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Pattern Recognition
by William Gibson

Penguin Putnam
368 pages, $39.00

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted August 23, 2007

Vancouver writer William Gibson has spent the last twenty years crafting compellingly prescient visions of a near future that seems just around the corner.   It is undeniably our future, but one in which the world has been altered by a voracious hybrid of consumerism and technology gone out of control.   However, in Pattern Recognition , his first novel of the 21 st century which is set entirely in the present, the world, it seems, has finally caught up with William Gibson.

The book is in fact set in 2002, but even if it isn't the future, it still showcases Gibson's audacious style.   An expensive fridge, for example, "is so new that its interior smells only of cold and long-chain monomers."   Tokyo's skyline is "a floating jumble of electric Lego."   A bed covering is "the colour of oven mitts."

The novel's protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is equally enigmatic: "Google Cayce and you will find 'coolhunter,' ... she is a 'sensitive' of some kind, a dowser in the world of global marketing."   Cayce has flown to London from New York to consult on a prototype design for "a new logo for one of the world's two largest manufacturers of athletic footwear."   Pause for a moment to consider that this must be a re-design of Nike's characteristic swoosh.   All Cayce does is glance at it and say, "No."   She does not elaborate or offer suggestions.   "She is only there to serve as a very specialized piece of human litmus paper."

Cayce's unique occupation is a result of her sensitivity to the trends of style and pop culture; in fact, she is literally allergic to fashion.   She has panic attacks at the sight of the Michelin Man, gets a rash when faced with racks of Tommy Hilfiger.   Her sensitivity allows her to innately recognize and predict styles developing at their earliest stages, and as a result, her consulting services are prized.

After sending the world's top graphic designer back to the drawing board, Cayce is asked to seek out the creator of a series of short video clips that have been discovered on the internet over the past year.   She is herself an avid fan of the mysterious "footage," and takes on the assignment in spite of her fears that her employer wants to find the artwork's creator so he can package and sell it.

From there on, Pattern Recognition progresses with the breakneck pace of an espionage thriller.   Considering the 'film noir' feel of Gibson's earlier books, this is not entirely surprising; take away the science fiction trappings and you are left with a detective story at heart.   It is an ultra-modern thriller, though, in which e-mail is as common as dialogue, and starring a detective who drinks americanos and seeks out pilates studios in every city she visits.   And it is an eloquent thriller; in spite of its page-turning readability, the reader is forced to go slowly in order to savour Gibson's astute, witty observations of our strange, strange world.

William Gibson has taken a risk by stepping out of the so-called "cyberpunk" genre he founded and mapped out over his first six novels.   It was well worth it: Pattern Recognition is captivating, entertaining, occasionally profound, and his best novel to date.


Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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