William Gibson built his reputation writing science-fiction, and was one of the founders of the style known as cyber-punk, which gave the general population such words as “cyberspace” and “virtual reality”. With Pattern Recognition the style remains much the same - dense neo-noir scenes in the present tense with lots of technological references - but the setting is now. In fact, the paperback edition would actually have a setting you would have to call “then”, because this book takes place not all that long after the iconic moment we have come to call “9/11”.
Cayce Pollard lost track of a father on the day the Twin Towers fell. He might have been in one of them. Win Pollard worked with security systems and the nature of his work was such that it was hard to tell just where he was at any given time. But he’s been missing since.
When we meet Cayce she is arriving in England, which she thinks of as a Mirror-World to her native North America, She is waiting for her soul to catch up with her.
She feels that “her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be reeled in, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”
What an apt description of jet lag, and we’re only on page 2.
Cayce works in promotions. She doesn’t design ad campaigns and product brands, but she has a hypersensitive knack for telling what will work and what will not. The downside is that she is actually “allergic” to certain logos and product brands, and has a physical reaction to them if she is overloaded.
Cayce is very much plugged into the wired world, though not in the physically “jacked in” manner of earlier Gibson protagonists. She carries an iBook through much of the novel and a good deal of the dialogue is actually exchanges with various e-mail correspondents from all over the world.
A good many of them are obsessed with a web-movie that has been appearing in out-of-sequence segments the fans call “the footage”. The fans, of which Cayce is one, are called footageheads, and they lovingly watch, rewatch and try to make sense of each new segment as it appears. So far there have been 135 of them. It’s not clear if they are all connected, or what order they should be viewed in, or even if that matters.
In London, Cayce finishes one contract and gets another that fits right in with her obsession. Her employer wants her to track down the origin of the footage. This task takes her right round the world to Japan, back to England, on to Europe and, ultimately, to Russia. Cayce’s not some sort of secret agent type, so when the going gets a little rough at various points along the way she needs help. This comes in both physical and cyber form from a number of different sources. Cayce is the one who puts the seemingly disparate pieces all together, but this isn’t a novel about a super woman type.
One of Cayce’s problems stems from her loss. The impact of 9/11 looms large in her life, as it did for Gibson while he was writing this novel, and she also has to cope with the mania of her New Age mother, who is convinced that she is picking up white noise messages from her missing husband from the aether of the afterlife.
On a more mundane level, there’s also a fair amount of cutthroat office politics in this story, the type of thing that could take place in any business managed by a relentless entrepreneur.
Pattern recognition itself is defined as "the act of taking in raw data and taking an action based on the category of the data" and comes from the study of machine learning, a long winded way of defining what we all do with the reality around us all the time.
Cayce has to sort out the patterns of her life, of the footage, of the office guerrilla warfare aimed at her, and of her own personal reactions to losses in her life. All of these things make for an engaging, if sometimes confusing, novel. Gibson’s fans will not be disappointed by it, and those readers who don’t like science fiction may find its present day setting and attractive place to meet the writer.