Pattern Recognition
by William Gibson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, February 2003, Hard cover, 368 pgs
Review score: **** out of *****

This book review was written in early January 2003 on the basis of the uncorrected proof of Pattern Recognition, which I bought from a used book store (via ABE Books).

One definition of science fiction might be: a work whose story is set in the future. William Gibson's first book, Neuromancer, published in 1984, is definitely a science fiction book. Neuromancer is set in the rather dark future of the Sprawl. The book is named for one of the characters in the story, a fully sentient artificial intelligence. On the basis of the defintion above, Pattern Recognition is not science fiction. Pattern Recognition is set in the present, or perhaps more exactly, the very recent past (relative to January 2003).

One of the features of genius is that a genius looks at the world differently. The geniuses who are really talented can help us see the world as they do. In physics their vision is expressed in mathematics. In William Gibson's work, the vision is communicated in beautifully constructed sentences (in the documentary interview with William Gibson, No Maps for These Territories, Gibson recounts spending weeks writing and rewriting one sentence early in his writing career).

Although Pattern Recognition is set in the present time, it feels like a different world. Pattern Recognition is the modern world through the eyes of William Gibson. One of the features of this world is that the trademarks, logos and icons of our age, which most of us ignore, are part of the base structure of reality, not just minor color. Logos, design and the artifacts of humanity are the subtext that provides the background roar in this reality. In the case of the central character in Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard (I assume that Cayce, pronounced "Case", is a homage to Gibson's first protagonist in Neuromancer1), the roar of logos and the impact of design are so intense that they can make Cayce sick. Cayce is a thirty-two year old woman2. She is a free lance consultant, specializing in telling advertising agencies and corporations whether a logo or product design will work - whether it will be cool. Being modest, Cayce describes what she does as "marketing", but others might describe her as a Coolhunter.

Products, logos, design and branding are ever present. The characters feed their caffine jones at Starbucks. The lover of one of Cayce's friends dresses in Prada and wears expensive designer panties (no brand given). An advertising executive wears a Paul Smith suit. Tommy Hilfiger exerts a toxic presence. Cayce uses her friends Apple G4 Cube and carries an iBook with her through much of the story. And then there are the obscure artifacts. Some of them you can get if you are up on popular culture (which my wife explains to me). Cayce excercises at Pilates studios. Some of the artifacts are truely obscure. Cayce wears a Buzz Rickson's MA-1 flight jacket. Apparently these are carefully crafted and highly realistic repoductions of US World War II flight jackets, manufactured in Japan. One of the sub-plots in Pattern Recognition involves the Curta handheld mechanical calculator, which is a small hand held mechanical calculator first sold in 1948.

Science fiction novels are more or less stand alone. The world they describe exists only in the authors head and the author introduces us to this world as the story unfolds. I think that people a hundred years from now could understand Neuromancer. Pattern Recognition is set firmly in the modern world and is full of references that are current in the early part of the twenty-first century. A century from now, students of twenty-first century history will know about the fall of the World Trade Center in the terrorist attack. But only a master of the details of our age may know who or what Tommy Hilfiger is. This may make Pattern Recognition perishable, in a way that Gibson's other books are not.

Pattern Recognition is about obsession and passion. The obcession of collectors (Gibson is a collector of antique watches). Apparently people do collect Curta calculators. Looking over the historical bids on eBay, it looks like Curta calculators have been selling for somewhere between $500-$800 (US). Some have been listed in the $1,000 range, but have received no bids.

The central obcession in Pattern Recognition is with "the footage". The footage consists of connected images, usually of two people, that have been released onto the Internet. They appear to be crafted by a master of film making, but this master is hidden, unknown. An obcessive discussion group has evolved on the Internet, the "Fetish:Footage:Forum" (F:F:F), which discusses each frame as it is appears from an unknown source. The footage is the attractor around which the story in Pattern Recognition orbits.

What is interesting is that someone so highly attuned to design as Cayse Pollard is never elated by what they consider great design (which was the feeling I had when I saw the Salk Institute designed by Louis Kahn). We learn that certain logos and designs cause Cayce pain, but design does not seem to give her pleasure. The only artifact that speaks to Cayce Pollard's passion is the footage.

I have been to several of William Gibson's book signings and readings and I've watched No Maps for These Territories. What amazes me is that Gibson talks in a style that is similar to the way that he writes (in contrast, this is not true of another great science fiction stylist, Ray Bradbury). Those amazing sentences are there in Pattern Recognition as well. This is the way the book starts:

Five hours' New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town in the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.

It is that flat and spectral non-hour, awash in limbic tides, brainstem stirring fitfully, flashing inappropriate reptilian demands for sex, food, sedation, all of the above, and none really an option now.

Reading is strange, a Gestalt process that transforms words into images. The setup for the story in Pattern Recognition starts slowly and I found that I could happily wallow around in Gibson's sentences, images and world view. As the story accelerated, the sentences disappeared into the images of the plot, perhaps because I was reading faster. I thought of Gibson carefully crafting those sentences and I felt guilty that I did not notice them anymore as the pace quickened.

Pattern Recognition is Gibson's first book in three years (his last book, All Tomorrow's Parties was published in October 1999). A wag on Slash Dot commented that "of course this is Gibson's best novel in years", since we've had to wait three years for this book to appear. This is a good book. On the back cover the publisher writes that Pattern Recognition "reaches out to a wider readership than anything he has ever written". Who knows. I doubt that the readers of Clive Cussler are going to become William Gibson fans. Gibson's sentence structure and ideas would be too much for most of them. I do think that it is safe to say that if you like Gibson's recent work, you will like Pattern Recognition. I'm looking forward to getting a signed hardcover copy.

  1. Since I wrote this review, William Gibson has stated in at least one interview that Cayce is not a reference to Case in Neuromancer. He realized that some people would interpret it that way but wanted to use the name anyway.
  2. When I first read Pattern Recognition, I missed Cayce's age, which was kindly pointed out by Eric C.


Ian Kaplan
January 2003
Last updated on: February 2004

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