Pattern Recognition - William Gibson

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Pattern Recognition
William Gibson
Putnam publishers
ISBN: 0399149864 (Amazon link )

Well, I've been looking forward to this book; as a SF fan with particular fondness for the cyberpunk movement, how can I not be excited at a new book by the grandfather of it all, the author of the seminal Neuromancer? "But wait, " I hear critics reply, "Gibson has been stepping back from that gaudy future with each book - maybe the brash young author's Sprawl books really were the highpoint. Maybe he's burnt out and coasting on his brand. Maybe moving to mainstream fiction is an admission of defeat." [1]

I disagree. I feel that Gibson has become a much better writer, though he always was very good, since his early books. Certainly they're the most memorable; the shock of the future presented and the sheer vividness of the plots sometimes obscured just how good an author he is. In Pattern Recognition Gibson sets aside the obvious glitzy SF props, no mirror shades here, and tries his hand at a contemporary mainstream novel. Will he still be interesting without those props? Yes.

However, I'd argue that this isn't a mainstream novel. Nor is it SF. It's instead a novel set in a bizarre world; the present day, where Gibsonian tropes like cyberspace, the Russian Mafia, etc are all everyday normal ideas. Gibson hasn't really stopped writing about the future; our present just happens to contain many those things that inspired him in the early novels.

So, what is Pattern Recognition (PR) about? Um, I've just realised that there might be a pun in the title, which didn't occur to me until I abbreviated above. You see, PR is really centred around PR - advertising, logos, their ubiquity in modern society, and how trends are born and taken advantage of.

Our heroine, painfully self-aware and intelligently cool, is Cayce Pollard (pronounced "Case" - geddit?). Cayce is a cool-hunter, a fashion/design freelancer who has a subliminal sense of whether or not a logo, a look, a design is "right". She has a physical sense of design, to the extent of having physical reactions to some of them. Here is an early episode where:

"She'd gone to Harvey Nichols and gotten sick.
Should have known better.
How she responds to labels.

[...snip...display of Tommy Hilfiger]

My God, don't they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra.
A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the
glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the
product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, flavoring their ready-
to-wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental
stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole.
There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it
is impossible to be more derivite, more removed from the source,
more devoid of soul. Or so she hopes, and doesn't know, but
suspects in her heart that this in fact what accounts for his
long ubiquity."

She herself responds to her painfully acute logo awareness with a masterful display of minimalism - wearing only generic, no-brand, any era clothing picked out carefully:

"CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That's what Damien calls the clothing
she wears. CPUs are either black, white or gray, and ideally
seem to have come into this world without human intervention."

She even goes to the extreme of grinding brands off her jean buttons.
(No mention of No Logo though I kept waiting for it!)

The Damien above is her friend, "Their boy-girl Lego doesn't click, he would say". Cayce is in London to meet a new client, staying at Damien's flat while he is away. Both of them are footage heads - The Footage is the McGuffin of the novel, or rather the origin of the footage is. The footage is a section of film, short snippets released at random and without explanation, onto the internet. A community of interested people has grown up around this, who made the film? Is it on-going or finished? Are the snippets in order? Is it a first-timer? Is it someone well-known? Is it all CGI? Is it old? Several of Cayce's friends are known to her only through a website discussing the footage; including Parkaboy, who gets dragged into the plot later. The forum is good for a few laughs (the critical camps), but allows a discussion - perhaps for the first time in mainstream fiction? - of what it is like to know someone only from an internet conversation.

The plot starts with the new London client - after working on a new logo, things get strange - one of their employees, piqued at the rejection of the first logo attempt?, seems to be out to get Cayce. She exposes her to a logo Cayce reacts virulently to, but few know of that problem she has. Cacye's borrowed flat is also broken into - evidenced mainly by the web browser history to chilling effect - what is going on? Gradually things get stranger. Her new boss asks Cayce to track down the maker of the footage; his motives are unclear, but mainly he's astounded at the film clips following. The sheer marketing skill involved in getting such interest in a prduct that may not exist interests him. From there Cayce, with a rather well loaded corporate credit card, is off on a strange journey - from London's eccentrics dealing in WWII mechanical calculators to the Russian Mafia - gotta have them, this is a Gibson novel! - to the weirdness of Tokyo. (Generally a safe place to set borderline SF - who needs outerspace with modern Japan around? Especially one where sections are "Blade Runnered by half a century of use and pollution.")

The main thing that struck me about the book is the prose; every sentence, every phrase, every word seems carefully chosen. Read the above excerpts again, and look at the first chapter [2]. It's a style very unique, and very absorbing. Short, snappy, terse lines contrast with highly acute passages commenting on the world. I liked this lean style a lot, but could see it annoying some people, with it seeming affected. In the hands of a lesser author it might be, but Gibson pulls it off magnificently. The sheer density of referal in some pages is magnificent, all with not a wasted word. He really seems to have hit his stylistic peak with this novel.

There were a few sections I felt sat oddly - Cayce is a very cool, collected, almost dispassionate heroine, and there are times when Gibsonian trademarks seem left uncommented on by her. For example, I've recently moved to outside London (again) for work - Cayce seems to visit a different city to the one I know - no comment on the decaying future of the Tube for example, no comment on the squalor evident even in this most central of cities. Still, we're seeing things through Cayce's eyes not mine. And the plot? Well, it's one that's hard to discuss without spoilering, but I thought it neatly constructed, and I didn't really care that the McGuffin really is just that - it allows certain events to happen, even if the Big Secret really isn't, and the world doesn't change when it is revealed. This may upset some people, but I liked the journey. The characters are well drawn, and I enjoyed particularly the contrast between people's onscreen personae and their real, flesh'n'blood counterparts.

Is PR going to be a classic? I dunno. It's certainly a superb book, but it doesn't shake up the genre in the same way Neuromancer did, and it does have very many ties to the present day - 9/11, iBooks, StarBucks etc, which may serve to tie it too closely to today to last. This however is unfair criticism - an author cannot be expected to re-invent a genre every time he writes; to manage it once is great achievement. This is probably Gibson' best book so far, and that should be enough.

Very highly recommended. Especially to those who didn't like Gibson's early stuff.
(PR will undoubtedly be adopted by the "too good to be SF" camp as well!)

Oh, one last comment: the actual physical product is gorgeous - the book layout, page format, etc all pleased this bibliophile. Often I can't even recall what colour the book was, never mind enjoying the page numbering. The editing helps; I noted only one typo, and a slight formatting mixup near the end (email typeface started too soon). And I can't even find the typo again. Nice contrast to some of the poorly edited, badly printed nasty product I've read this year.

[1] For some negative reviews try those marked with a red bio-hazard at this URL.
Personally, I found some of the complaints facile, but as noted above there are some areas of weakness, the central plot McGuffin being one. YMMV, but I thought the overall quality more than made up for that.

[2] For a positive review and the first chapter from the novel try here.

Posted: Sat - March 22, 2003 at 08:21 PM