Science Fiction Studies

#100 = Volume 33, Part 3 = November 2006

Christopher Palmer

Pattern Recognition: “None of What We Do Here Is Ever Really Private”

“Of course, 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.… For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile.… We have only risk management.” William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, 57

Hubertus Bigend here, in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), reminds one of Ballard or Baudrillard; he expresses more an attitude than a theory, no doubt, but an attitude that is salient nowadays. Taken together, the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Fall of the Twin Towers, such different events, seem to affront our powers of prediction. Various historical and cultural schemas, some of them laboriously developed, crowd each other out or lose force in their passage from theory to the media, as has arguably happened with theories of revolution or rupture in relation to the postmodern, and with assertions of the end—of history for instance.

Further, 9/11 and its aftermath has about it an obscenity. The event and the representation of the event collapse dangerously into each other, and the same thing happens with subsequent events and their representations. The event is intended as a representation, and we experience the event as its representation, but the initial shockingness of the representation, and then the rapid movement into repetition, both have a confusing effect. Further, the representation is obscene in that it shows what should not be shown, most obviously by violating the privacy of the victims, those who jumped from the Twin Towers, for instance. This makes a challenge for narrative and especially for fiction, in which the representation is the event for the reader but the reader can enjoy being in a space of licensed voyeurism and imagined intimacies and empathies.

In writing these terms I bring forward a certain view of fiction, one that is involved with interiority, and I thereby appeal to precisely what is denied by 9/11 and its aftermath, if my remarks about its qualities have some validity.1 This is worth doing, however, because Pattern Recognition explores interiority in a variety of ways, some fumbling, some overstated, some witty, while repeatedly setting the power of images before us. Clearly, in naming his main character Cayce, Gibson is inviting us to see Pattern Recognition as a rewriting of Neuromancer, whose main character is named Case; but it is a rewriting that develops the explorations of lonely, sensitive, orphaned, or fatherless figures in intervening novels. Cayce has something that could be called a sensibility, a way of registering the moment to moment impact of experiences on and in her self. This is an old-fashioned thing to have, especially in a situation in which image and brand-name are dominant, with a resultant emptying of depth, but it does seem an accurate term to use, and in this essay I will attempt to explore the consequences of Gibson’s inserting a person with sensibility into the postmodern, post-9/11 world.

Pattern Recognition expresses Gibson’s continuing fascination with all things made and exchanged, the meanings we give technology or art, the semiotics of consumption, but in a world newly jarred out of its sense of continuity and coherence. The attempt to grasp the new conditions that prevail helps Gibson to refocus these characteristic concerns. The jarring actually happened, rather than being brought about for us by way of some imagined sf novum. I am assuming in this essay that the novel recalls the reader’s own experience of this effect, but time and experience are defamiliarized in much the same way as in sf, while the main character registers all this in a peculiarly inward, sometimes mannered way.

In the person of Cayce Pollard, then, the jarring is into reticence, hesitation, allusion; very different from what actually happened, which was an outpouring of images, expostulations, punditry. Cayce is drifting, unable to mourn, rather than lashing out at enemies real and imagined. So this choice of protagonist itself makes a point and records a dissent. What is made to follow from it is an investigation of when to tell and how much to tell, important matters both for fiction and for social life. As a writer, Gibson characteristically oscillates between, on the one hand, the precise and specified, the exactly vivid name or appearance that economically puts something before us—what Henry Hitchings calls “supersuperficiality”2—and, on the other hand, a kind of undifferentiated evocativeness and almost blankness: floating signifiers, empty brand-names, reflexive catchphrases (“secure the perimeter”; “took a duck in the face at 250 knots”). When to show in closeup, when to evoke or gesture: in Pattern Recognition Gibson finds a situation in which this characteristic oscillation of his is needed to help with a contemporary predicament: when to withhold, when to face the obscenity of the event.

Cayce lost her father in or around the Twin Towers on 9/11 and “lost” is the word: Win Pollard vanished at and near the fall of the Twin Towers, becoming “a man gone so thoroughly and quietly missing that it might be impossible to prove him dead” (187). The memory of him seems irretrievable; he is as yet “ungrieved.” She will have to “unforget her father’s absence” (134). The novel never mentions Islamic terrorism or Al Qaeda, as we might have expected in a post-9/11 story. It substitutes post-Soviet Russia and tendrils of history stretching back to World War Two. It as it were takes a step sideways and investigates the history that Win Pollard was involved in, guarding America’s security in the Cold War, which is now emphatically in the past yet haunts the novel nonetheless. Making the novel into a kind of ghost story, in which Win several times manifests himself to Cayce and advises her, certainly fits with the uncanniness—“weirdness” as she calls it—of her experience. Yet the alternative history (reaching back from post-Soviet Russia through the Cold War to World War Two) is presented in quite concrete ways. More on this below.

Cayce doesn’t really bring herself to speak of her father’s loss with any directness until chapter 15. Here she is remembering where she was and how she witnessed the burning of the towers, as many of us can do, but the tenses are odd. The narration steps back to the moment before and refuses to move beyond it:

Cayce and the German designer will watch the towers burn, and eventually fall, and though she will know she must have seen people jumping, falling, there will be no memory of it.
   It will be like watching one of her own dreams on television. Some vast and deeply personal insult to any ordinary notion of interiority. (137)

Obscenity, according to Baudrillard, involves almost the end of interiority: everything is produced, made visible, disseminated.3 Billions have the experience of watching the event “live.” The event is disclosed, nothing is held back, yet the viewer is impotent. Thence, there follows a kind of war of images as well as bombs, very many of them both showing too much and leaving the viewer nowhere to go: the photos of the missing of 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s videos from undisclosed locations, hostages on video with their captors, souvenir photos of torture or humiliation, the Baghdad blog of Salam Pax, the various websites on which US officers exchange after-action advice within hours of battle,4 soldiers’ videos with heavy-metal accompaniment circulating back home—not to mention images coming from the regular media, like the man being shot during the battle of Fallujah because he might have been playing dead, as the verdict eventually had it. (A full discussion of the war of images would no doubt have to assess what is withheld—images of the coffins of American dead for instance—as well as what is disseminated. Baudrillard’s notion of obscenity can be no more than a starting point; there is a war of images, not just a blizzard of images.)

Pattern Recognition turns away from most of this explicit image production. It is a novel about Cayce’s quest to find the makers of mysterious “footage” appearing in fragments in cyberspace, perhaps generated by “some guerilla creator out there alone in the night of the Internet” (47), spawning a dedicated subculture of interpretation. In the course of tracing the makers of the footage, she will come a bit closer to mourning her father and learning the circumstances of his death. The whole complicated and somewhat meandering machine of the narrative will express a series of decisions about which pasts the footage and the loss of Win are to be connected to. It will also offer a series of takes on interiority, the quirks and nuances of Cayce’s sensibility, before bringing Cayce to meet the female creators of the footage.

The rest of this essay discusses, in turn, what kind of personage Cayce is, and why this is appropriate, in relation to the issues sketched above; what kind of work of art the footage is and why this is appropriate in relation to the issues sketched above; and what kind of history is recuperated in the course of Cayce’s quest to find the makers of the footage. Pattern Recognition refuses the notion that the world somehow began again from zero on 9/11. The discussion so far, with its emphasis on loss, ghosts, and the sensibility of the main character, might suggest that the novel also avoids a confrontation with the violence of history. This is not so, but violence, including the violence of history, tends to occur in scenes that are vivid and meaningful yet also circumscribed and as it were staged as set pieces.

Cayce is a walking contradiction, often satirized as such. She is a freelance image and logo consultant who earns her living because she has a talent for picking trends and intuiting what will go over with the Market. (This is a talent which is unable to be rationalized—she never explains or justifies her advice.) Yet she has an equally irrational allergy to brands and logos, dresses anonymously and without style—but of course this is a style, as she knows. She snips off labels, eschews possessions, hungers for and appreciates the minimal. Her social place, drifting and unfixed (lots of thoughts about jetlag) is “post-geographic” (6), as distinct from, say, multicultural.5 Nationalities and styles here are not so much blended together as assembled and cancelled, or overlaid with an international blandness. Cayce is involved with the world of globalized consumerism, the semiotics of consumption. She interprets, and Gibson employs a nice terminology for this—the text mentions decontextualizing and recontextualizing, reframing, “match-up modules,” “likelihood-filters,” “word-of-mouth meme things” (310, 217, 95). Cayce goes for the meanings of things; their uses (the uses of technology, for instance, which an sf protagonist might be expected to concentrate on) are left to her sidekick Boone Chu, who turns out to be unreliable. So there is an ambiguity about her: she is one who protects her privacy and minimizes her profile in the world, but likes to interpret other people and things. She is involved with the insidious and impalpable, but mostly as these things afflict the contemporary globetrotting upper class (mysterious allergies, jetlag). That other source of deep unease, terrorism, is not something that she is ready to think about.

This is classic Gibson territory, and readers might feel that there is a certain danger in his fascination for luxuries, his appreciation of the power of huge wealth (how quickly you can obtain an air ticket to Moscow or a fabulous haircut in Tokyo if you just express the wish), his delight in nationality as mere brand identifier.6 We seem a long way from the somber side of the novel: the difficulty of mourning, recent and old atrocities, wounds emotional and physical—things that invite us to read the novel as a study of the inability to mourn, a drifting and passive condition.

This separation, and the appearance of fooling or indulgence that is risked, is itself significant. I thought at first reading that the effect was to refuse 9/11 in a large part of the novel—that is, to refuse the demand made by both parties (Osama bin Laden and Bush, in shorthand) that 9/11 change everything, distract us from everything else, every serious preoccupation and trivial pleasure. I think now that what Gibson does is to map out a separate terrain, much of which we may, indeed, treat with amusement. (It traces a different kind of US hegemony from that which is enforced with cruise missiles, after all: it’s our own fault if we wear Tommy Hilfiger.7) But what infiltrates is a sense of the prevalence of spying and surveillance, coding and decoding, in the world of consumer commerce; there is a subterranean contest, for instance, between the mundane habit of recommending something that you like (read this author, listen to this band) and the attempt to capture this by way of “viral marketing.” (Magda recounts her experience as a hired viral marketer, giving her sense of how compromised she feels [84-86].) The world of consumption replicates many of the conditions of politics, but in a context that enables us to take a calmer look at them. No real violence, as yet.

Violence enters the story through a character called Dorotea, who works for a company for which Cayce is consulting and imagines that Cayce is a rival. At this point we return to the question of obscenity, but in a carefully controlled way. By a deliberate and malicious mistake, Dorotea shows Cayce an image of Bibendum (the roly-poly Michelin man) instead of a new logo design on which Cayce would have delivered her customary arbitrary, unarguable verdict. Cayce is shocked, almost violated, since she has a particular and, as far as she knows, secret allergy to this figure. (Later a Bibendum figure turns up garrotted at her apartment: worse and worse.) It turns out that Dorotea knows about Cayce’s phobia because her allies have robbed the office of Cayce’s psychiatrist. By thus examining obscenity in the context of consumerism and of Cayce’s peculiar gifts and foibles, Gibson can control it. Her distress at the apparition of Bibendum is serious, but funny. Much later, in the part of the novel that takes place in Russia, she wakes up in a hospital gown “made of some thin, extensively laundered flannel print that seems once to have been decorated with small pink-and-yellow clown figures” (318). These figures seem a harmless childlike echo of Bibendum; by this time she is cured. ]

What of the footage? Cayce is hired to track down its source by her commercial employer, Hubertus Bigend. He sees the phenomenon of the footage, distributed in brief tantalizing sequences on the internet, arousing net-based fascination and devotion, as a version of a teaser ad campaign. The footageheads, who include Cayce, see it as Art. Cayce’s quest will take her largely out of the world of Hubertus and into the classic scene of spying and surveillance in which Win made his life, that of the Cold War and its aftermath. Win, who worked for the CIA; the Curta, early calculator and relic of the concentration camps where it was developed; Hobbs-Baranov, the Cold War leftover who gives Cayce the email address of the creators of the footage in exchange for a specimen Curta (alluding to a common Le Carré scene); the buried Stuka, relic of the siege of Leningrad, itself the subject of a documentary by Cayce’s friend Damien (and possible allusion to Joseph Beuys’s Messerschmidt)—all are reminders of an unfinished and violent past of the West in the west, and also in several instances solidly material, concrete things. These are things with a tie to history, though they can also be marketed or exchanged in various ways, so they can be fitted into the contemporary world.8 The fitting can be shocking, however, as in the scene in which the drunken diggers scramble for relics of the exhumed Stuka, which is worth considering more closely, before we continue with discussion of the footage.

Damien, a documentary maker, emails Cayce a narrative of the incident, saying:

I can see the thing’s in museum condition. Just eerie, how well it was preserved. … And the fucking pilot’s there. You can see the outline of his head, goggles it looked like. Never seen Brian pull his eye off the viewfinder when he’s shooting but he did, just turned around with this WHAT THE FUCK???!!! look and I signal GO FOR IT, GET IT. So he did. All of it: yanking the canopy open, and how they simply tore him apart, the pilot. Just came to pieces. They got a watch, a compass from the other wrist and a pistol, and they were fighting over them, falling off the wing, and he just came apart. (298)

Brian puts his eye back on the viewfinder and gets it all, and the diggers get the corpse’s watch and so forth. That’s how this piece of buried history reenters the contemporary world, in striking contrast to the missing and mourned bodies of 9/11, and to the mysterious footage, in which the bodies are photographed things, particles of light and atmosphere. This passage is, however, staged as was suggested above—that is, it’s a set piece without consequences in the narrative.

When Cayce replies to Damien’s email she mentions that she too is in Russia (298). This is where her quest for the makers of the footage has brought her, but she hardly seems to be on the same planet as Damien and the diggers. The Russia of the makers of the footage has its connections to the past, as well as to the present of CCTV and the Internet.

Hubertus is right in that the distribution of the footage and the passion it has aroused largely by the teasing way it is distributed is a vital part of the phenomenon. But those who see it as art are correct too: it is received not by customers so much as readers. That’s why it is an invention, by Gibson, which can serve as a riposte to the representation and collective experience of the fall of the towers and those subsequent media events that were also obscene—though, as we have just seen, the exhumation of the Stuka, a piece of a different history, is also shocking. No privacy is invaded by the footage, those who receive it are free to read it, to interpret it. It’s an open text—in fact, it’s a work in progress.

Otherwise, the footage is richly ambiguous—both romantic and postmodern, to use a shorthand. The makers are two sisters, one who creates by editing and the other who supervises reproduction and distribution. Their names, alluding to the history of women in Western literature, are Stella and Nora. Nora, more directly the artist, is wounded, disabled, condemned to a seclusion in which she obsessively works on her editing, although never required to explain or interpret it (like Cayce with her verdicts on new logos). Art is generated from a wound, caused by the bomb that killed her father, a fragment of which is still lodged in her head—“only the wound, speaking wordlessly in the dark” (305). Very romantic. The wound is giving rise to art, but the killing and wounding is not represented in the footage, except insofar as the sequences can be diagrammed as a kind of map that in turn follows the shape of the bomb, a war-surplus American Claymore mine, this being one of the ways Cayce and Boone track down the footage.

The shape of the thing that made the wound and is still inside the artist’s brain is repeated in the shape that maps the sequence of the footage. This is a sign for the footage, but it is not the footage. The connections are mediated, as if (to use the espionage terminology) there were lots of cut-outs between the wound and the art. The art is minimalist. Nora edits down almost to nothing: “I watched it grow shorter, her film. In the end, she had reduced it down to a single frame” (288). At this climax of the novel, the resolution of the quest for the footage, it begins to seem as if Gibson’s refusal of direct confrontation, his valuation of withholding, has arrived at a place of blankness, saying as little as possible—no matter how poignantly—as an end in itself.

Other important aspects of the footage are rather different, however. Though it comes from a romantically lonely and obsessed artist, the footage is also a collective work. It is part of the postmodern culture of editing, remixing, sampling. As Hubertus says, “It’s as though the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was” (68), a striking formulation (given what is contained within Nora’s skull), but substantiated nonetheless. The footage depends on Stella for distribution, on people working in secret reproducing it (in fact, as it turns out, these are prisoners in a privatized prison in the new Russia or the new/old Russia), on the very dubious money of the sisters’ uncle, one of the Russian oligarchs who finances the whole thing—though it also depends on the traditional Russian respect for artists.9 Then again, what is edited is simply CCTV footage—thus the blandness, the effect of timelessness, which has tantalized the footageheads and provokes them to find meaning in it. They, finally, must be as necessary to the work of the art as is the wounded Nora, who is merely at the beginning of a series of widening circles of production, distribution, reception, discussion. And we do not necessarily trust the suggestions that Nora’s work is a masterpiece in itself, but it is resonant as created, in its social life in the world of the novel. Not that this social life is autonomous: the footage comes from surveillance (CCTV) and is surveilled (by Dorotea and her employers). Parkaboy is the most vivid of the footageheads and he eventually appears in the flesh and becomes Cayce’s lover, but the nervy overstimulated quality of his messages suggests an unease on Gibson’s part even in his depiction of the footageheads.

I mentioned the ambiguity of Cayce’s behavior, habitually interpreting her world yet protecting her privacy. This comes to a head in the compromising incident of Taki and the faked photo of his dream girl. Taki is a Japanese nerd, unattractive and unconfident, but in possession of a clue that Cayce and her allies need to help trace the source of the footage. They seduce and deceive him by producing a photo doctored to represent his dream girl, “a piece of custom-made pornography” (148). It works. Cayce obtains the clue in exchange for the photo. She feels bad about this and is only let off the hook, ethically speaking, by the fact that the woman who served as model for the doctored photo revolts against her role and takes up with Taki herself. There is a huge distance between Cayce’s behavior with Taki and the spirit in which she eventually emails StellaNor, lyricizing about dreams in the shadow of the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. It is not certain that either Gibson or Cayce is in control of these divergent imaginings,10 and, thence, Cayce’s meeting with the sisters, exciting as it is as the resolution of a quest, is probably not to be taken at face value. The sisters, who are even more isolated and private than she is, but who influence and tantalize the world, constitute a kind of fantasy version of herself. She is sensitive, they are artists. Both Cayce and StellaNor are associated with the childlike. The twins communicate “in a language that had been ours in childhood’ (288). Cayce sends her crucial email to them in the shadow of the statue of Peter Pan. Both parties are secluded, willful, full of quirks that must be humored by their associates. The sisters have also lost their father to violence. They are financed by their uncle, one of the New Russia’s billionaires, and the way he is described as “The invisible oligarch. The ghost” (313) is reminiscent of the way her father continues to manifest in Cayce’s life. But we can also see her state of drifting through the world, configuring it but protecting her privacy, as a condition of loss from which she is released by meeting StellaNor, since she learns the circumstances of her father’s death as a result, and begins to mourn him.

The novel is not itself the imagination of an alternative to our world or an extrapolation from our world, as we may define sf to be, except insofar as any novel is that by being a fiction. But it is a meditation, exploratory and often uneasy, on the qualities and conditions of a work of art. This meditation doesn’t only involve the unfolding of the nature of the footage as such, the revelation of the ways it is both romantic and postmodern in my shorthand. The setting of the footage in the story, in relation to various passages of history, and in relation to Cayce, with her particular personality and values: all this says things about what a work of art might do and be in the shadow of 9/11. It might usefully be minimal, allusive, unprescriptive, open, offered to its recipients rather than coercing them, and, in Gibson’s imagination of it, both intensely personal and private (proceeding from Nora’s wound) and the creation, or at least the product, of a motley collection of sisters, oligarchs, criminals, and net-heads.

1. In evoking the qualities of the event one inevitably joins the babble of punditry on 9/11 that is handled dismissively later in this essay, but the emphasis on representation and its difficulties does seem inescapable in any account of those qualities. An interesting case is that of Joanna Bourke, attempting to sum up the range of responses in her Fear: A Cultural History. She begins by saying how “Twenty-four-hour television coverage made the event ‘real’ for millions of Americans sitting in their homes, offices and bars desperately trying to dampen down their rising panic” (359), but already there are quotes around “real,” and the rest of her discussion concentrates on how people responded as if seeing a scene from a movie, life imitating art (359-63).

2. In a review of the novel in the Times Literary Supplement.

3. See “The Ecstasy of Communication” and Fatal Strategies (50-70).

4. See Salam Pax and Bauer.

5. Characters such as Magda, Voytek, and Ngemi are not, however, “post-geographic.” Magda and Voytek, brother and sister, are London Poles, the first a feisty maker of hats, though she also makes money in viral marketing, the second busy with a project for an art installation involving old computers. Ngemi is a London Nigerian, in the business of trading antique electronic items. They are all grounded in multicultural London and all presented as direct, co-operative, and reliable, unlike Cayce’s employers and their associates.

6. There are ten examples in the first chapter of the novel, eight of them referring to products; for instance, “she checks her watch, a Korean clone of an old-school Casio G-Shock, its plastic case sanded free of logos with a scrap of Japanese micro-abrasive” (7). Why Japanese micro-abrasive? Perhaps we are supposed to know that it is the best kind.

7. Cayce meditates: “There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul” (18).

8. Hobbs-Baranov, though a Cold War figure, took part in the devising of Echelon, the program that enables snooping on emails, which is a part of the present.

9. This is the implication of the hushed atmosphere surrounding Nora as she works, and also of the fact that she works where once a continuous seven-year party was held, “talking of freedom, art, things of the spirit” (302).

10. Relevant passages include the rose petal falling in the window display, glimpsed by Cayce on the morning of the fall of the towers (135; Gibson at his most insistently lyrical), and, contrariwise, the episode in which Cayce “escapes” from the hospital which she imagines is a prison (chapter 39). This is Cayce as comically error-prone, but then this chapter ends with one of Gibson’s most plangent images: “And then she hears the sound of a helicopter, from somewhere behind her and, turning, sees the long white beam of light sweeping the dead ground as it comes, like a lighthouse gone mad from loneliness, and searching that barren ground as foolishly, as randomly, as any grieving heart ever has” (324). Actually the helicopter brings Parkaboy, soon to be her lover—now that her father is finally put to rest. She has just experienced his final apparition.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Ecstasy of Communication.” Trans. John Johnston. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay, 1983. 126-34.

─────. Fatal Strategies. 1983. Trans. Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.

Bauer, Dan. “Battle Lessons.” The New Yorker (January 17, 2005): 42-48.

Bourke, Joanna. Fear: A Cultural History. London: Virago, 2006.

Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Putnam, 2003.

Hitchings, Henry. Rev. of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Times Literary Supplement (May 2, 2003): 24.

Salam Pax, The Baghdad Blog. London: Guardian Books, 2003.

In this article William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is read as a response to issues raised by 9/11 that concern the power and obscenity of images. The main character has lost her father in mysterious circumstances at the fall of the towers, but the novel approaches the event obliquely, and it does not name Al Qaeda or terrorism at all, although it has a lot to tell us of the aftermath of the Cold War and of post-Soviet Russia. This article assesses these omissions and interprets what is offered in their place: Cayce Pollard’s quest for the mysterious internet footage; the connections with old technologies and old disasters that her quest traces; the novel’s thoughts about art, and the ambiguities of these thoughts. Much of this can be read as a response to the challenge issued by 9/11: a rethinking of when we should disclose and when withhold (or tantalize), and an ambiguous reassessment of the relations of the producers and receivers of a work of art, the footage, which is here read as ambiguously romantic and postmodern.


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