Ever since the Neuromancer movie has moved into pre-production I have started reading and rereading William Gibson novels. Pattern Recognition is the first novel in a trilogy entitled ‘Bigend Books’, which is a reference to the character Hubertus Bigend that appears in all three novels. Pattern Recognition didn’t start out as the beginning of a trilogy, at first author William Gibson conceived it as a stand alone story but ultimately it grew with Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010). Pattern Recognition deals with topics such as ‘found footage’, ‘memory of history’, globalization and branding. At times these themes come too much to the forefront and they drown out the underlining story too much. Critics have noted similarities with novels such as Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of lot 49’ but I doubt many readers would have read both novels. In any case, the novel has a sense of grandeur that is brought about through the internet, which is the device that connects characters in this story in such a fashion that it feels like the entire world is a playground.
For a full review, read on!!!!
The plot of ‘Pattern Recognition’…
Advertising consultant Cayce Pollard, who reacts to logos and advertising as if to an allergen, arrives in London in August 2002. She is working on a contract with the marketing firm Blue Ant to judge the effectiveness of a proposed corporate logo for a shoe company. During the presentation, graphic designer Dorotea Benedetti becomes hostile towards Cayce as she rejects the first proposal. After dinner with some Blue Ant employees, the company founder Hubertus Bigend offers Cayce a new contract: to uncover who is responsible for distributing a series of anonymous, artistic film clips via the internet. Cayce had followed the film clips and participating in an online discussion forum theorizing on the clips’ meaning, setting, and other aspects. Wary of corrupting the artistic process and mystery of the clips, she reluctantly accepts.
A friend from the discussion group, who uses the handle Parkaboy, privately emails her saying a friend of a friend has discovered an encrypted watermark on one clip. They concoct a fake persona, a young woman named Keiko, to seduce the Japanese man who knows the watermark code. Cayce, along with an American computer security specialist, Boone Chu, hired to aid her, travels to Tokyo to meet the man and retrieve the watermark code. Two men attempt to steal the code but Cayce escapes and travels back to London. Boone travels to Columbus, Ohio to investigate the company that he believes created the watermark. Meanwhile, Blue Ant hires Dorotea who reveals that she was previously employed by a Russian lawyer whose clients have been investigating Cayce. The clients wanted Cayce to refuse the job of tracking the film clips and it was Dorotea’s responsibility to ensure this.
Through a completely random encounter Cayce meets Voytek Biroshak and Ngemi; the former an artist using old ZX81 microcomputers as a sculpture medium, the latter a collector of rare technology (he mentions purchasing Stephen King’s word processor, for example). Another collector, and sometime ‘friend’ of Ngemi’s, Hobbs Baranov, is a retired cryptographer and mathematician with connections in the American National Security Agency. Cayce strikes a deal with him: she buys a Curta calculator for him and he finds the email address to which the watermark code was sent. Using this email address Cayce makes contact with Stella Volkova whose sister Nora is the maker of the film clips.
Cayce flies to Moscow to meet Stella in person and watch Nora work. Nora is brain damaged from an assassination attempt and can only express herself through film. At her hotel, Cayce is intercepted and drugged by Dorotea and wakes up in a mysterious prison facility. Cayce escapes; exhausted, disoriented and lost, she nearly collapses as Parkaboy, who upon Cayce’s request was flown to Moscow, retrieves her and brings her to the prison where the film is processed. There Hubertus, Stella and Nora’s uncle Andrei, and the latter’s security employees are waiting for her. Over dinner with Cayce, the Russians reveal that they have spied on her since she posted to a discussion forum speculating that the clips may be controlled by the Russian Mafia. They had let her track the clips to expose any security breaches in their distribution network. The Russians surrender all the information they had collected on her father’s disappearance and the book ends with Cayce coming to terms with his absence while in Paris with Parkaboy, whose real name is Peter Gilbert.
Pattern Recognition left me somewhat unfulfilled, and I mean that in a negative sense. Throughout most of the book I had to guess why the protagonist does what she does, the ‘footage’ acts as an interesting incentive but feels shoehorned into the story, so does the 9/11 subplot. Ultimately I had to wonder what this book was all about, the dénouement came to soon for me and seemed too contrived. The characters explain the reasons for their actions to protagonist Cayce pollard but perhaps it was better to let her figure things out herself in another 100 pages or so.
Almost all the characters have a certain blurriness to them, perhaps this is because all the characters besides Casey Pollard are at least once in the novel antagonistic towards her. This has the effect that almost none of them seem to stand out as memorable. The characters of Hubertus Bigend and Hobbs-Baranov are supposed to have this mysterious allure to them (that is how Cayce Pollard sees them) but I don’t feel that when reading about them. They seem to be characters that are somehow stretched out, as in they have little substance other than to create mystery were none exists. In fact, the character of Cayce Pollard is rather hard to understand and as such it is difficult to empathize with her.
The author William Gibson is very good at finding interesting anecdotes and using technology and sociology to keep up interest but often it is overdone. The so-called ‘Duck in the face’ mantra became irritating near the end and the author’s lack of understanding of some technologies (keystroke listeners) was also noticeable. Neal Stephenson does a better job of it, whereas mistakes where easily forgivable in Neuromancer they are not in this book.
That said, there is a strong sense of mystery in this novel that prevented me from putting it away. Though no one dies there is something burning in this book, something that reminds of me of Mo Hayder’s Tokyo (The Devil of Nanking). Only the latter novel has things better worked out and creates more mystery and drama. The Protagonist ‘Grey’ from that novel has similarities with Cayce Pollard yet her motives are much easier to understand. As Pattern Recognition has few Sci-fi elements I would call it more of a thriller. Mo Hayder’s Tokyo is similar in that way but the better read.
Overall, though it is a reasonable book it is hardly brilliant. I have no impetus to reading the sequels (Spook Country and Zero Hour).
Score; 7 / 10.