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The cyberpunk arrives at the present

William Gibson offers 'Pattern Recognition'

Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

Gibson
William Gibson

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- William Gibson's early works, such as the novel "Neuromancer" and the story collection "Burning Chrome," were characterized by eerily accurate premonitions of the future. But while time marched forward, Gibson appeared to be moving backwards -- to the present -- in more recent novels such as "Idoru" and "All Tomorrow's Parties."

Of course, there's another way to look at it: Maybe the present has caught up with Gibson's vision of the future.

Gibson himself has a simpler explanation, though.

"I think what's actually happening is I'm just being more overt in terms of what I've always been doing," Gibson says in a telephone interview from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, discussing his eighth book, "Pattern Recognition" (Putnam).

"When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, [and] part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written. '1984' is really about 1948. It can't really be understood outside the historical context of 1948."

Media saturation

"Pattern Recognition" takes place in a post-9/11 hangover of paranoia and media saturation, best exemplified by the peculiar condition of its protagonist Cayce: "She is, literally, allergic to fashion. ... She's a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult."

Media saturation

Cayce is a researcher of "cool," a sort of empathic consultant dowsing for future trends. She consults for marketing companies, and her current meal ticket is the agency Blue Ant, "a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores."

The agency's founder, the curiously named Hubertus Bigend, wants Cayce to track down the origin of "the footage," a pastiche of filmed online vignettes which are causing a global groundswell of attention, something Bigend the marketing man wants to tap into.

So Cayce gets to circle the world, on Bigend's seemingly bottomless tab, in search of the phantom filmmaker.

Gibson's fans will note the shift of focus from his traditionally fused nebulae of the Internet (or now-passť "matrix") and organized crime to the faceless field of marketing. Zaibatsu and yakuza have been swapped for corporate logos and TV spots, and the medium through which the footage is transmitted is less important than the need to tap into the market of its viewers.

It's perhaps Gibson's most stark vision yet -- the reality of the present.

"This is the first novel I written that is sufficiently naturalistic to put marketing out front of organized crime or those other things that tend to be out in front in something that's more recognizable a piece of genre fiction," he explains. "It isn't that I think marketing has changed very much in the past 20 years in terms of what we do with it."

Cayce is sent spinning through London, Tokyo, Moscow. In describing her trip, Gibson has lost none of his signature descriptive powers, and even something as banal as jet lag is refracted through a Gibsonian prism, so that readers are spared Cayce's intermittent whining about "soul-delay" and treated "to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm."

'I enjoy a lot about the way things are'

Travel, especially to the wild East, retains its importance in a Gibson story.

"[Japan and Russia are] both pivotal places, to me, in terms of where the world is today and where it might be going," he says. "Russia, and the rest of the former Soviet Union, you could say since the publication of 'Neuromancer,' has evolved into something closer to the apparent society of 'Neuromancer' that anything that existed in the world when I wrote that book. It's like capitalism with no middle class."

One break with many of its predecessors is that the world of "Pattern Recognition" is, surprisingly, not that bad a place to be. This perspective, according to the author, is deliberate.

"I'm not myself a person that's constantly in pain over the fact that that's what we do," he says. "I think if I was, I wouldn't be able to write a book like this. I'm only somewhat ambivalent about the extent that I am personally complicit in what we do."

Then the chronicler of dystopia actually sounds optimistic. "I think I'm able to have that degree of comfort because I enjoy it. I enjoy a lot about the way things are," he says. "It's worrying sometimes, but it's also very exhilarating."


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