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Pattern Recognition

by William Gibson

(US: GP Putnam's Sons, 357 pages, Hardcover, February 2003; ISBN: 0399149864. UK: Viking, 416 pages, Hardcover, April 2003; ISBN: 0670875597.)

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images."
-- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967)

"The Japanese know this about television: Make it big enough and anything looks cool. Those French Situationists, going on about the Society of the Spectacle, they didn't have a clue. This is it, right here, and I love it."
-- William Gibson, Wired Magazine (September 2001)

"The lesson to be drawn from the more imaginative science fiction hells ... is not only that a society could be devised that would frustrate the active virtues ... but that there is in all sorts of people something that longs for this to happen."
-- Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (1960)

In his classic 1888 novel Looking Backward, cover scan (US edition)Edward Bellamy's hero wakes from a one-hundred-year sleep to the futuristic year 2000, when the abolition of private property has liberated humanity from scarcity, greed, and lust for power. A product of the late-nineteenth-century socialist movements, Bellamy's vision defined the next century's science fiction utopia: regimented, monocultural, technocratic, and driven by macro-technologies such as heavy industry, eugenics, centralized planning, atomic energy, and space travel.

This is the vision that shaped the Soviet Union, which sought to one-up the capitalists in efficiency by establishing "industrial armies" to build its massive factories, dams, and power plants. Experience is a bitter critic of utopia. In the 1960s and '70s, civil rights, nationalist revolts, ecology, and feminism inspired the New Left, which rejected the monoculturalism and five-year plans of its social democratic and Communist elders. Writers influenced by the New Left and the counterculture -- particularly Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Samuel Delany -- wrote utopian novels of both social and scientific speculation. Their worlds often appeared in the wake of apocalypse, thereby bypassing any difficult period of incremental social change.

In the 1980s their hopeful social vision was displaced by one that novelist and critic Thomas Disch describes as "one of nonchalant but profound cynicism." The book that inaugurated the shift was cover scan (UK edition)William Gibson's Neuromancer, which depicts a fully globalized, post-apocalyptic future of urban squalor and systemic criminality, ameliorated by two elements: "fashion and an interior life lived in cyberspace." The bombs have exploded and the viruses released, but the apocalypse didn't work out as the angry idealists had hoped. In its aftermath the cybernetic image is supreme, mediating all economic, social, and emotional transactions.

In the two decades since Neuromancer first appeared (coining the term "cyberspace"), the future has caught up with Gibson. We now live in the 21st century, its reality overlaid by the prefigurative images of so many science fiction films and novels. The hero of Gibson's new novel Pattern Recognition is a young woman named Cayce Pollard (pronounced "Case," the name of Neuromancer's anti-hero), whose Cold-War security-expert father may or may not have perished in the fall of the World Trade Center. Cayce, we're told, is "a very specialized piece of human litmus paper," an apparently infallible gauge of the appeal of corporate logos to mass consciousness. When she goes to London to consult with the advertising agency Blue Ant -- "Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, most post-geographic than multinational" -- Cayce is drawn into the hunt for the maker of a mysterious series of digital film fragments being anonymously "Zaprudered" over the Internet.

In London Cayce yearns to become "just another lost tourist, but knows she'll never be one." She can't because she "knows that she is, and has long been, complicit. Though in what, exactly, is harder to say. Complicit in whatever it is that gradually makes London and New York feel more like each other, that dissolves the membranes between mirror-worlds. She knows too much about the processes responsible for the way product is positioned, in the world, and sometimes she finds herself doubting that there is much else going on."

Gibson is enthralled by the spectacle that Cayce helps to construct. To Gibson we are not mere victims of the consumer spectacle that now shapes human consciousness in the same way that magic and myth once did, but its creators. We push against it and help to shape it, even if we can never step outside it. Gibson is every bit as complicit as Cayce positioning product. His stories gleam with fetishistic brand names, Sharper Image catalog-narratives that define the limits of his characters' vision of what can be. In traditionally dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451 or the recent Oryx and Crake, the protagonists combine a hatred of the world as it is with a drive to perfect it. Such novels always end with an apocalypse that sweeps away the old order while making a new one possible. There is nothing so idealistic about Cayce or any other character in Pattern Recognition. If Cayce does not wish to destroy the world, she also has no desire to save it.

At the end of Pattern Recognition, Cayce's quest to discover the maker of "the footage" has carried her to a privatized white-collar prison outside of Moscow. There she finds the prison's owners: A Soviet elite that's converted itself into a capitalist oligarchy, whose business practices are indistinguishable from those of organized crime. In the book's final pages, one of them raises a glass to Cayce's father, the novel's secret hero, a borderline-spook who once lived in the Soviet Union directing embassy security. "Had there not been men like her father," he says, standing in a prison, "on the side of democracy and the free market, where would we be today? Not here, certainly .... Men like Wingrove Pollard, my friends, through their long and determined defense of freedom, enabled men like (the Russian oligarchs) to come to the fore, in free competition with other free men."

Here the story teeters on the edge of irony and Cayce herself wonders if this criminal thug can really mean what he says. Then, in a supremely cynical moment, she raises her glass "beneath the shadowed ICBMs and Sputniks of the faded mural high above."

That mural is the future, its hopes and technology fading into dust. "Thirty or forty years ago, there were still debates about what the future will be -- Communism, socialism, fascism, liberal capitalism, totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism," says culture critic Slavoj Zizek. "The idea was that life would somehow go on on Earth, but that there are different possibilities. Now we talk all the time about the end of the world, but it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system. Life on Earth maybe will end, but somehow capitalism will go on."

Gibson made his name as a science fiction writer, but with Pattern Recognition he seems to renounce the entire future. At that the heart of the story flickers September 11th, its fire casting shadows across Cayce's consciousness. Gibson describes Cayce's memory of the 11th in future tense, as an ineffable apocalyptic montage: Cayce "will watch the towers burn, and eventually fall, and though she will know she must have seen people jumping, falling, there will be no memory of it. It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority. An experience outside of culture."

One world ends. Another begins. There is no other definition of apocalypse. It is the end of the world, and yet somehow capitalism goes on. Cayce filters her private Revelation through a television screen which simultaneously diminishes its emotional impact and removes it from any context. There is no motive behind the burning towers -- for Cayce Pollard September 11th exists not only outside culture, but also outside of politics. This is the world that Ray Bradbury warned us against in 1953, when in Fahrenheit 451 Montag asks, "Is this why we're hated so much?" and there is no one to answer him. Montag craves context, but this is exactly what television cannot give him.

"We have no future because our present is too volatile," says Pattern Recognition's arch-capitalist, Hubertus Bigend. "We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment's scenarios. Pattern Recognition." In such a present, the future recedes into memory. As our imaginations fail, science fiction is rendered obsolete.

Review by Jeremy Smith.

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