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Books, culture, fishing, and other games

May 06, 2004

Recognizing Pattern Recognition

I read William Gibson's Pattern Recognition this weekend and it left me wanting more. That's both good and bad. It left me wanting more in the good sense in that I enjoyed reading it, had trouble putting it down, and want more of that enjoyment. But the plot left me wanting, it felt a bit lighter than I expected, considering the source.

Gibson's Neuromancer was my introduction to "cyberpunk," the genre of near future science fiction that usually incorporates a dark, pessimistic millieu. On the whole it's very tech saavy and joys in exploring the implications of the extension of today's technical innovation into tomorrow's unexpected or common use. While Gibson continues that in Pattern Recognition, I felt like he was slipping behind the curve. There wasn't much that really made me take note, that provoked real thought about what might develop, that felt edgy.

The closest I came to that feeling was with the guerilla marketing tactics, more an extrapolation of social engineering than what we would normally think of as technology, per se. But I grant that this is a hard act to pull off. And it gets harder and harder as the pace of technology accellerates, as it certainly has. It is entirely possible that when Gibson wrote the first draft he was edgy, but by the time the manuscript had perculated up through the publication process to bubble onto Amazon.com, it was already bordering on obsolete.

Examples of this: The protagonist, and others, use laptops that don't seem to have more power than my Dell. They're Apples, which is probably appropriate since most of the characters inhabit the marketing segment of business, but the insertion of a keystroke logger which sends off logs of the protagonists activities is about as exciting as the tech gets there. She's not even properly unwired. To connect to the internet, where she browses, visits a BBS type system, and uses email (and that's about it), she has to connect via copper. Where's the wireless? And wireless is last year!

The same applies to what I've read of Neal Stephenson. It's fun (though the man couldn't end a novel gracefully is his royalty depended on it... though he may have come up with a good strategy for avoiding his great weakness, long sequences of long books that never quite end), it's pretty tech saavy (though security geeks and hackers may wince fairly often), but it isn't future. Mostly it's yesterday, or last week.

Is that still science fiction? I suppose. But it doesn't quite grab the gut the way the earlier cyberpunk stuff did, where I came away thinking "could this come about?" Now I most yawn at that aspect.

But I still read the books because they are good reads. And of the good reads, Gibson is right there at the pinnacle with a very few others.

I chatted about the book a little with coworkers who haven't read it yet. Some of them knew Neuromancer, others didn't know Gibson at all. (Everyone seems to know, and overrate, Stephenson though.) I pointed them to Bruce Sterling as someone else who's excellent working in the same space. It's interesting to compare these. Sterling knows how to finish a book, he has that on Stephenson. Heck, he has a lot on Stephenson. Sterling is a great storyteller, a fine writer, and a very satisfying read. In fact, in ways I've found him more reliably satisfying than Gibson. But Gibson's best is best.

Gibson is the most literary, and to me that's a plus. He doesn't sacrifice the story to style, but he's selfconsciously a stylist and the resulting prose draws attention to itself. Mostly this is good, because what draws attention is the interesting use of words and language. Maybe that's part of my dissatisfaction with his plot in Pattern Recognition. The quality of the writing begs an equivalent quality of tale, and I felt the tale came off a little behind there. I felt no frisson of importance.

Sterling, in contrast, immerses the reader in his world, his characters, and his story, and rarely draws attention to his prose itself for its own sake. I wouldn't say that Gibson's literariness makes him difficult, though. His prose still reads fast, which is a contraindication to difficulty. But he does provoke pauses, and rereading lines, for the sheer pleasure or because a word choice is startling. And that does slow the pace some.

I do recommend Pattern Recognition. And it does, at times, make me wonder about how things may develop. It just doesn't do it as often or as profoundly as Gibson's first books did.


Posted by dan at May 6, 2004 04:40 PM | TrackBack
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