Home / Gibson: Pattern Recognition—Post-Modern Paranoia and New-Media Apophenia

Gibson: Pattern Recognition—Post-Modern Paranoia and New-Media Apophenia

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William Gibson has a justly-deserved reputation as the novelist of the Internet; commencing with Neuromancer in 1984, and sustained by his latest, Pattern Recognition. Although Gibson’s work has been labeled “cyberpunk,” there’s little punk about it. His latest novel is a mature work with all the literary prerequisites: characters, theme and ample plotting.

The core idea in the story is a film-noir which is being released, piece-meal via the Internet, one short scene-clip at a time, non-chronologically. Around this “footage” has grown an intricate community of blogs, forums, otaku geeks and tech-hack fans. Cayce Powell, a global consultant to marketing companies, is a “coolhunter”&#8212and also a footagehead. Her job involves identifying what will be perceived as cool next month, so advertisers can connect it to their products. Her hobby (which is about to become a job of its own) is to figure out whether the footage scenes are part of a completed movie that has been hacked up, or whether they are an ongoing creation.

Gibson has made clear the link between tight-focus attention to minutiae and the “discovery” of message. Cayce’s mother is a devotee of EVP (the phenomenon celebrated in the recent movie White Noise); Cayce keeps getting eMails from her Mom about messages from her father, who was associated in some way with the CIA until he disappeared in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She can ignore these messages, but then her father appears to her in a dream with cryptic advice dredged out of her subconscious.

Cayce makes her own attempts to sort signal out of noise, in her life as well as in the footage. She is driven by her need to avoid logos, but compelled to recognize the ways in which the city-scapes she inhabits are the same (even when they are subtly different.) So she calls London and Tokyo “mirror-worlds” of her comfortable New York City, and seeks out the places (Starbucks, for example) where they are most alike.

As Cayce gets closer to solving the mystery of the footage, her life gets more complicated. Is the vile Dorotea just jealous of her expensive coat; or is she a spy after something more sinister? Is the laconic Boone Chu a friend; or is he operating on a completely hostile agenda? And why does Cayce’s amusingly-surnamed employer really want to contact the maker of the footage&#8212is it because of the media buzz that has suddenly grown around what had been limited to a small fandom? Or did the marketing mogul start the buzz in the first place?

As the characters around her become more intimidating, Cayce finds more and more hidden information. In addition to the steganography uncovered in the footage by Japanese hackers, there are the buried messages in the Footage Fans’ Forum that lead Cayce to Moscow, and the Muzak swirl of Frank Sinatra’s voice that resolves into a life-saving message from Cayce’s father.

This novel combines an intriguing mystery with outstanding use of the new media, and solidifies Gibson’s claim as the authentic voice of cyberspace. (Gibson is credited with originating that term.) I guarantee you will have your own bouts of apophenia, especially if you are reading this at 3 AM, as I did.

Take my advice&#8212before you open this novel, lay in a supply of caffeinated beverages and snacks, and change into something comfortable. Once the story gets hold of you, you won’t be able to put it down until you find out what emerges when the pattern recognition is complete.

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About DrPat

  • I’m reading Pattern Recognition right now, DrPat! I guess I better have something new to say if I want to join the fine group of writers who have already reviewed it.

  • Everyone has brought something new to it, too – our own evidence of apophenia at work!

  • I’ll check back in with your review when I’m finished — I don’t want my opinion on it to be colored just yet…

  • Fantastic book. Read it a little over a year ago and never thought it got the attention it deserved.

  • I’ve picked this book up so many times in bookstores, only to put it back down. I like Gibson, but the premise wasn’t quite “there” for me. Guess I’ll have to give it a try after all. Thanks for the review.

  • I, unfortunately, don’t read that many books anymore, but this looks interesting. BTW, White Noise is actually a 2005 release, not that I really want to admit seeing that particular steaming pile 🙂

  • I could have sworn I saw ads for the movie White Noise in November last year – I guess they were “coming soon” notices.

    I’ve corrected the error, thanks!

  • SFC Ski

    Not too take anything away from Gibson, but he is a visionary with myopia, commenting on current phenomena and extrapolating it or incorporating it into the fantastic dystopia he has created. I love his work. If you want to read an author ahead of his time, you need to read John Brunner, his visions are truly prescient, uncanny in his prediction, makes Nostradamus look like a carny hustler. While some of his novels unforutunately unravel in Deus Ex Machina salavation in the final chapter, events leading to that point are amazing considering how long ago they were written.

  • I agree whole-heartedly re: Brunner. The Sheep Look Up still supplies my spouse with a knee-jerk reaction in the “whole foods” grocery aisle: “Here’s the Puritan Foods section!”

  • Finally finished this fine novel, DrPat, after reading it in bits and snatches over a few months of work lunches. I promised to check back in and here I am.

    I’m in the unusualy position of having Pattern Recognition be the first Gibson novel I read. I agree with you completely — I was expecting Blade Runner and Phillip K. Dick and cyberpunk supreme. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to get a slightly surreal yet crystal clear picture of moderen global/tech living circa 2005.

    The use of e-mail and message boards was outstanding — the way relationships develop and evolve with people you may never meet in person.

    The plot gradually revved up across the novel, so the further I got, the more involved I became in the characters and the action.

    Cayce is a great main character — vivid and complicated and believable… with amazing quirks, such as her aversion to branding in all shapes and forms.

    I have to disagree with you about Starbuck’s — I don’t Cayce felt solace there because of the branding thing. I believe in one scene she simply wound up there.

    I got lost in the density of the plot a few times — particularly near the middle to end — but I won’t hold that against the book.

    Really enjoyable read — ultra hip, ultra modern.