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Pattern Recognition, William Gibson, Putnam, 2003, 356 pp.

Pattern Recognition, the latest novel in William Gibsonís noted career, is also one of his best. Heís crossed a threshold here, in that Pattern Recognition is his first and only book to be set in the past and not the future (not counting the steampunk collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine). While some of Gibsonís earlier books were close to our time, especially the near future trilogy of Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrowís Parties, Gibson now focuses his vision on our time. For once, a dustjacket blurb is correct (and the fact that itís from Neil Gaiman might have something to do with it): ďGibson casts a master extrapolatorís eye on our present, and shows it to us as if for the first time.Ē It might be easy to trace a line through Gibsonís books, a trend from books set further in the future to closer to our time, but I think the situation is a little more complex. I see it as a matter of Gibsonís interests, or obsessions, always having been the same, and the world changing so much in the twenty odd years of his mature career that the topics need no longer be located in the future. Pattern Recognition is the clearest example yet that Gibson was never interested in gadgets, in predicting the future, but rather with sympathies firmly lodged in the tradition of those who write science fiction as a way of examining ourselves. In some ways, Pattern Recognition is the world of Neuromancer come to fruition, as closely observed as ever. Interestingly, another strong theme in the book is the specificity of place; the main character, Cayce Pollard, visits four cities in the course of the story, and the reader feels as if they have accompanied Cayce and experienced the same geographic impressions for themselves.

Cayce Pollard is a branding consultant, on a consulting job in London. She is working for a company called Blue Ant, and she meets the wealthy and powerful head of the company, Hubertus Bigend, along with a few other people in the company. She is staying at the flat of a friend and encounters some strange collectors one day in the street. All of these meetings, some by chance, some by business, figure greatly in the story to come. Hubertus (the man who doesnít seem to know the absurdness of his name) soon hires Cayce for another task, a more personal one for Cayce, but certainly business-related in some intricate way for Hubertus. Cayce has long been a ďfootagehead,Ē one of a worldwide underground following of strange bits of footage that have been mysteriously released in odd corners of the net. No one knows if the snippets add up to a linear narrative, or have any purpose other than their strangely compelling interior meaning. Even more astonishingly for Cayce, with her encyclopedic knowledge of brands and other fashion signifiers, no one in any of the online footagehead communities can find any specific actors, settings, or even time period markers. Hubertus wants to find the maker as a way of meeting someone with such an effective knowledge of viral marketing, and Cayce is at first happy to take Hubertusí funding for a quest that has long consumed her and her net friends. The relationship between Cayce and Hubertus is one of the interesting aspects of the book, as it does not evolve as expected. Her quest to find the maker will take her to Tokyo and eventually Moscow.

Another significant aspect of the book is Cayceís memories of the events of September 11, 2001. She was in New York City at the time, and she survived the terrorist attacks. But her father was in town at the time, for mysterious reasons that no one else knew about, and no one has been able to pin down his whereabouts and he has been missing ever since. The disappearance has driven Cayceís mother to psychic breakdown, and caused much grief to Cayceís emotional equilibrium. Gibsonís treatment of these events is one of the best Iíve read.

Gibsonís famous prose is put to good use in Pattern Recognition. Cayce is a brand consultant, intensely aware of fashion, logos, marketing, corporate maneuvering, and so forth. She also suffers from a panic reaction to certain specific logos, such as the Michelin Man and Tommy Hilfiger. Here is one of the best paragraphs in the book, as Cayce encounters an unexpected bit of Tommy in London:

A glance to the right and the avalanche lets go. A mountainside of Tommy coming down in her head.

My God, donít they know? This stuff is simulacra of 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 derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul. Or so she hopes, and doesnít know, but suspects in her heart that this in fact is what accounts for his long ubiquity. (17-18)

Later, when Cayce is in Tokyo, she makes a brief stop at toy store, and later meets someone who has a Hello Kitty! lighter: ďCayce feels as though the lighter has followed her here from Kiddyland, a spy for the Hello Kitty! group mindĒ (151). Many such moments of cultural observation can be found throughout the book.

I also enjoyed the geographic exploration in Pattern Recognition. Cayce is miles more trenchant than any travel show host, and the details of her stay in each city are fascinating, quixotic, and vividly written. Gibson has written about London and especially Tokyo in the past, so the revisiting of these locales was a helpful contrast.

Pattern Recognition is an excellent work of fiction; itís not particularly close to the genre of science fiction, apart from Gibsonís own history. But that should not be reason for anyone to avoid the book. Gibsonís achievement here is remarkable and the book is highly recommended.

Last modified: April 30, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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