Back to the present

Science fiction—in the tradition of Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick—long has served as an important forum for social commentary. Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s latest and perhaps best novel yet, is no exception. But where Gibson’s previous works project the future as a lens through which the present can be more clearly observed—see Neuromancer (Johnny Mnemonic for you film-heads), Virtual Light and All Tommorow’s Parties—the new book abandons this canonical lens to expose us to the glaring light of the present.

Gibson, the father of cyberpunk and a brand name in his own right, takes full advantage of the fluid relationship between images and ideas in this novel riddled with derision for meta-narratives. Multiple story lines congeal around coolhunter Cayce Pollard, a self-styled market researcher who travels the globe trying to discover emerging patterns before anyone else does and connecting patterns to comodifiers. Rather than railing against the exploitive nature of advertising, Gibson engages the reader in the dichotomy of a heroine who is internationally respected for her expertise in market analysis yet suffers from severe phobic reactions to brand recognition. She’s a woman nearly immobilized by a Tommy Hilfiger display, who also finds solace in Starbucks on several continents. It’s a strange refraction of a culture that lives by the media it condemns as the root of so many social ills.

In that same space between signifier and signified, Pollard enters into a dangerous partnership with a Belgian marketing mogul to search for the “garage Kubrick” thought to be the creator of uploaded segments of film footage that form the core of a global discourse no longer concerned with nature, humanity, gender or politics. While picking up information, Pollard learns that her father was a former dealer in cold-war information who disappeared in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Gibson once said, “Nobody actually writes books about the future. They’re just works of imagination, invariably about the day they were written.” In this present-tense cyberthriller, marketing mogul anti-hero Hubertus Bigend gives voice to Gibson’s belief in the transience of time. “We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.”

An improbable but entirely believable cast of characters contributes to the intriguing spy-vs.-spy plotline that ensues. The audience barely blinks when a credibility check discloses, through a reliable rumor from the State Department, that Bigend’s real power is in his connections to the emerging Russian oil trade: “Saudi oil has not been looking so good to the really big guys, globally, since nine-eleven. They’re tired of worrying about the region. They want a stable source. Russian Union’s got it. Means huge changes in the flow of global capital.” On the other hand, the audience knows it’s been had when one of Pollard’s resources, a dealer in antique computers, reports with quiet pride that he is “negotiating to buy Stephen King’s Wang,” before reassuring her that it is “a huge thing—one of the early dedicated word processors.”

Mocking the icons of postmodern literary theory one minute and offering a hypnotizing street-level view of contemporary culture the next, Gibson takes the reader on an enchanting journey of hyperrealism not soon to be forgotten.