After I read Neuromancer the first time (yes, I read it more than once), I joked that Gibson wrote it once and then removed about half the words. In Pattern Recognition, he recaptures that hard-edged, terse, yet gorily descriptive prose. It is, as Neil Gaiman says on the back cover, Gibson’s best book since his great moment in science fiction history (I still think Neuromancer is the best science fiction book I’ve ever read). However, the interesting thing here is that PR is not science fiction, and I believe that is because, unsurprisingly, Gibson, despite the sparkling sentences, is not the same man he was twenty years ago. He has matured and his view of the world, while certainly still dark and paranoid, has changed.
Some will probably say that PR is science fiction. Without doubt, there is much in the book that smacks of the genre, especially the sub-genre Gibson is famous for creating. Technology and it’s accouterment are ubiquitous: cell-phones, laptops, software, the internet, chatrooms, servers—all the usual suspects of a Gibson environment. Lights either hurt the eyes or barely exist. Surfaces are hard and shiny, clothing dark, edges lethal, and people all of the above. The lines between corporate executives, crime bosses, and government leaders are blurry, at best. And, as in all Gibson’s work, the super-rich are above it all, somehow both less and more human than ordinary people.
The first thing that makes this story not-science fiction is that it is set squarely in the barely-past-September 11 present. Further, the technology all exists already. There is no prediction and no more speculation than any novel that invents institutions and locales. The hard affect and cynical view of our geo-political-social world are only science fiction out of habit; in fact, this is just Gibson describing part of the world that he sees around him.
Even more to the point is that Gibson reverses science fiction’s priorities. No matter what the writers of science fiction say, the genre is first and foremost about science, about thinking of cool possibilities in the near (or not so near) future. People are basically methods of talking about the ideas. Yeah, the best science fiction uses the cover of the science to also talk about important ideas or trends in contemporary life, but if the science isn’t there, most of even the best books in the genre fall flat on their computer screens (alas, this is probably true of even Neuromancer).
PR puts people first. The main character (Cayce Pollard, in a nod to Neuromancer’s Case) is free-lance marketing consultant with a phobia for trademarks and logos, haunted by the mystery of her father’s disappearance in New York on September 11. Her “tame pathologies”—a variation of another standard device for Gibson—make her a legend in the marketing world. Partly because she’s dealing with the probable loss of her father, she’s become obsessed with a series of small video clips disseminated anonymously over the web. The segments are beautiful and enigmatic in a way that attracts a cult following which meets virtually at “Fetish:Footage:Forum”. Cayce’s emotional pain, psychological distress, and passion for the unknown footage take her on a wild ride around the world looking for “the maker”—the creator or creators of these clips. We watch as she struggles to put the clues and, more importantly, her psyche back together. There is plenty of action, but ultimately this is a novel of interiority.
And Cayce’s interiority is not the only important one here. There are real side characters with developed personalities and relationships built on talking and intimacy. Parkaboy, one of the “F:F:F” regulars, goes on impassioned tirades against other posters and Cayce spends hours responding to him both on the forum and through private email. Cayce and her friend Damien, a documentary film maker, have a long relationship full of communication about their fears and aspirations. All of them care deeply about what they are doing and work very hard at it. In fact, caring about what you do enough to put yourself on the line is what separates the good guys from the bad in the PR. Artists, waitresses, computer geeks, corporate execs, and even Russian mafia bosses are okay as long as they are doing something they believe in. Bad guys are those for whom “it’s all actually about money.”
Fortunately, the moral scale is not quite as stark as this. The “good guys” are still complicated and there’s usually some good things about the “bad guys,” too. There’s plenty of sexual attraction and more than a share of glitzy, pretty people and things. But, there are also some grim realities and fully engaged people doing things they care about. This story affirms human relationships and the importance of doing that which you care about passionately. It is also a criticism of the importance of money in our culture, of what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls our society’s focus on “instrumental reason.” The overt moralism and the centrality of human relationships are things I think Gibson is trying on as an author for the first time; his tentativeness is borne out by the fact that this is his simplest book, structurally, since Neuromancer. While I don’t think he’s duplicated the original genius of that book, Pattern Recognition is still a good book, and that despite our ability to see his lack of certainty. After twenty years, a marriage, children, probably a mortgage—The Whole Catastrophe—Gibson has tired of creating only young, hard-edged, self-destructive characters and stories. He has discovered that all of life is not hard drugs, fast women, and faster guns. He’s trying to write himself a new definition. Many writers in this situation have failed to mature as well.