13 November 2009

Review: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

When William Gibson first wrote his cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer and the rest, in the early 80s the idea of the internet, of cyberspace, was so new and unknown that it might have turned into anything. It was all (almost all) speculation then, what the technology might become. Now that the internet has become a ubiquitous presence in nearly everyone's life, I don't think there's so much room to imagine what might be as there is to imagine how we might use what we've got. Pattern Recognition was Gibson's first step away from speculative science fiction into the present day.

Opening paragraphs:
Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.
It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.
Not even food, as Damien's new kitchen is as devoid of edible content as its designers' display windows in Camden High Street. Very handsome, the upper cabinets face in canary-yellow laminate, the lower with lacquered, unstained apple-ply. Very clean and almost entirely empty, save for a carton containing two dry pucks of Weetabix and some loose packets of herbal tea. Nothing at all in the German fridge, so new that its interior smells only of cold and long-chain monomers.

Cayce Pollard works as both a "cool hunter" (finding new street trends that companies can then exploit for sales) and as a kind of logo-reader, deducing on sight whether or not a logo will work or fail. Cayce is in London to vet a new logo for a sneaker company represented by the marketing firm Blue Ant (which also appears in Gibson's later novel Spook Country). When she meets Blue Ant's owner, Hubertus Bigend, he asks her to take on another job; she's to seek out the creator of the "footage," mysterious bits of timeless feeling film footage that appear at random online. The footage has a fairly large online following by footageheads, of which Cayce is one, and Bigend thinks some new type of marketing strategy could be mined from the way the footage spread throughout the online community.

Although I've seen this book listed as science fiction in some places, Pattern Recognition only has the most tenuous of links to the genre. Cayce's particular talent with logos relates to a kind of "sensitivity" to branding. Certain brands, logos and imagery cause her physical illness, such as the Michelin Man or Tommy Hilfiger clothing. This novel is more in the line of a thriller, and although Cayce's sensitivity is used a few times in the novel, ultimately it's not terribly important. When I first read Spook Country I found it somewhat disconcerting not to be reading a futuristic science fiction novel, but this time around I felt less thrown by it, maybe because I no longer had that expectation from Gibson. Rather than speculative fiction, Gibson deals here with the ways that we integrate the internet, as it is, into our lives.

The idea of viral videos was pretty new in 2001/2002 when this book was written, but Gibson has a good understanding of how internet obsessions form and spread. (Though his footage is a bit more sublime than the real world's Trogdor the Burninator, which I remember making the rounds back then. This book predates the LonelyGirl15 video blogs, which, like Gibson's footage, was investigated by viewers until the people responsible were found.) He deals pretty well with the dynamics of message boards as well, the rivalries and infighting, (how there's always that one person going on about cultural hegemony), and especially how people make connections online. His treatment of the Parkaboy and CayceP relationship rings pretty true, from the awkwardness of speaking on the phone for the first times to meeting face to face with someone you only know by a nickname.

There are a lot of things I really enjoyed about this book and so few that I didn't that I'm a bit hard-pressed to think of anything to complain about. I suppose I found the very, very ending faintly ridiculous. And I had a bit of a laugh about the treatment of Russia (if only because in my house we talk fairly frequently about North American impressions of my brother-in-law's home country). Minor complaints, anyway. It's not that this is some perfect piece of high literature, but it's pretty great entertainment and that's enough for me.

William Gibson is probably best known for his novel Neuromancer, but he's also published several other novels and books of short stories, including The Difference Engine and Burning Chrome. William Gibson's website and blog can be found here.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Berkley, 2005.
Finished: 12 November 2009
Rating: 5 of 5 ducks to the face
This was my 1st book in November and my 39th in 2009.

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