Welcome to Second Life: Mona Lisa Overdrive

2009 February 4
by Zachary McCune

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.

the aelph

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?

Lawnmower Man: On the Aspiration to Become Information

2009 February 3
tags: , , ,
by Zachary McCune

The Lawnmower Man (1992) has been much maligned by both critics and sci fi fanboys. The usual gripe has to do with its much discussed divergence from the Stephen King short story for which it was named. The wikipedia article, in fact, suggests that the original screenplay was much more interested in literal “cyberpunk” as it was to be titled Cyber God. The wikipedia narrative continues along an almost capitalist-conspiratorial view of way the studio renamed the film: just for the added glitz of producing a Stephen King narrative.

Sidestepping the whole King narrative, it seems to me that the film should have remained titled Cyber God. For that it is what it’s narrative is really about; how a cyber god would be made, from whom, and using what means.

Becoming Cyber God

The first element is Jobe, a caricature of mental illness and low intelligence. Though he is physical fit (and thus somewhat potent) his mental ineptitudes chain him to two realities: hard physical labor, and a slave’s relationship to religion (almost along Nichetze’s lines). Through the technology offered to him by Dr. Angelo (the very human scientist with a soul and a dream), Jobe is transformed, first into a human of a certain ‘normality’ than further into a dangerous potentially that becomes frighteningly omnipotent. This transformation is matched by Jobe’s own sexual awakening, which leads him to sexual liasons with his neighbor, Ms. Burke. At first, she is clearly the dominant partner, but Jobe soon eclipses her power in the bedroom, and eventually creates new spaces for her to copulate with him, wherein he has a nearly divine ability to manipulate the enivornment towards her pleasure. Unfortunately, Jobe is both too powerful and too out of touch with ‘conventional humanity’ at this point to protect Ms. Burke from the power of Angelo’s Virtual Reality, which at this point as become a sort of divine plane for Jobe, as he controls it effortlessly.

Eventually, Jobe’s psychology begins to be overwhelmed by the power of his change and his rise. He claims that he is only recovering a humanity that magicians, prophets, and alchemists were in touch with, but Dr. Angelo is fearful that the rise has been to sudden. He tells Jobe that he lacks the requisite wisdom to inheirit such lost knowledge so quickly.

Hayles and The Aspiration to Information

Jobe’s final movement as a human-becoming-God, is to escape his body and become some other type of being, something that loses the fragility of corporeality. This aspiration, as Jobe puts it, is to become pure information. But Why? Here, we should reach for N. Katherine Hayles and her work How We Came Posthuman, because it gives many rationales for the aspiration to ‘lose our bodies.’ The first is replicability, which is to say that information posseses the entirely anti-bodily attribute of being able to exist in two places (or more) at once. “If I give you information,” Hayles writes “you have it, and I have it too” (39). Other info-advantages to bodies include shifting questions of health and fragility into questions of access, information, as Hayles presents it, is only differentiated by “haves and have-nots” (39).

Which sets up an interesting comment on Lawnmower Man and it’s visual narrative. At the end of the film, as Jobe tries to escape the mainframe that Angelo has confined him in, we set Jobe as a paradoxical bodiless-body-of-information. This paradox, in many ways, is a mirror of the paradox of virtual reality itself; just why is it that we aspire for purely informational landscapes, abstracted from tactile, physical reality, to re-become bodies of information? The way we see Jobe at the end of the film is thus related to two thoughts Hayles has on the mutation of the narrative within the age of “information narratives” accompanying the computer revolution.

The characteristics of information narratives include, then, an emphasis of mutation and transformation as a central thematic for bodies within the text as well as for the bodies of the texts. Subjectivity, already joined with information technologies through cybernetic circuits, is further integrated into the circuit by the novelistic techniques that combine it with data. — Page 43

Mutation and transformation are exactly what Lawnmower Man is all about. Like a pokemon evolving in the presence of certain items, Jobe is entirely changed by his immersion/experience of advanced computer technology. His subjectivity is quite literally joined by cybernetic circuits into a narrative that is all about his aspiration to become information.


A few final thoughts on Lawnmower Man can be expressed as short questions/captions accompanying some film stills.


This is a still from the film's opening title card. I am very interested in the way it encourages a sort of technophobia, by implying the dangers of technology. Of course this is operative for the film's plot, but it may also be a sign of the times. Also, the "you" and "they" differentiation is a fascinating division of experience of technology. Why make it?


When Jobe is undergoing Angelo's immersive intelligence technology, the visual illustration of his learning is represented by the bombardment of alchemical symbols. Later, Jobe says he is simply recovering lost knowledge of alchemists. What is the alchemy fascination?


When Angelo finds Jobe after he has "become information" he (along with the viewer) find Jobe's body as emaciated and aged. It was an interesting choice on the part of the filmmaker, to make Jobe's mutation this visually obvious, but it also suggests that our youth and robustness are really just information.


The cybersex scene, is very interesting because it begins with two differentiated bodies (I'm tempted to call them avatars) but as the engagement becomes more erotic, the bodies blend together. This was a rare clever use of the idea that information was what virtual reality represents, so the sexual engagement of two people should look somewhat intimate. Thus, this sequence eventually depicts sexual encounters as overwhelming and enveloping.


Part of the film's continued appeal to technophobia requires the presentation that technology will not simply be limited as a threat to other technology or solely within technology. Here, we have one of the violent moments where Jobe demonstrates his god like powers, transcending his own body, and the media paradigm (technology, virtual reality) where he is most powerful, to become powerful in the physical plane. His god-ness sems to be represent by the fact that he has become merely icon, an almost cyber-christ whose face alone is proof of his power.

The Machine Whirs to Life

2009 January 17
by Zachary McCune

I’ve getting a head start on myself. Though this Directed Research project represents my independent research into the idea of cyberpunk, I decided to get a jumpstart on the reading by finishing William Gibson’s Count Zero on two long train rides this Winter Break. Too be honest, I read the book because I wasn’t sure about including it on the list. By page 100, I knew there was no risk of that, but also knew I couldn’t stop. I was engrossed in the Sprawl, unable to crawl away from its whirring machinery. I think Gibson would forgive for saything that there is something about his fiction of the Sprawl that is like the cliche of watching a car accident, one can simply not look away.

Nonetheless, this is no time to start talking about the reading, the films or even the course. This is a pre-introductory blog post. Tomorrow, classes at Brown will start for the Spring semester though there is nothing spring-like about the foot of snow in front of my room. In fact, it’s probably the winteriest starts of Spring semester I can ever remember. But that’s neither here nor there.

No, this post is just to start a ball rolling. A ball that will formally start rolling next week, when I dig into Mona Lisa Overdrive, and back into Count Zero. I’ve finally got myself a working schedule/syllabus, so please have a look at it, and give me your thoughts. If you’re into cyberpunk, and good god I can imagine anyone who isn’t, please become a part of my indepedent research into this collective hallucination. And know, that though I say I haven’t let the thing begin yet, I can tell, it already has.