"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, August 09, 2003

more archival stuff from the yomiuri, though some of you might be interested in this one.

Gibson now just 15 minutes into the future

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Pattern Recognition

By William Gibson

Putnam, 368 pp, 25.95 dollars

William Gibson is a study in contradictions. The author of seven science fiction novels, he often denies being a science fiction author. He wrote his first novel, 1985's award-winning Neuromancer--which led to him being credited with launching the cyberpunk genre and coining the term cyberspace--on a manual typewriter.

While his previous works have been set in a dystopian near future, his latest, Pattern Recognition, is ostensibly set in the present, though some of the technology and practices described are so cutting-edge as to give the novel a sense of being set in the almost-future of next week or next month.

Though Pattern Recognition dispenses with the techno-wizardry and orbital communities posited in Gibson's earlier work, his recurring themes of the authenticity of art and the nature of creativity are still present. In terms of plot, Pattern Recognition echoes Neuromancer, centered as they both are on a search for the elusive creator of mysterious works of art.

Cayce Pollard is an intuitive marketing consultant, a "coolhunter" who can tell at a glance whether a design will catch on or flop. She is also obsessed with "the footage" a mysterious series of compelling video clips of unknown origin that keep appearing on the Internet, spawning a dedicated subculture. When the eccentric head of a London advertising agency persuades her to seek out the creator of the footage, Cayce bounces from London to Tokyo to Russia with danger, betrayal and intrigue stalking her every step of the way.

Perhaps as a bit of self-satire of his earlier writing, which was sometimes criticized for using brand names in place of adjectives, or perhaps as the kryptonite to her coolhunting superpowers, Gibson saddles Cayce with a bizarre allergy to certain trademarks and logos, with Bibendum the Michelen Man causing nausea and too much Tommy Hilfiger leading to panic attacks. Cayce even has to have the Levi logo ground off the buttons of her jeans.

Cayce is also in mourning for her father, a former government "security expert" and probable CIA man who may or may not have been at the World Trade Center when he disappeared in New York on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Cayce has inherited a touch of her father's professional paranoia and his legacy looms large in the story.

Gibson has an impressive ability to create with a few deft phrases original characters like Cayce who, while seeming impossible, are eminently believable: Hubertus Bigend, the too-handsome and ultra-persuasive cutting-edge advertising whiz that his former lover, a friend of Cayce's, describes as a "real Lombard--loads of money, but a real dickhead"; Boone Chu, a Chinese-American "white hat hacker," security consultant and failed dot.commer from Oklahoma; Hobbs-Baranov, an abrasive, alcoholic retired mathematician and code-breaker obsessed with an early mechanical computer/calculator created in a concentration camp.

As in most of his books, the characters are not always as fleshed out as they might be and sometimes more attention is paid to their clothing than to their motivations. Nor is sparkling dialogue Gibson's strong suit, with conversations existing more to move the plot along than to develop characters.

However, when it comes to creating an atmosphere or capturing a specific feeling, few modern writers can touch him.

Evocative descriptions of places, from the "cyclopean Stalin-era buildings in burnt orange brick" of Moscow to the "manically animated forest of signs" of Shinjuku, Tokyo, fill the book. Where other writers these days are prone to throwing around postmodern references to television programs, movies or pop music, Gibson is more likely to reference architecture and design, graphic art and obscure subcultures such as Japan's "Otaku covens."

As the man who described cyberspace before there was an Internet, Gibson is especially adept at capturing the feel of bulletin board conversations, the paranoid fear of having one's personal Internet history and e-mail laid bare, the closeness of an e-mail relationship, the eeriness of hearing an e-mail friend's voice for the first time and the shock of a first in-the-flesh meeting between old e-friends.

While Gibson's best science fiction efforts have been set in a near-future that seems so real it could be last week, Pattern Recognition is set in a near past that feels like next week. This is by far his most complex work. By stripping away the action-movie violence and Buck Rogers (by way of William Burroughs) gadgetry that, while entertaining, often obscured the more serious themes of his earlier works, Gibson has managed a mature novel of considerable depth and perception that is rife with insight into the nature of electronic relationships, mass culture and the commodification of creativity.