It’s been almost twenty years since William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, became the seminal work in a new subgenre of science fiction—cyberpunk. With it came words like cyberspace and the most insightful new perspective on the way our lives are being transformed by information technology since Marshall McLuhan.
Gibson’s latest book, Pattern Recognition, is something of a departure from his usual cyberpunk style—for one thing, the book is set entirely in the present—but what it lacks in far-out cybertech and mind-blowing hacker-runs, it makes up for in style, grace, and insightfulness.
Pattern Recognition is the story of Cayce Pollard—a freelance advertising consultant who has a unique talent for knowing what trends in fashion, design, and marketing will catch on and which will not.
But Cayce’s knack for “cool-hunting” is really just the flipside of a strange and unique allergy she has to derivative fashions or designer logos of any kind. The sight of the Michelin Man or a Tommy Hilfiger emblem makes her double over in pain and vertigo, with a headache not unlike that experienced after a three-day bender.
But Cayce has managed to survive in a fashion-driven world by ripping the logos off her clothing and grinding them off her personal electronics, and by leading a carefully controlled life. Her neatly shrink-wrapped existence gets shaken up after she takes a consulting job in London, where she finds herself a confused victim of international corporate intrigue which is somehow entangled with her harmless obsession over a series of strange web-borne video clips, ominously dubbed “the footage.”
It’s a good old-fashioned mystery tale, set amidst our modern, globalized, information-driven world. Gibson paints this world in vivid Technicolor, but never judges it. Instead, he stamps it with a watermark of timeless human warmth—an understated meditation on the way people might adapt to the shifting realities of constant technological progress and social upheaval. In a sense, it’s easy to see why Gibson may have set the novel in the present: cyberpunk is no longer science fiction—it’s present-day reality.
This is just the sort of thing Gibson’s readers have come to expect from him, but everything in Pattern Recognition is subtler. He’s turned the rawness way down—using much more delicacy and relying less on the “edge” that dominated his earlier work. As usual, there are more shady characters and überslick marketing magnates than you can shake your PDA at—but there’s far less criminality and violence.
Gibson still takes many risks with the English language in Pattern Recognition, even though there’s a lot less hacker slang. The style is conversational and minimalist in the extreme. He tells the tale in the present tense, frequently omits the subject in sentences, and often thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and narration merge in a sort of semi-poetic stream of consciousness.
It’s almost like you’re reading the novel from an Internet chat window, but as usual it’s hard to tell if Gibson planned this from the start or if the effect emerged from the prose of its own accord. But the risks pay off, and Pattern Recognition flows like no other novel the man has written.