Review

Pattern Recognition

by William Gibson

Reveiw #1 by Jen Robbins

PATTERN RECOGNITION spins a complicated spy story filled with double crosses, dramatic rescues, power-hungry marketers, iconoclastic hackers, documentary filmmakers, industrial spies, Russian mobsters, Internet lurkers and quirky computer geeks. However, it also functions as a sharp commentary on consumerism and the calculated dissemination of pop culture. If Gibson's signature has long been his ability to incorporate cultural touchstones into futuristic works to imbue them with a sense of immediacy and relevance, then his latest work --- set only one year after September 11th and saturated with familiar brand names like Google and Pilates --- acknowledges and parodies our willingness to be manipulated by advertising.

The story centers on Cayce Pollard, a "coolhunter" with an uncanny knack for understanding logos and identifying trends before the public at large recognizes them. In an ironic twist typical of Gibson's sardonic humor, she herself is acutely allergic to brand names, harboring a violent reaction to the doughy Michelin Man, among other random trademarks.

The story is framed by the events of September 11th and their personal relevance to Cayce: Her father, Win Pollard, rode in a cab that morning and headed in the direction of the World Trade Center only to disappear without a trace. The mystery surrounding his disappearance maintains a tenuous connection with the plot until the novel's end, when her father's past and Cayce's present converge in unlikely but poignant circumstances.

Cayce is also part of an online community that strives to find meaning and patterns in a series of video clips anonymously uploaded to the web. Her personal interest and work collide when a marketing consultant --- who recognizes the genius in how the clips (simply referred to as the "footage") has garnered a global audience with fervent brand loyalty --- hires her to track down who's behind it. But when someone hacks into her personal computer and starts following her, Cayce realizes this isn't a typical freelance gig.

The investigations have Cayce jet setting between London, Moscow and Tokyo. Gibson manages to make the contemporary setting at once realistic and fantastical, imbuing the novel with a surreal quality reminiscent of Neal Stephenson, Hitchcock and even Blade Runner. The plot itself --- with a series of impossible coincidences, chance meetings and pure luck --- doesn't stand a chance under careful examination, but somehow the disparate elements dovetail so perfectly at the end that it doesn't matter. Gibson manages to make the impossible plausible and delightfully satisfying.

His first novel set in the present-day seems bent on acknowledging that today's world is as contradictory and oddball as any futuristic, sci-fi alter-universe. Besides crafting a compelling story, Gibson's razor-sharp prose is as precise as ever, even when describing something as commonplace as jet lag: "[Cayce's] mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on
some ghostly umbilical cord down the vanished wake of the plane." Gibson's newest work is evocative of the current zeitgeist: unrelentingly realistic and cautiously optimistic.

   --- Reviewed by Jen Robbins

 


Reveiw #2 by Becky Ohlsen

Have you ever wondered who's responsible for the fact that you can now buy ripped-up, safety-pinned "punk" T-shirts and studded belts at Wal-Mart? Or who to blame when your favorite band, the one only you and your three best friends knew about, is suddenly the Next Big Thing? A coolhunter is what you call the particular breed of marketing person whose job it is to be pop culture's ambassador to the bleeding edge (ambassador or spy, it's the same thing). They collect information that will be used to fabricate trends you'll think are spontaneous when they hit your town. They are to be loathed infinitely.

Cayce Pollard, heroine of William Gibson's new novel, is a coolhunter. But Cayce is one of the coolest chicks I've come across in some time. Gibson is good at writing women who are not so nice --- remember NEUROMANCER? So what makes Cayce so cool? For one, she's violently allergic to branding. Genius! Think about it. We live in a world that is one gigantic product placement: buses, billboards, websites, whole buildings that are loaded with logos, not to mention TV and the movies. It's hard to find clothes that aren't walking promotions. I mean, you can have ads tattooed on your butt. This is how allergies develop: some sensitive soul has a reaction to overexposure. It was bound to happen. When Cayce sees the Michelin Man, Prada or Tommy Hilfiger, she freaks out.

The flip side to Cayce's hypersensitivity to brands is that she knows immediately when a new marketing product or logo "works." Important ad agencies hire her to say, literally, yes or no to whatever they show her. Blue Ant, a London-based company run by a Belgian named Hubertus Bigend, has just hired her. Bigend, Gibson writes, "looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins' blood and truffled chocolates" --- clearly evil.

Bigend wants to hire Cayce for something else, though. He knows she's a "footagehead" --- one of the many people who, via web forums, track and discuss these elusive, mysterious bits of film footage that are released onto the Internet at random. The footage has an allure that escapes Bigend's comprehension; all he knows is that it could be the marketing campaign of the century. He wants Cayce to solve the mystery: who makes the film, who distributes it, why does it exist and how can they get in on the action.

This is where things start to get weird. As she tries to connect the dots leading to the source of the film footage, Cayce finds herself in increasingly bizarre and dangerous situations. Her apartment has been broken into and her computer tampered with; she thinks she's being followed; strangers know things about her that they shouldn't. Who can she trust? Suddenly ALL the dots seem connected and they form a web of which she is the center. Pattern recognition is one thing, but seeing patterns everywhere, whether they exist or not, is another (it's called "apophenia," apparently --- "the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things").

Gibson manages to make a detective story about obsessive Internet geeks and marketing slimeballs tense and fascinating throughout, sort of like a cross between The Ring and a less-intellectual version of Foucault's Pendulum. The story travels from London to Tokyo to Moscow and back; Cayce spends much of the time in a jetlag haze. The writing sparkles and the widely varied cast of characters --- an annoying Italian career woman, a Polish performance artist, an English documentary filmmaker, an ex-CIA man reduced to drunken bitterness and, of course, Bigend --- nearly all ring true. The final pages of the novel are so jam-packed with the rapid tying-up of loose ends that it seems to race along on fast-forward, to the point that you can't quite believe everything that happens. But overall, this is an exciting, satisfying novel whose pointed social criticism reflects its heroine's smart, sardonic view. Alert the coolhunters.

   --- Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen


Reveiw #3 by Rob Cline

William Gibson has always been on the cutting edge of language, especially language that has evolved due to developments in computers and the Internet. Indeed, Gibson, who is most famous for his novel NEUROMANCER, is credited with coining the term "cyberspace." It comes as no surprise to find that his new novel, PATTERN RECOGNITION, is largely driven by language that feels freshly minted and that his sentence structure (or lack thereof) seems derived from the stream of consciousness narrative style found in many emails. The language occasionally calls attention to itself and will almost certainly have to be footnoted in editions published in just a few years, but it is very clear that Gibson has an ear for the way the hyper-computer literate write and talk.

He uses the latest in language to tell the story of Cayce Pollard, a "cool hunter" --- a person who identifies trends among cool kids and helps companies turn those trends into profitable products. She is obsessed with a bizarre series of video snippets. Known among devotees as the "footage," the snippets appear at intervals and in odd locations on the Internet. Her preoccupation and occupation dovetail when she is asked to track down the creator of the footage for a man who believes he can somehow commodify it.

The dizzying plot follows Cayce's efforts to complete her assignment while making and breaking (and sometimes making again) alliances with a variety of people involved in business espionage, Internet surveillance, guerilla marketing, footage fan sites and other thoroughly contemporary pursuits. The book's characters are universally quirky and often damaged in some way --- Cayce herself is "allergic" to certain trademark images --- but Gibson provides enough backstory to render them believable.

The events of September 11, 2001 are also at the novel's core, as Cayce's father, a man with secrets and possibly connected to the CIA, disappeared in the vicinity of the World Trade Center that fateful day. Gibson writes thoughtfully about the attacks and, though he allows himself one overly contrived scene, his description of the event as seen through Cayce's eyes and experienced through her thoughts is well done.

Though PATTERN RECOGNITION is structured as an adventure or mystery story, Gibson's novel is also an impressive study of the ways technology impacts the lives of individuals and communities (or creates those communities). Prior to PATTERN RECOGNITION, Gibson wrote literary science fiction. Technology has so accelerated, however, that he can now set a novel in the present without losing an iota of the "gee whiz" factor that gives most science fiction its pop. Gibson's novels used to explore where technology might be taking us. PATTERN RECOGNITION explores the world in which we have already arrived. Gibson is a compelling writer for this moment.

   --- Reviewed by Rob Cline (rjbcline@aol.com)


Reveiw #4 by Bob Rhubart

The promotional blurb on the back of the review copy of William Gibson's new novel, PATTERN RECOGNITION, describes the book as Gibson's "first novel set entirely in the present." While this is indeed true, it is far more accurate to describe PATTERN RECOGNITION as a novel set in a future that has arrived --- and done so rather abruptly.

In this future/present world, our technology and the ever-evolving global marketplace carry as big a stick as any superpower --- perhaps bigger --- given that these two forces have demonstrated the ability to erase national borders, shrink the literal and virtual frontiers that separate people and, in the process, render governments nearly obsolete --- or at least leave the citizenry wondering what it is that their respective governments really do.

But you may have noticed that, despite the arrival of the future, we're hardly living in any kind of one-world techno-utopia. While technology and global market forces may indeed unite the world, there is already ample evidence to suggest that the actual process involved will one day make it possible to travel to any spot on the globe, no matter how remote, safe in the knowledge that you are only a short walk from your favorite fast food joint or clothing chain.

As much as we'd like to lay the blame on some insidious conspiracy, this phenomenon has far more to do with the power of symbols and images, as well as the bottom-up organization that emerges from within complex systems, such as the virtual communities that spring up like bacterial cultures in the petri dishes provided by TV, movies and, most dramatically and democratically, the Internet.

This concept forms the core of PATTERN RECOGNITION, through which Gibson reveals a world where the cyberpunks have been mainstreamed, where virtual communities are recognized as new markets and where the very culture that fuels these communities becomes a marketing tool. And what's sobering is that the speculation that fueled Gibson's earlier work is supplanted here by observation. There's nothing going on here that isn't actually happening --- and that makes this book all the more important and all the more fascinating.

Cayce Pollard, the protagonist in PATTERN RECOGNITION, is a "cool hunter", a highly paid consultant to advertising firms. She possesses an uncanny ability to spot emerging trends in popular culture, long before these trends leave the street and enter the consciousness of consumers. But Cayce's talent has its downside, an ironic aversion to trademarks so profound that she refers to it as an allergy. The image of the Michelin Man sends her into a very real physical panic --- a weakness that is in one scene exploited by her adversaries. So extreme is Cayce's condition that she takes extraordinary steps to rid her own intentionally limited (and mostly black) wardrobe of any hint of trademarks, removing tags on clothing, sanding the logos off of her digital watch and even having the metal buttons on her jeans ground down to brand anonymity.

Cayce is hired by Hubertus Bigend, the wealthy and borderline charismatic head of a leading-edge London advertising agency, to investigate an Internet phenomenon known as "the footage," a series of short, cryptic video clips distributed online through mysterious means. The footage has captured the imagination of people around the world. Web sites and message boards spring up; here, a vast virtual community gathers to discuss the possible origin and meaning of the films. Bigend is fascinated by the growth and dedication of this community and hopes that, by learning the secret of the footage, he can leverage the phenomenon as a powerful marketing tool. This leaves Cayce conflicted. As a "footagehead" she is intrigued by the possibility of unlocking the mysteries of the video clips. But the utter revulsion she feels for anything with even the faintest taint of marketing fuels her sense of dread. In Bigend's hands, this power will result in a world rendered increasingly featureless and generic by the omnipresence of trademarks and the onslaught of advertising --- the Planet of Product Placement, inhabited by indistinguishable demographic tribes.

But Cayce accepts the assignment and her investigation takes her from London to Tokyo to Moscow and points in between. Along the way she encounters an entertaining menagerie of eccentric artists, retired CIA spooks, cyber geeks, corporate spies, has-been Eurotrash rockers and Russian mobsters.

PATTERN RECOGNITION is fraught with symbols and images of the world's unerring cultural, technological and economic evolution, symbols both comical and profound that mark the passage from one century to the next. Most notable is the recurring image of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, cultural and historical icons that loom larger in their destruction than they ever did before the terrorists struck. In Gibson's book, the image of the towers serves as a milestone marking the true beginning of the twenty-first century, the dawn of an age of new uncertainty and new promise, a future that has arrived --- ready or not. Our ability to recognize the patterns that define our world, our lives and our history will determine what we make of this future. Gibson sees these patterns and has documented them in a work of fiction that is as challenging as it is powerful.

   --- Reviewed by Bob Rhubart


Reveiw #5 by Roz Shea

William Gibson creates worlds of the future. His passion for lush cityscapes of wondrous design and complexity, intrigue, technospeak laced with plenty of action and a touch of romance work in any time frame. For the first time, he brings his very discernable style back to today in PATTERN RECOGNITION.

Cayce Pollard is a coolhunter. She freelances for advertising agencies, selling this innate talent for recognizing what's hip and what's hot by scouring the world of fashion, design and pop culture for what will resonate in the marketplace next year. Cayce finds herself in London on a contract to select a logo for a new product --- or that's what she thinks. She offhandedly comments during a meeting on "the footage," a mysterious web site that has developed a cult following. Clips from what appear to be either an old movie or a movie in the making are randomly offered in non-sequential order, leading perhaps millions of followers into long discussions via email, chat rooms and board posts to speculate on the meaning and the derivation of the footage.

This comment knowledge of the cult web site results in a second contract with the ad agency, which leads her on a continent hopping trek from London to Tokyo and eventually to Moscow in pursuit of the creator of the "footage." Is the footage a code for an international oil cartel, an experimental means of piquing interest in a new product, or is it just someone playing with an idea for a movie? The enquiring minds of the footageheads --- and Cayce's advertising agency, which sees this as an intriguing marketing tool --- want to know. Jetlagged, communicating by cell phone and email with fellow footageheads and the ad agency, she travels first class on jetliners, helicopters, trains, limos, battered cabs and motor scooters and afoot in a nuclear wasteland.

Through emails, board posts and exquisite narrative, Cayce unravels the mystery, aided by Parkaboy, Boone Shu, Stelladona and several others whom she knows only by screen names.

Gibson's serpentine sentences, lush with description and nominalization style (turning nouns into verbs), would send your average college English writing professor screaming into the night. He splashes his prose with acronyms (which he then amusingly describes) and brandishes brand names with a namedropper quality not seen outside of a late night talk show --- yet does it with such style and elan that you read in wonderment and anticipation of just what he'll do next to the English language. He can impart as much in a few short paragraphs as it takes some writers pages to portray.

On a former boyfriend, Donny: "Donny was also very beautiful, and sometimes very funny though not always intentionally, and Cayce had gone through a period of finding herself, though she never really planned to, under Donny, and Donny's big grin, in the none-too-fresh bed in his apartment on Clinton Street, between Rivington and Delancey.

But this final and particular time, watching him phase-shift into what she had learned to recognize as the run-up to one of his ever-reliable orgasms, she'd for some reason stretch her arms above her head, perhaps even luxuriously, her left hand sliding accidentally under the cockroach-colored veneer of the headboard. Where it encountered something cold and hard and very precisely made. Which she brailed, shortly, into the square butt of an automatic pistol-held there, probably, with tape very similar to the tape she'd used here, this morning, to conceal the hole in her Buzz Rickson's.

Donny, she knew, was left-handed, and had so positioned this so that he could reach it conveniently as he lay in bed.

Some very basic computational module instantly had completed the simplest of equations: if boyfriend sleeps with gun, Cayce does not share bed, or bod, with (now abruptly former) boyfriend.

And so she'd lain there, her fingertip against what she assumed was the checkered hardwood of the gun's grip, and watched Donny take his last ride on that particular pony."

This is a great frolic in Gibson's cyberworld. His old fans will enjoy the change of pace and non-sci-fi readers may find themselves a new author.

   --- Reviewed by Roz Shea

Pattern Recognition
by William Gibson

  • Publication Date: February 3, 2004
  • Genres: Science Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425192938
  • ISBN-13: 9780425192931