Genderbait for the Nerds

Christopher Tayler

  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
    Viking, 356 pp, £16.99, April 2003, ISBN 0 670 87559 7

Waking up in a borrowed flat in Camden Town, Cayce Pollard, the heroine of Pattern Recognition, switches on an ‘Italian floor lamp’ powered by ‘British electricity’. She pours some water – ‘London tap water’, as she later notes – through ‘a German filter’ into ‘an Italian electric kettle’, and seeks out a bag of ‘imported Californian tea-substitute’. After a hasty Pilates session, she checks her watch – ‘a Korean clone of an old-school Casio G-Shock’ – and sees that it’s time for her meeting with Bernard Stonestreet, an ad exec in ‘a Paul Smith suit, more specifically the 118 jacket and the 11T trouser’. Cayce, by contrast, wears a ‘museum-grade replica of a US MA-1 flying jacket . . . created by Japanese obsessives’. Afterwards there’s lunch, ‘the food California-inflected Vietnamese fusion with more than the usual leavening of colonial Frenchness’. Then, shouldering a handbag ‘of black East German laminate, purchased on eBay’, she steels herself for a mind-blowing trip to the pullulating ‘logo-maze’ of Harvey Nichols.

Cayce – pronounced ‘Case’, not ‘Casey’ – is a spectacularly talented, unerringly prescient branding consultant. A ‘dowser in the world of global marketing’ with a ‘morbid and sometimes violent reactivity to the semiotics of the marketplace’, she is employed by advertising companies to evaluate the virulence of their logo designs: ‘She’s met the very Mexican who first wore his baseball cap backward . . . She’s that good.’ It’s an effortful business, and, it seems, a full-time job, but hardly unusual in William Gibson’s futuristic fiction, which often features characters whose sensitivity to ambient data borders on the supernaturally acute. His last but one, Idoru (1996), introduced Colin Laney, an ‘intuitive fisher of patterns of information . . . the equivalent of a dowser, a cybernetic water-witch’. Laney can spot the ‘nodal points’ in the flow of information on the Internet – the points at which big things, big conspiracies, are about to enmesh. It’s ‘something to do with pattern-recognition’, a capacity described in the new book as ‘both a gift and a trap’. When asked how they do it, Gibson’s data-dowsers tend to sound like a novelist who’s been quizzed about where he gets his ideas. ‘It’s not something I’m very comfortable talking about, actually,’ Cayce Pollard says. Colin Laney ‘couldn’t explain how he did what he did’. So it’s pretty clear who the author has in mind when he equips his characters with uncanny powers of cultural precognition.

Gibson’s career as a zeitgeist-wrangler got off to an impressive start when his science fiction novels – starting with Neuromancer (1984) – hammered out some sturdy templates for pop-cultural dystopianism. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) got there first with the look: the ominous gadgetry, the endless neon and rain. But Gibson – ‘very much under the influence of Robert Stone’, as well as Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs – was among the first to find a centre-stage role for information technology in his future scenarios. His stories were set in a world of porous borders, where multinationals and crime cartels had arrogated most of the powers of traditional states. Paper money had been more or less abolished. The environment was in bad shape, and people frequently augmented their bodies through bioengineering or robotic add-ons. Most influentially, the inhabitants of this future spent a lot of time cruising the byways of ‘cyberspace’ – a word Gibson coined in one of his earliest short stories. Powered by ‘slivers of microsoft’ and jacked into ‘the matrix’, his characters regarded their bodies as so much ‘meat’, and were bemused by the prestige once accorded to the outmoded ‘paradigms’ of print.

‘Cyberpunk’, as Gibson’s brand of SF soon became known, found a cultish following in the 1980s. Then the Internet hit the mass market, and he found himself routinely hailed as the ‘unchallenged guru, prophet and voice of the new cybernetic world order and virtual reality’. Not all of his admirers were fully aware of the satirical or dystopian aspects of his work, however. Among the solitary, pizza-encrusted supermen of the World Wide Web, ‘meatspace’ became a derogatory term for anything that can’t be accessed via a keyboard. Marketing departments, heartened by the ‘cyberspace’ buzz, started slapping the prefix ‘cyber-’ onto everything. And from the perspective of Californian start-up culture, Gibson’s depictions of notional borders, atrophied governments and rampant business elites didn’t look pessimistic but utopian.

Gibson, meanwhile, has carried on turning out speculative fictions, but their relationship to satire has become more confused. He still likes to give his characters sub-Pynchon names – Joel Sublett, Kevin Tarkovsky, Lucius Warbaby – and to extrapolate future backdrops from contemporary anxieties: Aids, pollution and biological weapons are particular favourites, along with the menace of unregulated nanotechnology, which Gibson was on to long before Michael Crichton and Prince Charles. As his settings have moved closer to the present, though, his plots have mutated from dark conspiracies into Elmore Leonard-ish capers. The tone has become sunnier: fewer good guys are killed off, and the hero usually ends up getting the girl. Most of all, the high-tech stuff has moved from fantasy to something more like punditry. Gibson often seems as interested in technology for its own sake as he is in its metaphorical applications. This hasn’t always been the case: Neuromancer has some affinities with the melancholy expressionism of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But the excursions into virtual reality have increasingly seemed merely an obligatory part of the Gibson shtick.

Pattern Recognition is slightly different: his first novel set in the present, it tries hard to invest its web-based plot with emotional significance. Cayce has come to London from New York to OK a new logo for ‘one of the world’s two largest manufacturers of athletic footwear’. But her employer – Hubertus Bigend, ‘a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates’ – turns out to have further motives for hiring her. Strangely compelling fragments of film have been surfacing on the Internet, acquiring an underground following around the world. No one knows where they come from, but Bigend wants a piece of the action, and, since Cayce is also a leading ‘footagehead’, he offers her unlimited expenses to track down the maker, or makers, of the mysterious clips. Despite her reservations about Bigend’s trustworthiness, Cayce agrees, teams up with a hacker called Boone Chu for tech support, and embarks on a breathless global quest punctuated by shopping trips, e-mail exchanges and epic bouts of jet-lag.

In Gibson’s SF, there’s usually some disaster in the recent past: a war or environmental catastrophe, alluded to but never really explained. Pattern Recognition, which is set in 2002, is haunted by two events. The first is the millennial collapse of the dot.com boom, which gives a forlorn and dated air to the novel’s high-flying geeks and turbo-capitalist talk of ‘high-speed, low-drag’ companies. The second, not surprisingly, is 11 September. At first, this comes up only in passing references to such things as the ‘initial dumping of Afghani opium supplies’. But later, in flashback, Cayce watches the news on the day: it’s ‘like watching one of her own dreams on television’. It also turns out that her father, Win Pollard, a retired Cold War security expert, disappeared in Manhattan on the morning of the attacks – mysteriously, since he had no business being there. This is eventually revealed to have an oblique connection with the main storyline, and to foreshadow the traumatic events behind the making of the enigmatic footage: the dots just about join up. But the subplot still seems an unconvincing attempt to provide emotional ballast, as well as an excuse for Gibson’s reflections on terrorism as a media phenomenon.

This isn’t Pattern Recognition’s only discursive strand. Bigend is given a number of overwritten speeches about history, memory, advertising and so forth. ‘Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves,’ he sagely observes. Old-fashioned ideas about artistic autonomy have fallen by the wayside of the Information Superhighway: ‘It’s as though the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was. Everything, today, is to some extent the reflection of something else.’ Similar insights arise from the footage itself, which consists of moody black and white shots of a man and a woman in a not quite recognisable city. Its compulsive appeal never quite comes across but we’re told that the experience of watching it is ‘profoundly liminal’. What’s more, ‘the footage has a way of cutting across boundaries, transgressing the accustomed order of things.’ So it’s hardly surprising to discover that its fans are given to frequent outbursts of low-rent theorising. Those echoes of Alan Sokal’s famous hoax – ‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ – are there for a reason, though: it turns out that quite a lot of the ‘pomo bellowings’ surrounding the footage have, in fact, been put out by various conspirators in order to throw our heroine off the scent. And when the elusive auteur is finally unmasked, the film turns out to be not, as we might expect from Gibson’s SF, the creation of an evil computer working out its own inscrutable purposes, but a highly personal work of art. So it’s a triumph for the human spirit all over again – after which, in an epilogue, the characters get rewarded or punished or, in Cayce’s case, a boyfriend.

In thriller terms, this is a bit disappointing. And Pattern Recognition is a thriller, despite its other aspirations: there’s a busy apparatus of red herrings and suspenseful set-pieces, and Cayce is a tough nut. Not only does her appearance recall ‘Helmut Newton’s nude portrait of Jane Birkin’: she’s also ‘one of those slight-looking women who combine considerable wiry strength with low body weight’ – which comes in handy when dealing with goons in ‘Albanian Prada knockoffs’. Unfortunately, though, the plot’s high-tech requirements have forced Gibson into an unusual genre: the thriller populated almost exclusively by nerds. In fairness, he confronts the problem head-on: one character has a haircut of ‘haute nerd intensity’, another has an air of ‘weird nerd innocence’, another resembles ‘an art-nerd’, and yet another is unnervingly direct – a ‘Chinese-American nerd thing’. But Gibson works hard to justify the epithet. There’s a lot of nerd-work: one subplot concerns a collector of Sinclair ZX81s; another focuses on mechanical calculators. Most of all, however, there are punishing amounts of geek-speak. Marketing types say things like: ‘The model’s viral . . . bleeding edge.’ Internet gimps talk of ‘otaku’ and ‘genderbait’ (‘genderbait for the nerds’). ‘Assuming the footage is entirely computer-generated means that your maker either has de-engineered Roswell CGI capacities or a completely secure rendering operation,’ someone casually remarks. And even Cayce, who is not supposed to be a nerd, thinks of her brain as a ‘module’ and knows what ‘long-chain monomers’ smell like.

Prose-nerds, in other words, may feel neglected. Still, a lot of this stuff can be put down to observational exuberance, which gives the novel its distinctive, collage-like texture. Gibson knows that using an Internet chatroom feels ‘like sitting in a pitch-dark cellar conversing with people at a distance of about fifteen feet’. He knows that Japanese websites appear on English-language screens as ‘a frantic-looking slaw of Romanic symbols . . . It looks like fizzing, apoplectic rage.’ He likes to write about things that aren’t yet standard properties in literary fiction, and it would be wrong to sneer too much at his commitment to putting things in novels that haven’t been in them before. True, some of them may seem trivial, of geek-interest only, or instantly dated. But such are the perils of being, as Gibson might put it, an early adopter.