From the perspective allowed by reaching the end of a trilogy, it is possible to see the shape of the individual narratives as both discrete objects and intertextual themes. Neuromancer, viewed through Mona Lisa Overdrive, becomes a sort of epic song, a mythologized event, whose meaning is mediated and complicated by the two proceeding texts.
More to the point, Neuromancer is the story of the AI gaining sentience, and as the final page (308 in the trade paperback) explains, “When the matrix attained sentience, it simultaneously became aware of another matrix, another sentience.” This second sentience is the protagonist and focus of Count Zero.
Mona Lisa Overdrive, then, must be read as the marriage that ends it. It is in the binding of the two sentiences within a single environment. A cosmos, to be more explicit, as there is certainly a fascinating interest with an almost pre-Copernican understanding of shape (such as the virtue of the sphere in early humanism) that informs one’s understanding of the meaning of Gibsonian cyberspace.
It is the aelph that must unlocked to understand Mona Lisa Overdrive means. The aelph, as Gibson writes, is “A sort of a toy universe” (267). What’s important about it, is that it is both a comprehensive totality, that is, it represents a thorough and consistent environment, and that it is differentiated from the matrix, or more problematically, the ‘real world’ of Gibson’s sprawl. Several times, the aelph’s otherness is stressed by the narrative’s characters, all of whom need to point out that it is not the real world of either physical reality, or the matrix.
It is terceriary. Which is probably why it becomes an appropriate site for the union of the two sentiences embodied by Bobby Newmark and Angie Mitchell.
Is the aelph paradise? Is this aelph a sort of data-heaven? The question is a good one, although it might be be reductionist to see the budding cyper-cosmology of Mona Lisa Overdrive as a simple mapping of the Christian reconciliation myth. That said, how can one note draw the omnipresent lines around a couple that inaugurates a new world order as a sort of Adam & Eve?
Life, Second Life, Death?
There is another question we must ask about the aelph and its second (really third) reality. This question is what are we to do with the life status of those within it, versus those without. These theme, of life, second life, immortality, and ‘true death’ has already been running through the Sprawl triology, first with Case taking help from the almost alive ROM, through Josef Virek’s bizarre life-as-rich-goo-on-the-internet, and most thoroughly ponder in Mona Lisa Overdrive, with Kumiko wondering about the life status of the boxes her father speaks with, and the status of 3Jane. Gibson is seemingly very commited to keeping these forms of life differentiated, but in not certain terms. As he writes regarding the ‘death’ of Angie, “there’s dying, and then there’s dying dying.” It seems that it takes two deaths to kill you in the world of the second life.
aelph as drug, engine
The aelph works well as a cyberpunk literary symbol because it is both an end and a beginning, a cosmology, and a network ever-expanding towards becoming part of something greater. Like code, it has a certain extensibilty. It may be added to the matrix, for instance, to allow access from a distance. Or it may remain localized, as Bobby Newmark perfers, where he might fetishize it alone. It’s portability and personal use abilities thus make it a world that is like a drug, “the world you pull over your eyes to blind yourself from the truth”, to signify on The Matrix. Or to use Gibson’s own metaphor, “the aelph was heavy, like trying to carry a small engine block” (298). The engine, of course, has a certain technological pun, as Gibson’s metaphor begs us to read the aelph as both the mechanical object requiring power and producing certain outputs, and the software understanding of the term that begs us to see it as the computation behind a sustained artificial enviroment. In gaming, the engine is that which generates gravity, measures bullet speeds, forms shadows. It is almost like the natural laws of the artificial world, an appropriate use of the word ‘engine’ for someone operating along the ideas of deist persuasion, seeing the mechanisms of the clock at work, long after the clockmaker as moved away.
Mona Lisa Overdrive feels somewhat like William Gibson trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle. One has to wonder, why at the end of the sprawl do we find ourselves fetishisizing the limited, the discrete, the “toy universe” rather than the awesome might of an ever-expanding universe. Why, in short, are we in the aelph and not the matrix?
A certain Thoreauean romanticism is thus at work in the idea of the aelph. When we follow Angie in, we are invited to see it as solace, home, privacy, the emotional responses and personal beliefs that have been buried or cast asunder by the Sprawl culture associated with networked humanity. But is this what everyone wants? For instance, what do Kumiko, Sally/Molly, and Mona do to move into tomorrow. Is the suggestion that the true wisdom is becoming data in a box in New Jersey? Or is this a parody of itself, a snake eating its own tale, a setting up of the box, only so that we might escape it?