PATTERN RECOGNITION by William Gibson

Gibson_Pattern-Recognition_penguin9780241953532This tale of industrial espionage, set shortly after the World Trade Center attack, features a heroine with a most bespoke fashion sense and the search for a movie – one that may be a work of genius but which is only being made available anonymously in apparently random chunks on the Internet. This thriller comes from a great name in speculative fiction, one regarded as having fathered the ‘cyberpunk’ genre with Neuromancer (though some might argue Roger Zelazny got there decades earlier).

I offer the following review for Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is being hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“He took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots”

Our protagonist is American brand consultant Cayce (she pronounces it ‘case’), who has an innate, uncanny ability to predict future fashion trends – what will be cool and what will not, but also suffers from some concomitants psychological allergies, including most spectacularly an irrational fear of the Michelin Man! She lost her father the year before in the Twin Towers attack, though nobody knows what he was doing in the vicinity at the time. Her mother thinks she can detect messages from him in audio patterns in broadcasts but although his body was never recovered, Cayce has made her peace with his death. He had contacts with the US security forces, and this comes in handy when a reasonably straightforward marketing job turns into a globetrotting thriller that jumps from London (which she refers to as the New York ‘mirror world’) to Tokyo and eventually Moscow.

“Homo sapiens are about pattern recognition, he says. Both a gift and a trap.”

Gibson_Pattern-RecognitionCayce has been hired by the powerful Belgian businessman Hubertus Bigend (he doesn’t understand why people find the name amusing), the head of the mighty Blue Ant advertising agency, to track down who is making and releasing segments of footage from what may be a brilliant new work, but under conditions of such mystery and anonymity that it has caught the attention of the Internet community, who pour over each frame looking for meaning. This is of course one of the themes of the book – at a time of uncertainty following a global tragedy, the distances between people seem increasingly hard to negotiate and yet the need to bridge the gap has never seemed so pressing. Cayce makes an enemy of Dorotea Benedetti, who thinks she is after her job at Blue Ant and whose background in industrial espionage includes some very shady contacts. As Cayce reaches out to her friends around the globe, most of whom she has only ever ‘met’ on the Internet, she delves into the secrets of steganography to find hidden codes buried in the footage. As she gets deeper and deeper into the search, her sense of paranoia and dislocation grows and evil forces mount around her. Who can she trust? And is her holy grail even real?

“Italians who work in Tokyo ad agencies don’t wear Albanian Prada knockoffs.”

Pattern Recognition was Gibson’s eighth novel and  originally came out in 2003, so some of its detail on the Internet does seem a bit old-fashioned unfortunately. It was also his first novel set more or less in the present day (circa the summer of 2002) and was the first in a loose trilogy about the ‘Blue Ant’ company (the other two are Spook CountrGibson_Pattern-Recognition_japanesey (2007) and Zero History (2010)). As a conspiracy thriller in which our protagonist’s world gets more and more solipsistic, the book is perfectly entertaining but along pretty predictable lines. Indeed, it is quite surprising just how conventional the narrative becomes with all the requisite elements, such chases, secret codes and even a MacGuffin, all present and correct. Also, it was a little dismaying to realise that pretty much all the heroes are usually WASPs and Americans while villains or more generally ambiguous people are presented as ‘foreign’ eurotrash (i.e. Italian or Russians) or from other races (mainly Japanese). I don’t imagine Gibson would recognise this blind spot, but to me it’s there and a sore point.

“Soul-delay plays tricks with subjective time expanding or telescoping it as seeming random”

However, it’s the language and ideas that you will remember such as the definition of jet lag as being the time it takes for your soul to catch up with you; or the endless fascination with material emblems (I did think a better title might have been ‘Surface Tension’), which despite being a bit irritation after a few hundred pages does, none the less, ultimately exert a kind of hypnotic charm. The book does, for me, disappoint on the plot front by falling in with too many thriller clichés – from epicanthric villains to Italians and Russians all being mobbed up – but  Gibson is a fascinating stylist whose book has many really intriguing ideas and conceits. It may not hold together as a narrative – its reach definitely exceeds its grasp as many plots points are resolved in remarkably flat-footed fashion with a barrage of exposition and unconvincing info dumps – but its ideas are none the less beguiling.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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28 Responses to PATTERN RECOGNITION by William Gibson

  1. le0pard13 says:

    I have this in my TBR stack. I’m even more intrigued now. Thanks, Sergio.

  2. Sounds quite ambitious, Sergio. I know what you mean about espionage clichés, but still, I can see how the story would keep you reading. Some of it does sound good, and I love that description of jet lag! Thanks as ever for the fine review. I’ll have to tell my husband about this; he’s read some of Gibson’s cyberpunk work.

  3. Colin says:

    A genre that’s not all that familiar to me yet it does sound like there are a fair few hoary old cliches rattling around it. Still and all, I’m kind of half-interested.

    • It is a totally ‘straight’ novel, with no SF elements at all – which surprised me (and left me slightly non-plussed) but some great ideas, truly.

      • Colin says:

        Well I’d certainly be willing to try it at some point, at the very least.

        • I still think Neuromancer is a fantastic book and if you enjoy SF at all you really should give it a go.

          • Colin says:

            I can never make my mind up 100% on SF – it can be a fine vehicle for presenting interesting ideas and concepts that draw me in, but the harder variety can turn me off very quickly too.

          • There is that very rich strand of satirical SF and action-orientated SF which I think is always very entertaining. It is also true that so much of it is very oblique and nigh on impenetrable. Philip K Dick is an author that seems to straddle both while Samuel Delaney tends to defeat my best efforts though i will try Jewels of Aptor again soon as it is an early, less inscrutable book!

  4. Pattern Recognition and Spook Country are lurking somewhere in my TBR pile, and you have me interested enough to try and find them. Thanks for the review Sergio.

  5. Todd Mason says:

    Gibson enough of a Brand Name that I was able to buy my copy of SPOOK COUNTRY, at least, in mm paperback at my supermarket (which discounts paperbacks).

    • Todd Mason says:

      And, shucks. I was hoping to use my Italian roots to get in good with the gorgeous Russian emigre servers at a certain area diner…we all being mobbed up and all…women cute enough to make Something worth a try…though, of course, no (to avoid being another sort of cliche, not to mention jerk).

    • That is actually really cool – I’m sure he would approve 🙂

  6. John says:

    I don’t understand a statement like this: “Pattern Recognition…originally came out in 2007, so some of its detail on the Internet does seem a bit old-fashioned unfortunately.” Eight years ago is old-fashioned? Seriously? I thought maybe you made a mistake in typing the year. And you did. But instead of 1997 (which I thought might have been the original publication date) it turns out it was 2003. Still, I don’t see how the internet has advanced so much in only twelve years. Phones, computers and other devices that access the internet have advanced that’s for certain, but I don’t see many changes in the internet itself other than ISP download speeds and maybe the more sophisticated use of typography and animation in website design. Maybe I’m utterly naive about digital technology or take it for granted so much that I can’t see the changes. What exactly does he talk about that seems “old-fashioned”?

    • Hello John – thanks for spotting the typo (I’m sure there are plenty more – apologies, in advance). What I meant (and clearly should have stated more explicitly – again, apologies) is that the book keeps having to explain how the internet works and there are several situations where people are stunned at what a basic Google search can accomplish – that sort of thing. Nothing to do with the book itself, but it clearly dates it – what has changed since then is what we take for granted; the way it appears in the book, the Internet is still a developing technological marvel and the notion of publishing a movie exclusively online still an exotic idea, rather than the all-conquering platform model we all know and well via Netflix, Amazon Prime etc etc.

  7. realthog says:

    Thanks for the review, Sergio. I’ve enjoyed the books of Gibson’s that I’ve read and certainly ought to get round to this one at some stage.

  8. I like William Gibson’s ideas better than his fiction. However, NEUROMANCER was a terrific book for its time. Ground-breaking!

  9. Santosh Iyer says:

    Not my cup of tea !
    I find that a film adaptation of the book was initiated in 2004 with director Peter Weir but was subsequently dropped. Now it has again been initiated with Morten Tyldum as director.

  10. Sergio, I’m not familiar with “cyberpunk” though I have heard and read a novel about “splutterfunk” which isn’t the same as the theme of this book. I will check out a William Gibson novel should I come across one. His books have interesting titles and covers.

    • Thanks Prashant – I dread to think what “Splutterfunk” might be 🙂 Of Gibson’s books, he remeains best-known for Neuromancer– if you liek SF, that would be the one I would recommend.

  11. Well the words ‘bespoke fashion sense’ attract me of course! Not a huge Gibson fan, but this does sound interesting, though your reservations sound very reasonable.

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