Novel * William Gibson * The Post-9/11 World is Weird, Huh? * 2003
William Gibson has an esoteric sense of style. Back in the day, when Neuromancer came out, it was a revelation. I wasn’t there. I mean I was a cool five-year-old and all, but not that cool. Still, it’s one of those landmark sci-fi novels you just know about if you’re into the genre. Everything about that novel is concentrated cool. It’s an entire world crafted out of style. Cyber-ninjas and monolithic A.I.’s and deck cowboys and whatnot. Imagine a world where cyberpunk was fresh and new, is what I’m saying here. And a big part of what made William Gibson’s first novel so distinct and important was the nature of the writing itself. Neuromancer takes for granted that you, the reader, are cool enough to vibe with the language being used. Now, since Gibson is a science fiction writer and his audience is the kind of person who would read science fiction in 1984, everyone involved is likely a huge dork in real life. But man, the slick style on display in Neuromancer made dorks feel rad as shit.
I’m not sure if that sense of stylish cool carries on in Gibson’s ensuing work. I can’t really say because I’ve only read one other novel of his (the world is a big place and there are a lot of books in it, I’m doing the best I can, dang it!). That one was totally fine, if a little lackluster in comparison to Neuromancer. Of course, the problem with having an absolute banger for a debut novel means you’re spending the rest of your career chasing that high, but I guess that’s a good problem to have. Anyway, both of the Gibson novels I’ve read up to now take place in the same world. Pattern Recognition is very different. It’s not a near-future, cyberpunk world dominated by global corporations and income inequality. Rather, the book takes place right around when it was written, which is to say in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The novel very much has the feeling of a thing written in response to how the world was changing around the turn of the millennium.
Here are things that we’ve established about Pattern Recognition:
- It is written in Gibson’s signature style. He has a way of writing breezy sentences out of unconventional pairings of words. It’s hard to explain. The opening sentence of the book refers to jet-lag as “ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.” So far, every Gibson novel is worth reading for his specific writing style alone. Although maybe that’s because I’m a writer and enjoy original approaches to the craft.
- It is decidedly not a cyberpunk novel. It’s not science fiction at all, actually. It takes place in 2002 or 2003, which is right around when the book was written/published. That does not make the book any less strange.
- That’s basically it, because I don’t actually know what this book is about. I followed the plot and the characters and while page to page I was enjoying myself, I still couldn’t tell what happened or why it was important. Pattern Recognition is told from the perspective of a woman named Cayce. She is not a cyber-ninja of any kind. Rather, she’s a “coolhunter,” which automatically makes her uncool. Sorry, them’s the rules. Her job is to help companies figure out what the hot new trends are so that they can leverage their brands. Cayce is very sensitive to branding, you see. She’s literally allergic to trademarks and designer labels. Yeah, it’s that kind of book. Oh, and she’s also obsessed with these random video clips that are getting uploaded to the Internet. Put a gun to my head, and I would say that Pattern Recognition is about Cayce attempting to track down the source of these clips. Please do not put a gun to my head.
A brief sketch of the plot is not a compelling reason to read this book. A very menacing thing that happens to Cayce early on in the book is coming home to her apartment and finding a stuffed Michelin Man hanging on her doorknob. Yeah, the things that happen over the course of this book are not terribly compelling taken out of context. Cayce spends most of the novel jet-lagged and exhausted, which, in conjunction with Gibson’s style, makes everything seem dream-like and disconnected from a concrete reality. Even the once scene of visceral violence feels off somehow, like all the actions the characters take are one step behind reality. Cayce is buffeted around a strange, modern world, and her choices seem almost incidental to what actually happens. Over the course of Pattern Recognition, she finds herself in London, Japan, Russia, and even though Cayce intends to go to those places her agency is still questionable. She’s an oddly passive protagonist.
At its heart, Pattern Recognition is coming to terms with 9/11. Cayce lost her father in the attacks, although the way the situation is presented he was literally lost. Her father is one of the missing, and his death could never be confirmed. He had ties to the intelligence community, back in the Cold War, so his disappearance sits uneasy. As does, of course, 9/11 itself. This is a book which was written when the aftermath was unfolding, and nobody could quite figure out what the long-term consequences were going to be. Now, in 2018, that trajectory is a little more clear. Back then, however, everything was uncertain. Well, other than blundering into an endless war, of course. That was pretty obvious from the jump. One of the weird things about 9/11 that I’m not sure gets talked about much is something that Pattern Recognition seems to deal with pretty well, which is to say things didn’t actually change all that much.
Cayce, a New Yorker with a marketing job, is going on with her life. New York is going on with life. Obviously London and Tokyo are as well. 9/11 is present in this novel, specifically through Cayce’s father, but what’s conspicuous about Pattern Recognition is that the focus is less on terrorism or the response to the attacks and more on how corporations are evolving. Given that Neuromancer and cyberpunk in general are a scathing indictment of late-stage capitalism, with their global corporations and vast wealth inequality, this makes sense. Pattern Recognition, then, could be considered a launching point for how these multinationals learn how to navigate a new world of the Internet and instant communications. Cayce flits from country to country, and the only thing that really changes are the time zones and some light cultural flourishes. Wherever she goes, despite the “mirror-world” differences, Cayce is able to function and pursue her cool or whatever.
I’m still not sure how much I actually liked this book. As I said, moment-to-moment, I enjoyed the writing. That said, there are several levels of disconnect throughout that keep the reader at a distance. I never felt particularly connected to Cayce, mostly because she was always so removed from others and her own environment. As for the plot, it’s hard to take entirely seriously. This is due in some part because of where I’m sitting in 2018. The whole thing with the random video clips never really pays off. I mean, it literally does as Cayce makes a grip of cash from a Russian bazillionaire after she finds the author of the clips. The thing is, the clips were valuable because of how they were marketed. They were viral videos, which is old hat now. The only difference between the viral videos in the book and how they actually came to be a cultural imprint is that the real viral videos are dumb, lowest-common-denominator things. People hurting themselves, cats, Russian dash-cam videos. You know, the Internet. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson imagines the first viral videos as art-house pieces that very smart, cool people are into. Turns out, the world is a lot dumber than Gibson wants to admit.