With Pattern Recognition, William Gibson has turned in his first really authentically 21st century novel, and surprise, it isn't about the hyper-technologized futures he speculated upon when he was busy pioneering the cyberpunk thing in the 80's. Oh, no, those futures are now, and here Gibson concerns himself with our chaotic present, a present in which there is as one character cynically puts it no future to plan for, only a present to be gotten through by "risk management, the spinning of the present moment's scenarios, pattern recognition."
It's a book haunted by the spectre of 9/11 and the uncertainty of the world thereafter. And though, once it gets going, it turns into a fairly conventional unravel-the-secret thriller for which you've got to give that old willing suspension of disbelief a good workout, Gibson whose command of the English language is still so playfully idiosyncratic that he can turn "Zapruder" into a verb holds your interest through sheer momentum and his natural gift for creating living, breathing milieu. The world of Pattern Recognition is recognizably ours, but feels upgraded at every turn, as if by a mad computer geek who's got to have a new processor and video card every week. It's compulsively readable to the point that I didn't even care Gibson was using present-tense voice, a style affectation that I usually greet (vide poor L. E. Modesitt) with annoyance.
A story dressed up, as you might expect, in many of the same tropes of yesterday's cyberpunk like an obsession with the mutability of the information age as well as pretty much anything Japanese Pattern Recognition openly defies many of those tropes as well. Gibson's heroine here is no rebel but a paragon of the system. Cayce Pollard is a consultant commissioned by the advertising industry to vet brands and logos for products based upon an acuity she has regarding corporate culture that borders on the metaphysical. (You might find it a stretch that she actually has severe allergic reactions to some corporate icons, but I saw that as one of the most trenchant satirical jabs of Gibson's career.) The skill of being a "coolhunter," as she is called to her chagrin by many of her clients, has to do with anticipating trends before they become trends and successfully packaging them before the wave peaks.
Cayce has, as a hobby, become hooked on an internet craze involving cryptic snippets of a film that have been shot and uploaded by persons unknown. There are well over a hundred of these clips when the story opens, and Cayce is one of thousands all over the world who jam chat rooms with speculation upon what the latest clips might mean, what order they are intended to be seen in, etc. The very randomness and ineffability of the clips flies in the face of our natural human tendency towards pattern recognition, you see, and even though Gibson's depiction of the subculture that surrounds "following the footage" seems a bit unrealistically large it's hard to buy the idea that some renegade filmmaker posting weird film clips on the internet would literally turn the world on its ear it's an effective plot device for underscoring the novel's post-9/11 themes: to wit, the uncertainty of the fabric of day-to-day life people began to feel following that event. Of course, Gibson, as a good writer, doesn't make the mistake of going into metaphor overkill; the footage is of course not meant to be analogous to terrorism or anything like that (although Cayce's backstory involves a father missing on the infamous day). But the point is that we as people don't like uncertainty, don't like knowing that there's something we can't comprehend. And if we can't fit something into an existing pattern, then by golly we'll come up with one.
Following a job in London, Cayce is suprised when her client asks her to trace the footage, locate the filmmaker. His way of demystifying the footage, naturally, is to figure out if it can be marketed. Here the story settles into the conventional, which, I suppose, undercuts its potential for greatness. Then again, Gibson has always, despite whatever innovations he has brought to SF, been first and foremost a purveyor of page-turners, and so the fact that Pattern Recognition becomes a case of solid themes shoring up a not-always-original plot (particularly at the end, where Gibson, in traditional paperback thriller fashion, wraps things up with a big expository "explaino") shouldn't be held too strongly against it. There's much entertainment to be had as Cayce's search takes her around the globe (of course she goes to Japan), where she has shadowy meetings in bars and gives baddies the slip; the fact that we've seen this storyline before is made up for by Gibson's uncanny knack for having his finger on the pulse of technology (the first clue to tracing the footage comes in the form of digital watermarking) and überhip pop culture. Hell, Gibson references both Beat Takeshi and Ryuichi Sakamoto in an off-the-cuff manner that indicates he expects you to know who they are. That scores coolness points in my book with a big red pen. Plus, all the characters use Macs.
It is true that all of the above may well end up being elements that ultimately date the book. But if you're looking for this year's thinking-person's popcorn novel, Gibson once again proves worthy of your recognition.