18 April 2004

Pattern Recognition Redux

William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, which I looked at a couple of months ago, has gotten some interesting notice both within and without the science fiction world. While many reviewers, including John Clute, have examined if and how the book fits the label of "science fiction" (given that its setting is only barely science fictional), others, such as Fredric Jameson and now J.W. Hastings, have considered (among other things) the book as a representation of contemporary life -- making it perhaps the sort of contemporary American novel Mark Sarvas has called for.

Hastings has some excellent points to make about Pattern Recognition, seeing it as a retelling of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and comparing it to Don DeLillo's Underworld:
Though there are passages in Underworld, a Very Important Novel, where DeLillo's writing is on par with Pynchon's or Saul Bellow's, for the most part the book is not as satisfying as Pattern Recognition, which is merely a thriller that wishes it was a Very Important Novel.
I completely disagree about Underworld -- it does at times sink under the weight of its own supposed Importance, but it's the only satisfying novel I've read by DeLillo, who is one of those writers few people seem to agree on -- I found White Noise, for instance, to be forced and shallow, while many intelligent and discriminating readers swear it's one of the greatest American novels. However, Hastings's statement about why Pattern Recognition achieves what it does -- being "merely a thriller" -- offers some possibilities: Perhaps the thriller elements of the book cause readers to lower their expectations, thus surprising them with insights and viewpoints which, in a self-consciously Important novel, would seem banal or trite. I disagree with the idea that Pattern Recognition is somehow superior to more complex books, however, even pretentious ones, because though I expect to read Underworld a few more times during my life, I doubt I will read Pattern Recognition again. Yes, what was there was satisfying, but there wasn't enough substance to make me want to return. (In fact, I've found much of the writing about the book more thought-provoking than the book itself.)

Hastings faults Pattern Recognition for not adequately dealing with the September 11 attack:
Part of [Gibson's] problem is that throughout the book he deals more the symbolic effect of 9/11 than with the terrorist attacks themselves. In fact, I don't think he uses the word "terrorist" at all during the entire novel. Gibson does get at the sense of what it was like to be in NYC in the days following the destruction of the WTC ... But he really isn't interested in how the world really did, and not just symbolically, change after 9/11: how globalization looked radically different, much more dangerous, than it had before.
Hastings here seems to be criticizing Gibson for not writing the novel he, J.W. Hastings, would have written. He's right: Gibson didn't write a book about how "the world changed" after 9/11 -- he wrote a book about marketing and digital culture, one where 9/11 is a background event in the protagonist's life. It changed her personal life, and that change is explored well, but it didn't change the fundamental contours of her professional life.

Nonetheless, Hastings has a number of useful points to raise about Pattern Recognition, as have many reviewers. If more SF novels received this sort of thoughtful, considered reviewing, the genre would be stronger. Many books deserve more attention than Pattern Recognition, which gained notice because of its author's fame and the book's appeal to the zeitgeist. If SF editors expected the work they released into the world would receive careful and insightful notice, they might be inclined to encourage more work to be able to stand up to such scrutiny. The state of reviewing for mainstream books isn't much better, and, proportionate to the amount of books released may actually be worse, but many mainstream writers do at least expect their work could be noticed by people who will consider it as serious literature, literature that should at least aspire to standards set by the greatest writers throughout history. Too much SF aspires only to appeal to the standards of the latest $150 million action/FX movie.