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Also in this issue:

Super Monkey Ball 2
for GameCube
reviewed by
Justin Hall

Previously in Mindjack:

february 17, 2003

Spinning the Web: The Realities of Online Reputation Management
by Nicholas Carroll

Animal Crossing
for
GameCube
reviewed by
Jane Pinckard

pattern recognition
Buy Gibson's
Pattern Recognition
at Amazon.com for 40% Off

In 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.

February 24, 2003 | books

"The 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.

"The 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.

"The 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 convicted 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 Yellow 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 Ono-Sendai 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 into cute 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" of British 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 his last 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 satisfying story.

But there are problems. Much of the plot revolves around watermarks, key-loggers 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.

bio:
Cory Doctorow 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 Standard Tribe.

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