Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Pattern Recognition
William Gibson
London: Penguin / Viking, 2003.
£16.99, 356 pages, ISBN 0-670-87559-7.

Bill Phillips
Universitat de Barcelona


Pattern Recognition revolves around Cayce (pronounced Casey) Pollard's search for the author, or origin, of a series of extraordinarily powerful filmed fragments which appear, periodically, on the web. A cult has grown up around these fragments, whose acolytes postulate that they are either the ongoing clips of a work still in progress, or the mixed up scenes of a finished work. Online forums discuss the various possibilities while Cayce, who is gifted, or cursed, with an allergy to commercial logos, is employed by a powerful multinational advertising agency to discover where the fragments are coming from. She is also, just in case any psychoanalysts want to leap in, rather perturbed by, and perhaps after all really seeking, her absent father.

None of this is particularly innovative by Gibson's normal standards. Similarly, the frequent references to Google, Hotmail, spam, and the ease with which any half competent computer user can discover which websites previous users have been visiting will be familiar to most readers. This unexpected sense of the here and now in Pattern Recognition is confirmed by Gibson himself who points out on his blog* that a lot of things in Pattern Recognition have some kind of basis in the real world: the computer used by Cayce and her friend Damien is identical to the one he used to write the novel, and the jacket so beloved by Cayce for its absence of any corporate identity is somehow related to "a pair of Buzz Rickson's WWII Waist Overalls bluejeans" which he was wearing while writing his June 3rd blog entry. In fact, these rather precise details point to the fact that Pattern Recognition is rather different from Gibson's previous cyberpunk novels since it is set, so deliberately, in something like the present day.

Gibson's originality was to place his earlier work—which, if one insists on using genre terminology, is undeniably Science Fiction—in the very near future, so near that it is almost within reach, and it was centred, from the beginning, on the Internet. Indeed, Gibson is credited with coining the term "cyberspace", and for exploring its possibilities in a number of novels such as Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow's Parties (1999). Cyberspace, both for those familiar with the Internet in the 1980s and the early 1990s, and for the vast majority of us who had heard of it but did not yet really know what it was, seemed to be a real and imminent possibility. It was a virtual world in which computer geeks, hooked into the net via electrodes plugged into their brains, would literally surf the void between websites, infiltrating deadly corporate cyber-sites, and either burning out and dying, or ripping into information citadels and making off with their digital treasures. Gibson was a prophet, and he gathered disciples about him, such as Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, whose novels would make cyberpunk virtually a household word. Much of the attraction of Gibson's work was the inventiveness of his imagination. It all seemed so possible and so real, and yet so original. Nevertheless, despite the critics' and reviewers' enthusiasm for cyberspace, little of what Gibson prophesied in his early novels has materialised. We have the Internet, yes, and we are nearly all, now, in some way or another, online. But there are no electrodes plugged into our brains, and we are not in any physical danger when surfing the web unless, like Gary Glitter, we get banged up for downloading child pornography (pornography, strangely enough, is a theme barely touched on by Gibson, yet it is probably the main use to which Internet technology is put, both from a providers' and a users' perspective).

In the preface to Gibson's short story collection Burning Chrome (1986) Bruce Sterling praises his mentor for shifting the focus away from "the ominous proliferation of postapocalypse stories, sword-and-sorcery fantasies, and those everpresent space operas in which galactic empires slip conveniently back into barbarism." While few readers over the age of six will feel moved to defend sword-and-sorcery fantasies (unless written by J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman), Sterling is scarcely fair to the celebrated tradition of the space opera. Some of the greatest Sci Fi novels ever written fall into this category. Think, for example, of Frank Herbert's Dune, or Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Nevertheless, for Sterling, such epics are boring, and only Gibson "is opening the stale corridors of the genre to the fresh air of new data." Unfortunately, seventeen years after this was written, it is cyberpunk's "Eighties culture with its strange growing integration of technology and fashion," rather than the ever-evolving space opera, which begins to seem stale. The latter is still alive and kicking despite Sterling's scorn, as the popularity of Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, David Zindell's Neverness and A Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy or Alistair Reynolds Chasm City doorstoppers demonstrate. Some of the blame for this must lie with writers such as Sterling and Stephenson themselves, who have been content to follow Gibson blindly, rather than branch out on their own. Take, for example, Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash, which takes place in an all-too-possible near future, with the hero (called Hiro Protagonist) spending much of his time in cyberspace in a virtual re-run of Gibson's first three cyberpunk novels. But Gibson himself is less at the cutting edge than he once was. Pattern Recognition is curiously similar to Stephenson's 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, with its combination of past and present, hackers, code-makers and breakers, and a search for hidden treasure. Even the blurbs on the back of the books have similarities. Of Cryptonomicon, Village Voice wrote "What cyberculture needs now is not another science-fiction novel but its first great historical novel, and Cryptonomicon is it," while we are told on the cover of Pattern Recognition that "William Gibson turns his attention to contemporary London and New York, to international paranoia, and the ubiquity of modern branding." In other words, cyberculture has abandoned the Sci Fi ship and is seeking the credibility of the mainstream.

Set in the present, then, Pattern Recognition is rather different from Gibson's previous novels, all of which are set in the future, near though that future might be. But, one might argue, this is hardly a major change of direction. Back in 1986 Bruce Sterling argued that Gibson's work painted "an instantly recognizable portrait of the modern predicament" and perhaps the most logical way to do that is not to write about the future at all, but about the present. Now. Which is, actually, what space operas have been doing all the time.

Pattern Recognition, then, is a William Gibson novel that will certainly appeal to his many loyal readers. It is also a novel in which, I suspect, the author has begun to realise the limitations, if not the staleness of his particular genre, and has decided to swim into the mainstream, wherever that might be. But he has not quite taken the plunge and we are left with a novel which lacks the breathtaking inventiveness of his earlier, futurist novels, but which fails to offer us much of anything else. As a first novel it would pass unremarked, forgotten and remaindered: as the latest novel by a highly acclaimed author it will no doubt sell reasonably well, but will also pass forgotten and largely unremarked.

* <http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/archive/2003_06_01_archive.asp>



Cercles2003
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.