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Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

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Sprawling dystopian cities, strange interstitial havens, nebulous virtual worlds, a seemingly effortless mix of bleeding-edge technology and ancient mysticism, ‘cyberpunk’ … these are the some of the things we have come to expect from the novels of William Gibson.

Even if you’ve only read his first book, Neuromancer (the inspiration for the original Matrix movie), you’ll know exactly what I mean.

But here, for the first time in his career, Gibson has decided to stay very much in the present, combining his knack for keeping pulse with modern culture with an enviable ability for creating three dimensional characters who are both quirky and often quite unpredictable – without being too contrived.

Despite its contemporary rather than futuristic nature, there are enough Gibson motifs in Pattern Recognition to keep fans happy. As in all his novels, Geeks are center stage – it is the thinker and not the warrior who drives the plot along. The various uses (and abuses) of technology and the dissemination of information are central themes, as are questions of personal and cultural identity.

The story follows Cayce Pollard, a professional ‘cool hunter’ who is hired by an eccentric millionaire to unravel the mystery of a strange series of chopped-up video footage that has gained a kind of cult following on the internet. A trail of digital evidence, shady characters, and unusual antiques takes Cayce on a journey from London, through Tokyo, on to Moscow and ends in Paris.

Pattern Recognition is a modern detective novel, but breaks away from the traditional genre by offering us much more than the obligatory plot twists and two dimensional characters one might expect.

Cayce Pollard herself is not your typical investigator. Fatherless since September 11th 2001, practically motherless, she is a puzzle with some very important pieces missing. The job she is hired to do she only begrudgingly accepts because she herself is infatuated with the idea that the footage is something new and virginal in a world that is mostly sullied by the darker shades of capitalism – omnipresent, superficial media; subliminal advertising; product exposure and fashion accessorizing in every aspect of our daily lives.

Having been afflicted from a young age by a bizarre phobia of corporate trademarks and logos, you would not expect her to be employed as the very person expected to analyze and critique them, yet this is exactly what she does. Pollard is similar to the remarkably intuitive Colin Laney (Idoru) in that she has an innate ability to perceive trends and patterns in products and culture. This of course makes her an ideal candidate for extrapolating the origin and the meaning of the video footage – which has become a global phenomenon amongst online file-sharing communities.

The language is completely contemporary. If you’ve never used the internet, a laptop, or a cell-phone, you’ll be lost in this novel. For the rest of us, it is refreshingly entertaining, to read words and phrases and technical terms we are by now very familiar with. In particular, the Internet and its users have a distinct language, style, and social etiquette which comes across very clearly in the book and is immediately identifiable.

Gibson shows us a world we already know, and it is this which makes Pattern Recognition his most accessible novel to date. With this book Gibson has potentially opened up his talents to a whole new audience who might otherwise have avoided what is generally perceived as science fiction literature.

For me, this novel only falls short in one regard, and that is the way in which the true source of the footage is finally revealed. Perhaps it is because I have come to expect something more surreal and less concrete from the Gibson mind, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed in the ‘ordinary’ (which is not to say boring, but rather less intruiging than I had hoped) truth which lies at the core of the mystery. Regardless though, this was a highly engaging read from beginning to end, and the story is one that will linger in my mind for quite some time, or until Gibson gets around to writing the sequel.

Pattern Recognition is for anyone who, in the wake of September 11th, took another look at the world and wondered why we were all standing so far apart.

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About Jim Amos

  • SFC SKI

    Sounds like a novel worth checking out.