Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Novel: Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, Putnam Press

This is Gibson’s best. Not his best since Neuromancer. Not his best since Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling, but quite simply his best. Not that he doesn’t get into trouble in a few spots, but we will get to that. In Pattern Recognition, the present catches up to Gibson’s future, so that he is writing in our presently tense time.

I mean tense both ways. First, he’s writing in present tense, which is often a writer's stunt but he pulls it off, luring you in with its immediacy. Its also present tense because it is set in our After Eleven world, and the Fall of the Towers gives this piece a more meaty underpinning and relevance than would be in a piece of science fiction.

Here's the summary: Cayce Pollard is, for lack of a better term, a socially functional freelance mutant. She can look at a logo or design and know immediately if its going to work or not in the world-wide market (the marvel of such an ability is not whether it exists but how you would realize such a talent, and more importantly how you would convince others that it was worth paying for). The down side is that she is vulnerable to particular logos and media overload (she has an allergy to, among other things, the Michelin Man). Her father was a security expert who disappeared in lower Manhattan on 9/11. In addition to her ability to make money off her mutant talent, Cayce is also a fan of “The Footage” – fragments of a film being uploaded onto the net by persons unknown, which has attracted its own fan following – footage-heads tracking on the latest appearance of a single shot or a hundred frames, and arguing about their meaning.

Cayce is hired to track down the creator of the footage, and that in turn sends her pinballing across the modern world at the relatively rarified level of front-of-the-plane travel and first-class accommodations. In the process she deals with allies, enemies, allies who should be enemies and enemies who could be allies. This is meat-and-potatoes cyberpunk without the punk, but what holds it together is that, unlike the cold-edged finish of the eighties movement, the character Cayce is interesting, as she tries to come to terms with her father’s maybe-passing and her own life, which always tethers back to, but never enters, American airspace.

Gibson’s language is spot-on as Cayce travels through the altered landscape of the present. He captures both local mannerisms and customs with the skill of a world-traveler/observer, but also puts it terminology that is immediate and temporary. In a decade the language used here will look stilted – in twenty years it may be as impenetrable as Gilbert and Sullivan seems today. He pulls it off, and it reads incredibly well.

Even so, there are two places Gibson’s narrative trips you up. The one is pure Gibsonian, the other just a writer’s convention that can bounce you out of the book entirely if you don’t hang on. The Gibsonian one is The Phone Call From God – All Gibson novels are really two books – the one you are reading and the one that is happening while you are reading it. Towards the end of a Gibson book you get the Phone Call – which tells you what has been going on behind the scenes, where the secret plots are, explaining a lot of why people are doing what they are doing. Yes, there is Phone Call sequence in this book, the reveal what is going on. To Gibson’s credit, he pulls it off pretty well, but has become a part of his stock in trade in much the same way Thin Man movies end with all the suspects pulled into one room.

The second matter is less forgivable, and is a test of reader understanding and forgiveness. The entire last act hinges on Cayce doing something that she would not normally do, given what we know about her to date. So this action is presented as an accident, one that we are not prepared for, but one that sends her off on that eventual collision course with the Phone Call From God. Either Gibson needed to prepare the ground better (show her doing the type of thing that leads to “the accident” – there are opportunities earlier in the book) or give her more of a reason (in which case it was not an accident, but an act of commission). It may simply be that the original outline put her at this point making this decision, but in adding the meat to the bones, Cayce grows to the point that she would not consciously commit the action she is called upon to do. Hence the accidental action, which is a writer’s cheat, an action committed by the protagonist, but without the protagonist meaning to. When you see it happen, you might want to close the book, which is a pity because of the strength of the rest of the text.

And yet, this is Gibson’s best – meatier than his cyberpunk books and more human, warmer. It is also more immediate, not only because of its tense but because of its timing. As we move out of the shadows of the Towers, the immediacy of that tragedy will fade, and with it the connections. It belongs to its time – not a Fin De Cycle novel but a "Premiere" De Cycle novel, and as we move forward through the decade, will seem quaint or even blatently wrong.

This is a book with a timer. Read it now.

More later.