Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Okay, let’s get one thing clear right now. Pattern Recognition is damned good book. The prose is stunning and the protagonist is at once hardcore and sympathetic. Prior to this I’ve only read one Gibson and while Neuromancer is a bit dated now it’s still an astonishing read. I’m pleased to say Pattern Recognition is at least its equal.
Cayce Pollard has the odd affliction of being allergic to branding. This aids her in her career as a cool-hunter and brand consultant. She is also part of a community that seeks to learn the origin and meaning of mysterious fragments of footage that have started showing up all over the internet. When her newest employer recruits her to discover the identity of the creator of the footage she’s hurled into an adventure that sees her facing off against industrial spies and mafia goons, all the while inching ever closer to the truth.
The story is told in third person present from the perspective of one Cayce Pollard. She’s young, smart, but haunted by both her affliction and the loss of her father two years previous. She comes across as forceful yet kind, strong yet vulnerable, capable yet utterly overwhelmed by the task she is set. In short, you spend most of the book wanting to give her a big hug and then cheering when she overcomes obstacle after obstacle.
Gibson’s characterisation is economical in the extreme. While telling is used for the odd smattering of back-story, he spends most of his time showing you who his characters are, describing their affectations in surprisingly subtle detail. There’s a moment at the beginning of the novel where a piece of Cayce’s clothing is damaged. Yes the item is close to irreplaceable, but it’s still just clothing. Despite this, the impact I felt was huge. Gibson is just very, very good.
The supporting characters are also very nicely drawn. Voytek, an artist seeking old computers for an installation, is particularly interesting for his open nature. He reads like the only true innocent in the entire story. He’s the complete opposite of Boone Chu, Cayce’s partner on her mission, who, because of his association with their employer, gives off warning signals from his first appearance. Cayce describes each person she meets in sparse detail and, despite the fact they quickly become part of her life, she always maintains a cool distance. It is this that makes her relationships seem so genuine.
Pattern Recognition reads like a very deliberately paced Hollywood thriller that every so often stops to dig deep into our collective psyche. The prose oozes style and flows off the page. This is not a book you will read slowly. Its exploration of our obsession with products and the role of marketing in society combined with Cayce’s paranoias (or are they) gives an over-arching feeling of everything being out of control. As Cayce progresses in her mission this effect amplifies over and over. You begin to entertain the idea that perhaps no one is in control any more, and this is far more terrifying than any evil corporation or government.
The story kind of fizzles out at the end and meanders a little in places. It’s also slightly dated by the technology mentioned: iBooks and Apple Cubes. However, these minor complaints are overwhelmed by the sheer quality of pretty much everything else.
William Gibson has been known to state in interviews that time has caught up with his writing. While this is certainly true, Pattern Recognition commands the reader and forces them to examine the things that make our society what it is in such a way that they seem totally alien. Reading his work is a true pleasure, but it’s also educational and challenging. Good stuff then.