Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

G. W. Putnam’s Sons 2003  356 pp. 25.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


William Gibson is back in the game, baby, with another shiny pleasure, Pattern Recognition.  The prince of digital cool has once again deployed his considerable gifts for intimating the shape of our future while maturing significantly as a prose stylist.

Cayce Pollard is a thirty-two-year-old Coolhunter, a freelance “sensitive”: show her the proposed logo of an international commodity, and her oddly attuned psychic antennae somehow tell her instantly whether the logo will catch on with the consuming public. 

In her freelance role as “a very specialized piece of human litmus paper,” she finds herself attached to the Blue Ant corporation. “Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores.  Or perhaps as some non-carbon-based life-form, sprung from the smooth and ironic brow of its founder, Hubertus Bigend, a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates.”

That’s her day job.  Her real passion, however, is the Footage.  Dumped onto the Internet from a mysterious source, 135 seemingly random fragments of digital film have appeared, spawning a disparate group of participants in the discussion group F:F:F, Fetish: Footage: Forum.  What’s the origin of these mysterious clips?  What do they mean?  Do they have an order? 

Their presence on the Net has also attracted the attention of Bigend, “lateral thinking imp of the perverse, thirty-something boy genius, seeker after the truth (or at least functionality) in the markets of this young century.”  He saw in the Footage “attention focused daily on a product that may not even exist.”  Whoever created the Footage has knowledge that would be invaluable to any global marketer.

Cayce is enlisted to discover the origin of the Footage.  Along the way, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the Footage itself may not even be film, but a means of transmitting hidden information across the Internet using steganography, “concealing information by spreading it throughout other information.” A mathematical code is discovered hidden within one segment of the Footage which, when decoded produces a mysterious map, the meaning of which takes Cayce to Tokyo, London, and ultimately, Moscow.

Pattern Recognition is, however, two stories.  In the foreground Cayce conducts her adventurous hunt for the meaning of the Footage.  In the background, her search sets off other, more personal connections: her father disappeared in New York on 9/11, but it was never definitively established that he was a victim of the terrorists’ attack.  Men of fabulous wealth she encounters hint that Wil Pollard may still be alive.

Gibson’s specific strength as a writer is his ability to hint at the boundless metaphysical implications of our movement into an increasingly digital environment, speculations couched within what amounts to jazzy detective stories.  Interestingly, these ideas seem to be less overtly stated than embodied in his style. 

Take Cayce’s favorite article of clothing, a WW II replica bomber jacket--“It is an imitation more real somehow that that which it emulates”—Jean Baudrilliard call your office.  She replaces her damaged jacket with a new one--“History erased via the substitution of an identical object.”  Gibson’s prose can produce intellectual echoes that reverberate far beyond the seeming banality of a character’s daily concerns.  Gibson doesn’t so much speculate about the digital future as he moves within its rhythms.

Pattern Recognition is easily Gibson’s best book since Virtual Light, and although it’s set in the present, it shares much of the conjectural virtues of his original trilogy—Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  Like Kurt Anderson’s Turn of the Century (but more compactly) Gibson shines a flashlight into our future, offering us a tantalizing look.