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Pattern Recognition

Author: William Gibson
Publisher: New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003
Review Published: October 2003

 REVIEW 1: Tama Leaver

    The television is on, CNN, volume up ... she sees, on the screen beneath the unused leatherette ice bucket, the impact of the second plane.

    And looks up, to the window that frames the towers. And what she will retain is that the exploding fuel burns with a tinge of green that she will never hear or see described.

    Cayce ... will watch the towers burn, and eventually fall, and though she will know she must have seen people jumping, falling, there will be no memory of it.

    It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority.

    An experience outside culture. (137)
The impact of September 11 sent such powerful waves of trauma, fear, and paranoia through Western culture that it finally provoked William Gibson, best known as the author of Neuromancer, into dispensing with the allegorical safety of examining and offering critique of the present from the vantage point of an imagined science fictional future. Rather, the father-of-cyberpunk's new novel Pattern Recognition is firmly rooted in the contemporary and, as such, is at least as much value to cybercultural studies as any critical work. Many of todayís big issues are addressed; privacy, surveillance, globalisation, online community, new media, authenticity in the digital era, and the omnipresence of Google all take turns on center stage. Moreover, while the novel may not be about September 11 per se, as the opening quote illustrates, the fall of the Twin Towers, and the immediate aftermath, provide a constant narratological undertow.

Pattern Recognition's protagonist is Cayce Pollard, a freelance image consultant and logo guru. Gibson mediates her introduction thus: "Google Cayce and you will find 'coolhunter,' and if you look closely you may see it suggested that she is a 'sensitive' of some kind, a dowser in the world of global marketing" (2). The ubiquity of Google, it seems, has seen it mutate from number to noun and, now, to verb. When not uncovering emergent trends in fashion and advertising, Cayce is obsessed with "the footage": mysteriously beautiful and brilliant video clips which have emerged over the Internet, but which have no definitive origin. The closest thing Cayce has to a home is "Fetish:Footage:Forum" (F:F:F), an online discussion group dedicated to the footage, seeking to understand, interpret and, above all else, to try and discover its origins.

Although Cayce has a New York apartment, she never returns there during the novel, giving F:F:F the central place in the narrative usually occupied by a home or, given the noir-like style of Pattern Recognition, theoffice. Moreover, F:F:Fís digital location and function allow Gibson to make insightful comments not only about these forums, but also other forms of online communication. Cayceís dislike for chat environments, for example, provides a pithy interpretation of their drawbacks: "The hectic speed, and the brevity of the lines in the thread, plus the feeling that everyone was talking at once, at cross-purposes, deter her" (4). Email, too, gets a witty once-over, addressing both the problems of spam and the monopoly of Microsoft in a manner which suggests Gibsonís take on technology is directed by first-hand experience (something absent from all of his previous novels): "Hotmail downloads four messages, none of which she feels like opening. Her mother, three spam. The penis enlarger is still after her" (5).

The banality of the digital world so described seduces the reader into a semblance of familiarity which is effectively and abruptly ruptured when Cayce discovers that her laptop, email, and phones have all been under continual surveillance. The sense of invasion and paranoia these passages provoke are all too familiar in our post-September 11 world.

Questions of authenticity and originality in the face of the digital are also thoroughly scrutinized. Bigend, the ironically named CEO of the advertising company currently employing Cayce, gives voice to some fairly keen observations about copyright, the Internet, and "the classics." For example:
    You've seen the guerilla re-edit of the most recent Lucas? ... They seem particularly to pick on him. One day we'll need archaeologists to help us guess the original storylines of even classic films. (68)
Gibson's reference to the (in)famous fan re-edit of George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode 1 Ė The Phantom Menace, dubbed the "Phantom Edit," points to the shifting sands of authenticity in the digital age. The idea of Lucas' films (especially the new ones) being "classics" certainly makes interesting assumptions about a post-canon culture, while the term "guerilla re-edit" points toward questions and notions of agency and fan creativity a la Henry Jenkins (1992, 1998). Gibson also alludes to recent events in the world of music in the face of the demonised mp3 format, and the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA's) attempts to crack down on music trading. Gibson's take on the pros and cons of music trading online is particularly ironic:
    Musicians, today, if they're clever, put new compositions out on the web, like pies set to cool on a window ledge, and wait for other people to anonymously rework them. Ten will be all wrong, but the eleventh may be genius. And free. It's as though the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was. (68)
In Gibson's narrative, when the search for the footage peaks, the importance of media in the digital era reaches life and death proportions. On the trail of the creators of this new media masterpiece, Cayce finds herself attacked, surveyed, pursued, and almost killed amidst entanglements occurring when globally based advertisers tussle with Russian based ex-Mafia entrepreneurs. Without revealing the ending, it is fair to say that the divide in F:F:F between those who believe in the "Garage Kubrick" (the idea that the footage is created by an undiscovered auteur-genius outside of the normal practices of the media industry) and those who prefer the "Speilberg's Closet" explanation (that an already-established media giant is using the net anonymously to release a masterpiece in a uniquely engaging manner) does reach resolution.

While Pattern Recognition in itself offers a great deal to cybercultural critics, readers familiar with Gibson's earlier work will appreciate the many ironic and self-depreciating references to his earlier novels. Readers of Gibsonís first and most widely known novel Neuromancer (in which, as we all well know by now, he coined the term cyberspace) will remember that the console cowboy protagonist was named Case. In Pattern Recognition, the central character's name is very similar:
    "No. It's Cayce."

    "Case?" [asks Voytek]

    "Actually," she finds herself explaining, "it should be pronounced 'Casey,' like the last name of the man my mother named me after. But I don't." (31)
Given that for the vast majority of academic critics, Gibson is simply a synonym for Neuromancer, this mistaken pronunciation holds the recognition that Gibson is all too familiar with how his work is remediated through the academic lens. Indeed, given that Fredric Jameson (1991: 38) hailed Neuromancer as an "exceptional literary realisation" of the postmodern condition itself, Gibsonís ironic take on the problems of postmodernism is particularly amusing. Given that postmodernism is often accused of promoting style over substance, Gibson delivers a pointed analogy, likening the postmodern to derivative fashion label "Tommy Hilfiger":
    This stuff is simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Loren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Savile Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul. (17-18)
In one simple passage, Gibson captures the endless referentiality, the end of originality, and the fashionability at the expense of any substance which characterize the extremes of postmodernism.

Even if, as Cayce's remediated memories suggest, September 11 really was "an experience outside culture," Pattern Recognition is, at least, a valiant attempt to map the emotional, political, and social impact that the fall of the Towers had on Western culture. For cybercultural studies, that is reason enough to read and re-read Pattern Recognition since, like Gibson's earlier work, this novel engages as directly with the Western dominated digital landscape as any critical work available today. Also, the development of Gibson's own blog and forum serve to solidify his ongoing and lasting presence in the digital ether. Gibson's second trilogy (Virtual Light [1993], Idoru [1996] and All Tomorrow's Parties [1999]) seemed to slip under the academic radar somewhat. The only book-length analysis thus far is Dani Cavallaro's disappointing Cyberpunk and Cyberculture (2000), and less than a handful of articles have examined the trilogy (see Farnell [1998], Leaver [2003] and Murphy [2003]). However, given Pattern Recognition's rich critical potential for cybercultural studies, I am confident it will not suffer the same fate.

Cavallaro, Dani. Cyberpunk and Cyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson. London: Athlone Press, 2000.

Farnell, Ross. "Posthuman Topologies: William Gibson's 'Architexture' in Virtual Light and Idoru." Science Fiction Studies 25.3 (1998): 459-80.

Gibson, William. Virtual Light. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

___. All Tomorrow's Parties. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999.

___. Idoru. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

___. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Jenkins, Henry. "The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age." Red Rock Eater News Service (1998). Accessed 20 August, 2002.

___. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Leaver, Tama. "Interstitial Spaces and Multiple Histories in William Gibson's Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties." Limina 9 (2003): 118-130.

Murphy, Graham. "Post/Humanity and the Interstitial: A Glorification of Possibility in Gibson's Bridge Sequence." Science Fiction Studies 30.1 (2003): 72-90.

Tama Leaver:
Tama Leaver is writing a PhD in English, Communication and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia entitled "Artificialities: From Artificial Intelligence to Artificial People - Representations and Constructions of Identity and Embodiment in Contemporary Speculative Texts." When not pondering overly long titles, his research interests include cultural studies, digital culture, science fiction, and contemporary film. Tama also reviewed Bell's An Introduction to Cybercultures for RCCS.  <tama@cyllene.uwa.edu.au>

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