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February 24, 2003
Excessive Candour
The Case of the World

By John Clute
On the front endflap of the dust jacket of Pattern Recognition, a novel set back in the year 2002, readers will find a statement by William Gibson himself. The full version of this statement appears on page 57 of the book. Hubertus Bigend, an information-sucking android-like advertising guru and godgame magus, is telling Cayce Pollard, the protagonist of the tale, about the times we live in:

"Of course," he says, "we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. 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." (page 57)
Readers unfamiliar with 21st-century SF may understand this passage as no more than a concentrated and succinct op-ed take on the confusions of modern life, and they would not be wrong. But those of us familiar with SF (and the other genres of the fantastic) will surely see something else in what Gibson is saying. We will (I think) see him as making a position statement, an important one.

I think he is saying that the old SF (what I've tended to call First SF in debates on this issue) is no longer possible in a world lacking coherent "nows" to continue from; I think he is saying that he no longer writes First SF (if he ever did: one remembers how Neuromancer [1984] was loathed by traditional SF writers and readers as a betrayal of the edifice of SF: I suppose they were right, poor boobies); but I think he is also saying (here I'm putting a few words in his mouth) that any novel like Pattern Recognition, in which passages like the above are both embedded in the text and intrinsic to the understanding of that text, can be understood as a kind of SF. SF for the new century ...

Fiction's futures are no more

SF is no longer about the future as such, because "we have no future" that we can do thought experiments about, only futures, which bleed all over the page, soaking the present. (Cognitive estrangement is us.) In 2003, SF stories can no longer fruitfully be defined as texts which extrapolate particular outcomes from particular "nows"; such stories that are published as SF are, in fact, nostalgia blankets: Instant Collectibles. In 2003, on the other hand, any story about the case of the world, any story the world can be seen through, is in fact SF. (Mundane novels, which are set in the world like fish in an aquarium, cannot grasp the tank, cannot see the case for the trees.) But it is not just a question of point of view. In a world whose appearance—whose case—can be altered at the touch of a mouse, words become Word. In 2003, we shape reality by saying it. Like terrorists, we world-build by changing the case.

Pattern Recognition is not the first SF novel to tapdance the tympanum of the world in this fashion. Gibson's own Neuromancer, in many ways an augur of the new SF, even features a hero whose name (Case) is a pun prescient of our current focus (he is a symptomatic case not a cartoon culture hero, he cases the grammar of cyberspace, et cetera). The hero of Distraction (1998) by Bruce Sterling, who has collaborated with Gibson, is a spin doctor for whom realities are indeed scenarios to surf. The Dryco sequence by Jack Womack, to whom Pattern Recognition is dedicated, started years ago in the middle future and ends now, where world and story wed, eyes wide shut. Cryptonomicon (1999) by Neal Stephenson, whose Snowcrash (1992) builds hugely on Neuromancer, treats the history of the past half century as a conspiracy of data, "a set of instructions the world must adhere to." I'm quoting at this point from a forthcoming piece that deals with some of these issues: It is something hard to stop talking about, but perhaps it's about time to review the book.

Pattern Recognition begins in Camden Town, a district of London dominated by markets and venues, a place where the world seems isomorphic with the words that spin it. Gibson's Camden Town, in other words, rather resembles an SF novel published in 2003. (I myself live in Camden Town, though not in the flat where Cayce Pollard awakens jetlagged in the first sentence of the book; it is a sign of the omnivorous acuity of Gibson's eye that I recognized much of what it felt to live here after reading this novel.)

A best-case scenario worth recognizing

Even more clearly than Neuromancer's Case, Cayce is a canary in the coal mines of the world. As a freelance consultant for various advertising firms, the air she breathes is semiotically charged, for she is usually hired to judge whether or not a particular slogan, or campaign, or logo, conforms with her sense of the "command languages" that shape the world. Her skill has not been affected by the vertigo in the grammar of the world caused by the fall of the Towers, though she is haunted by that vertigo—that sense that a different drum is marching the world—and by the presumed death of her father, who was in Lower Manhattan on the day. She is in London to pass judgment on a new logo. She is always right about these things. She says no. We forget about the logo.

But Hubertus Bigend, who had brought her across from America, is not finished with his canary. He now asks her to attempt to trace the maker of a sequence of haunting film segments that are being uploaded to the internet. Because of its dark oneiric intensity, and because of the extraordinary high quality of the film stock used, this footage has begun to obsess a wide number of people, including Cayce. She takes the job—and from this point, in Gibson's extremely deft hands, the plot more or less takes care of the reader, everything tying together, in the end, with an unrelenting porcelain clarity.

This shadowless clarity of resolution, at the level of storyline, may be the only substantive cavil about Pattern Recognition; it is certainly my only cavil. It seems to me that the new-SF experience of living in the midst of 2002, which Gibson conveys superbly in the first half of the text, assorts uneasily with the First-SF experience of living through a story which finds dots for all the i's you could ever dream of. Gibson does it superbly, of course—and it could readily be argued that a novel called Pattern Recognition whose subject is pattern recognition might do worse than end with the quilt of story entirely quilted, with the pattern of the story entirely recognized—but still. There remains some sense that the final pages of the book outsmart the heart of the matter.

Which is, I think, the tremolo of the world, as rendered through Cayce's commandeered sensorium, as she plasters herself against the inputs of Camden Town, and Tokyo, and Moscow: wherever the story takes her as she traces the unfolding pattern of the footage, meeting other footageheads en route. There is even a moment of violence, when in an instant of panicky good luck she manages to headbutt an Italian in the employ of the evil Dorotea Benedetti whose logo she had nixed though Dorotea is really in the employ of X and trying to do Y to Z; but this moment, which Gibson could easily have written with his left (or Second Unit) hand, is both visceral and comic.

Most of the great moments of apercu illuminate—seem almost physically to make tremble—the first half of the book, as brand names and logos bathe Cayce like haikus; but even the second half, which knits inexorably towards neatness, does present the working out of a metaphor of the making of the world that, almost more than the tracing of Cayce herself, marks Pattern Recognition as a novel impacted with greatness. It would be inappropriate—this early in the life of the book—to strip the latter parts of the story wide open; but this can be said. All 135 sequences of the footage to date are numbered steganographically—that is, through a complex process of "digital watermarking" which must be deciphered to be read—in a pattern that seems unmistakably to represent the map of some urban area. That the pattern is in fact not a city map, that it is in fact something whose implications wrench the heart, the reader will discover. For the pattern, and the story embedded in the pattern, and the maker of the pattern, are one. Together, they are the wound of the world doing story.

It is perhaps fitting that this story within the footage within the map within the teller, which could also be thought of as the story of the 20th century, the century whose wound is us, appears in Pattern Recognition. It is, after all, a story best understood as SF, a story about the best case of the world.

John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Omni, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and other places too numerous to list; much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986 and Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays.