09 February 2009

Booklog, Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition, 2003
Written by William Gibson
384 pages (mass-market paperback)

Near-future SF is a tough game. Off the top of my head, Back to the Future II predicted rejuvenation treatments, flying cars, and to-the-second-accuracy weather reports by 2015. Freejack had electronic memory storage and body-swapping and time travel in 2009. Timecop predicted self-driving automobiles and government-regulated time travel by 2004. And that's just in movies made in the last couple of decades.

Written SF is considerably better, but it's still a tough field. While many authors in the Golden Age (1940s or so) wrote their stories with specific dates in mind, it's the choice of most modern SF writers to not specify a specific time period, so as to prevent the kind of poor aging that is so common to stories of old.

Even this can be problemmatic. In 1984's Neuromancer, William Gibson predicted a world in which the United States has fallen but the USSR is still strong, a world in which personalities can be recorded to computer hardware and the computer network is a "consensual hallucination" accessed by "jacking in" to a "deck." The novel is rightly considered one of the masterpieces of the genre, not least by coining the term "cyberspace" and by merging the fading New Wave SF style with gritty reality, but by inventing the cyberpunk movement and creating a whole subgenre. In the next decade, Gibson would write several books and short stories using the same basic templates, but over time he began to become frustrated with the general practice of near-future SF. The pace of the world that we live in today is so dynamic and fast-changing that doing detailed prediction of the future is basically a zero-sum game. Could anyone have predicted Youtube or the blogosphere in, say, 1990?

Disenchanted with the struggle, Gibson in 2003 turned his talents to writing present-day fiction that "felt like" SF, in that they dealt with the same general issues of the role of technology and science in our lives that Gibson had been dealing with since 1984. His first novel in this vein is Pattern Recognition, and the writing is pure Gibson -- tersely descriptive, with a clipped Dasheill Hammet-like style merged to free-flowing speculation about the nature of society and use of technology.

His protagonist Cayce (named after psychic Edgar Cayce but pronounced "Case," also the name of the protagonist of Neuromancer) Pollard is a 32-year old woman who has allergic reactions to logos and branding. She uses her allergies as a barometer of coolness, and is able to tell at a glance if proposed logos and branding are resonant enough to enter public consciousness have a memetic spread like, say, the Nike logo. In her private life, she is a "footagehead" who spends inordinate amounts of time online downloading and discussing mysterious film snippets made by an unknown person or persons. When one of her high-powered clients hires her to search down the maker or makers of the footage, she travels around the globe encountering a wide series of strange persons and has a great deal of deserved paranoia.

And yeah, that's pretty much the whole plot. Pattern Recognition is like Gibson's other novels in that the story is really just a clothesline for the style and for the characters. You read a Gibson novel not for the story but for the beauty and the ideas. What Cayce finds at the end of her search for the maker of the footage is less important the the persons she meets and situations she gets into along the way. And if some of it seems a bit improbable at times, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Gibson was writing the novel around the time of the September 11 attacks, and a recurring element on the novel is the state of Cayce's consciousness when considering that event. Her father, an intelligence expert, disappeared on the day of the attacks and one of the meanings of the title is in her mother's avid fascination with electronic voice phenomena in her search for her now-deceased husband. There is a quiet philosophy at work here, in which Gibson suggests that all of our human activities are really just searching for meaningless patterns in the world, or rather, finding meaning where there is none.

In the end, this novel is a worthy addition to Gibson's body of work, and the new direction for his career is fascinating. Worth it for the style and for the ideas, Pattern Recognition is an entertaining read but nothing really sticks around long-term. (I had to use Wikipedia to look up plot details that I'd forgotten.) It's a decent read, but it's hard to see new readers giving Gibson the kind of devotion for this as he (rightfully) received after Neuromancer.

Rating: B

No comments: