Berkley, 2003, 367 pages
Cayce Pollard is an expensive, spookily intuitive market-research consultant. In London on a job, she is offered a secret assignment: to investigate some intriguing snippets of video that have been appearing on the Internet. An entire subculture of people is obsessed with these bits of footage, and anybody who can create that kind of brand loyalty would be a gold mine for Cayce's client. But when her borrowed apartment is burgled and her computer hacked, she realizes there's more to this project than she had expected.
Still, Cayce is her father's daughter, and the danger makes her stubborn. Win Pollard, ex-security expert, probably ex-CIA, took a taxi in the direction of the World Trade Center on September 11 one year ago, and is presumed dead. Win taught Cayce a bit about the way agents work. She is still numb at his loss, and, as much for him as for any other reason, she refuses to give up this newly weird job, which will take her to Tokyo and on to Russia. With help and betrayal from equally unlikely quarters, Cayce will follow the trail of the mysterious film to its source, and in the process will learn something about her father's life and death.
“She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”
Although I am a story kind of guy — I'll forgive flat prose in service to a great story more easily than I'll forgive a lackluster story being delivered in brilliant prose — William Gibson kept me reading this book which was almost but not quite really good, as he keeps his story almost as interesting as his prose.
Pattern Recognition was written shortly after 9/11, and is set a year after that event. Although the events of 9/11 hang over the story in the form of the main character's father, who was last seen taking a taxi in the direction of the twin towers (actually, it's Cayce's father who lingers like a ghost), it's a surprisingly apolitical novel for one set right in the heart of current events and pop culture. William Gibson drops dozens of brand names and current events references, but the story is pretty much a basic quest story: find the MacGuffin, and in the process, find what you've really been looking for. For Cayce Pollard, the MacGuffin is a mysterious viral video released in segments on the Internet. What she's really looking for, of course, is her father.
Most people think William Gibson and automatically think "cyberpunk." Gibson practically invented the genre, after all. But Pattern Recognition doesn't much resemble Neuromancer or Blade Runner. It does share certain traits of the cyberpunk genre: corporations, governments, and criminal syndicates all blend together to form amorphous entities, the world is a big, shadowy, scary place, and hives of geeks on the net are this age's version of freedom fighters. But in Pattern Recognition, they aren't really fighting the Man, just trying to solve puzzles. It's a post-modern thriller about Globalism and the beginning and end of history. Critics compare it to The Crying of Lot 49, and I can certainly see the resemblance. I also felt it had a lot in common with Reamde and Rock Paper Tiger.
The puzzle is a video, released on the net, comprised of multiple disjointed scenes, obviously composed and edited by someone with great talent, and creating a narrative that has everyone who sees it mystified and intrigued. There are entire communities of netheads dedicated to unraveling the puzzle. People argue whether it is a work in progress that the creator is releasing as each new part is produced, or whether it's a finished work that is deliberately being released in installments. They analyze every little detail down to pixels and steganography, looking for clues as to when, where, why, how the piece is being produced, and what the story behind it might be.
In other words, it's a massively successful viral video that has the entire world (or at least the online portion of the world) captivated.
She's here on Blue Ant's ticket. Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores. Or perhaps as some non-carbon based life-form, entirely sprung from the smooth and ironic brow of its founder, Hubertus Bigend, a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins' blood and truffled chocolates.
Cayce Pollard has a unique cognitive "gift" — she has a psychological sensitivity to advertising. Ads, logos, and brand names are like allergens to her. This means she can tell at a glance whether a particular piece of marketing "works." But she has adverse reactions to some corporate symbols; she's a natural "coolhunter" who has to cut all the labels off her own clothing and avert her eyes from television screens.
Working for a firm called Blue Ant, Cayce's boss asks her to track down the creator of a viral video. In her quest, Cayce encounters corporate, government, and criminal agents all searching for the mysterious creator as well. The plot has twists and turns, Cayce is helped or betrayed by a series of friends and lovers, and eventually, she reaches the end of her quest.
I found myself rather lukewarm about this book. Gibson's prose is interesting, littered with modern references that were cutting edge in 2003 and still aren't dated now. He has a clever way with words and dropping name brands in scathing prose as he critiques modern culture and the unification of Art and Commerce:
"Simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A dilute tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row ... There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul."
There weren't any boring parts in this moderate-length book. That said, Cayce's "gift" was more of a gimmick than a plot device, and the ending was rather anti-climactic. I also felt like Cayce almost but never quite became a real character. She's not entirely flat or devoid of personality, but her personality consists of quirks and personal history and an occasional bit of moral introspection, but nothing to make her particularly interesting enough to read more books about her.
Verdict: William Gibson is a smart, entertaining writer who's delivered many SF classics; Pattern Recognition is probably not the place to start if you want to be convinced of his greatness, but it's a smart post-modernish techno-adventure without a lot of sci-fi gloss. The prose is more well-developed than the characters, and the story is merely adequate, with snippets of occasional brilliance. Good for fans of techno-thrillers and cyberpunk, even though Pattern Recognition only loosely fits in either genre.
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