Mona Lisa Overdrive… one word, “WOW!”
As the third installment in William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (also known as the Matrix trilogy) he masterfully weaves a web through cyberspace, London, Japan, and Manhattan. The characters develop as the action builds until finally, in one super-nova of an explosion, the plot is unveiled and the climax comes to a head. As a narrative in the Cyberpunk genre of Science Fiction Literature this book does not disappoint. Without giving too much of the story away:
The character Gentry is particularly interesting as a plot device and a person. When we are introduced to him, he is portrayed as a sort of manic recluse; he is a hacker in its truest essence: living in isolation, crawling through the depths of cyberspace, digging, researching, ever in search of some deeper sense of an elusive knowledge. He squats in a gritty, run-down, post-war warehouse, known as Factory, and during the dead of winter he rewires the facility for free utilities from the Fission Authority. Gentry spends days on end drugged out on his deck searching for the “Shape” – the overall shape which makes up the form of cyberspace in its entirety. Gibson uses this character to introduce an interesting paradox within the matrix: there are worlds within worlds. This idea fits with the old piece of philosophical wisdom “as above so below.” The matrix is a representation of all human knowledge, all of our data, compiled neatly into the universe of cyberspace. If this can be mapped and found to have a shape then by virtue of relativity the Universe itself can be mapped and found to have a shape – this idea is explored in short by another character, Slick Henry, who asks himself “If it had a shape, then there was something around it for it to have a shape in, wasn’t there? And if that something was something, then wasn’t that part of the universe too?” These metaphysical mind-bending concepts are explored alongside elements of possession by voodoo spirits, corporate conspiracy, reincarnation, cyber sentience, and enlightenment of artificial intelligence.
Being that cyberspace is an invention created by man, consisting of every piece of knowledge in existence – growing every day – does it stand to reason that eventually the matrix would become a sentient being? As a sentient being would it be able to have religious experiences? In Mona Lisa Overdrive there are spirits known as the loa, Hoodoo spirits from Africa, which have come to inhabit cyberspace. Want the life of a celebrity? Want your past erased? Make a deal with the devil and prepare to pay the price – how much is your soul worth? And what is a soul in a society in which we can simply clone ourselves and our children or preserve our entire existence within a piece of solid state hardware (known as a biochip)?
Neurologically speaking, the brain is simply a biological supercomputer – processing more than 80 billion bits and bytes of information through 10s of thousands of connections every single day (and more are being built as you read this)! The electrical currents pass across synapses and dendrites through various parts of the brain which we interpret as memories, knowledge, or sensory stimulation – data. If we package this data across the course of a lifetime and reproduce it within an artificial environment (say, an android) does this new construct become “us?”
It seems that this answer would depend on your definition of a soul. Western beliefs rooted in Christianity hold the thought of a soul as being a gift from a monotheistic God (you get one and it’s either going to Heaven or Hell); eastern belief systems hold the thought of a soul as being everlasting and flowing through the ether of existence within the Universe – beliefs which hold true to reincarnation. Gibson explores these themes of spirituality, the multiverse, and the concept of an afterlife within the resolution of the plot and wraps them up elegantly in the final passage voiced by a cyberspace oracle known as the Finn:
“when the matrix attained sentience, it simultaneously became aware of another matrix, another sentience.” “I don’t understand,” she said. “If cyberspace consists of the sum total of data within the human system …” “Yeah,” the Finn said, turning out onto the long strait empty highway, “but nobody’s talkin’ human, see?” “The other one was somewhere else,” Bobby said.
“Centauri,” Colin said.
“So it’s kinda hard to explain why the matrix split up into all those hoodoos ‘n’ shit, when it met this other one,” the Finn said, “but when we get there, you’ll sorta get the idea. . . .”
Gibson has set the stage; it’s up to us, my fellow Cyberpunks, Hackers, Scholars, and Insomniac Programmers, to dig deep, fly towards the future, and find these answers.