Science Fiction Studies

#93 = Volume 31, Part 2 = July 2004


Advertising and Calculators in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. In Pattern Recognition (2003), Gibson imagines a world in which what is today considered non-traditional advertising becomes the norm: people, for instance,  are employed to sit in a British pub and hype a new product by dropping casual comments about how marvelous they have found it to be. Such non-advertising advertising is now becoming more profitable. A feature section of Newsweek for February 23, 2004, for instance, notes that “Product-placement—like putting Coca-Cola cups in the hands of American Idol judges—has jumped in popularity. Product-placement agencies now number more than 500 in the United States, up from only a handful 20 years ago” (Sennott 52). So-called non-traditional ads, although they “account for 5 to 10 percent of the industry business[,] ... are getting 80 to 90 percent of the focus” (52). In Gibson’s near-future world of ubiquitous and often hidden advertising, the protagonist, Cayce Pollard, finds lucrative employment in the globalized corporate world though her uncanny ability to recognize the power of logos within the patterns of such advertising. This employment leads her, in turn, deep within the world of industrial espionage. The “pattern recognition” of Gibson’s title, however, extends well beyond advertising to include film footage that is released a few frames at a time, inviting viewers to detect patterns large and small; a Russian archeological dig that eventually uncovers a complete plane with its pilot; and the disappearance of Cayce’s much loved father as part of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.1 

The novel’s conclusion brings these narrative lines together by way of the Curta handheld mechanical calculator. This improbable device could easily be a Gibson fiction but is, instead, his addition to one of the stranger tales in the history of invention. The Curta calculator was, for two decades, not just state-of-the-art, but so far superior to anything else on the market that it was not until the advent of the digital calculator that it was surpassed in speed, precision, and low cost. Yet it was designed partly under the extremely difficult circumstances of World War II slave-labor camps, and its prototypes were produced in a German factory after the war.

The inventor of the Curta calculator, Curt Herzsark, was born in Vienna in 1902 and was already hard at work on his calculator when Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. Herzstark became a target of the Germans, since he was the son of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father (Stoll 85). Yet because the German army needed precision instruments, his factory was allowed to remain open in order to produce gauges for Panzer tanks. Almost inevitably he was arrested five years later in 1943 and thrown into Pankratz prison and from there transferred to Buchenwald. In the camp his skill at making precision parts saved him and he was put to work making components for V2 rockets. Then someone recognized him. Summoned before the managing engineer, he received an offer he could not refuse: in his spare time he could work on his calculator: “if it really functions, then we will give it to the Führer as a present after we win the war” (qtd in Stoll 86; compare Pattern Recognition 28-29, 231). So, knowing that his calculator, if successful, would “extend his life,” he began to draw it “the way I had imagined it” (qtd in Stoll 86).

The Curta’s design was fairly complete when the Americans liberated Buchenwald. Taking his drawings with him, Herzark set out on foot to walk to Weimar, where, in one of the few factories still left standing and in only two months, machinists made three—not four, as in Pattern Recognition—prototypes of his mechanical calculator.2 When the Russians appeared, Herzstark wasted no time in packing up the three prototypes, together with his drawings, and making his way, mostly again by walking, to Vienna. There, he filed for patents but was unable to interest either the government or private manufacturers in the machine. Finally, the prince of Lichtenstein, wanting to develop industry in his agricultural country, realized that this calculator could put his small kingdom on the commercial map.3 After the transformation of a hotel ballroom into a manufacturing plant, the newly formed company turned out the first 500 calculators using the three prototypes that feature so prominently in Pattern Recognition (249-52).

In Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard negotiates with a Saville Row dealer for the fictionalized fourth Curta prototype, acquiring it for the outrageous sum of 4,500 British pounds. Herzstark himself was not so lucky financially. When the first 500 calculators went on sale in 1948 for $125.00 each, the accompanying advertising campaign generated the first trickle of tentative orders. But when an American department store placed an order for 10,000, which should have been the answer to Herzstack’s backers’ wildest dreams and the start of significant expansion, the company saw it instead as their worst nightmare come to life. Rather than rejoicing over a million-dollar-plus order, they panicked. Having no confidence in their ability to expand their manufacturing capacity to fill such an order, they turned it down and stuck to the more modest expectations generated by mail orders and trade shows.4 Hence the relative rarity today of this beautiful exact machine. For although made of the highest quality materials and precision manufactured, only 150,000 or so were made between 1948 and 1970.5                

The company, once it began to manufacture, survived several attempts to force Herzstark out. As he reports, there “came a stroke of good luck that I could not have imagined. The patents were still in my name” (qtd in Stoll 88). So for the next two decades he made money from his invention until the digital calculator appeared.     

Like the Curta calculator itself , Gibson’s narrative is precision crafted. The various plot lines come together and intersect to create—what is unusual for him—a happy ending. The world may still be going to hell in a widely, if non-traditionally advertised, handbasket, but Cayce discovers the source of the film footage, finds a trustworthy companion, and becomes reconciled to the death of her father as a result of the September 11 assault on the World Trade Center towers. Even her trademark-triggered panic attacks disappear.—Donald E. Morse, University of Debrecen, Hungary

                1. The Russian archeological dig offers a parallel to the search for victims in the rubble created by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers (72-73, 297-98). The hunt for the origin of the film footage with its patterns (created by a brain-damaged woman in Moscow—they reproduce the triggering device of the Claymore mine that penetrated her brain) counterpoints Cayce’s sublimated search for her father, who disappeared as the twin towers came down.
                2. The number is significant, since in Pattern Recognition Gibson creates a fictional fourth prototype that can be used to bargain with a former intelligence operative to track down the filmmaker (214, 232-41). Herzstark himself made only three. My information about the history of the Curta calculator is drawn throughout from Stoll (82-89).
                3. Lichtenstein at that point had one major industry, “the manufacture of false teeth” (Stoll 88).
                4. A typical mail-order ad for the Curta may be found in the Scientific American June 1969 issue, which describes the machine as a “miniature all-purpose calculator” and refers inquiries and orders to a post-office box in Van Nuys, California.
                5. The Curta calculators do not wear out—at least none have within any user’s lifetime. They are still used for road rallies (see <> or <>). For an inside view of the Curta, see <
/~gregsa/curta/disa>; a Curta simulator may be found at < simulator_em.htm>.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Putnam’s, 2003.
Sennott, Susan. “Gone in 30 Seconds.” Newsweek (February 23, 2004): 52.
Stoll, Cliff. “The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator.” Scientific American (January 2004): 82-89.

Thoughts of a Shiel (and Bleiler) Fan. The most recent issue of Science Fiction Studies (SFS 31.1) was especially welcome to me as a fan of both the redoubtable M.P. Shiel, Redondan and British fantasist, and the no less formidable Interlaken, New York, master cataloguist of fantastic literature, Everett F. Bleiler. Indeed, the two are quite companionate, as Bleiler’s comments on Shiel’s writings  (Science Fiction: The Early Years, Kent State UP, 1990) are outstanding. William L. Svitavsky’s article, an excellent if cursory overview, fails to mention my essay in the same volume from which he quotes Sam Moskowitz (Shiel in Diverse Hands [Reynolds Morse, 1983: 357-68). Ev has been the only critic to remember in print, in the foregoing volume, my own research into the publishing history of Lord of the Sea, among Shiel’s most notorious novels. Like most readers, I initially encountered the slim Alfred Knopf reprint (1929, a volume of 299 pages). Its apparently virulent anti-Semitism left me fuming. I was informed, however, that the true first edition (London: Grant Richards, 1901 and New York: Stokes, 1901) at 474 pages (or 20% larger in size than the 1929 book) included far more material. Knopf, and also Gollancz in England, had requested that in reprinting his novels, Shiel should edit them down. I obtained a copy of the original version and quickly learned that it was far broader and more humane, with scenes of genuine sympathy toward his Jewish subjects. The ludicrous stage-villain Jews did, indeed, remain, but were mitigated by the genuine qualities of the others. Poor Shiel, an anxious elderly man now, had thrown away the steak and retained the bones, leaving a dreadful book that would forever sully his name.

Sam was one of my best friends and we fought regularly about Shiel, for he was as unforgiving as he could be charming. Bleiler’s pairing of the two of us by name (680) as polarities in the Shiel controversy was to Sam trivial and amusing. In my essay, however, I discussed many factors in each version, as well as praising Shiel’s magnificent whirlwind conclusion—the final paragraph is surely the finest he ever wrote—which anticipates the rebirth of a Jewish state. Despite Sam’s relentless diatribes, there are interesting Jewish characters in several other Shiel novels as well. Sam and I fought (only with smiles) over this at meetings of our small sf club, and neither of us gave an inch. I have more evidence now, and if there is a Heaven I shall present it to him, while he will wait patiently to give me hell all over again.            

I enjoyed very much Bleiler’s characteristic, no-minced-words review of Leon Stover’s edition of H.G. Wells’s (maybe) screenplay of The Man Who Could Work Miracles (London: Cresset, 1936). I remain quite content with the master’s name on the jacket and am equally satisfied whoever wrote the script. Russell Hillier’s fine note on Walter M. Miller Jr.’s masterpiece, A Canticle For Leibowitz (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960) was also a highlight of the issue. I like to recall those “sacred words” Leibowitz left behind—a shopping list!—Ben P. Indick, Teaneck, N.J.

ICFA-25. The Twenty-Fifth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from March 24 to 28. This was the largest conference in the history of the IAFA, attended by a record number of participants. It showcased the usual array of academic sessions, discussion panels, writers’ readings, and evening events and entertainment, not least of which was the Saturday post-banquet party sponsored by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau in honor of ICFA’s twenty-fifth anniversary.            

This year’s theme, “The Global Fantastic,” highlighted the International Division, currently headed by Andrea Bell. The Guest of Honor was the Cuban-American writer Daína Chaviano, author of award-winning works of science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction. Chaviano’s novel Fables from an Extraterrestrial Grandmother (1988) is considered one of the classics of Latin American science fiction. ICFA’s Guest Scholar was Marcial Souto, a writer, editor, translator, and anthologist currently based in Barcelona. He is the principal translator into Spanish of the works of J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, and others, as well as the translator of Jorge Luis Borges’s autobiography (originally written in English). This year’s Guest Writer was Elizabeth Hand, whose novels and stories, including Winterlong (1990), Glimmering (1997), and the short-story collection Last Summer at Mars Hill (1998) move across a variety of fantastic genres; Hand is also a prolific reviewer and essayist.            

Not surprisingly, a fair number of this year’s sessions and panels were devoted to The Lord of the Rings, both J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s films, and one of the Thursday evening highlights was Tom Shippey’s discussion of his recent study, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Equally entertaining, if somewhat more alternative, was a paper session earlier on Thursday focused on Lord of the Rings slash fiction that included papers by Robin Reid, Eden Lackner, and Barbara Lucas. In keeping with the theme of the international fantastic, another highlight was an early Saturday morning panel on “National and Global Identities in Scholarship on the Fantastic” moderated by Andrea Bell and Anita Nicholson.           

There was a perceptible increase this year in the number of theory discussions. In addition to the SF Theory Roundtable, which has been running for several years now, there were theory roundtables focused on both Popular Culture and Fantasy Literature. Student members of the IAFA continue to contribute strongly to the conference, as do the many writers, including Peter Straub and Suzy McKee Charnas, who are regular attendees.            

The disappointing Florida weather might have encouraged the strong attendance at even the early morning sessions, but probably the success of this year’s panels had more to do with the quality and range of the presentations and discussions. This was one of the most successful conferences in IAFA’s history. Bob Collins, the conference’s founder, deserves the round of applause that acknowledged his pivotal role in establishing what is the largest, and probably the most significant, annual meeting focused on all aspects of the fantastic in the arts.—VH

And the Sequel—ICFA-26. “Blurring the Boundaries: Trans-Realism and Other Movements” will take place at the Wyndham Fort Lauderdale Airport Hotel from March 16 to 20, 2005. The Guest of Honor will be Rudy Rucker, the Guest Scholar will be Damien Broderick, and the Guest Writers will be John Kessel and Albert Goldbarth. ICFA’s Permanent Special Guest is Brian Aldiss.            

We look forward to a range of discussions examining the trans-real and other movements that blur the boundaries between genres and between worlds, including the New Wave, Cyberpunk, Slipstream, the Interstitial Arts, the New Weird, and more. As always, we also welcome proposals for individual papers and for academic sessions and panels on the work of any of our guests, and on any aspect of the fantastic in any media. The deadline for submission of individual proposals is October 15, 2004. Keep checking <> for updated information on guests, registration, and submission information. —Christine Mains, University of Calgary

CFP: Worldcon Academic Track. The 62nd World Science Fiction Convention (also known as Worldcon, and in this instance Noreascon 4) will be taking place in Boston, Massachusetts, from September 2-6, 2004. Attendance figures are expected to exceed 6000. The academic program track is seeking papers, panel presentations, seminars, workshops, and poster presentations on all subjects relating to sf, fantasy, and horror literature, including, but not limited to: teaching speculative fiction; teaching other courses through sf, fantasy, and horror; teaching history, diversity, and/or critical thinking through sf, fantasy, and horror; teaching Terry Pratchett; teaching William Tenn; teaching J.R.R. Tolkien; interlacing folklore archetypes within sf, fantasy, and horror; advising an sf club; looking from the past to the future; the history of speculative fiction; fan fiction; the ethnography of fandom; filk music; comics as literature; and censorship.

Of particular interest are panels and papers on the work of the Guests of Honor, Terry Pratchett and William Tenn. We are more than happy to consider pre-arranged panels and presentations, as well as the appearance of a presenter on more than one program item. These sessions will be open to the general membership of the convention, as well as to those seeking to earn academic credit by way of a special course offered through Suffolk University. As so many people who do not normally attend academic conventions will be present, the reading of papers previously offered in other venues (either previously published or presented) will be acceptable. Please submit to me a brief abstract (100-200 words) of your proposed paper, presentation, panel, or workshop.            

The Worldcon, or World Science Fiction Convention, is the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS). Worldcons have been held each year since 1939, with the exception of four years during World War II. Locations have included the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, Germany, and The Netherlands. Science fiction and fantasy fans travel from as far away as Japan, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Norway, Finland, Croatia, New Zealand, and Russia to attend. For more information on Noreascon 4, including registration rates and other information, visit <>. Please address all inquiries to Dr. Solomon Davidoff, Academic Program Chair, at <>, using the words “N4 Academic Track” in the subject line.—Dr. Solomon Davidoff, Gann Academy English Department; New England Institute of Art

Corrigenda. In the March issue of SFS (31.1, #92), the review-essay by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. entitled “Who Framed Science Fiction?” (reviewing Peter Stockwell’s The Poetics of Science Fiction) contained an error: one line of text was inadvertently dropped between pages 125 and 126. Here is the corrected version of that passage:

qualities in texts that Stockwell’s book isolates. Despite the populism of the prototype effect, The Poetics of Science Fiction is a disguised book-length academic, indeed putatively scientific, definition of sf. (In one rather strange section on sf styles, Stockwell....

Call for Submissions: Jules Verne. Since 2005 is the centenary of Jules Verne’s death, next year SFS hopes to publish a special issue devoted to this legendary sf author. Please send your submissions (electronic or hard copy with diskette) to Arthur B. Evans, Science Fiction Studies, EC L-06 DePauw University, Greencastle, IN 46135 or to <>.—ABE

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