blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
                  (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2003)

There's a passage in Pattern Recognition in which a video artist pares a sixteen-minute film down to a single frame. In the context of this artist's extraordinary story, and given the novel we're reading, we're to take this as a good thing, a noble artistic goal, not unlike the novel itself. Be warned: This is one lean novel. No sentence has a subject if it can do without one. Gets old sometimes. Not often. No one does it better than Gibson. Too much minimalism reads freeze-dried, but Gibson makes it sing, with the precision required to make it work.

But to review William Gibson's latest book is to work in a crowded room. A few matters invite our attention before we get to the novel itself. This is William Gibson, after all, the fellow who, according to the Neil Gaiman blurb on the jacket, "rewrote all the rules in Neuromancer." This is no mere hyperbole, the Neuromancer trilogy—Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive—have hugely influenced science fiction and reality both. They are a reading pleasure I highly recommend, especially Count Zero, my favorite of the three, a novel most relevant here since Pattern Recognition is in many ways a retelling of the most compelling plotline in that earlier novel in which a woman is hired to track down the maker of mysterious and provocative art. But being legendary, I imagine, could be as big a drag as being midlist if all you are is the guy who wrote that book that's not the one the reader has in his hands. So no. Pattern Recognition isn't another Neuromancer. It's a Pattern Recognition. Good for Gibson. And in its own ever-so-understated way, it may be just as revolutionary.

The next matter to be settled is genre. William Gibson is a science fiction writer, so is this science fiction? The answer is yes and no. Unlike Vonnegut, who goes to some pains to say he's not writing science fiction even when he is, Gibson never shies from the label, even though he's perfectly aware it's not so simple a tag as it once was. Pattern Recognition is set in the present with no aliens or secret technologies. The plot turns on nothing more exotic technologically than chat rooms and posted film clips in a very recognizable Internet. Recently, Neal Stephenson's Cryptomonicon, as fat as Pattern Recognition is lean, was largely treated as a science fiction novel by reviewers, bookdealers, and readers, even nominated for sf awards, though the main action involves the breaking of the Enigma code of World War II and isn't science fiction in the usual sense. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, on another end of the spectrum, seems science fictional even though it takes place in a Dickensian steampunk world with no connection to ours.

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work. A realist wrestling with the woes of the middle class can leave the world out of it by and large except for an occasional swipe at the shallowness of suburbia. A science fiction writer must invent the world where the story takes place, often from the ground up, a process usually called world-building. In other words, in a science fiction novel, the world itself is a distinctive and crucial character in the plot, without whom the story could not take place, whether it's the world of Dune or Neuromancer or 1984. The world is the story as much as the story is in the world. Part of Gibson's point (and Stephenson's too for that matter) is that we live in a time of such accelerated change and layered realities, that we're all in that boat, like it or not. A novel set in the "real world" now has to answer the question, "Which one?"

As one of the novel's characters puts the matter in the passage that glosses the title,

Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which "now" was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient "now" to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. . . . We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition.

When a couple of iconic science fiction futures, 2001 and 1984, have now become dates from the past, the science fiction impulse clearly has to regroup. We have predicted ourselves, Pogo might say, but it ain't us. Or maybe it is. Many pieces fit from this future and that—Gibson's, Huxley's, Orwell's, Bester's, Dick's—like the disconnected film clips in Pattern Recognition seem to cohere into a single narrative, or in the hands of their devotees, several single narratives. But we keep passing futures by. They are no longer extrapolations but extrapolations of yesteryear.

Screen science fiction has largely become a nostalgic genre, typically dealing in antique, even reactionary futures, like the intergalactic civilization of Star Trek, as real as the old west of Gunsmoke. Star Wars is simply Parzival with space ships. Lukas understood that the future plays out and opted for long ago and far away from the get go. Some screen worlds are built purely of style, often lifted from Gibson's early work, like The Matrix, which boldly muddles an sf premise dating back to the late sixties without pausing to explain why there are so many bullets in virtual reality other than they look so cool in slo-mo.


In Pattern Recognition Gibson writes science fiction about the present. Gibson builds us a world we live in, and you'll likely never see it quite the same way again. The plot couldn't be simpler, following a single woman on a quest.

Cayce (pronounced Case) Pollard has a special, troubled relationship with the lifeblood of the twenty-first century—commercial enterprise. Like the Fad King in Wag the Dog, she instinctively knows what will work and what won't, and as the novel opens she's on the job, giving a thumbs up or down on a shoe logo, relying solely upon her gut reaction. This is how she makes a living, we're told, and her word is considered golden.

Her unerring reactions, however, occasionally get out of hand, and she suffers horrible anxiety attacks in the face of certain commercial icons, most notably the Michelin Man. You get to learn his name here, and I won't spoil it for you.

She nixes the logo, and the story truly begins when she's hired by a Rich Guy with dubious motives named Hubertus Bigend to investigate what seems to be the single passion in her life, a series of poignant and enigmatic film clips posted on the Internet by person or persons unknown, with the end of finding out who the artist, the maker, is. "The footage," as these clips are called, has yielded an unprecedented online cultural phenomenon that has caught Bigend's marketing interest. Cayce follows clues from London to Tokyo to Moscow, all on Bigend's substantial dime.

The conclusion to a similar quest in Count Zero is one of my favorite scenes in all of science fiction, when Marly, the quester in that novel, finds the surprising maker of art boxes for a different Rich Guy. The conclusion here is both more and less satisfying. The image at the heart of the novel—the identity of the maker—is highly effective and moving and right. The fear in such a novel is that the secret that drives it won't bear up under the strain. Trust me. This one does.

The effect of the novel, however, can be frustratingly less than the sum of its parts. Part of the problem is Cayce herself. She's efficiently characterized. Her father was a CIA operative who disappeared mysteriously on 9/11 in Manhattan. Her mother, who shows up in a few emails, named her after Edgar Cayce, the sleeping prophet of Virginia Beach, and is still a fan of the paranormal. Both her parents, in other words, prefer living in other worlds with spooks, which perhaps explains some of Cayce's detachment. She dresses in a deliberately fashionless wardrobe, the items of which she calls CPUs—for Cayce Pollard Units. She spends a good deal of the novel alone, her default setting, and is palpably lonely. Her closest friends, it seems, other than a girlfriend who never quite materializes and a boyfriend who is former, are her fellow footageheads trading emails. Gibson captures the email culture perfectly, but since we spend so much time in Cayce's head, we sometimes wish there were more people there, more life, more flesh and blood. She observes the world with incredible precision, but the narrative never lets us get that close to her. Things, she nails: "Nothing at all in the German fridge, so new that its interior smells only of cold and long-chain monomers." The novel is filled with sharply observed things. People never become quite so real as the stuff. Some of the characters, the villainess Dorotea, for example, are central-casting flat. Others, like Bigend, starting with the silly name, are more concept that character, hard to take seriously. But they all must come to us through Cayce, who can be too delicate for her own or the novel's good. Try as I might, I could never regard her allergy to the Michelin Man as anything more than silly.

Over halfway through the novel, Cayce tells Bigend to "Shut up," something we've been dying to do for some pages, and then observes this: "It isn't a voice Cayce has often heard, but she knows when she hears it that it's her voice." Unfortunately, a page later, this strong voice is gone. "But it's not the same voice. Something is back in its accustomed box, now. She misses it." So do we. She may know it's her voice, but we don't hear it enough to know, and this is not a narrative in which anything can be taken on faith. Perhaps that's the point, that our guide to this world often seems to be shrinking herself. The effect is appropriately unsettling.

The novel wraps up as neatly and efficiently as a Shakespearean comedy, rushing right past the startling revelation of the maker's identity and her extraordinary story with less attention than they seem to deserve. This, too, proves effective sleight of hand. Meeting the maker has transformed this strange Cayce, and in the closing festivities, we realize we're haunted as well, like Coleridge's wedding guest, like Cayce:

[S]he lives now in that story, her life left somewhere behind, like a room she's stepped out of. Not far away at all but she is no longer in.

The effect of the novel is not unlike the film edited to a single frame. A great mess of a world is compressed into this lean novel; the novel itself, into the single image at the heart of it, a single wound. In a world of falling towers, perhaps that's the best way to focus clearly on what matters.

And Matrix fans? No slo-mo bullets. Sorry.  

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