Pattern Recognition, Gibson, for the first time in a novel,
turns his attention to the present day. Ono-Sendai decks are
replaced with iBooks and cell phones. Websites and MPEG movies
take the place of the consensual hallucination of cyberspace.
Cory Doctorow has our review.
future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." Perfect verbal
gems like this drip off Gibson's tongue, seemingly effortlessly.
He just sets his fingers on a keyboard or opens his mouth and slowly
lays out these fantastic
koans that become so popular that their origin is forgotten.
sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead
channel." This is, after all, the man who coined the word "cyberspace,"
a word that appears to have grown so popular as to be embarrassing,
at least when Gibson checks
into a Manhattan biz-hotel and takes temporary possession of a
magnetic key-card on which "WELCOM TO CYBER SPACE" is emblazoned.
street finds its own use for things." Madison Avenue has found
its own use for CYBER SPACE, made itself very WELCOM indeed, as
have an infinite and dazzling array of scam-artists whose FATHER,
the LATE GENERAL M'BUTO SESE SEKO, has left them with the SUM of
$100,000,000. The Dreaded Rear Admiral Poindexter, Congress's favorite
felon, is still attempting to convince our lawmakers that they
must be Totally
Aware of Information, lest the scions of the LATE OSAMA BIN
LADEN use our informational supercyberhighways to commit more uniquely
mediagenic XXIst Century atrocities.
The future is here. Not the future of Neuromancer,
Gibson's seminal 1984 novel. Despite the posturings
of "Black Hat" and "White Hat" and "Grey Hat" haxx0rs, the computer
criminals of 2003 are depressingly banal boiler-room scamsters who
have all the cunning of a cabbage and whose PENIS ENLARGEMENT come-ons
are as romantically raffish as the LOSE
WEIGHT NOW ASK ME HOW sticker on the back of a dented 10-year-old
four-cylinder minivan. Worm writers are less a testament to fiendish
coding as they are to the fundamentally
stupid security model of Outlook. None of these pissants deserve
the noble title "con
artist" -- they don't have the elan to class themselves with
Kid Weil and the High-Ass Kid.
It's just not evenly distributed. The Explorer-using cubicledrones
of 2003 may be subject to the depredations of popup
windows and blinking banners, but even the least leet among
them can download and install Mozilla.
If Case, the console cowboy of Neuromancer were alive today,
he'd deinstall whatever proprietary crapola OS shipped with his
Cyberspace Deck, find a decent Debian
build, and install Moz. Then, before his first run on the black
ice, he'd right-click on its representation and select "Block
lethal shocks from this server" from the pop-up menu.
Gibson wasn't writing about the future, of course. He was writing
metaphor, a parable about the mid-80s, the thrusts of arcade-kids'
chests as they attempted to climb into the Donkey
Kong cabinet. The early information economy, the movement of
computers out of air-conditioned purpose-built data-centers and
little machines that could lurk in the spare room, tethered
by a 300 baud Hayes-compatible to Matthew
Broderick's bedroom vocoder.
Famously, he wrote Neuromancer on a manual
typewriter. He avers that this was not an aesthetic statement,
but rather a reflection of his dire financial straits, and who are
we to disbelieve him?
Today, Gibson uses a very slick MacOS laptop. He jets from city
to city on a worldwide book-tour, playing to packed houses from
Scandanavia to San Francisco, reading from his new book, "Pattern
Recognition," a very fine novel that is, alarmingly, set in
the present day.
In Pattern Recognition, the future is here. Cayce, the heroine
of PR, is addicted to Hotmail. She travels with an iBook
and logs into her ISP with a tethered GPRS cellphone (note to Apple/Nokia:
you missed a hell of a promotional opportunity when you failed to
give Gibson a gratis Bluetooth notebook
and a matching phone).
She is obsessed with a series of MPEG clips that surface at irregular
intervals and are the subject of fierce debate in online communities.
Cayce is a brand-consultant. She has a particular and improbable
mental disorder: an environmental allergy to shitty marketing. Drop
her in the Tommy Hilfiger ward at the local Sak's and she'll have
a nervous breakdown. She has bemused tradesmen grind the trademarks
off the rivets in her Levi's. This is, of course, a brilliant conceit,
one that affords Gibson endless opportunity to indulge in fantastically
clever, captivating observances on the nature of brands and the
regional differences thereof -- PR follows Cayce from London to
Tokyo and elsewhere, and Gibson's riffs on the "looking-glass world"
brands and consumer goods are nothing shy of genius.
The head of a zaibatsu-sized ad agency in London sends Cayce on
a quest to discover the Maker of the Mysterious Video Clips. His
motives are seemingly transparent: after all, this is the biggest
marketing phenom, evar,
and the genius behind it is so very clever that s/he must either
be partnered with or destroyed. But Cayce (and her band of international,
net-linked, polyglot adventurers and researchers) have purer motives:
this is Good Art, and they want to meet the Artist and let her/him
know how good this shit is.
The adventure is just what you'd ask for in a great, big new William
Gibson novel, the first in three years, and a third longer than
book. There're lots of false clues, a mystery with a genuinely
surprising and eminently satisfying conclusion, zippy chases and
snappy dialog. This is a very good book, I'm trying to say, a really
But there are problems. Much of the plot revolves around watermarks,
and the nature of internetworked
communication, and to a skilled practitioner of these arts --
or even an avid follower of them -- the treatment of the details
of these technologies rings hollow. Gibson is no technologist, he's
an accomplished and insightful social critic and a fantastic writer,
and he treats these items from the real world as metaphor -- just
as he treated cyberspace as a metaphor for the world that the bodies
of cabinet gamers yearned to enter.
Which is his prerogative. Fiction need not be true, only feel
true, and I will freely stipulate that for the 90 percent of Gibson's
audience who are not familiar with the works of Edward
Felten on watermarking or the intricate details of keyboard
wiretapping, the story feels very true indeed. I wouldn't even be
surprised to find, in a year or two, that there were watermarking
technologies that followed the form and function of Gibson's imagined
technologies, just as there were companies that sprang
up to produce a cyberspace that mirrored that of the Sprawl
Trilogy that began with Neuromancer.
But I fear that, ultimately, Gibson's metaphorical treatment of
these technologies will date this very fine book. While only a small
fraction of the audience for this book today will be able to spot
the narrative spackle holding the watermarks and such in place,
fifteen years from now, this ability will be far more common.
Perhaps that's not a bad thing. Gibson's books are historical
artifacts, after all. That's the price of being seminal -- your
work ends up standing in for the zeitgeist of the world into which
they were published.
It takes a very special eye to summon hindsight in respect of
the events of the present, and this is Gibson's forté. Pattern
Recognition may not be altogether accurate, but it is oh, so true.
is the co-editor of the popular weblog, Boing
Boing. His first novel, Down
and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published by Tor
Books in January, 2003 and simultaneously released as a freely
redistributable ebook under the terms of a Creative
Commons license. He is a staffer for the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco.
His next book, a collection of short stories entitled "A Place
So Foreign and Eight More, " will be published by Four
Walls Eight Windows press in September 2003, and will be followed
by his second novel, Eastern
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