Pattern Recognition is the first of the Blue Ant novels, which I am reading out of order. While I missed the series of events that create the lived experiences of these characters, I did not feel like I couldn’t understand what Zero History was doing, which is probably either a tribute to Gibson’s incredibly dense prose style or a write-off of the repeatability of his storylines. In this one Cayce Pollard meets Hubertus Bigend for the first time, and he sends her to find the source of some mysterious videos that have appeared on the internet and that look like a fascinating combination of artistic invention and underground digital distribution. She has been following these videos intently as part of an online community, and she by trade is a cool-hunter, so she is the logical choice (rather than a detective, many of whom have already been hired to find these videos and their source) to pursue the leads. After much digging, she meets the person(s), and Bigend’s Blue Ant agency continues on its paradigm-shifting ways in creating marketing campaigns (or so we assume) by absorbing the lessons therein.
- Gibson’s obsession with how digital culture moves forward is consistent from his Neuromancer trilogy days. He’s moved on from Deep State conspiracies though to look more at how brands establish themselves, but like in Neuromancer he’s still fascinated with underground distribution and folks who create without worrying about acquiring wealth.
- Cayce earns her keep because she has a sixth sense about trademarks, but this sixth sense costs her because she gets physically ill looking at ones that don’t fit the pattern that she recognizes as cool…which is a horrible word here, as Gibson’s narrator (or maybe Cayce) says itself.
- It’s an easy critique to note that Bigend is the wealthy benefactor, a deus ex machina of sorts, but my guess is that Gibson is more focused on his usual obsession with when-it-all-changed moments than he is in recreating an 18th century conception of art patrons being the only ones capable of supporting artists and moving art forward.
- He recalls his own Cornell boxes in here, the one moment in the Neuromancer series that felt sort of odd amidst all the bloodshed and mayhem and shadowy assassin types hunting AIs on the verge of becoming sentient. Those Cornell boxes were his attempt to steer the conversation to machine-produced art, or art that comes about as a result of technogenesis, and as such led the way to this Blue Ant series.
- I’m guessing that Gibson would fail at a workshop – he’s the exact opposite of McCarthy or Carver, in that he fills his worlds with intense details that his narrator gleefully observes for us. Many of the most joyous moments in these novels happen when Cayce identifies some tiny detail that Gibson’s narrator then neatly links to a historical moment, as exemplified in this passage when she notices how her friend Damien’s (who is a documentary filmmaker) studio has been meticulously sealed to make its “darkness absolute”:
It is as if she participates in the very birth of cinema, that Lumiere moment, the steam locomotive about to emerge from the screen, sending the audience fleeing, out into the Parisian night. (28)
The linkage of the protagonist’s recognition of details such as absolute darkness,
the meticulousness (and obsessiveness) required to create that environment,
and its links to historical (even if recent) precedents creates a timeline that adds chronological depth to what are otherwise mere observations. They also show a writer not afraid to buck writerly conventions, reminding me of George Saunder’s epilogue to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline when Saunders writes about how free he felt after he stopped trying to be Faulkner and wrote in his own voice. Gibson might have been lucky to be a scifi writer in that sense – no one expects Faulkner in genre fiction.
- One of the ways that the joy that Gibson portrays in his fiction becomes clear is the way he mucks about with the oral qualities of his works. He knows that readers are trying to pronounce some of his language in their head, so Cayce becomes one syllable (and multiple conversations about the pronunciation occur, with one character who is innocent, naive, and yet creating amazing art innocently and humorously adding a second syllable every time he says her name).
- Bigend is another example of this – his name is Belgian, so it’s not pronounced Big End, but there are multiple jokes throughout the novel about his comfort with the ways in which people think his name looks unflattering.
- Gibson uses this all for character development as well, of course, but his awareness of the oral nature of reading is really cool.
- This world populated with interesting people doing wild, explorative things, and I admire that about Gibson as well. He’s not McInerney or McGuane or any of those folks who wrote a cult hit in the 80s and then got increasingly bitter and more interested in destruction – he went the opposite way, and continued to push the boundaries of the world he creates. Yes, that is fanboyish, but this approach is pretty cool nonetheless.
- Gibson on (some) pop culture figures (the narrator is in Cayce’s head:
She’s long kept track of certain obscure mirror-world pop figures, not because they interest her in themselves but because their careers can be so compressed, so eerily quantum-bief, like particles who se existence can only be proven, after the fact, by streaks detected on specially sensitized plates at the bottom of disused salt mines. (78)
Tracking the traces of pop culture as it careens forward blindly has never felt less apocalyptic than it does in this description, and Gibson’s reluctance to go all Armageddon on us points to a way that literature can move past YA lit’s constant desire to make us all live in a dystopia.
- Gibson is fond of name-dropping cultural theorists, as in one paragraph he has one of the asshole characters (asshole because she wants to contain the wildness of the art they are all following) name-drop Foucault, Lyotard, Lacan, Jameson, and Derrida, and slip casually into cultural studies academia-speak (p 240 in the electronic version). It’s sort of fun, but it also points to a way for writers to acknowledge the academic conversation going on around them without being paralyzed by it.
- After the resolution (which ends with no bloodshed, and with a Russian industrialist who is the guardian of the artist and her sister (he is their uncle) becoming friends with Bigend), we get this narrative comment from inside Cayce’s head, as she considers the fact that there have been no toasts during this meal, which seems to go against everything she has heard about Russian culture:
But perhaps, she thinks, this isn’t a Russian meal.
Perhaps it’s a meal in that country without borders that Bigend strives to hail from, a meal in a world where there are no mirrors to find yourself on the other side of, all experience having been reduced, by the spectral hand of marketing, to price-point variations on the same thing. (303)
This observation is immediately followed by a toast to her father, who was a CIA spook and who died in the rubble at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and who is lauded for fighting the good fight for democracy and the free market.
- Gibson is definitely not a revolutionary. He seems far more interested in pointing out all the contradictions inherent in ideological systems than he does is following a code, and he wants to create a world in which art can flourish on many levels and in many places.