PATTERN RECOGNITION – William Gibson (2003)

Pattern Recognition

In an interview a few days ago, Andrew Rosen – former CEO of Theory, a fashion brand – says that “the future leaders of fashion companies are going to be marketers, not merchants, merchants being “the guys that understand how to put everything together and tell the story.” Hubertus Bigend, the antihero of this novel, and CEO of advertising company Blue Ant, says something similar: “Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves, athletic shoes or feature films.

The novel published 16 years ago, one might think Gibson visionary, but Rosen in the same interview says his father identified change already in the mid-70ies, “because that was when designers, and designer-identified products, became the most important things in the business, not manufacturing companies”. In the early 90ies, grim comedian Bill Hicks took on the pernicious power of advertising and marketing too, in a famous stand-up routine.

All this not to say Gibson wrote an irrelevant novel, on the contrary, Gibson wrote a novel that is very much of these times, dealing with topics – branding, globalization, originality, monoculture – that define big parts of our contemporary lives. It then doesn’t surprise that the Wikipedia page on Pattern Recognition is quite long, and even has quotes from postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson on the novel. Yes: Gibson is that kind of powerhouse, the kind that attracts the attention of a powerhouse like Jameson.

Mind you: all that doesn’t make for a particular deep novel – Gibson keeps it snappy and breezy, and he constructs a fairly standard thriller around the themes. He namedrops the term simulacra, but in the end there’s nothing new. Nevertheless, Gibson is able to convey the gradual take-over of sameness in the Western world, through the lens of Cayce Pollard, the story’s protagonist – a young woman with an almost supernatural feeling for cooperate symbols. She finds herself in the world where everything is “reduced, by the spectral hands of marketing, to price-point variations on the same thing.” There’s melancholy in Pattern Recognition, this particular Gibson not a champion of the New, but mournful for the loss of worlds that once were; fleeing to Tokyo and Moscow to give us a dose of something that still is different.

Not a philosophy book, it’s also not really science fiction. It’s set in 2002, the time of writing. There’s a reason for that, and Gibson spells it out loud and clear, in this great, great quote – that has become all the more relevant.

“Of course,” he says, “we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile.”

No SF, yet clearly a Gibson book. Even today, it retains a futuristic vibe, as it deals with a high-end, cutting edge marketing firm, and the mystery at the core of the book relies on technology and the internet. Some early criticism of the novel predicted that it would feel dated quite soon, as so much products are named. A decade and a half later, I can say the novel lost not one bit of its contemporariness. Sure, Hotmail isn’t in vogue anymore, but that’s just surface details.

The most important critique I can muster is that the plot becomes weaker as it unravels. The thriller aspect is well done, and the book is a page turner of sorts, yet as the nature of the central mystery is made clear, the story demystifies itself. Near the end, there’s the book’s weakest structural point: a character explains the loose threads to the protagonist in one big gulp. It’s a minor offense, as by then Gibson’s mission is already fully accomplished.

The same thing happened in Virtual Light: great setup, lesser conclusion. It seems that Gibson is more interested in creating a world than a story.

Anyhow, I thought Cayce was an interesting character, deep enough, a bit lonely, with a 9/11 backstory that makes this also a book on the loss of a parent and a partner. Gibson’s prose is its usual self, always solid, with great moments every so often – moments that somehow are able to frame certain aspects of reality in a new, more true way.

He drives a maroon Hummer with Belgian plates, wheel on the left. Not the full-on uber-vehicle like a Jeep with glandular problems, but some newer, smaller version that still manages to look no kinder, no gentler.


He’d told her that Poland, from the air, looked like Kansas as farmed by elves; the patchwork fields so much smaller, the land as flat and vast.

Gibson wrote two more books in the same setting, with some recurring characters. I’ll keep an eye out for those, but even more than in the rest of the Blue Ant trilogy, Pattern Recognition makes me very interested in Agency, set for release in January 2020.


8 responses to “PATTERN RECOGNITION – William Gibson (2003)

  1. Interesting. I have never read any Gibson. Should I start with the neuromancer trilogy?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe start with his short story collection, Burning Chrome. That’s brilliant. I’m on the fence about Neuromancer (which can be read as a standalone), I think I should reread it, because when I first read it, it was a bit too dense for my mindset at the time. Objectively, I guess it is his best novel, and it merrits all the accolades. The prose and the dialogue is off the charts there, but it’s a very elliptic book, so half of the time I didn’t understand what was going on. I’ve reviewed it, click on the Gibson tag to get there fast.


  2. oberon the fool

    Whether or not you start with Neuromancer, absolutely read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow.
    … wow. *still absorbing that futures quote*. I think I really need to read this. I haven’t yet read any Gibson, although I have Neuromancer in my locker at work for a reading project I’m planning.
    Yeah. I think I really need to read this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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