Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
Published: Berkley Publishing (Feb 2015)
Posted: Goodreads (Oct 14, 2014)
(5 / 5)
“The medium is the message” – Marshall McLuhan
“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.” – Hubertus Bigend, Pattern Recognition
Pattern Recognition is the story of an eccentric trend spotter, Cayce Pollard, and her mission to find the latest viral videos clips attracting a cult-like appeal. William Gibson masterfully blends concise and powerful storytelling with present-day reality in a strangely compelling tale that’ll hook you within the first page.
What follows is my spoiler free review of the novel and an analysis of its themes and plot devices. I decided to include an analysis since there are so many reviews focused on the “big picture.” In this review, you’ll find both the macro and the micro view of the novel!
Story and Summary:
PR is not long. It’s an extremely quick read and features the short sentence structure Gibson is known for utilizing. Shotgun sentences fired in rapid succession, their aim, true, on point and efficient. Word choice is paramount as the small sentences convey images and ideas far beyond their textual representations. The pacing of the novel is as quick as a simple adventure read but PR is so much more than that.
Cayce lives label-free, practically allowing things to happen to her instead of taking an active role in her life. Pattern Recognition isn’t just about the big picture. It’s about Cayce accepting her past, breaking the bubble of isolation that’s surrounded her most of her adult life.
In a world where adventure awaits around every corner – a world of hidden codes, where corporate espionage runs wild – Cayce is forced to make tough choices, both during the course of her investigation as well as her personal life.
Cayce is deeply involved in the “footage” sub-culture. The novel spans multiple countries as she taps her F:F:F network – Fetish:Footage:Forum – in hopes of tracking down the clips creator. Cayce is tasked with piecing together the mystery and delivering her findings to Hubertus Bigend, CEO of the advertising and marketing firm Blue Ant – a figure that hires the “cool hunter” (Cayce) to uncover more details about the viral video clip. He’s the key facilitator in PR, thrusting Cayce into the dangerous world of ancillary characters using marketing and advertising to sway hearts and minds.
Cayce is teamed up with Boon Chu, a security guru and former failed entrepreneur, to go on a country-hopping quest. The mission will threaten to upend Cayce’s life and force her to take a close look at her chosen profession and way of thinking.
As you’ve no doubt read, 9/11 and apopthenia play a huge role in PR. Cayce’s own feelings are brought to the foreground as she is forced to deal with her past and – connected with the 9/11 attacks – uncover secrets in a world of criminals and spies. Gibson believes that 9/11 is one of many nodal points in history in which people began making connections and patterns out of seemingly random things (such as the “it’s-really-like” phenomena Cayce notes upon going to a new city). Of course apopthenia has existed long before this sad historic event but the post-9/11 climate is the focus of the story and serves as a foundation for an excellent tale.
But as Cayce’s investigation progresses she’ll have to answer the big question: are her experiences apopthetic and a result of past or are they really connected?
How 9/11 and an “apopthenia bias” relates to Cayce’s past and her addiction for finding “footage” is a critical element to the narrative and is explored completely in Pattern Recognition.
In that sense, Cayce – flawlessly designed – grows as the novel progresses. Changes to her personality and ways of thinking are deep and intrinsic and you will be satisfied. If you’re concerned with how well apopthenia is explored (and if you’ll “get it,” or think it’s worth reading about), don’t be: Gibson does an excellent job of exploring this phenomenon and relating it to the story.
Protagonist, Structure and Themes:
Cayce is an extremely interesting character with complex thoughts and actions. She’s so “real” that many of her thoughts and actions come across as contradictory to one another. But unlike novels that portray characters poorly, this contradiction is intended. She’s seriously allergic to fashion and labels but is surrounded by them through working freelance for advertising companies. She has huge contracts with major companies but prefers to live her own life like a shadow, as little intervention as possible. Living in the now, Cayce is disconnected from both her past and unsure of her future.
From early on we learn that Cayce is strongly against conventional corporate environments and labels. She’s a 100%Gibson Rebel, not dissimilar to his cyberpunk characters. Cayce takes this eccentricity further by scratching out the brand and designer names on her own clothing. Her clothing – which the reader may describe as “almost stylish” in a rebellious way – is meant to be anti-fashionable, another contradiction Gibson handles well.
In Cayce’s thoughts regarding Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Stalker (early on in the book), for example, her mindset is described flawlessly as: “not one of those who think that much will be gained by the analysis of the maker’s imagined influences.” She takes an object in and can see beyond subjective analysis; she can sense the inherent meaningfulness of the images themselves and their ability to gain attraction (the “cool” factor, the thing she searches for during her day job; the next big thing, critical in trademarking).
Cayce is more of a sociologist or social psychologist than she realizes. Her “abilities” are tied to her understanding of how people interact and what they desire. Cayce may take a passenger’s role in the world, allowing things to happen to her instead of taking the reins, but she’s a master passenger, foreseeing speed bumps and points of interest along the way.
Cayce “likes Pilates because it isn’t, in the way she thinks of yoga, as meditative.” In another instance, the Shinx position she’s practicing is described as having the following mentality: “[y]ou do not get there by thinking about not thinking”. The importance of the quotes shines through when considering Cayce’s take on things of value in present day life. She believes such things require no deep meditative thought, they simply are or aren’t. When Cayce rates a piece of art or marketing design, she doesn’t “think” about the item’s meaning, she says “Yes” or “No” on intuition, her “cool” barometer is a mystery even to her.
Everything Cayce thinks or does is bound to this structure. She is, in essence, a neutral or passive observer in all things.
Philosophy and or cinema majors will instantly note that Pattern Recognition has a strong element of self-reflexivity, a commentary on the media as a whole, a story referring to itself. This is obvious because Gibson refers to Cayce’s anti-art/fashion/logical thinking mindset and yet he makes this a novel, clearly wanting the reader to think critically or at least acknowledge some “deeper” ideas. Cayce becomes “real” in the eyes of the reader because her method is flawed, her pre-conceived notions of film and art on a meta-level actually requires deeper thought and reflection. She battles this during the course of PR, growing as a character.
The Cayce character plays into the overall theme and story of Pattern Recognition: the past can be portrayed in any way, making reality malleable and the future unknowable. The modern world in which we live is completely volatile.
In one indirect reference to the transient nature of history, Cayce touches a replacement jacket (the original had a hole in it); the text describes her going to touch the non-existent hole only to find, “history erased via the substitution of an identical object” (Pg. 194). Finely crafted sentences convey powerful ideas.
Other ideas expressed bring up interesting questions for the reader: what does art mean or say about the subject matter? Does it stand by itself, devoid of introspective thought? Is video clips part of a greater sequence? Is it part of a greater historical commentary? What does the text say of our relationship with the media, news, advertising and media?
Or maybe this deeper analysis is yet another example of apopthenia? Gibson jests about this on interviews, clearly giving a nod to Pattern Recognition’s overarching themes while letting the novel stand on its own with little “revelations” beyond what is written. Since Pattern Recognition is so well written – its ideas expressed so clearly – I find all of the answers in the novel to be satisfactory.
The characters of Pattern Recognition are just as complex and interesting as Cayce Pollard. From the antique computer guy Voytek Biroshak to Hobbs Baranov, a retired math whiz with connections to the NSA. All of them receive considerable depth and seem believable.
While Gibson’s previous work was futuristic, this contemporary work manages to pull off high-tech with reality. If you’re at all interested in the media’s influence, marketing, espionage, steganography, codes, and the history of antiquities, you’ll love PR.
Pattern Recognition is a terrific standalone novel that takes place in a world that mirrors our own. Not only does it have an excellent and intriguing story, it has speculative themes that serve as critiques to the instant gratification world in which we live. In a world in which anything can go viral, advertising and media outlets really do control all that we see and hear, but are those their associations real? What gives them power? This novel will get you thinking and entertain you all at the same time.
A huge fan of William Gibson’s work and all things cyberpunk (including the dozens of spin-off series and role playing games like CP2020 and SR), I’ve got to admit that Pattern Recognition tops anything he’s ever written. While I’m a bigger fan of reading about dystopian, high-tech futures than the present, this novel paints such an amazing picture of the world that I can’t deny its strength as a classic work fiction.
Even if you aren’t into over analyzing Gibson tales (like yours truly), you’ll probably love this highly regarded novel. It’s extremely insightful, smart, fast paced, and easily worth the rating of 5/5.