In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Genderbait for the NerdsChristopher Tayler

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Pattern Recognition 
by William Gibson.
Viking, 356 pp., £16.99, April 2003, 0 670 87559 7
Show More
Show More

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 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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.