Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

Putnam, 2003, 356 pages, C$39.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-14986-4

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: This is not a Science Fiction novel. It’s a novel formed and informed by the tools, methods and outlook of SF, but it takes place in 2002 and contains nothing that wasn’t possible then. Yes, it’s another “rewind” for Gibson, who’s been writing closer and closer to the present since 1984’s seminal Neuromancer.

It may be that the present interests Gibson a lot more than some imagined future. Pattern Recognition, if thrown in a time machine and sent back to 1984, would certainly read like a science-fiction novel, packed with matter-of-fact acceptance of a global communication network, virtual relationships, catastrophic imagery from an event called “9/11” and post-cold-war geopolitics. Gibson studies the world and presents it with the same amount of clinical detail than he’d use to describe a far-off alien society. It makes for a nice little bit of estrangement, and it’s not entirely inappropriate to the subject matter.

It also fits Gibson’s protagonist who -like most Gibson protagonists- is a loner, an outsider and a misfit. Heck, she can’t even see some trademarks without experiencing a violent allergic reaction. Everything she uses is carefully de-branded. Ironic, because Cayce’s speciality is hunting cool, identifying “the next big thing” and making others profit from it. As Pattern Recognition begins, she’s in London, jet-lagged, and about to see a banal logo-proofing assignment turn into something very strange. You see, compelling bits of anonymous Internet footage have fascinated her for a while, and now her employer wants her to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who makes they footage? Where are its creators? Why do they do it? And, perhaps most importantly in this twenty-first century, how have they managed to create a cult of thousands, all fascinated by this brand new meme? Could there be… commercial applications?

And so the hunt begins. To everyone’s sighs of relief, Pattern Recognition doesn’t abandon Gibson’s root in action/adventure fiction. While the action may be slight and the adventure is definitely Earth-bound (well, aside from the many plane trips), this is a thriller built around a few mysteries and the shadowy influence of powerful people. Thanks to this strong narrative drive and some of Gibson’s most elegant prose so far, Pattern Recognition races forward, demanding to be read until all is revealed and played out.

To this narrative energy, one has to add the careful thematic content skillfully integrated through the entire novel. Gibson writes as if he was delighted at the weirdness of the twenty-first century (so far) and he wanted us to see it as he does. In doing so, he makes the most out of today’s environment and power dynamics. Out of the gate in 2003, Pattern Recognition also tackles post-9/11 issues with something approaching maturity. Grad students and lit-crits will have a blast dissecting this book. (I myself would probably mumble something about this being a novel of cities: London, Tokyo, Moscow and New York in flashbacks, all standing for something different, all on a continuum of progress taken or left untapped.)

But I’m happier to report that this is a good read and a satisfying work even as it strays (but not too much) from the SF genre in which Gibson has made his mark. While my rabid admiration of Gibson is strictly limited to Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, this is a step up from most of his non-Sprawl output, regardless of genre. It portends well for the rest of Gibson’s career, even if he consciously stays away from Science Fiction: I don’t know what he’s going to write next, even less where and when it will take place, but if it’s anything like Pattern Recognition, I’ll read it with pleasure.

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