Science Fiction Studies

#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006

Veronica Hollinger

Stories about the Future: From Patterns of Expectation to Pattern Recognition

The story goes like this: many of us who live in technoculture have come to experience the present as a kind of future at which we’ve inadvertently arrived, one of the many futures imagined by science fiction. We apprehend a version of the future in the features of the contemporary science-fictional moment. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) is a realistic novel set in 2002. It is also an sf novel set in the endless endtimes of the future-present. It brilliantly conveys the phenomenology of a present infused with futurity, no longer like itself, no longer like the present.1 Gibson’s protagonist Cayce is overcome by a sense of “invasive weirdness” (226). There is not much distance anymore between the facticity of realism and the subjunctivity of science fiction.2

This is not news; this is the way we live now. This is the story that Gibson tells in Pattern Recognition, about (the impossibility of) the future. And, for all the complex originality of his treatment, it is not a coincidence that variations on this story have appeared in recent novels by Margaret Atwood and Greg Egan, writers as different from each other as they are from Gibson. As N. Katherine Hayles has argued, “visions of the future, especially in technologically advanced eras, can dramatically affect present developments” (131). Each of these novels is, in its own way, a story about the problematic impact of the future—the future in/as technoculture—on the present.

Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), a satire about the catastrophic potential of increasingly commodified technoscience, is a text from the literary slipstream, written by an author whose prose works are more often associated with the realist novel than with genre fiction. It is a telling demonstration of how non-genre writers turn to science fiction as a way to characterize the lived experience of technoculture. Egan’s Schild’s Ladder (2001) is equally apocalyptic in its vision of the future: situated at the center of genre, it captures the fascination with which some contemporary hard sf views the potential of technoscience to transform human history in radically unforeseeable ways. Egan’s future has all the allure of unimaginable difference, but its promises are not, finally, for “us.” In contrast to both Atwood and Egan, in his latest novel Gibson trades in the tropes of sf for the strategies of mimetic realism. Pattern Recognition is a story about how we find ourselves already on the other side of radical difference, even as the future seems ever more out of reach. In fact, we might consider it a story about exactly the kind of world that tells itself stories such as Oryx and Crake and Schild’s Ladder. In the discussion that follows, I want to read these three novels as a series of significantly interrelated responses to the increasingly complex nature of the future in technoculture.


In the postmodern time zone, it is never now.... The role of science fiction in a culture that represents itself as futuristic is complex and not a little ironic.—Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., “Futuristic Flu” (30-31)

It is also not news that “science fiction” has come to refer in the past few decades not only to a popular narrative genre, but also to a kind of popular cultural discourse, a way of thinking about a sociopolitical present defined by radical and incessant technological transformation. As Jonathan Benison suggests, “it might be argued that [one] reason for the special contemporary relevance of SF is that our present has in actuality come increasingly to make sense less as a continuation of the past than as an anticipation of the future, which it pre-empts or incorporates before it can ever arrive” (158, n.3). The present represents itself as science fiction, as already the future, and necessarily this is having an impact on sf’s generic fortunes.3

The following list of “recent scientific and technological breakthroughs,” as compiled by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, provides a compelling description of the science-fictionalized present:

There has been intense speculation and research concerning black holes, worm holes, parallel universes, ten-dimensional reality, time travel, teleportation, antigravity devices, the possibility of life on other planets, cryogenics, and immortality. Moon and Mars landings, genetic and tissue engineering, cloning, xenotransplantation, artificial birth technologies, animal head transplants, bionics, robotics, and eugenics now exist. At the same time, weighty questions are being raised about how many “realities” and “universes” might simultaneously exist, whether or not nature is “law-like” in its fundamental dynamics, and just how exact scientific knowledge can be. (103)

As Best and Kellner demonstrate, the sheer extravagance of contemporary technoscience leads to the implosion of science fiction and science fact—only the future is rich enough to provide us with the image bank through which to interpret the present. But what does it mean to name the present after a narrative genre devoted to the imaginative creation of future worlds? And what about the genre in question? Science fiction is “the literature of change,” but change is exactly what now defines the present. It no longer guarantees the future as the site of meaningful difference.4

A very popular early version of this drama of increasingly intrusive technoscientific futurity was outlined in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1971), which warned of “the pathology that pervades the air” and attributed it “to the uncontrollable, non-selective nature of our lunge into the future” (366). By the mid-1980s, influential and by-now-familiar theoretical models of postmodernity developed by Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson intersected with Toffler’s critique of the blind instrumentalism of technoscience. For Baudrillard and Jameson, postmodernity is, at least in part, also a kind of crisis-of-the-future, and one which, as each notes, poses a radical challenge to commonsense understandings of sf as “the literature of the future.”5

Baudrillard wrote with enthusiastic dread about the fascinations of the hyperreal, the realm of third-order simulacra that increasingly overlays the “lost utopia” of the real and, by implication, works implosively to block any possibility of meaningful transformation. This, as he noted as early as 1981, cannot fail to mark sf: “In the potentially limitless universe of the production era, SF adds by multiplying the world’s own possibilities” (“Simulacra and Science Fiction” 310). In the face of the absolute triumph of the hyperreal, however, Baudrillard rather cheerfully concluded that “the ‘good old’ SF imagination is dead, and ... something else is beginning to emerge” (309). In 1985, Baudrillard announced that “The Year 2000 Has Already Happened,” marking the penetration of the future into the present at the same time as he predicted the anti-climactic nature of the millennial event. On this side of the (non)divide that was the year 2000, the fascinations of Baudrillardian hyperreality seem ever more in evidence. We remain imaginatively trapped in what he described as “a period of implosion, after centuries of explosion and expansion. When a system reaches its limits, its own saturation point, a reversal begins to take place. And something happens also to the imagination” (“Simulacra and Science Fiction” 310).

Jameson also announced the loss of “the future,” but the starting point for his analysis was a perceived rupture in our connections to “the past.” In the early 1980s, Jameson gloomily described a cultural paradigm shift responding to a new social moment. This moment can in part be defined by

the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve. (“Postmodernism and Consumer Culture” 125; my emphasis)6

For Jameson, the loss of a sense of historical continuity and the entrapment in a “now” defined by incessant change has resulted in an inevitable weakening of both the political and the creative energy necessary to sustain a sense of (utopian) possibility. The “vocation” of science fiction has become “to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (“Progress Versus Utopia” 153)—that is, to demonstrate in stories our inability to imagine something qualitatively different. This “incapacity” (an idea to which I will return below) infuses the devastatingly anti-climactic statement that, more than twenty years ago now, more or less concluded Neuromancer (1984), that cyberpunk limit-text: in spite of the coming to consciousness of a hugely powerful artificial intelligence at the end of Gibson’s first novel, “Things aren’t different. Things are things” (270). It is easy to see the potential for political enervation suggested in these descriptions of science fiction’s current relations with futurity, especially in Baudrillard’s, but also, ironically, in Jameson’s.7

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. satirically diagnoses this sense of invasion by technoscientific futurity as “futuristic flu,” a condition “in which a time further in the future than the one in which we exist and choose infects the host present, reproducing itself in simulacra, until it destroys all the original chronocytes of the host imagination” (“Futuristic Flu” 26).8 The result is an increasingly acute sense that the shape of things to come has already been determined, undermining in the process the “morale and freedom necessary to create an open, ‘conditional future’” (33).

Geoff Ryman’s recent Air (or Have Not Have) (2004)—another important example of sf’s post-millennial obsession with the technocultural future-present—provides a useful contrast to the three novels that are my main focus here, because it dramatizes a kind of homeopathic cure for the futuristic flu. In Ryman’s novel, an implacable communications system—“Air”—looms over the entire globe and readers follow the story of its radical penetration into the lives of the members of an isolated peasant village in the mountains of what might—or might not—be Turkey or China. It is “the last village in the world to go online” (1), as we are told in the novel’s opening sentence. Air is the story of this community’s struggle both to adapt to the implacable future that has infected its “host present” and, to whatever degree possible, to shape that future to its own ends. In Ryman’s utopian-inflected fiction, human beings manage to achieve a series of more or less mutually constitutive engagements with the future, although not without significant physical, psychological, and emotional costs. The sign of their recovery from the futuristic flu is their re(dis)covery of a sense of an open-ended future in all its contingency and indeterminacy. Air’s last words are: “all of them ... turned and walked together into the future” (390).9

The resolution in Air is the dramatic reinstatement of the future: however difficult and demanding and inescapable the time to come may be, it is also the site of potentially positive transformation, and one might meet it with some deliberation and some degree of freedom. In contrast, the novels by Atwood, Egan, and Gibson treat the future as a kind of impossibility. Atwood’s novel is a retro-disaster novel about out-of-control bioengineering and ecological collapse. Egan’s radical hard sf offers the paradoxical extrapolation of a future inherently inaccessible to extrapolation. In Pattern Recognition, sf and mainstream realism have become indistinguishable strategies for mimetically representing the ceaseless transformations of the future-present.      

2. Retro-techno-scientific romance

If posterity reads [this futuristic stuff] at all it will probably be to marvel at our want of knowledge, imagination and hope. And no doubt our posterity too will write their own futuristic stories and no doubt they too will be just as transitory as ours.—H.G. Wells, “Fiction about the Future” (246-47)

Oryx and Crake is a story that warns us about how a conceptual loss of the future can lead to its literal destruction in the (almost complete) extinction of the human race. In this sense, Oryx and Crake offers readers an old-fashioned dystopian warning about the potentially catastrophic effects of unbridled biogenetic engineering and unstoppable environmental collapse. It plays out an Orwellian “if this goes on” scenario, satirically dramatizing a sociopolitical near-future of fearsome stupidity and corruption—a very thinly disguised version of our own present—that inevitably leads to apocalyptic disaster, to the literal erasure of anything like a viable future.

Appropriately, the narrative structure moves constantly between the novel’s post-apocalyptic present and its forever out-of-reach past; this structure very clearly highlights the broken connections between past and present and between present and future. In a statement that seems to be a thematic giveaway, one of the novel’s characters anticipates how easily the trajectory of human history might be disrupted:

All it takes ... is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever. (270)

The novel’s action, such as it is, unfolds in an unspecified location sometime in the near future. The human world—and much of the natural world—has been destroyed by a combination of rampant genetic experimentation and environmental degradation, culiminating in the outbreak of a mysterious viral plague that kills almost everyone. Atwood’s protagonist is Snowman; his name used to be Jimmy, but he has renamed himself for this new and horrible world.10 In the novel’s present, Jimmy/Snowman wanders through the post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to avoid both the poisonous sun and a variety of bio-engineered hybrid-carnivores with unfortunate names like “pigoons” and “wolvogs.” Although he spends most of his time foraging for food and water, he is slowly starving to death. At the same time, he plays guardian and prophet to a new race of artificially-created posthuman subjects.

Motifs of hybridity are woven into the very texture of Atwood’s novel. Bio-engineered animals roam the future world freely, posing a constant threat to Snowman; his memories of the lost past, responsible for the horrors of this (future) present, are replete with images of “unnatural” foods, insects, flowers, and animals. Given its Orwellian undertones, it is not surprising that the novel is anything but celebratory in its constructions of hybridity (in contrast to many recent discourses of the postmodern). Hybridity here represents the unnatural, the transgressive, the grotesque and monstrous results of technoscientific stupidity and greed. It is the hybridity of the gene-splice, of the transgressions of an absolutely commodified technoscience, of the ultimate collapse of nature into culture. After Crake, Jimmy’s boyhood friend, has introduced Jimmy to some of the wonder products of the new genetic sciences—such as “ChickieNobs,” a particularly revolting fast-food product—“Why is it [Jimmy] feels some line has been crossed, some boundary transgressed? How much is too much, how far is too far?” (250). Oryx and Crake strongly dramatizes our collective anxiety that we are—even now—engaged in a process of irrecuperable violation.

Much of the action in the novel takes place in memory, through a series of flashbacks to Snowman’s lost life as Jimmy. In these memories Atwood also outlines the shape of her near-future dystopia. Jimmy has grown up in a society of corporate control and grotesque simulacra. This future casts its marginalized masses out to the “pleeblands,” spies on its workers, and executes those who betray its corporate/ideological investments. And, like other repressive systems, the enforcement of increasingly totalitarian power in this future attracts its own opposition, in the form of ever-more-radical acts of bio-terrorism. This is the background for Jimmy’s recollections of his troubled family life, his friendship with the mysterious and brilliant Crake (who, in a supreme act of bio-terrorism, will release the plague virus that destroys most of humanity), and his obsession with the mysterious and exotic sex-worker Oryx, whom he may first have seen on a child-porn website when he was a boy.11

Through Jimmy’s memories Atwood dramatizes how weak the ties between present and past have become: he and others of his generation know little and care less about the old world that is rapidly disappearing under the detritus of lowest-common-denominator popular culture and the radical commodification of everything, not least the creative arts, but most especially the products of unthinking genetic experimentation.12 He recalls how he mocked his parents’ nostalgia for a world that was cleaner and freer than the one they now inhabit: “Everyone’s parents moaned on about ... Remember when you could drive anywhere? Remember hamburger chains, always real beef, remember hot dog stands? Remember before New York was New New York? ... Boohoo” (75; emphasis in original). Jimmy’s memories of this period are redolent with the imagery of extinction (underlined by recurring references to “Extinctathon,” one of the Internet games that he and Crake play as boys)—and the final extinction is our own: “Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. How many legs does it have? Homo sapiens sapiens, joining the polar bear, the beluga whale, the onager, the burrowing owl, the long, long list” (409).

While Oryx and Crake borrows freely from Orwellian-style dystopian fiction, it even more obviously plays off Wellsian scientific romances, especially The Time Machine (1895) and, to a lesser extent, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896).13 If Jimmy is the Time Traveller, cut off from his “present” and precipitated into a horrific future, then Crake is an updated Moreau who has traded in the tools of vivisection for those of a much more precise bio-engineering. Like The Time Machine, Oryx and Crake is a story about evolution, but this is no longer the “natural” evolutionary process that so fascinated Wells’s late-nineteenth-century imagination. Rather, it is a new and “unnatural” evolutionary process set in motion by our human “tampering” in biotechnology—this has sometimes been referred to as “participatory evolution” by writers more optimistic than Atwood about our abilities to guide such a process.14 Atwood’s new world on the other side of technoscientific disaster, product of culture’s ultimate reconstruction of nature, has all-too-quickly arrived at the same “end of history” as Wells gives us in The Time Machine. Human civilization/human society is no more and the new earth is becoming populated by bio-engineered plants and animals that are in the process of wiping out natural species. It will also, perhaps, be repopulated by Atwood’s version of Wells’s future posthumans.

Atwood’s posthumans are the “Crakers” or “Children of Crake,” bio-engineered by Crake, Jimmy’s best friend and the novel’s very own mad scientist. They are all of them very beautiful, they are vegetarian, they are peaceful and non-territorial; but Crake has “edited out” (374) many “undesirable” human traits, so that the Crakers lack self-consciousness, humor, and irony as well as jealousy, aggression, and territoriality. Like Wells’s Time Traveller, Jimmy/Snowman, survivor from the now-destroyed world of technology and commodities, is an anachronism among them: “I’m your past,” he thinks to himself. “I’m your ancestor, come from the land of the dead.... I can’t get back. I’m stranded here” (129). On the other side of historical disaster, the Crakers personify the end of history with a vengeance. They live in a frozen and unchanging present moment, with no memory of a past and no anticipation of a future—“they don’t count the days” (434). In any event, there is no longer anything like a future to anticipate.

Like Wells’s Time Traveller, Jimmy/Snowman looks to the stars for comfort, but, unlike the Traveller, he finds no comfort in the vast wheel of the universe: “he lies on his back ... gazing up at the stars through the gently moving leaves. They seem close, the stars, but they’re far away. Their light is millions, billions of years out of date” (133).15

3. Post-singularity 

[I]t might be the end of all histories that concern us.—Damien Broderick, “Terrible Angels: Science Fiction and the Singularity” (194)

In contrast to Atwood’s exercise in slipstream story-telling, Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder has been singled out by the editors of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction as “an exemplar text” (Mendlesohn 2), representative in their terms of some of the genre’s key features. For this reason, I find it particularly intriguing to see how it displays its signs of future-trouble. Sf’s conventional futures—constructions of the extrapolative imagination, whether promising or threatening—are no longer so readily available even to writers situated squarely within the genre. Egan is Australia’s most successful sf writer, a leading figure in the contemporary renewal of hard sf—sometimes referred to as “radical hard sf” to distinguish it from the work of earlier writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.16 When we consider that the action in Egan’s novel is set 20,000 years into the future, it seems almost counterintuitive to consider that it too has a problem with the future, and yet it does.

Like Oryx and Crake, Schild’s Ladder tells an apocalyptic story. The plot follows the efforts of Egan’s characters either to halt or to adapt to the “novo-vacuum,” a kind of “other” universe that will inexorably erase and replace everything—planets, galaxies, the whole of the known universe—if it is not stopped. Thus the surface plot of Egan’s novel is a rather conventional adventure, albeit one with very high stakes, about averting a potential universe-wide apocalypse. What makes this an especially resonant plot, however, is the fact that Egan’s far future is always already on the other side of an apocalyptic break with human history.

In the sheer scope of its temporal and cosmological ambitions, Schild’s Ladder recalls Olaf Stapledon’s magisterial Last and First Men (1930), a fictional history of the evolutionary stages of humanity that culminates in an apocalyptic “end of Man” nearly two billion years from now. As Stapledon’s title suggests, his uniquely original “essay in myth creation” tells of the long, long future of the human race. In a future history of radical divergence, it constructs a sense of continuity between ourselves—“the first Men”—and all the transformed generations that will have come after us. In stark contrast to Stapledon’s novel, however, Schild’s Ladder forecloses the future to human beings: Egan’s universe—vastly expanded from our own tiny corner of space—is populated by a diverse array of posthuman characters who inhabit a multitude of natural and artificial habitats, but human beings as human beings have been extinct for nearly 19,000 years. In Schild’s Ladder, in other words, the future is full of exquisite promise and power—but it is not for us who suffer the limitations of embodiment and mortality.

The future in Schild’s Ladder lies on the other side of “the singularity.” Egan is one of a handful of “post-singularity” writers—including, among others,  Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Iain M. Banks, and Damien Broderick—whose fiction has responded to this currently influential perspective on the future, especially in the terms popularized by mathematician and sf writer Vernor Vinge. In effect, the Vingean singularity is a direct response to the increasing pace of technoscientific development, especially in the fields of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Vinge insists that “we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth” (Address to the VISION-21 Symposium). He foresees a metamorphosis in the very essence of the human world propelled by the creation of artificial intelligence, however defined: “it seems plausible that in the near historical future, we will cause superhuman intelligences to exist. Prediction beyond that point is qualitatively different from futurisms of the past” (Vinge, qtd. in Broderick, “Racing” 279). In Broderick’s words, the singularity “is a kind of black hole in the future, created by runaway change and accelerating computer power” (“Racing” 280). The major consequence for those of us living on this side of the singularity is that, since extrapolation has become radically unreliable, the future has become radically unknowable. Vinge’s technological singularity is a conceptual wall “blocking the future from us” (qtd. in Broderick, “Racing” 278).17

Schild’s Ladder is a wonderfully paradoxical undertaking, a highly imaginative attempt to construct a far-future universe inhabited by posthuman subjects who clearly exist on the other side of some radical techno-evolutionary “event” that separates our history and theirs. Its posthuman intelligences look back on human beings as their primitive ancestors. Some of Egan’s posthumans are “corporeals”—and some are “acorporeals” who resemble nothing so much as self-conscious Baudrillardian third-order simulacra. Even those who choose to live as “corporeals” are not bound to a single body, but can download themselves into any number of cloned bodies. Death is a “local” event occurring to a particular copy of a particular individual, who always has the option to continue life in other bodies and as other copies. Yann is an “ex-acorporeal” who is reduced to helpless laughter by his first experience of embodied sexuality. As the neutral narrative voice solemnly informs us, “Acorporeals taking on bodies often mapped them in unusual ways.” His disgrunted partner suggests that “Next time you want an authentic embodied experience, just simulate it” (123). This is the absolute implosion of sign and referent, the disappearance of any meaningful distinction between original and copy.18

But “we” are not completely absent from the cosmic scenario after all. In Schild’s Ladder the pre-singularity world reappears in the characters of the “Anachronauts.” This sorry remnant of humanity has survived through cryogenic suspension and has been, quite literally, resurrected into the future. The Anachronauts limp from planet to planet in their hugely outmoded spaceship, ostensibly to witness the future unfolding—“to witness what humanity would become” (129)—although, as it turns out, they are only seeking assurances that nothing has really changed.19 Specifically, they are looking for signs of “the eternal struggle between women and men” (129)—signs, that is, that human “nature” is still human nature. Egan’s posthumans, who have long since abandoned any notion of the “natural” human body, take considerable pleasure in weaving outrageous stories to satisfy the Anachronauts’ expectations:

[The Anachronauts had] been in cold storage for millennia, and now they were finally beginning the stage of their voyage that would justify the enormous sacrifices they’d made. Nobody could bring themselves to break the news that the sole surviving remnant of human sexual dimorphism was the retention, in some languages, of different inflections of various parts of speech associated with different proper names—and that expecting these grammatical fossils to be correlated with any aspect of a person’s anatomy would be like assuming from similar rules for inanimate objects that a cloud possessed a penis and a table contained a womb. (129)

In the Anachronauts, we recognize a humanity unable to understand or, indeed, even to perceive, certain kinds of dissimilarities; in their obsessive search for the “truth” of sexual difference, they are absolutely committed to the search for Sameness. Perhaps they are a satirical nod to Egan’s readers, his way of inserting us into the story. Not unlike Atwood’s Snowman, they are recognizable human beings wrenched out of time present and propelled into the time future of the posthuman universe. Appropriately, given the terms of Egan’s novel, their radical inabilty to recognize difference leads to the only deliberate act of physical violence in the novel, in this future that can look back on a “nineteen-thousand year era in which no sentient being had died at the hands of another” (205). The fact that they manage to destroy only themselves is also appropriate. If a utopian future comes into existence on the other side of the singularity, it does so because “we” no longer exist. To paraphrase Epicurus’s observation about death, “Where I am, the future is not; where the future is, I am not.”

4. Science-fiction realism

Sf is no longer about the future as such, because “we have no future” that we can do thought experiments about, only futures, which bleed all over the page, soaking the present.—John Clute, “The Case of the World, Two” (403)

Pattern Recognition is/is not science fiction in the same way that it is/is not a story about the future. I read Gibson’s latest novel as a self-reflexive account, reconstructed as mimetic realism, of a story he has written several times already as science fiction. This story is about how we find ourselves permeated by futurity as a kind of defining feature of the perpetual transition that is now. Pattern Recognition is a fictionalized phenomenology—refined to a kind of urgent essence—of the experience of subjectivity in the volatile and transient now of global technoculture. In a recent article about how research into intelligent machines necessarily impacts “how we understand what it means to be human” (131), N. Katherine Hayles—recalling Vinge—notes how “science fiction writers, traditionally the ones who prognosticate possible futures, are increasingly setting their fictions in the present” (149, n.2). Not coincidentally, she quotes a comment by Gibson that addresses this trend: “it was like the windshield kept getting closer and closer. The event horizon was getting closer.... I have this conviction that the present is actually inexpressibly peculiar now, and that’s the only thing that’s worth dealing with” (Gibson, qtd. in Hayles 149, n.2).20

The “typical” Gibson novel introduces the possibility of profound change into its fictional world—transformation implied in some radical technological event—and then breaks off as if unable to envisage what comes next; the event horizon looms too closely and smothers the futuristic imagination. At the end of Neuromancer, his earliest novel, for example, it is the unprecedented coming-to-consciousness of the cyberspatial “deus ex machina,” the Wintermute AI. At the end of his latest sf novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), inconceivable transformations are promised in the interactions of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

The thoughtful yet ironic engagement of All Tomorrow’s Parties with the trope of apocalypse is perhaps the clearest demonstration of what I have in mind here. In All Tomorrow’s Parties, the action culminates in an appropriately fiery narrative climax with the near-destruction by fire of the Oakland Bay Bridge. This “apocalypse” functions as a quite conventional climax to the novel’s typically action-oriented plot. It is also a feint, however, a set-up feeding conventional expectations of narrative resolution. The fiery climax to the action serves to distract both characters and readers from more radical changes taking place elsewhere: Rei Toei, the Idoru, that mysterious virtual superstar introduced by Gibson in his 1996 novel of the same name, frees herself from her dependence on technology and enters the world as an autonomous sentient entity; and breakthroughs in nanotechnology promise unprecedented changes in the very material of the physical world. What these events might mean to the continued unfolding of human history remains unknown, however, since Gibson’s text reaches its own conclusion at this point.

More so than his earlier novels, Pattern Recognition self-consciously considers this inevitable “failure” of futuristic vision. The characters who inhabit its frenetic cityscapes know that it has become impossible to imagine a future, that it is possible now only to experience oneself as swept along in the ceaseless transformations of the present. Similar to Oryx and Crake, Pattern Recognition contains its own thematic giveaway, a much-quoted passage spoken by Hubertus Bigend, the sinister businessman who represents the new world order of global corporate culture:

we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which “now” was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient “now” to stand on. (57)

Bigend concludes that “We have no future because our present is too volatile.... We have only risk management. The spinning of a given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition” (57). The challenge is now to undertake some kind of Jamesonian cognitive mapping adequate to the volatility and fluidity of the present moment; it has become impossible to project in any meaningful way into the future from “a perpetual present” defined by “perpetual change” (to recall Jameson’s words). In the “final” analysis, however, pattern recognition may be indistinguishable from conspiracy theory. As one of the novel’s characters notes, while pattern recognition is a particularly human trait, it is “a trap” as well as “a gift” (22). In this world in which so many characters spend so much of their time searching for clues and developing theories to explain massively complex events, the text also informs us that, like at least some of its characters, we readers may be suffering from “apophenia”—“the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things ... an illusion of meaningfulness, faulty pattern recognition” (115). Cayce’s mother, an extreme example, is a confirmed devotée of Electronic Voice Phenomena, convinced that she can make out signals from her dead husband in the background noise of audiotapes.21

Consider how different was the perspective on “futuristic fiction” presented by influential sf historian I.F. Clarke in his resonantly titled study, The Pattern of Expectation (1979). For Clarke, the futuristic imagination—that is, the science fiction imagination—aims “to anticipate all the consequences of the perpetual flux by creating patterns of expectation. There is no end to the modelling of future worlds” (303).22 Clarke’s pleasure in the expansiveness of the futuristic imagination is very appealing in its Golden Age romanticism. For Clarke, futuristic fiction is an optimistic demonstration of how infinitely distant is the event horizon of the technological imagination: “It is only by virtue of the infinite liberty of the imagined future that a writer is able to range at will, unconstrained and godlike in his capacity to create new worlds in his own image” (9).

Once posit the singularity, however, and there is “no pattern of reasoned expectation to be mapped.... Merely—opacity” (Broderick, “Terrible Angels” 184). I want to suggest that Pattern Recognition can be read as a kind of post-singularity fiction of the present—the title of the chapter in which Cayce recalls her experiences in New York on September 11, 2001 is “Singularity.” Gibson’s singularity may be more symbolic, finally, than material; nevertheless, it functions in much the same way as the technological singularity, as an apocalyptic event that cuts us off from the historical past, leaving us stranded in difference. And this is where Gibson’s treatment of futurity in Pattern Recognition continues the complex pattern of his writing since Neuromancer: that is, even as there is too little “now” to stand on and “we have no future,” at the same time we find ourselves on the other side of an event that has changed everything. From this perspective, time present—postmodern time—is supplemental time, time-after-the-end-of-time; the cautionary “post” in “postmodern” represents both our hesitation in letting go of the past and our anxiety that we are, in fact, on the other side of irrevocable change.

Pattern Recognition is Gibson’s seventh novel, and the first to be set, not in the near-future, but in the very recent past.23 In a 2003 interview, Gibson noted its debt to science fiction:

There’s something so obvious that it seems almost silly to point it out ... but we’re living in a world that resembles nothing so much as dozens and dozens of overlapping, really lurid science-fiction scenarios. Any attempt at literary naturalism in 2003 will bring the author into direct contact with material that 20 years ago would have been barely publishable as science fiction.... (Poole)

Pattern Recognition is about Cayce Pollard, a “cool hunter,” “a dowser in the world of global marketing” (2).24 Both Baudrillard and Jameson would recognize the particular skills with which she negotiates a well-paid career at the edges of corporate culture. Cayce’s talent is the ability to spot promising marketing trends, potential consumer patterns, and she is currently employed by the Blue Ant corporation. In a passage that suggests something of the wry and rich texture of Gibson’s prose, Blue Ant is described as “relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational ... a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores” (6). Its business practices accord with the understanding that “Far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves” (67).

Like most of Gibson’s plots, the complicated action in Pattern Recognition unwinds in thriller-mode: Cayce battles various pernicious acts of corporate espionage at the same time that she is hot on the trail of the creator of the mysterious “footage,” a small collection of film fragments from an apparent work-in-progress that has become fetishized by an entire (globally distributed) community of devotees. The action takes place in the year following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Everything plays out against the backdrop of this event described as “an experience outside of culture” (137), which accounts for the pervasive tone of low-level post-apocalypticism that is so much a part of the novel’s texture.

Burdened by the sense that 9/11 is a kind of culmination, a definitive break with the past, Cayce “feels like crying, though for no particular reason. Just this invasive weirdness that seems increasingly a part of her world, and she doesn’t know why” (226).25 Gibson develops the sense of “invasive weirdness” in Cayce’s world in part through the constant movement of his characters and the increasingly fragmented structure of his narrative. During the course of the action, Cayce, an American whom we never see in the United States, travels to London, to Tokyo, back to London, to Moscow, and to Paris. Everyone is on the move in this novel, and jetlag is a way of life. The edginess and restlessness and sleeplessness of the narrative amount to a kind of formal representation of the present as a condition of incessant and spatialized movement—fittingly, all the action is narrated in the present tense; only the locations change under the auspices of an increasingly accessible global geography. While everything is happening now, everything is also always happening elsewhere. This is the present within which is folded the profound alterity of the future, the present not at one with itself, invaded by the weirdness of the future. Gibson’s brilliance is his ability to dramatize, through Cayce’s acute sensitivity to this world, the psychic experience of the future-present in a way that thoroughly estranges it:

Looking up now into the manically animated forest of signs [in Tokyo], she sees the Coca-Cola logo pulsing on a huge screen, high up on a building, followed by the slogan “NO REASON!” This vanishes, replaced by a news clip, dark-skinned men in bright robes. She blinks, imagining the towers burning there, framed amid image-flash and whirl. (125)

As in Gibson’s fiction in general, notably including Neuromancer, it is the texture rather than the plot of this particular fictional world that is so fascinating. This is a world of hi-technologies and hi-tech commodities, and all the science-fictional elements in it—the hi-speed travel and instant global communications, the esoteric and labyrinthine practices of multinational businesses, the virtual computer-mediated relationships through which much of the action develops—are increasingly familiar features of the contemporary landscape. In Jameson’s words, Gibson’s novel “carefully gropes its way” through “the object-world of late commodification” (“Fear and Loathing” 384), displaying it for the reader through Cayce Pollard’s expert gaze.

At the heart of Cayce’s character, however, is a delicately fastidious refusal of the inauthenticity of commodity culture, with which, of course, she is only too familiar. A sartorial minimalist, she confines herself to such “genuine” items as Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirts and the “authentic” Japanese simulation of her Buzz Rickson bomber jacket: “She is a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult” (8). And this is by no means unrelated to Cayce’s fascination with the footage, which suggests to her a dreamworld unmarked by period or politics. Typical frames of the footage show a young couple against a variety of unidentifiable but resonant backgrounds; these brief fragments may or may not be the work of a single artist and they may or may not be going to amount to a single and sustained narrative: “He might be a sailor, stepping onto a submarine in 1914, or a jazz musician entering a club in 1957. There is a lack of evidence, an absence of stylistic clues, that Cayce understands to be utterly masterful” (23).

Cayce is embedded in the historical transitoriness of the now, a moment that is virtually defined by the fact that it cannot remain itself. In contrast, the couple in the footage exist in some other plane unmarked by history and are situated by the text as the signifier of both authenticity and immediacy. Now has no present-ness because it is so volatile; the images of the footage, because they are unmoored from the specificities of history and geography, represent for Cayce and other “footage-heads” a kind of stillness pervaded by presence. Jameson is absolutely right when he notes that, for Cayce, the “utter lack of style” of the footage “is an ontological relief.... The footage is an epoch of rest, an escape from the noisy commodities themselves” (“Fear and Loathing” 391). It is not surprising that the “happy ending” in the novel consists of Cayce’s—at last—falling peacefully asleep.

Gibson’s fiction has always evidenced a complex apocalyptic attitude. In spite of cyberpunk’s overt repudiation of apocalyptic tropes—“things are things”—there is a sense in which most of the near-futures so lovingly delineated by Gibson are in thrall to the impossibility of thinking beyond them: thus the abrupt and open-ended (non)resolutions of novels from Neuromancer to All Tomorrow’s Parties, the former text unable to speak the “true name” that might cause everything to change, the latter text affording readers a final glimpse of a world in which breakthroughs in nanotechnology promise ... what it is impossible for us on this side of the future to imagine.26 Gibson’s move from near-future sf in novels from Neuromancer to All Tomorrow’s Parties to the present-tense “sf realism” of Pattern Recognition seems inevitable—at least in the hindsight of pattern recognition. The novel freezes in the face of the sheer impossiblity of extrapolation, the sheer opacity of the future. “The event horizon was getting closer”—so close, in fact, that extrapolation falls back upon itself and Gibson’s sf continues its work in/on the volatility of now.

Over two decades ago, in his 1981 short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” Gibson satirically depicted how easily “fully imagined cultural futures”—in this case the jet-propelled future of the 1930s—become outdated.27 Here at the beginning of the new millennium, Gibson’s fiction seems more than ever to support Jameson’s claim that the role of science fiction is “to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (“Progress Versus Utopia” 153): the “temporal structure” of sf is “not to give us ‘images’ of the future ... but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization” (151, emphasis in original). The rate of technological transformation continues to increase incrementally and the fact of change becomes the defining feature of the present. Science fiction’s founding assumption—that the future will be different from the present—has become outdated. Today the present is different from the present.

5. Risk-management sf

[N]ostalgia for the future, at once deeply sincere and deeply ironic, is an essential part of our post-millennial hangover.—Mark Dery, “Memories of the Future: Excavating the Jet Age at the TWA Terminal” (295)

Of these three novels, Atwood’s is most concerned to encourage something like conventional political action on the part of its readers. One of her epigraphs, a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, reads in part: “my principle design was to inform you, and not to amuse you” (n.p.),  reminding readers of the long tradition of politically-engaged satire with which Atwood aligns her own text. Egan’s novel, in contrast, is absolutely up to the minute, an extremely clever and very seductive story about post-Platonic subjects who have achieved more or less complete control over material reality. This is an expression of utopian techno-transcendence appropriate to the science-fictionalized present, a post-singularity vision that renders the very idea of the political irrelevant. And, in contrast again, Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is an exercise in Jamesonian cognitive mapping, an imaginative description of how “we”—those of us embedded, body and psyche, in this moment of “perpetual present” and “perpetual change”—might manage to negotiate the moment, while maintaining something like a critical distance from it.

Have things really changed in our relationship to the future? Yes, at least to the extent that thinking makes it so. In his recent cultural history of the genre, Roger Luckhurst describes sf as “speculation on the diverse results of the conjuncture of technology and subjectivity” (222), and Pattern Recognition performs a powerful dramatization of some of the effects of this conjuncture in the new millennium. At the same time it is worth keeping in mind that sf has always been troubled in its relations with the future—the impossibility of keeping ahead of the technoscientific curve has always marked the genre. As if he were preparing to write “The Gernsback Continuum” in 1938, H.G. Wells astutely noted, early in the last century, the particular futility of sf’s project as story:

Maybe no literature is perfect and enduring, but there is something specially and incurably topical about all these prophetic books; the more you go ahead, the more you seem to get entangled with the burning questions of your own time. And all the while events are overtaking you. (246)

I am grateful to have had opportunities to present earlier versions of this essay at the Commonwealth of Science Fiction Conference held in Liverpool in August 2004, the Radical Philosophy Conference held in London in March 2005, and the Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy held in Toronto in June 2005.

1. Best to deal with the question of genre right away. Some readers, including John Clute (“The Case of the World, Two”) and Fredric Jameson (“Fear and Loathing in Globalization”) see in Pattern Recognition a kind of sf writing appropriate to our particular historical moment. Jameson, for example, opens his comments on the novel by asking, rhetorically, “Has the author of Neuromancer really ‘changed his style’? Has he even stopped writing Science Fiction, as some old-fashioned critics have put it, thinking thereby to pay him a compliment?” Jameson suggests, rather, that Gibson is still deploying “the representational apparatus of Science Fiction, here refined and transistorized in all kinds of new and productive ways” (384). On the other hand, Graham Sleight flatly states that “Pattern Recognition is not an sf novel. There’s no way that its content can locate it in the canon of the fantastic.... It’s simply a contemporary William Gibson novel in the same way that Concrete Island was a contemporary J.G. Ballard novel” (8). Both of these perspectives are perfectly reasonable.

2. Best also to at least raise the question of generational crisis. In 2001 Judith Berman caused a stir in some corners of the sf community when she wrote critically about the influence of sf’s aging baby-boomers. Examining a sample of stories recently published in Asimov’s, she found them “increasingly gripped by the iron hand of the past.” For Berman, many recent sf stories “are full of nostalgia, regret, fear of aging and death, fear of the future in general, and the experience of change as disorienting and bad.... [T]hey are presented within a frame of nostalgia for the Golden Age past of sf” (6). Berman’s arguments are not irrelevant to this present discussion, but I hope to demonstrate that there is more to the novels that interest me here than simply the middle-aged exhaustion of their authors, none of whom are much prone to nostalgia, especially of the Golden Age variety. Interested readers will find Berman’s article posted at <>.

3. Csicsery-Ronay’s “The SF of Theory” develops a lucid account of this argument (see, especially, 387-89).

4. James Gunn’s ongoing commentaries about sf are a good example of this perspective on the genre. In 1975, for instance, he wrote that “Science fiction readers are not susceptible to future shock; they were part of the space generation long before anyone else. They don’t fear change; they welcome it. They are impatient for the future to arrive” (37). It is safe to assume, however, that Gunn had meaningful change in mind, rather than the kind of incessant process-without-progress that is my focus here.

5. SFS’s recent special issue on “Technoculture and Science Fiction” (March 2006) introduces a range of alternative commentaries on culture and technology by theorists such as Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, and Manuel Castells. Most relevant to this present discussion is Castells’s concept of “timeless time,” described by Robert Harding as “the temporal order of the Information Age” (25). Harding briefly notes the affinities between Castells’s theoretical work on contemporary spatial and temporal re-ordering and the cultural analysis developed in Gibson’s latest fiction (26). (It is interesting to consider, by the way, the chronological reversal implied in the title of Jameson’s recent collection of essays on science fiction and utopian fiction, Archeologies of the Future).

6. A comment by Frank Kermode in his very important 1966 study of apocalyptic fiction, The Sense of an Ending, seems positively prescient when read beside Baudrillard and Jameson:

Our own epoch is the epoch of nothing positive, only of transition. Since we move from transition to transition, we may suppose that we exist in no intelligible relation to the past, and no predictable relation to the future. Already those who speak of a clean break with the past, and a new start for the future, seem a little old-fashioned. (101-102)       

7. Roger Luckhurst reminds us that Baudrillard’s response to announcements about “the end of history” was to announce, with ironic logic, “the end of the End”: “there is no end any longer ... there will be no end to anything, and all these things will continue to unfold slowly, tediously, recurrently” (qtd. Luckhurst 231). Whether “the Year 2000” has already happened or whether it will never arrive, it makes little difference in view of the collapse of transformative possibilities. Things are things.

8. “Futuristic Flu” provides incisive commentaries on some of the important critical models that have addressed this particular ailment, including those by Jameson and J.G. Ballard. 

9. Also of interest in this context is Ryman’s short story, “Birth Days” (2003), one of whose characters is a “future therapist”: “they sent her in to help people change and keep up and not be frightened of science” (10).

10. “Protagonist,” however, is hardly suitable to describe Atwood’s eternally adolescent, ethically challenged, and quite unsympathetic central character.

11. It can be argued that Jimmy/Snowman is the only “real” character in this almost-allegorical novel; even more so than most of the other characters who appear and disappear in his memory, Crake and Oryx remain forever opaque to him and, whether or not as a direct consequence of this, to readers as well.

12. There are parallels here to Atwood’s earlier The Handmaid’s Tale (1984), which also warns of the costs of forgetting one’s political history, in this case, the political struggles of second-wave feminists.

13. In reading echoes of Wells and Orwell in Oryx and Crake, I am agreeing with Atwood’s own descriptions of her influences. Since its publication, she has missed few opportunities to distance her writing from genre sf, preferring to identify her work with the tradition of British scientific romance. See, for example, her article in the 2004 PMLA special issue on science fiction. These echoes of Wells and Orwell—not to mention a certain resemblance to mid-twentieth-century apocalyptic fictions such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957)—may be responsible in part for Clute’s dismissive review, in particular his acerbic observation that it “may be the kind of SF contemporary writers stopped committing to print after 1970 or so” (“Croaked”). In contrast, Gary K. Wolfe concludes that “Atwood’s language is often razor-sharp, her powers of observation relentless, her narrative consistently engaging” (17).

14. See, for example, the discussion in Chris Hables Gray’s Cyborg Citizen (9-12). Gray attributes the phrase “participatory evolution”—referring to the artificial process through which human beings are currently contributing to our own bio-genetic and technological transformations—to Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, the scientists who in 1960 coined the term “cyborg.” For Gray, this process of “participatory evolution” is “a fundamentally new development in the history of the human” (3).

15. Snowman’s discovery of three more human survivors just as the novel is ending rather dimly recalls the structural elegance of the “Historical Notes” appended by Atwood to The Handmaid’s Tale; perhaps, like the “Notes,” Snowman’s discovery is meant to reframe his story, to change radically our understanding of his situation as we thought we knew it. If Atwood means to suggest a more open-ended possibility for human action than previously seemed available, however, the suggestion is rather too little too late. It may be, of course, that Atwood is simply teasing our readerly desire to find out what happens next—even after the end of the world, even after the end of the story.

16. “Radical hard sf” is a good example of how sf in the 1990s returned to and reworked earlier subgenres, also producing the New Space Opera and the New Weird. Luckhurst sees this, in part, as an expression of fin-de-siècle apocalypticism: “Perhaps, inevitably, in the shadow of the millennium, 1990s SF revived scenes from the genre’s history of apocalypticism from the 1890s on” (221). One of my aims in this present discussion is to suggest some of the ways in which—and some of the reasons for which—post-millennial sf continues to deploy the tropes of apocalypse.

17. In his original article on the singularity, Vinge argues for its influence on recent sf’s marked propensity for near-future scenarios: “Through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, recognition of the cataclysm spread.... Perhaps it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact. After all, the ‘hard’ science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future” (Vinge). The impact of the singularity is by no means confined to fiction; see, for instance, the website of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence at <>.

18. Egan is probably the most successful writer ever to tackle the creation of posthuman virtual subjects in his fiction; his recent novels—from Permutation City (1994) through Diaspora (1997) to Schild’s Ladder—constitute a brilliantly imaginative trajectory from relatively simple to increasingly complex versions of virtual subjects and their environments. See the discussions about his fiction by Daniels and Farnell.

19. This recalls Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), that hugely ironic novel about (the impossibility of) contact. As one of the characters insists in a much-quoted passage, the entire enterprise of seeking the alien/Other is wrong-headed: “We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors” (81). If Lem’s novel tells of the tragic failure to know the truly Other from the point of view of a chastened high modernism, then we might consider that Egan’s novel tells the same story of modernism’s failure, but from the more satirical perspective of a postmodern posthumanism. Tragedy is rewritten as irony.               

20. A selection of recent sf novels about “the windshield ... getting closer and closer” might include Octavia Butler’s near-future apocalyptic novel, Parable of the Sower (1992); Jack Womack’s novel of a hyper-violent and economically-devastated New York, Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1992); even more so, Womack’s Elvissey (1993), in which the yearning for salvation is balanced by a desire for the end of futurity and the death of the subject; Bruce Sterling’s finger-on-the-pulse political satire, Distraction (1998); Robert Charles Wilson’s Chronoliths (2001), about the mysterious appearance of monuments from the future whose messages inevitably begin to shape how people choose to live their history in the present; and Kim Stanley Robinson’s very-near-future novels about ecological collapse, Forty Signs of Rain (2004) and Fifty Degrees Below (2005). Pattern Recognition is dedicated to Jack Womack.

21. But then again, Cayce’s mother may not be wrong: the text cagily refuses to discount this possibility, since Cayce’s father appears to speak to her truthfully in the several dreams Cayce has of him during the course of the novel. There is an immense appreciation for absurdity in Pattern Recognition, as there is also in Oryx and Crake and Schild’s Ladder. This is not a coincidence.

22. This passage is quoted by Broderick as the epigraph to his essay on sf and the singularity, “Terrible Angels.” In Baudrillard’s terms, Clarke’s notion of science fiction belongs to the “production era” of second-order simulation, an era of progressive expansion before the whole system begins to implode.

23. As many readers will know, Gibson also collaborated on an alternate-history novel with Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine (1991) is a good example of “steampunk,” set as it is in an alternate version of England’s nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution.

24. Cayce shares the spelling of her name with the famous psychic Edgar Cayce, but it is pronounced “Case,” like the computer-hacker protagonist of Neuromancer. Gibson has stated for the record that this is nothing more than coincidence, but the resolute reader of/for patterns may be forgiven a certain skepticism. At the least, the repetition—from an author well known for the proliferation of (brand)names in his textual worlds—is resonant.

25. Gibson’s construction of 9/11 as an “experience outside of culture” recalls one of the meanings of apocalypse as outlined by James Berger:

catastrophes that resemble the imagined final ending, that can be interpreted as ... an end of something, a way of life or thinking.... They function as definitive historical divides, as ruptures, pivots, fulcrums separating what came before from what came after.... Previous historical narratives are shattered; new understandings of the world are generated. (5)

26. See my “Apocalypse Coma” for a more detailed discussion of (post)apocalypticism in Neuromancer.

27. Gibson’s own take on this future-present is blocked by the singular event that is 9/11: little in the novel suggests the apparently perpetual “war on terror” into which the world has since been precipitated.

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Wells, H.G. “Fiction about the Future.” 1938. H.G. Wells’s Literary Criticism. Ed. Patrick Parrinder and Robert Philmus. Totawa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1980. 246-51.

Wolfe, Gary K. Review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. 51.1 (July 2003): 17.

It is not news that “science fiction” has come to refer in the past few decades not only to a popular narrative genre, but also to a kind of popular cultural discourse, a way of thinking about a sociopolitical present defined by radical and incessant technological transformation. William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) is both a realist novel set in 2002 and an sf novel set in the endless endtimes of the future-present. It brilliantly conveys the phenomenology of a present infused with futurity, no longer like itself, no longer like the present. In this essay I discuss Pattern Recognition in the context of two other contemporary novels, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder (2001), that also address the complexities of contemporary technoculture’s interactions with the future. Oryx and Crake, an apocalyptic satire by an author most often associated with the realist novel, is a telling demonstration of how non-genre writers turn to science fiction as a way to characterize the lived experience of technoculture. Schild’s Ladder, situated at the centre of genre, captures the fascination with which some contemporary hard sf views the potential of technoscience to transform human history in radically unforeseeable ways. In his latest novel, meanwhile, Gibson has traded in the tropes of sf for the strategies of mimetic realism to dramatize the future as a kind of impossibility. I read these three novels as a series of significantly interrelated stories about the increasingly complex nature of the future in technoculture.



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