Wednesday, 7 May 2008

William Gibson: Pattern Recognition (2003)

Published: Viking, 2003

One of the oddest feelings when reading (or, even more, re-reading) science fiction from the past is when time has often caught up with it, and you are reading a novel of the future set at at date which is in your past. This is particularly the case with novels which were important to you personally, which were influential, and which contain much accurate prediction, as is the case for me with Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer. Almost thirty years after its publication, Gibson produced Pattern Recognition, his seventh novel and the first which is not really intended to be science fiction. (I would bet that most libraries, like the one from which I borrowed the copy I read, shelve it with that genre, however.) Five years later still, it is Neuromancer which seems to me the more contemporary of the two novels; much of the detail in Pattern Recognition seems to have dated quite quickly.

The novel is an Internet Age thriller, but unlike Neuromancer or most other novels that might be slotted into that subgenre (such as Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, or Jeffrey Deaver's The Blue Nowhere), it is not about hackers, programmers or geeks. Its central character, Cayce Pollard, works as a marketing consuultant, a guru on what is cool who has a phobia about logos. Her hobby is the study of a series of film clips, mysteriously appearing one by one on the Internet, which she discusses with fellow obsessives on the Fetish:Footage:Forum (F:F:F). Where do they come from? Are they meant to form part of a single narrative film? Do they have any particular order? what are the motives and influences which govern their production? Do they have any meaning and if so what? When Cayce realises that someone else has been in the flat where she is staying on a visit to London and used her computer, she begins to feel that there might be a bigger picture behind the film segments. The discussions on the F:F:F don't seem to be dominated by conspiracy theorists, but she finds it hard not to connect the films aand the break in with the disappearance of her father on September 11 2001.

Even though Pattern Recognition is not science fiction, it is still ahead of the pack: this must be one of the earliest treatments of what is now called viral marketing (a term I am pretty sure I hadn't heard myself in 2003). There are people being paid to go round bars and mention products approvingly to strangers: I don't know if this actually happens in the physical world, but there are certainly bloggers who are paid to give good press by marketing departments. However, other details seem behind the times: did people still rely so much on physical media for swapping data as recently as five years ago?

Cayce is quite a passive heroine, but her odd phobia makes her quirky and interesting. A reaction to logos does not seem to me to be a very believable problem, as the processing required to recognise the nature of an image is surely too high level for such a visceral reaction as an allergy. Its origins are left unexplained, which makes it seem more divorced from reality. Clearly it is a satirical element, pointing to the emptiness of modern life, where such banal symbols are held in high regard, whether or not the products they adorn are worthwhile. They are such a clever concept, making customers pay a premium to advertise for the producer. Such manipulation seems miles away from the quirkiness of the film footage: but is it?

The film clips themselves are slightly odd as the focus of a novel which doesn't exist in a multimedia format. Of course, the reader can imagine them, though Gibson leaves the exact content of the clips pretty vague other than to tell you things that they don't do - for example, the clothing and backgrounds are sufficiently generic for it to be impossible to work out when they are set. This vagueness is obviously part of the reason why people want to argue about the clips, but it does make them rather lacking as the central focus of a novel, being both timeless and plotless. The passiveness of the heroine together with this indirect focus means that despite the plot of the novel suggesting a thriller, it is not really in that genre - not necessarily a bad thing, but indicating that my initial assessment of Pattern Recognition was not quite right. Since other novels by Gibson succeed very wel lin this department, the diffuseness of this one must be deliberate. However, I still felt that though Pattern Recognition is interesting and worth reading, it is not classic Gibson by any means.


Anonymous said...

That problem is VERY real and I suffer daily from it. Certain patterns and sound sequences make me want to throw up! Literally! I'm trying to find more info on that and I can't!

Simon McLeish said...

I apologise if I caused any offence. I'd never come across this, and its use in the novel is so clearly metaphorical that I assumed that Gibson invented it or exaggerated it for his requirements. It must be a frustrating and unpleasant complaint to suffer from; I hope your search for more info is fruitful.