Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

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Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Beautifully written novel of here-and-now, with striking language taken from neuroscience, IT and marketing; a meditation on the lost soul of urban world cum thriller cum quest for illumination. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: June 2004
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140266143

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Pattern Recognition is a novel suspended between the scientific and the literary, the mercantile and the artistic, the genre and the mainstream; a literary equivalent of the Third Culture embodied by The Edge.

Enter a logo-allergic freelance cool hunter called Cayce Pollard, a follower of a strangely compelling, addictive, mysterious 'footage': segments of film released in seemingly random and mysterious fashion on the Internet. She posts frequently on an Internet board devoted to analysing and discussing the footage, populated by 'footageheads' like her of whom a certain Parkaboy is her best friend. She takes on a commission from a repulsive marketing genius called Bigend to trace the author of the footage as Bigend wishes to 'productize' and ultimately 'monetize' what he sees as a perfect example of modern marketing.

Cayce is American, but the USA appear only in retrospect and most of the action takes place in London, Moscow and Tokyo. Once she starts the hunt for the maker of the footage, strange and worrying things begin to happen: she is mugged, spied upon in virtual as well as physical space and eventually drugged and abducted.

Not very excited yet? You should be. Pattern Recognition is definitely worth reading.

If there are any preconceptions about Gibson, they surely would relate to his standing as the grandfather of cyberpunk and first and foremost the author of now iconic Neuromancer. Forget it. Pattern Recognition is not cyberpunk, it's not even close-distance-science-fiction. It's here and now and perhaps the greatest weakness - as well as on some level, a massive strength of this novel - is how much of here and now it is. I am not sure how it will age, in fact I suspect it will age rather badly, which is a pity.

The whole story is told in the present tense, but this fits so well with other aspects of the style and subject that I didn't notice until well after page 100. It also suits the plot very well, adding dynamism and immediacy to what is already a reasonably exciting set-up. The plot is practically linear, although there are some flashbacks. The book behaves a bit like a thriller: there is a mystery, there is a chase or even a quest of sorts, the pace is quite fast and the mystery exciting. The solution.... oh, the solution is utterly unpredictable and utterly satisfying. I rarely have a chance to read a story with a mystery where the solution is not a big disappointment. This one is not - in fact, the finding of "the source" of footage is illuminating and cathartic both to the characters and to the reader.

The settings are another strong point of Pattern Recognition - in fact it can be read solely for the settings, as Gibson's take on London, Moscow and Tokyo is truly enlightening. He manages to defamiliarise the known so a vision both recognisable and fresh is presented to the reader.

The characters are often slightly bizarre, a little bit unusual, but then so is the milieu in which Cayce Pollard moves: the new world creatives mingling with dot-commers and performance artists. Cayce herself is lost and vulnerable as well as strong and passionate; also detached, indeed as cool as it gets in the world of cool hunting. As befits a post-modern heroine, she is rational and her passion is a different kind of passion; existential, yes, but not romantically desperate; slightly disturbed but not neurotically self-centred; weirdly likeable. She lives and breathes and sometimes bodily suffers the world of brands and logos but still - somehow - manages to maintain some modicum of distance. Her unique allergy is an ironic take on the brand-mania that so many of us are susceptible to.

The artists that populate Cayce's space are also rather interesting: a Pole Wojtek making an installation from old Sinclair computers; Damien the trustworthy friend digging up the Stalingrad battlefield.

The title phrase recurs throughout the book and refers to interpretation, to looking for sense in the stream of data, to making sense of the world. It's a post 9/11 book, although it successfully manages to avoid getting political nor sentimental about the events. Ultimately, it is about searching for the jet-lagged, stretched, lost, mortal soul of the humanity in the world teeming with data, full of attempts by the marketers and advertisers to discover and create patterns.

The final takes us to the warm, the human, the corporeal. From London, Tokyo and Moscow, Cayce gets to Paris. I'll leave her there.

The main reason for my gushing over Pattern Recognition is its bizarre linguistic beauty. The language is used with confidence and in a very creative way. I was close to saying that there is not a single dead sentence in the whole novel, but as it progressed, it also deflated a bit - so perhaps there are some dead sentences there, but overall the quality of writing is awesome. Gibson uses imagery and language taken from IT, neurophysiology and anatomy to create powerful metaphors, rarely if ever seen outside the s-f genre and takes them to the level of art rarely heard of within the genre and not that common even outside it.

Gibson treats his reader with confidence and trust, assuming both intelligence and a common frame of reference. He creates words and slightly distorts the way the language is normally used, firing quick phrases which are virtually shibboleths (Shakespeare Monkeys anyone?). And none, but none of it is strained or seems an effort. Why? One reason is that Gibson is a good writer. Another is that there is probably quite a lot of people in the world that sometimes think, talk and emote the way that Gibson writes.

He takes that language, that style of seeing, describing and relating to the world and develops it in a qualitative leap. Think Money but without the appearance of trying sooo hard to be sooo clever. This language of neuroscience, information technology and marketing is also what probably limits the appeal of Pattern Recognition .

If none of the above is, in any way, your language and your frame of reference you might find there a pointless struggle instead of electrifying beauty.

I will finish with a sample:

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 with limbic tides, brain stem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate demands for sex, food and sedation.

If you like it and can relate to the imagery, read the book. If you don't know half of the words but are still intrigued, you can try. If it sounds boring, pretentious or you just can't be bothered to work out what he means, look elsewhere.

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