Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pattern Recognition

This is one of Gibson's most clever works, and really gave me an idea of what I love most about his writing, more than anything he wrote in his Neuromancer phase. Gibson is a crowd watcher, as evidenced by the arcade-game styling of his code jockeys in his cyberpunk phase (as research for Neuromancer, he went to arcades watching people play intently, losing awareness of the world around them), or like several stories in Burning Chrome having that Stranger in a Strange Land quality of someone watching an alien world unfold and eventually embrace them. People recognize Gibson as a cyberpunk author, but that really isn't his world anymore, as evidenced by his later works.

I'd venture to call this his post-punk phase, with books like The Difference Engine and the Virtual Light series (only read the first of these). This book is totally stand-alone (although I understand that some of the characters come into play in Spook Country), and tells an intriguing story that feels more present-day than futuristic.

I must be careful about this, because it was written in 2003, so what I call present was future for him. In fact I have a hard time calling this book science fiction, because it's not futuristic, just highly predictive and plausible. Such short term future novels would be easier to write from simple probabilistic argument (much easier to predict out a few unmentioned years than it is several decades like his earlier work). He schemes a book that feels cutting edge and slightly off of the timeline, and beacuse of this choice it gives the book a mystical sheen that makes it always feel ubermodern.

This isn't his only trick though; his characters make this novel work. Cayce Pollard is someone you feel no immediate recognition for and yet she draws an immense empathy. Her mother's a professed psychic, her missing father was a CIA agent/contractor, and from the two she draws many of her personality traits, akin to a mystic practicality that guides her through this "rabbit-hole" of stories.

Cayce is very sensitive to trademarks and in some ways commercialization in general. She makes a living working for companies trying to pick out new logos and to figure out what the latest underground styles are. Her allergic reaction to the Michelin trademark plays a role in several sections, and sometimes "Bibendum" seems to be her anti-avatar, being one of the most globally recognized trademarks. Plausibility of such an "allergy", psychological or otherwise, Gibson pans this character trait to expose globalization in all of Cayce's dealings, and seems to be his method of illustrating the evils of commercialism. It is a clever device; near the end of the book you end up cringing along with Cayce when said trademarks or popular fashion enter the frame of the story.

However, it's easy to see how Cayce's idiosyncrasies could have flattened her character if Gibson hadn't tried as hard as he did to flush her out. Her interaction with characters like Parkaboy, Boone, Damien, Dorothea, and Bigend bring out more of her personality than it does them. Much of the story is told in email and forum postings, a very interesting device to use for conversation. Email is looser of a medium than snailmail, but more thought out than IM or IRL conversations, and also has this weird intimacy that shouldn't be attributed to a protocol more akin to electronic postcards than it is sealed bank documents. Through this intimacy Cayce talks about her parents, her fears, her emotions in a way that makes us also understand her mental state better than the omniscient author could have ever spelled out.

In fact, email plays as a central plot point, when Cayce is writing more of a cathartic letter to a central character, not meaning to send it, and accidentally sends it. I can't think of the many times this has happened to me, and the dread and wonderment that it causes. It's all of these tiny actions and expressions that makes Gibson's characters less futuristic and more presently human.

Ack, writing more about this book would reveal plot that is better left discovered. Let it be said that this is a very striking novel, and although it may lose its sheen in a couple of decades it stands today as one of Gibson's most clever novels.

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