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Pattern Recognition- William Gibson
Putnam ISBN 0-399-14986-4 - $25.95 US - $39.00 Cnd

'And here she is, halfway around the world, trying to swap a piece of custom-made pornography for a number that might mean nothing at all.'

When it comes to writing the history of the future foretold, the name of William Gibson will be up there with Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Philip K Dick. His opening shot was the amazing Neuromancer which very early on caught peoples imagination and indeed helped define the web age when it was just a glimmer on our Apple Classics and box grey IBM’s back in the early eighties. Gibson not only called the future; he named it the cyber-age. The fantastic vision of a cyber future in a shambolic world where the Mafia control almost everything and electronic information and e-cash is so portable whole economies can be ruined overnight is here now. His books are populated with young punks and tough girl geeks and his settings in Japan and USA are remarkable constructs and extremely prescient. From Mona Lisa Overdrive to Idoru and to the excellent All Tomorrow’s Parties he has stuck with his version of the future and made a convincing new world that could be our ultimate destination. Ultra sophisticated technology enabling those with access to it to live well in urban chaos where most of we think of as civilised values has broken down. Gibson has given us the language and vision to cope with what was and is happening all around us at an increasing pace.

But now we have Pattern Recognition and it is firmly set in the present (around Autumn in 2002). His characters are not marooned on a dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge but living in sophisticated early 21st Century London, Tokyo and Moscow. It is now and suddenly Gibson writes like a man overwhelmed by a tsunami of ironic factoids. His previous future is on divert and it looks like it isn’t evolving quite the way he predicted. Foretelling the future is always an inexact science. Take Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ – long a work that stood as a possible and reliable guide to where the USA is headed. People dividing into separate, gated, guarded armed communities, the land between them unsafe, chaotic, peopled by mystics and shamans loaded with ‘information’ for sale to the highest bidders. Although Snow Crash seems dated now, the ideas remain on track – especially now G.W. Bush is in charge. Similarly for Gibson, as long as information speeds up and society grows ever more paranoid, his visions of an ultimate chaotic world will work. What doesn’t work particularly well for him is writing in the present.

Cayce Pollard is a geek, but not a computer geek. (All of Gibson’s heroines are attractive geeks). Cayce is a label freak. That is logos set off a psycho allergic reaction in her. The very sight of a Prada poster can bring her out in hives and the Michelin Man literally makes her puke. She wears only no label clothes like Muji and Buzz Rickson’s MA-1 flying jacket that almost has a personality of it’s own. black Harajuku shoes, a black skirt from a Tulsa thrift shop, her purse (bought on e-bay) a laminated envelope of possible Stasi issue. She wears either black; white or gray and nothing manufactured after Y2K. She is impervious to the lure of logos. Naturally this young American woman is a shoe-in to be hired by Hubertus Bigend; a vaguely Belgian owner of a dynamic boutique advertising/marketing agency called Blue Ant. Her role is to spot emerging trends, give a seal of approval to non-toxic logo designs and be the arbiter of what will be uber-cool next. Cayce can see those minute changes in our lives when we switch our allegiances from Britney to Avril and Nora Jones. She can see, taste and pinpoint the shift and that makes her valuable.

It’s a cool job and she is uniquely equipped to do it. Cayce is also still coping with the loss of her father who disappeared (as yet unproved deceased) in the ruins of the Twin Towers during 9/11. It’s no coincidence that her father was also in intelligence at one time.

She is also a footage freak. *Footage, minutes scraps of a film in progress put out anonymously on the web (techniques pioneered by those responsible for the Blair Witch project). There is footage out there that is strange and beguiling and footage heads (which she is one) follow and debate every scrap. Why? Who Knows who did it? They watch, chat on line, debate with anonymous strangers all over the world who live for the next release and analyse each moment and frame to death. Sadly there really are people out there who do this.

Cayce meets Hubertus Bigend (who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates.) He hires her to track down the makers of the footage, thus revealing he is a footage head himself. He believes the ‘footage’ is something he wants a piece of and is a wave of the future. Cayce accepts the challenge although aware that she is selling out by doing this and follows the first clue to Tokyo closely followed by jet-lag and the long tendrils of an evil rival Dorotea Benedetti.
At some point in a writer’s life, you reach a point when either you repeat yourself or reinvent yourself. Gibson is going for reinvention but not straying very far from his milieu. Somehow if you going to write about labels then first you should read some Tom Wolfe. Labels and trademarks are so deeply embedded in his writing style you are unaware of the branding seeping into your head. Gibson’s Vancouverite compardre Douglas Coupland has a thing for lables as well and adopts a largely ironic tone.

Here though Gibson goes for embossed, stick it on your forehead and shout it loud labelling and it isn’t subtle and it isn’t nice. His writing is suddenly exposed away from the safety net of future-speak. The style is arid, the characters overwhelmingly trite, obvious and disappointing. He may indeed be familiar with London and Tokyo and have friends there, but his London fails to ignite. Cayce stays in Camden, but somehow doesn’t notice the noise, the dirt, the dogshit and avoids the decaying Tube (subway train). Camden Market seems diminished. This is a Limo tourist version of London. It has all the authenticy of a Nescafe commercial. Where is the daily anger, the fear, the stench? A London where everything works and the service and food are good is simply unbelievable. Sure there are fine restaurants and British advertising companies rule the world, but they do it in a crumbling urban nightmare of high crime and traffic chaos. London now is much like Gibson’s world in Count Zero. For him to have failed to recognise it is a shame.

His Japan is equally bloodless. Although I understand the needs of a pacey plot, the very fact that Cayce is a trendspotter and isn’t really allowed to do her job means that Gibson is missing something very large in his book. It is possible he wanted to call his book ‘No Logo’, but that was taken and Pattern Recognition seemed like a good idea at the time.

A novel about Cayce reading contemporary society and revealing her comments about the changes to come would have been much more interesting than the hue and cry of this work. The evil bitch Dorotea is just too much Wicked Witch of the West, Hubertus Bigend so smooth he slides off the page. Nevertheless, the scenes in Moscow are gripping when we finally come face to face with the footage and its secrets. But is it enough? The footage is like the missing microfilm in old 1940’s movies. A mere McGuffin. It’s all about what happens to the characters running around dark alleys and giving chase in old Citroens. In Pattern Recognition it is hard to care about the characters, the footage doesn’t seem world-shattering and after 356 pages it’s a lot of hard work for nothing.

There have been few duds in Gibson’s oeuvre, Virtual Light being only one I can think of, but Pattern Recognition is a disappointment, flawed and a difficult read. If we are going to write about viral marketing, it is a mistake to sell it as an original idea when it is taught in marketing courses across the globe. Curiously Douglas Coupland has also turned in a couple of unremarkable books in the last two years and I am wondering if these two Vancouver authors have exhausted themselves and slipped into recycling mode.

Will William Gibson stay in the present or shift back to the future? It will be interesting to see what he does next.

© Sam North March 2003

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