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“He took a duck to the face at 250 knots.”

Woah. If you want to learn to write well, read King. If you want to feel like you’ll never, ever be good enough, Read Gibson. Pattern Recognition, his eight novel, is in every way, a spectacular achievement.

Gibson has slowly morphed from writing about the future to writing about the present. In fact, reading this 2003 novel in 2021 makes it feel somewhat quaint. There’s still a techy feel to the proceedings (steganography, online tracking, message board subversion), but it’s firmly set in the realm of the now. There’s no futurism to speak of, just an attempt to deal with the bleak present.

It follows the life of one Cayce Pollard. In a tiny nod to Neuromancer, although her name is pronounced “Casey” ala Edward, she prefers to go by the pronunciation “Case.” And here the comparisons end. Gibson is a virtuoso writer, and I feel that Pattern Recognition more firmly cements that fact more than any of his other work. While Neuromancer was exciting and full of far-reaching ideas, those ideas slightly outpaced the writing, I’ve always felt. Not quite to the degree of Philip. K. Dick’s work, but I have always had a problem with him naming so many of the characters so similarly. Cage, Case, Cath, Wage. A minor sticking point, to be sure.

This novel is a marvel of complexity, while never being confusing. It’s an expertly woven series of mysteries within mysteries. Before the book is even half completed, you will be aching to know what lies ahead. And each thread is resolved by the end, in a satisfying conclusion that keeps you guessing until the last pages. It even has a somber but still happy ending, which gives a spot of optimism despite our gloomy collective future.

While feeling like a bit of a throwback when read in the present age, it also has sweet bits of nostalgia. The Time-Sinclair ZX-81 computer makes an appearance. There’s even a bit about Stephen King’s Wang. It was written shortly after 9/11, and incorporates that bit of history into the text in an entirely natural fashion.

I won’t delve into the plot itself, because I could scarcely do it justice. It has all the elements of a great Gibson work: paranoia, feelings of unreality, a talented but flawed protagonist. The only box left unticked is that there is no drug addict in this one, which I had started to feel was one of his trademarks of character development. I think it also does a great job of making me care about the lead character. Above I said that this one can scarcely be compared to Neuromancer, but that’s not fully the case. There is actually an element of “Ghosts in the Machine” here, but presented in an organic form, removed from the world of AI and Constructs.

In fact checking myself for this review, I have discovered that this novel came before Zero History, which I have also read, and I have to say I enjoyed this one more. But I had no idea they were part of an informal trilogy. That book doesn’t quite stick in my head like this one does, although I did recognize the similarities. What I didn’t recall was that they share a character. Unfortunately, it’s not Cayce.

As testimony to Gibson’s brilliance, I’ll leave you with this paragraph, which is a bit of a spoof of online pretension, while at the same time exhibiting a stunning breadth of knowledge. It’s a message board posting from one of the minor but important characters.

“Really it is entirely about story, though not in any sense that any of you seem familiar with. Do you know nothing of narratology? Where is Derridean "play" and excessiveness? Foucauldian limit-attitude? Lyotardian language-games? Lacanian Imaginaries? Where is the commitment to praxis, positioning Jamesonian nostalgia, and despair – as well as Habermasian fears of irrationalism – as panic discourses signaling the defeat of Enlightenment hegemony over cultural theory? But no: discourses on this site are hopelessly retrograde. Mama Anarchia”

Book Review – William Gibson – Pattern Recognition
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