Thursday, March 24, 2005

Gibson: Pattern Recognition—Post-Modern Paranoia and New-Media Apophenia


William Gibson has a justly-deserved reputation as the novelist of the Internet; commencing with Neuromancer in 1984, and sustained by his latest, Pattern Recognition. Although Gibson's work has been labeled "cyberpunk," there's little punk about it. His latest novel is a mature work with all the literary prerequisites: characters, theme and ample plotting.

The core idea in the story is a film-noir which is being released, piece-meal via the Internet, one short scene-clip at a time, non-chronologically. Around this "footage" has grown an intricate community of blogs, forums, otaku geeks and tech-hack fans. Cayce Powell, a global consultant to marketing companies, is a "coolhunter"—and also a footagehead. Her job involves identifying what will be perceived as cool next month, so advertisers can connect it to their products. Her hobby (which is about to become a job of its own) is to figure out whether the footage scenes are part of a completed movie that has been hacked up, or whether they are an ongoing creation.

Gibson has made clear the link between tight-focus attention to minutiae and the "discovery" of message. Cayce's mother is a devotee of EVP (the phenomenon celebrated in last year's movie White Noise); Cayce keeps getting eMails from her Mom about messages from her father, who was associated in some way with the CIA until he disappeared in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She can ignore these messages, but then her father appears to her in a dream with cryptic advice dredged out of her subconscious.

Cayce makes her own attempts to sort signal out of noise, in her life as well as in the footage. She is driven by her need to avoid logos, but compelled to recognize the ways in which the city-scapes she inhabits are the same (even when they are subtly different.) So she calls London and Tokyo "mirror-worlds" of her comfortable New York City, and seeks out the places (Starbucks, for example) where they are most alike.

As Cayce gets closer to solving the mystery of the footage, her life gets more complicated. Is the vile Dorotea just jealous of her expensive coat; or is she a spy after something more sinister? Is the laconic Boone Chu a friend; or is he operating on a completely hostile agenda? And why does Cayce's amusingly-surnamed employer really want to contact the maker of the footage—is it because of the media buzz that has suddenly grown around what had been limited to a small fandom? Or did the marketing mogul start the buzz in the first place?

As the characters around her become more intimidating, Cayce finds more and more hidden information. In addition to the steganography uncovered in the footage by Japanese hackers, there are the buried messages in the Footage Fans' Forum that lead Cayce to Moscow, and the Muzak swirl of Frank Sinatra's voice that resolves into a life-saving message from Cayce's father.

This novel combines an intriguing mystery with outstanding use of the new media, and solidifies Gibson's claim as the authentic voice of cyberspace. (Gibson is credited with originating that term.) I guarantee you will have your own bouts of apophenia, especially if you are reading this at 3 AM, as I did.

Take my advice—before you open this novel, lay in a supply of caffeinated beverages and snacks, and change into something comfortable. Once the story gets hold of you, you won't be able to put it down until you find out what emerges when the pattern recognition is complete.

Jane Chord:Five [hours] asleep.

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