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Pattern Recognition

by William Gibson
356 pages,
ISBN: 0399149864


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Patterns of Power and Destruction
by Patrick R. Burger

In Pattern Recognition William Gibson concerns himself with the patterns of reality that determine the fates of individuals and nations. At the same time, he does not stray far from the emotional touchstone of individual reactions to everyday events¨however extraordinary. His main character, Cayce Pollard, offers the slight hope that individuals can discern those grand patterns and even influence them, for she is the agent of Gibson's premise that such patterns can be apprehended. The plot he weaves around Cayce is both fascinating and reminiscent of works by Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. This masterful work suggests an affinity with Dick's The Man in the High Castle: when the enthralled reader puts the book down after being shown the inner workings of the reality that surrounds us, the implications of the book's conclusions continue to haunt.
Gibson's work begins with the most dramatic focal point of actual recent history, September 11, 2001, an event which overshadows Cayce's personal life. Propelled by the shock waves of that event, Cayce drifts across the face of the globe, flying from city to city, struggling with a sense of physical dislocation manifesting as spiritual jet lag. She regrounds herself by wandering through the subtly alienating architecture of the cities she finds herself in. The patterns that the unusually gifted marketing consultant intuitively follows remind the SF reader of a similar concept put forward most memorably by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series. In Foundation the discipline of psycho-history allows its founder to foresee the millennia-distant collapse of the galactic civilization and put in place a plan to shorten the intervening period, of chaos and devolution before the re-establishment of order, to a fraction of the time it would otherwise take. In a sense, Gibson gives us psycho-history's grassroots in a perceptive individual whose observations and recognition of patterns leads her to logical, emotional and spiritual conclusions which make possible both the navigating and shaping of the matrix of reality.
Cayce Pollard is not an info-junkie, but more of an info-tasting genius; her palate is incredibly refined¨she can "taste" those morsels that are the most meaningful amid the constantly flowing information in a society which, to hearken back to another Dick concept, instantly produces kipple, cultural debris, and now more than ever thanks to the Internet. In her intuitive way Cayce winnows out the kipple on the web and becomes a footagehead¨ceaselessly examining haunting and anonymous film clips on the web, clips characterized by vague hints at narrative. This quest (that ever-present convention of the romance genre) overlays her deeper and more personal one. She also, in a halting and uncertain way, seeks her father, Winfred Pollard, missing in New York on September 11th and presumed dead (at least by her mother). Although Cayce's overt efforts to discover the makers of the footage is seemingly peripheral or even unconnected to 9/11, Gibson's exploration of the cultural and political changes that shape Cayce's reality show that 9/11 is a seminal nexus, and a determining factor in the action and meaning of Cayce's life.
In Pattern Recognition, Gibson's meditations on the shift in global patterns resulting from the collapse of the twin towers logically suppose a new locus of power in Europe, where much of the novel is set. And although the Warhawk agenda executed by the Bush regime has anticipated this logical development in the pattern of global power and has moved, in a crude Hari Seldon psycho-history way, to decisively counter that change (under no circumstances would the US put itself at the mercy of Russian oil supplies, as Gibson assumes), Gibson has so deftly constructed his plot that the reality of a conspiracy as elaborate and unnerving as that surrounding the mysterious footage can transcend¨because of its link to Winfred Pollard's ambiguous 9/11 fate¨the text itself and speak directly to the reader in much the same way as Dick was able to in The Man in the High Castle.
A great part of the novel's success stems from the fact that Gibson has become a stylist of language reflecting the cultural and technological changes that are the impetus for his work. This has always been one of Gibson's great strengths, and his attention to detail in his writing consistently takes the audience beyond the banality of its own generalizations. Gibson has gotten so close to reality that he's rubbed his face in it and inhaled deeply of its fluorocarbon-sweet new-car-interior plastic smell: he relays that reality in a simple yet profound fashion: he reminds us that when we see an object that it is not merely a "car", or a "purse" or a "jacket". It is a Hummer, a Louis Vuitton or a Rickson's, and each of these words, these brands, carry with them a host of associations that immediately enrich the object being described for the reader. Of course in doing this, Gibson risks falling into commodity fetishization. He neatly sidesteps this possibility by imbuing his main character with an intense antipathy to the most excessive corporate logos and marketing strategies. Yet Cayce's epiphany at the novel's spiritual centre in the Stalingrad (Volgograd) region and her subsequent acceptance of her hyper-capitalist reality, echoes the meditations that Dick wove through The Man in the High Castle and Dr. Bloodmoney¨namely that the actual pattern of reality (i.e. the Cold War for Dick and the New World Order for Gibson) is preferable to the alternatives.
Gibson is a writer keenly aware of the ability of words to convey the raw reactions of his characters in such a way that the reader experiences them in almost precisely the same fashion. A particularly clever game that Gibson plays in this vein is in having one character say "Cypress"¨confusing both Cayce and the reader until it becomes clear that the word's operative significance lies in its sound, not its spelling, and Cayce and the reader realize that a new piece of a geographic puzzle is being presented.
A subversive minimalist, Gibson is also a master of the sentence fragment. He deconstructs the conventions of storytelling just enough to tap into the electronic fraying of our reality. Gibson's fragments with absent subjects¨or ellipted subjects¨or implied subjects¨ subconsciously suggest that the subject is unnecessary altogether, and not only in terms of grammar. As well, the prevalence of email messages in the book, their neutral familiarity, their subtle disembodied alienation, points to a further evolution of language. Email's conventions, as Gibson demonstrates, are affecting the printed word¨its sloppy grammar is a condition of both its evanescence (where will future collections of correspondence come from?) and its pervasive influence. In addition to these techniques, Gibson also employs interesting transitions from dialogue to paraphrasing which allow for an interstitial emotional breath: "'I don't have a card,' she says, but on impulse tells him her current hotmail address, sure he'll forget it."
The ordinary and fragile emotions that Gibson evokes form the basis of the spiritual dimension of his work. Gibson is intent on capturing the inchoate, fragmented spirituality of modern life, yet in the face of the Kafkaesque cruelty of the world these shards of the spiritual keep Cayce sane. She has a mantra; her longs walks in the cities she visits recall a basic and bare minimum connection to nature; and the logos she works with are symbols of power akin to magical tribal art: "Platinum Visa customized with the hieratic Blue Ant, which of course is a Heinzi creation, robotic and Egyptianate." Moreover, the novel's most haunting image, is its emotional and spiritual leitmotif: Cayce watching a rose petal falling in a store display window an instant before the first plane crashes into the twin towers.
This spiritual concern with the patterns of reality lead Gibson to stress the need to preserve time¨particularly those seminal moments, the turning points¨in order to control and understand our world. One item in particular is accorded near-mythical reverence: the Curta calculator developed by Herzstark while an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp. Herzstark's Nietzschean self-overcoming to achieve this feat under such crushing conditions is given a most Schopenhauerian twist when this ray of hope¨technology as the helpmate of humanity¨inevitably returns to, and reinforces, the patterns of suffering.
The whole towering edifice that Gibson builds in Pattern Recognition ultimately rests on a buried 'Stuka'. The unearthing of this emblematic object is part of the story's climax as Damien, Cayce's friend, strives to record and understand the goings-on around Stalingrad. The ghosts of the past are released, exhumed and violated, to become trophies from sacred ground as symbolic as Auschwitz. The Stuka's perfect condition¨the astonishingly well-preserved body of a German kamikaze pilot¨reminds the reader that the past is real and comes back before us like a prophesy and a conjuration. Is the past finally exorcized by the discovery, or is the find merely proof that the all-too-human lust for destruction is destined to be replayed yet again, like a never-ending pattern? In lieu of a direct answer, Gibson has an 80s era Moscow squat saved from developers by new Russian strongman Volkov. This act of saving that which embodies the past¨echoing Gibson's lovingly-detailed pre-World War II wooden buildings in Tokyo and his earthy description of the Imperial Palace in the midst of a science fiction anime landscape ("ÓTokyo at the bottom of an aquarium of rainy light. Gust-driven moisture shotguns the glass. The lavish lichen of the wooded palace grounds tosses darkly.")¨pleadingly reminds us of the great need to protect the memory of a time before, of patterns before the current ones. Yet is seems that only power can protect such memories and safeguard the artistic impulses that recover fragments, clips, of that past and turn pain into sweetly haunting beauty. ˛
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