in time to save the bulk of the population. Meanwhile, Rei uploads her program to the Lucky Dragon’s database, and when the nanoassemblers go online, they produce endless copies of her! As the nodal point comes and passes, things have changed, though not in the way Harwood wanted, and in a small cardboard box in Tokyo, Laney is found dead by some of his old associates.

Good Points/Weak Points:
Much like its predecessors, this book advances the nanotechnology angle and brings it to an apparent conclusion. In book I, it was nanotech that was meant to be the means through which San Fransico was going to be rebuild after the Little Grande (aka. the Big One). It was also the means through which Tokyo was rebuild after said same earthquake. And many hints were dropped in Idoru that the character of Rei Toei, whose existence is strictly virtual, would be relying on it to manifest herself in reality. Alas, this finally seems to take place in this novel, where Rei uses the nanoassembly units in every Lucky Dragon around the world to produce copies of herself.

In addition, the concept of the nodal point is brought to its climax, where Laney and Harwood, both people who are sensitive to such things, are able to see one which will mean the end of the world. Not in the apocalyptic sense, merely that it will be the end of the world as they know it. From this description it is strongly implied that this will amount to a technological singularity, an event where advancement will speed up to the point where no one can predict the outcome. And given all the mentions of nanotech, it is entirely possible that it will be central to this transformation.

However, as I said earlier, this was not made clear. Much like with everything else at the end, explanations were lacking. What the big change-up involved, how Harwood planned to benefit, and how Silencio prevented that from happening… unclear! And Rei Toei’s involvement, her transformation and what purpose that served, also unclear. In essence, the climax just happens as describes, a few more short (really short) chapters tell what happened to all the characters once it was over, and the story ends. Little epilogue? Little conversation between the main characters explaining what they did and maybe what happened with Rei Toei? People learn the hero’s journey isn’t always an easy one?

Ah, I enjoyed reading it. Like all of Gibson’s work, it did a good job of contrasting high-tech and low, commercial applications and the streets use for them. The disparity of wealth and power also makes it in, as well as the average Joe’s ongoing attempts to subvert and resist it. In the end, Laney (the gifted social outcast), Rydell (the bewildered everyman), and Chevette (the streetwise survivor), all play a role in bringing down a major tycoon who’s only goal is to put himself at the center of the new order. Still, some indication of what that new order was and the meaning behind all his moves would have been nice!

And of course, the Walled City and Rei Toei make it back for their final appearances. Much like in Idoru, they are a shout out to the idea of artificial spaces, artificial constructs, and the line that separates them from that which is physically real. But rather than take a moralistic stance on the issue, Gibson’s approach was clearly towards the anthropological and sociological side of things. Mainly, he sought to show how humanity lives and adapts in an increasingly complex and changing world, and how the process is tied to the issue of control. Whereas everyone is effected by technological change and the social impact it has, it is clear that some are merely adapting whereas others have a degree of control over it.

And as with much of his other works, it is the disparity between the rich and the poor that is most central to Gibson. Whereas the rich occupy the top tier of society in his books, living on the cutting edge of development in comfortable, state of the art environments, the poor wait for development to trickle down to them and use it for their own purposes, meanwhile living in improvised environments made out of what’s available. In the middle, there are the “freelancers” who understand the conspiracies and agendas and do their best to expose them, hoping to do right by all the people who occupy the bottom rungs of society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bridge itself. Much as with the real life Walled City of Kowloon that inspired it, it all comes down to corporate interests who are trying to destroy, gentrify or commercialize it. Whereas in the first novel, the story revolved around a plot to gentrify San Fransisco through nanotechnology, in the third, those same interests try to demolish the Bridge itself because it is clearly beyond their control. It is only through the know-how and the sacrifice of those who see the larger agenda at work that it is saved, unlike the real Walled City (which was demolished between 1993/4).

It is little wonder then why this trilogy was seen as a sort of graduation for Gibson, moving from cyberpunk themed science-fiction to predictive social commentary. And while we might not be exactly where Gibson put us (2012 and we still don’t have nanomachines dammit!), the ideas he put forth  in this trilogy are still on our minds. These days, people are practically holding their breaths, waiting for the day when an artificial personality will finally be realized and machines small enough to manipulate matter at the atomic level can be built. And when that happens, we can still expect that the effects will be felt unequally. Some people will be living in seamless building made from carbon nanotubes and run by AI’s, others will be living shanty’s, making appliances out of spare parts. Or, to put it as Gibson once said “the future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”

So long Walled City, you will be missed!

Back to reviewing books!

Boy, its been awhile! It seems like so long ago I was reviewing “Virtual Light” and looking forward to doing the rest of the “Bridge Trilogy”. Well, I didn’t forget. In truth I was just about finished reading Idoru – the second book in the trilogy – but then I decided to leave it in Red Deer for some reason. I managed to get a new copy, but then, wouldn’t you know it, I bought the box set of A Song of Fire and Ice and then started reviewing someone else’s book for them too! Somedays, I tell you, I think I might have literary ADHD! So, given my obvious need for structure, I thought I might make a list of all the books I intend to read and review in the coming weeks and try to stick to it for once!

For starters, there’s Idoru, which I’m just finishing but need some time to digest. Not only is this an important book in Gibson’s “Bridge Trilogy”, it is apparently what cemented his fame as an author after Neuromancer so I wanna take my time with it. But I will say that as far as first impressions go, I can see what the critics meant when they said this. Whereas Gibson’s earlier books tended to deal with cyberspace and the dark underbelly of society in the information age, this one tackled the vagaries of celebrity and media in said same era.

A follow-up with All Tomorrow’s Parties will then be necessary to complete the trilogy, and because I already bought the book. Thank you Amazon for your slow but reliable delivery system! Then, I shall turn to my pile of Kindle books since I’ve been scooping them up ever since my friend from Red Deer (hey Chi!) bought me this iPad! I tell ya, the thing is not the best typing implement, but man is it good for reading! I actually get more done on it than with a conventional book, may the God of paperbacks forgive me (blessed be his cellulose appendages)!

Speaking of which, that would be where A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin (“the American Tolkien”) comes in. After getting hooked like crack on the HBO miniseries of “A Game of Thrones” which covers the events in the first novel, I got myself the box set for my Kindle app. Well, truth be told, I bought the second book and THEN bought the box set on Kindle. Quite looking at me like I’m drugs, it was a deal I tell ya! And yes, I was hoping to buy them individually, but three books in paperback or all four on Kindle for roughly the same price, before the added cost of shipping and handling? You do the math! Besides, duplicates don’t really count if they’re not taking up space on a shelf, right?

However, all those must wait until I finish reading and reviewing a book by a fellow self-pub ebook author who goes by the name of Randy Attwood. His book Rabbletown: Life in These United Christian States of Holy America is an interesting look at fundamentalism in America and a new dark ages. This authors book came to my attention by way of my writers group, The Herscher Project, a few weeks back and I agreed to take his book on and give it its due. Look for my review in the coming days! I should also take this opportunity to mention that this same group will be putting out an anthology shortly, a collection of the group’s dystopian narratives from over the years. Look for it in ebook format when it comes out, and pay close attention to a little story called “Domicile 4.5”. I’ll give ya a hint, it’s by me 😉