03 February 2004

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Before picking up Pattern Recognition, I hadn't read anything by William Gibson in years. After reading Neuromancer and most of his short stories, I decided Gibson just wasn't my thing -- too cold, too techno-hip, too hardboiled.

But something about Pattern Recognition drew me toward it, something about the plot (as outlined in various reviews) caught my attention and made me curious. And Gibson's a guru to many people, so I should at least see what he's been up to recently.

I nearly didn't make it past the first chapter. The sharp, dry sentences. The short paragraphs and present tense. "Google" used as a verb.

It was easy enough reading, though, so I read on. So many product names. Why, I wondered, do I so hate contemporary references in a modern novel? They clang in my mind's ear like Celine Dion's singing. But shouldn't writers chronicle how we live, including the stuff we buy? Of course. I just happen to respond to product names in print the way I respond to well-known labels on clothes: with clenched teeth and a general feeling of, "Isn't there more substance to life than this?"

In some ways, my reactions are like those of Pattern Recognition's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, a woman who is allergic to most displays of fashion. I began to warm up to the book when I recognized that Gibson's use of various product names was integral to his development of Cayce's personality and situation. She's a lightning rod for the blase commodity fetishism of the modern age, and once I moved beyond my own little biases, my knee-jerk hatred of the bought world of contemporary existence, I discovered I was enthralled in the novel.

I had a few doubts along the way, the only real one being a feeling as I made my way toward the middle of the book that Gibson's style derived more from screenplays than from novels. This feeling popped up now and then as I bristled at some paragraphs that seemed to read more like stage directions than novelistic description, but it seems to me that the style Gibson uses in the book is one which fits the characters and their world, and one which fits the novel's intentions and genre.

But what is the genre of Pattern Recognition? Some critics -- perhaps most of them -- have suggested that this is Gibson saying farewell to science fiction, that he is now a contemporary novelist. In fact, I think I remember Gibson saying something to that effect himself. The story takes place in the present, it's about How We Live Now, about our world, not any possible world or imaginary world, but the world you and I are sitting in at this very moment. Right?

Perhaps. What the novels feels like, at least to me, is a techno-thriller with more attention to human motives and psychology than to blueprints. Or a Don DeLillo novel with a faster pace and less description. Or a science fiction novel.

It may be that Pattern Recognition belongs to a new genre: a novel by a science fiction writer, rather than a science fiction novel. It's got the feel of a book written by someone who cut his teeth on stories of technological wonder and peril, of someone who always remembers two of Clarke's laws: "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible" and "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Cayce's allergy to commodities is a kind of magic, but one based enough in the experience of living in a commodified world that it seems completely plausible. It's an SF element used within the context of an ostensibly realistic novel -- or, at least, a novel set within a world recognizable enough in its garments and landscapes to pass for our own.

The other main element, and one well analyzed by Fredric Jameson, is "the footage" -- segments of film scattered by an unknown maker across the Internet for reasons unknown. A community of commentators has sprung up around the footage, and Cayce is a part of that community. The footage provides much of the narrative drive of the book as Cayce is hired to find out who created it and why, and as her own desires pull her toward it. The subject of Pattern Recognition, though, is not so much the footage as the effect the footage has on people who admire it, people who are transfixed by it. This is a brilliant choice on Gibson's part, and it is the choice which makes the novel far more than a techno-thriller. The footage offers respite from the labelled world, for it is aesthetically pure, non-referential. It is a fragmentary vision of peace, a tiny window into possibilities, a way out. (For another interesting take on similar ideas, see "Jagganath" by Richard Flood in the March issue of Asimov's.)

I worried as I approached the last 100 pages of Pattern Recognition that Gibson would tie everything up, give us an ending where every detail of the book somehow connected to every other detail, and killed all ambiguity. He comes close, but I found the last pages satisfying, in some ways even comforting. Certainly, I would have preferred a few looser ends, but the final effect is one which is appropriate to the characters and situations Gibson has created. It's a tidy ending, but not a dishonest one.

The real effect of the book, though, does not lie in its ending, but rather in its progress, in the character of Cayce, who offers us ways of interpreting our world which are different and more complex than those of so many pundits and proselytizers, but also more human. What Gibson has done is show us how to see our present reality, or at least its technologized and commercialized aspects, as a science fiction writer does. Perhaps that is the ultimate value of the best SF of any sort: it offers us lenses through which to perceive our existence.

Pattern Recognition, then, is a beautiful novel because it is a beautiful way of seeing. I only wish we had some footage to help us reach the peace that Cayce reaches. I suppose, though, that we must enter our own dream academies and create the real dreams for ourselves.

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