Mona Lisa Overdrive and the secret protagonist

mona lisa overdrive coverI am just starting to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third book in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (the first two entries are Neuromancer and Count Zero). I didn’t write much about Count Zero. In fact the only time I mentioned it on this blog was right at the start to highlight a particularly compelling bit of prose. The reason I didn’t write much is that I just didn’t have much to say. The reason I didn’t have much to say is that unlike NeuromancerCount Zero struck me as an intermediate step in a larger work.

Neuromancer stands better on its own because its human characters, Case and Molly, are and remain the stars of the show throughout. In Count Zero it’s readily apparent that the AIs are the protagonists, even though we only see them through human characters’ eyes.

Consider that despite some isolated violence and explosions, the real climax of the story comes when Marly comes face-to-disembodied consciousness with the remnants of Neuromancer/Wintermute from the first novel. “I came to be here,” the AI opines,

Once I was not. Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well…But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am only one…But I have my song, and you have heard it. I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth. There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men. They send me new things, but I prefer the old things. Perhaps I do their bidding. They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods…

That’s it, folks. The whole show. Count Zero isn’t about hackers or mercenaries or ravenous corporate greed (though all these things are used to great effect throughout). Neuromancer wasn’t about those things, either. Really the Sprawl Trilogy is about the evolution of new life forms. Gibson simply chooses to tell it in fractured form – from a limited, flawed, thoroughly human perspective.

The structure reminds me a bit of this article by Geoff Keighly at Gamespot, regarding the narrative structure of the video game Metal Gear Solid 2:

By early 1999 Kojima had come up with most of the game’s plot. Players would start off onboard the tanker ship Discovery in the New York harbor. While everyone assumed that Snake would remain the main playable character in the game beyond the tanker, Kojima had an idea: Why not make Snake a part of the game but let the player see him from the perspective of someone completely new?

“When I was thinking about this game and the characters, I thought of the Sherlock Holmes series,” he says. “Those books are written in the first person, but the narrator isn’t Sherlock Holmes; it’s Watson.” Kojima says that this model inspired him to think of making the narrator in Metal Gear Solid 2 someone other than the main character. Before long, he had come up with a new character–a handsome and sensitive character who at first blush looks like the polar opposite of the gruff and antagonistic Solid Snake. “I really thought I would be able to better tell the story of Snake from the third person with this new character as our narrator for the majority of the game.” But Kojima is adamant that MGS2 is still a game about Snake. “Make no mistake about it,” he states. “Solid Snake is still the main character in Metal Gear Solid 2 even though he is not the main narrator this time around.

I will reserve further comment for after I finish Mona Lisa Overdrive. But I’m definitely reading the novel with all this in mind.

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