Review of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
by William Gibson
After reading Neuromancer I took a short detour into some of Gibson’s other works of fiction, and then I read Virtual Light. With Pattern Recognition I seem to have established a trend of reading his three trilogies in a breadth-first rather than depth-first mode: having completed all of the first books, I will now read all three second books, etc. This might be an unusual way to go about it, but I hope it offers some insights and connections that might not make themselves apparent were I to read all of, say, the Sprawl trilogy first before moving on to Bridge and Bigend.
William Gibson is a much-celebrated author of science fiction. There’s just something about the way he writes that elevates his stories above simpler, more reliable forms of science fictional stories. He has this almost childlike fascination with technology and where it is taking us now, here in the present, not fifty or a hundred or a hundred thousand years in the future. (I love the far-future posthumanist authors; I really do, but there is a certain amount of discontinuity between their depictions and what we see today.) I want to call it prescience, but that is definitely not the right term to use: there is nothing about Neuromancer that is prescient so much as influential. I follow him on Twitter, and he is always posting and retweeting links to the strangest stories of technological innovation, changes to the way corporations manipulate media to advertise, etc. I feel like Gibson gets it, whatever “it” means—that crucial comprehension and vision of how technology is changing what we are as a species.
Once again someone is trying to film Neuromancer, and I wish them the best of luck—this is no doubt a tricky project, although I would love to finally see it as a movie. Neuromancer is an excellent novel, both in general and for its role it played in inspiring cyberpunk. My review is somewhat pretentious, especially toward the end, but I still agree with most of its sentiment. As much as I love William Gibson as a writer, something has held me back from ever giving one of his books five stars.
So what changed? One sentence, one phrase, talking about Cayce’s unusual sensitivity to logos and branding, has become the symbol for why I think Pattern Recognition is worth five stars. Here’s the paragraph for context:
The national symbols of her homeland don’t trigger her, or so far haven’t. And over the past year, in New York, she’s been deeply grateful for this. An allergy to flags or eagles would have reduced her to shut-in status: a species of semiotic agoraphobia.
The emphasis is mine, highlighting the phrase that confirmed Pattern Recognition’s status. I just love that turn of phrase! Maybe it’s the Umberto Eco fan in me talking now, but the phrase is just so poetic and so apt, for it describes what it would be like to feel the impact of every symbol we experience. Mass media and consumer culture have teamed up to inundate us with symbols, and in turn that has desensitized us to the vast majority of them: I think nothing of seeing the logo for Coca-Cola when I’m driving, because that’s just a part of the scenery. That’s why companies are now seizing on alternative marketing strategies, like the viral strategies we see a bit of in Pattern Recognition. Media have changed us as a species, so the advertisers are striving to keep up and move on to the next paradigm.
I find it interesting that Gibson named his protagonist “Cayce”, which looks so similar to the name of Neuromancer’s protagonist, “Case”. It’s supposed to be pronounced “Casey”, but Cayce herself says she prefers “Case”, and indeed, that’s how I first read it in my head. I’m not sure what kind of parallels, if any, he is attempting to draw—although both are somewhat isolated people who seem more comfortable socializing online than they do in person, and both have a rare skill they use to get jobs. Cayce’s suspicion and small rebellions against Bigend also remind me of Case’s self-empowerment while working for Wintermute—they aren’t just pawns of the big player, but quite vocal employees who have the ability to affect the outcome of the game, if not completely change its balance.
But Pattern Recognition affected me on a much deeper level than Neuromancer, which is why I feel comfortable giving it five stars. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been contemplating the way media attempt to influence us (especially for my Education, Media, and Gender class). Whatever the reason, I’m in a phase of my life where the effects of media and the critique of media are very much at the forefront of my mind, and so those elements of Pattern Recognition spoke volumes to me. When I say Gibson “gets it”, what I mean is that he takes all of these ideas about companies and advertising strategies, globalization and viral marketing on the Internet, and rotates them ever so slightly, giving us a slightly skewed version of the world—that’s the science fiction. We get Bigend, Blue Ant, and the footage, and it all works out into a very compelling commentary on the evolution of marketing in our global, digital village.
There’s a certain zaniness to Pattern Recognition too. The back cover copy of my edition captures this:
But when she is co-opted into the search for the creator of a strangely addictive on-line film, Cayce wonders if she has done the right—or indeed, safe—thing. And that’s before violence, Japanese computer crazies, and Russian Mafia men are in the mix.
Just Japanese computer crazies or Russian mafia might make the novel a suitably noir thriller; both, however, are greedy and over the top. The description sounds more like something suited to Nick Harkaway than Gibson; “absurd” doesn’t really seem his style. Somehow, though, just as he does in Virtual Light, Gibson manages to unify these disparate story elements into something less absurd and more unusual. Pattern Recognition is definitely fiction, and it might be a little over the top, but that’s part of its charm and why it was so difficult to put it down.
The next amazing ingredient is Cayce herself: she is an excellent character. From Molly to Chevette Gibson writes interesting, complex female characters, but Cayce is my favourite so far. She is so human and flawed: there are mentions of past relationships, boyfriends who didn’t work out and the strained thread between her and her mother. And Gibson avoids some of the common missteps that seem to undermine otherwise strong female characters in fiction: she never moons over another character or hooks up with a male companion only to regret it later (I was worried when Boone arrived on the scene, but I should have had more faith). Yet she does eventually find some kind of human companionship toward the end of the book—Gibson leaves the exact nature of their relationship somewhat open for interpretation, in my opinion, which is all the better. Are you taking notes, Stephenie Meyer?
Pattern Recognition is much closer to Neuromancer than Virtual Light in the sense that Cayce is the main character and everyone else is supporting cast. She succumbs—and I do think that’s the correct word to use here—to Bigend’s offer to hire her to find the creator of the footage, but she does so for a very personal reason. As a result, Cayce’s social world constricts as different elements come into contact: her new Polish acquaintances suddenly provide a contact who has friends in the NSA; her online acquaintance Parkaboy becomes an unlikely ally as Russian mafia agents close in on her. Gibson takes all of these ideas about viral videos and marketing and turns them into a close-knit, suspense-laden thriller—the result being, I suspect, a slightly science-fictional book that would appeal to a lot of readers. I’m often very snobbish when it comes to thrillers, and I admit I might be biased because it’s a thriller by William Gibson. But I do feel that it’s the union of all these elements that makes this book so successful. It has the same gritty feel of Neuromancer and a similar, intelligent sight on our zeitgeist, but it felt a lot more relevant to me than his other works. And for that reason, Pattern Recognition is the Gibson book that broke the five-star barrier.