Pattern Recognition, William Gibson (Penguin Putnam, 2003). Digital Edition.

Cover of "Pattern Recognition"

Cover of Pattern Recognition

Grade: Ω — The opposite of an Alpha. An excellent book, that breaks rules and/or may appeal more to people who do not normally read the genre than those who are aficionados of it.

In brief: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson is a step outside the usual for the father (or at least Godfather) of Cyberpunk. It is set in the post-911 world, and while it does include elements of technology, it is considerably less Science Fiction than most Tom Clancy books. Instead, it is an espionage style mystery that plays upon Gibson’s superb ability to play upon mass-market trends and consumerism. To that end, it has the byzantine feel of his cyberpunk works, but is firmly set in now.

Setting: Real world, Post-911 London, Tokyo, Russia.

In Depth: I couldn’t figure out how I felt about this book for the longest time. It describes a woman with an “allergy” to certain logos who has the unnatural ability to pick up on consumer trends recognition at a single glance. To that end, much of the book focuses on an element of mass market consumerism that I am mostly unaware of. Characters are not so much described in terms of who they are or what they are wearing, but who designed their items and how it is a rip-off of something else. In this manner, Gibson paints a world that is both amusing and disturbing.

As to the central plot, it centers on the quest to identify the creator of a series of short films that are known and distributed through viral marketing. The main character, Cayce (pronounced Cay-see) is a fan of these works who spends much of her free time posting and emailing about the nature of the works. Early in the book, she is hired by Hubertus Bigend, a marketing genius who is interested in the form that the films are being released (and who forms the link between this and the other two books in the Bigend series). From there, Cayce is quickly embroiled in a globe-trotting mystery that has all the suspicions and double-crossing of a good espionage novel. Indeed, it truly takes the form of an espionage novel, though one that looks at corporations and big money rather than politics and nations.

What had me puzzling this story for so long, however, is the remarkably thin nature of the plot. That is not to say the plot is weak, or unengaging. I was quickly drawn into this novel and turned the pages quickly. Yet, the topic of the tale and much of the nature of the characters was quite superficial. The stakes of success were really quite small, and yet our protagonist treats it as if it were of global significance. Then it hit me: that was the point.

This is a book about marketing. The narrator sees the world through marketing, the other main characters live in a world dominated by marketing, and the central mystery is really who is behind this marketing. When we fight our way through the spin, the answer is not truly deep, and that is the way it should be.

Indeed, at first I thought no more about the post-9/11 setting of the book than I would have in any book written in that/this era. Then as the book progressed, I realized that it was key to understanding the book. I cannot go into too much detail without giving spoilers, but I can note that spin and communications are central to the novel. While it is never bluntly stated, there are subtle commentaries about the events of 9/11 without ever diminishing the tragedy of that day. Indeed, in the end, the apparent superficiality of the book is what gives it depth. The lack of comment is what speaks the loudest.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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4 Responses to Pattern Recognition, William Gibson (Penguin Putnam, 2003). Digital Edition.

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    The best of his post-Neuromancer works? I quit reading his stuff a long time ago so I never got around to this one.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Quite possibly. I also had lost interest in Gibsson some time around the Virtual Light and Difference Engine period. This book definately got me interested again.

      In fact, I thought of you while reading it. I know you don’t like mysteries, but since it reads more like a cyberpunk novel than like an Agatha Christie, I wondered if you might enjoy it.

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    An author I might return to — eventually… But, I really disliked Virtual Light, Idoru, Difference Engine (although I enjoy some steampunk — Stephenson’s The Diamond Age for example)….

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I can’t disagree with your assesment there. I was, in fact, very reluctant to pcik up Pattern Recognition, but in the end I was glad I did. I could be reading too much into it, but I think it actually has a lot to say about post-9/11 America (saying more would be a spoiler).

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