The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. With that first sentence of his 1984 novel Neuromancer, now even more famous than Heinleins The door dilated, William Gibson redefined future fiction.
Before Gibson and the rest of the cyberpunks, also known, due to his book, as the Neuromantics, the future was for the most part a tired Golden-Age Gee-Whiz boy gone to fat and combing its thinning hair over a balding pate; Gibson, as the Canadian expat SF critic John Clute put it, updated the internal year of SF from 1947 to the present. In his story of alienated computer hacker Case, tangling with a monstrous cyber-conspiracy against which he has no chance, and at the mercy of heartless love in the form of one dead woman and one female assassin in mirrorshades (the classic cyberpunk symbol of detached cool), Gibson would have no truck with tired clichés of the Golden Age or the post-war Futurists.
His world was the broken-down carcase of the Brave New Future, a relentlessly detailed extrapolation of media trends and advertising memes, a critique of Global-Village-gone-bad business praxis, a cynical parable of post-Summer-of-Love disco disillusionment. He spiced it with alienation, lost love, and a gloss of uncaring injury which captured the imagination of not just one but several generations of readers mired in the reality, mirrorshaded by Gibson, of their all-too-postmodern lives.
Neuromancer became an award-winning hit, and around the writer who wrested the SF world back from what he called semiotic ghosts (in his short story The Gernsback Continuum) grew a cult of personality unexpected by this brilliantly observant, tall, rather shy outsider with the juggernaut prose.
Gibson once told me that he expected to be some kind of second-rate J.G. Ballard hanging around science fiction conventions being despised but instead, he became guru material for a readership hungry for relevance. There were a few others at the forefront of the new movement: Gibsons friend Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Jack Womack, Pat Cadigan, Melissa Scott, and others.
It wasnt that the cyberpunk writers sprang fully grown from the sea foam. They were all thoroughly grounded in the seventy or eighty years of scientific fantasism preceding them (including the in-between generation of Theodore Sturgeon, Judith Merril, Ursula leGuin, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Alfred Bester, John Varley and all those others whose work of - mostly - the sixties and seventies represented the coming-of-emotional-age of the field).
All were also following in the footsteps of Philip K. Dick, whose shadowy paranoid fictions have become familiar to moviegoers through the classic Bladerunner and other less brilliant films based on his novels and short stories. But Dicks future had a fifties, retro feel, while the cyberpunks as they came to be known were out on the edges of new tech and new science, and readers loved the New Look of SF.
So whatever they might have thought of the term cyberpunk, which Sterling quipped was obsolete before it was invented, they were stuck with it, and with the devotion of fans. In a Bolshoi Mac world, the ray gun just didnt cut it any more. But cyberspace (extrapolated by Gibson long before it became realised by computer wizards who drank up his disillusioned hero Case with their Classic Coke chasers) was a place that modern readers, struggling with the post-technological world, could imagine living.
What had been for Philip K. Dick a paranoid dream was for the cyberpunks simply the mise-en-scène through which their characters strode toward bleak, unrewarding destinies, driven by a desire for ecstasy which was never bought without sacrifice. Hence the relevance of that Neuromantic tag, which, although it never caught on, not having the transgressive cachet of cyberpunk, has always seemed to me the most accurate.
Success and relevance took away the wall against which that early, angry William Gibson pushed, and I sometimes felt that later works suffered the lack of that resistance. But even then, the pure intensity of Gibsons psychic landscape, the physicality of his vision of the dystopian future, and the hopeless love with which he invested his characters continued to enthrall, and Gibson has kept his central place in the dynamic, shifting world that gives many writers their Andy Warhol minutes and not a nanosecond more.
Gibson completed the Neuromancer trilogy with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (the trilogy of the eighties, if you will), beating scholarly internet-wise pundits to the concept of Global Mind and the aggregation of computing power into artificial intelligence. Then, in 1991, Gibson and Bruce Sterling released The Difference Engine, an alternate past novel wherein Charles Babbage was given his due, Lady Ada Byron wasnt marginalised, and computing hit the world a century earlier. These two smart guys created a daring parallel vision of the history of a century of science, but the plot added up to no more than a Victorian-corseted shadow of the Neuromancer trilogy, which may have been a clever postmodern echo of the futuristic text reframed in an alternate history narrative - but just seemed to me to be a bit of a cop-out, and as annoying as hell given the initial promise. But even annoyed, I read it as avidly as did more uncritical fans.
I do buy and read all Gibsons books in hardcover (absent of review copies!), as I will the work of few other writers, because even flawed they are infused with an edgy, passionate intensity in touch with electric centres of culture in a whole new way. There is no doubt that something vital was going on in The Difference Engine, for instance, something cyberexponential in the combination of Gibson and Sterling which made media critics, SF readers, and futurists cream their jeans. What was it? Gibson and Sterling had done for the past what Neuromancer did for the future, reinventing history with the tools of the new sensibility.
The joys that Gibson delivers, however, make any disappointments in his books more acute. Despite the innovative imagery in Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrows Parties, the trilogy of the nineties, I found that at the end of that profusion I was still waiting for the kind of kick that Neuromancer had delivered, and wasnt getting it. Absent of details, I will simply say I approached Pattern Recognition, Gibsons new book, with caution, and also with the compassion one writer extends to another who so far has done their most remarkable work early in their career. Neuromancer ran the definitive upgrade on the future: how can even the best writer improve on that?
Pattern Recognition starts with a description of jet lag which makes it sound like the wolves of outer space just invented it. As yet still skeptical, however, I also found on page one a conceit from Brian Fawcett (Soul Walker, from Public Eye: an investigation into the disappearance of the world, Harper Collins 1990), uncredited: that the soul cannot travel by air, and must catch up to the air traveller, and that jet lag is the result of waiting soulless in a new place for ones self to re-unite. At once this was a promising and unpromising start: I was pleased that Gibson too had picked up on Fawcetts prescient perspective on modern culture, but longed for a footnote, and wondered if Gibson was getting as tired as his protagonist. Later it was clear to me that the soul thing was a homage from one writer who has the temperature of the times to another, and that Gibson has used this as one of many allegorical ways of making sense of the now, but I mention it to illustrate that as I began page one, I wasnt properly neutral; I needed to be won over.
And I was. By the end, I realised that Pattern Recognition is the book Gibson had been practicing to write ever since Neuromancer. I dont want that last statement to be misinterpreted, so Im going to digress right here for a few words about style. Gibsons books have had the effect they have not only because they have great ideas, but because they have great sentences. Much of the innovation is indeed buried deep within the sentences: the vision of the world inextricably bound up with the words, their order, their choice, their management. Form and content inseparable.
Thats unusual in hard SF writers. Many tend to have pedestrian, or at best engineered, sentences and, at best, interesting ideas. Gibson has cool ideas clothed in - pardon me, I have to say it - deeply literary prose. Id like to set every beginning writer to unravelling one of those seemingly offhand, cool Gibson paragraphs. Theyd find out how much wool in how many colours goes into that deceptively simple black beatnik gear. (In the wake of Pattern Recognition I went back and reread the nineties trilogy, and anyone who wants to buy me a sushi lunch can hear a great deal more about style, substance, and raising standards of form for the literature of the future. But thats another essay.)
Heres the thing: I love those sentences. I love that accomplishment. But it isnt enough to be cool, and know it, and prove it. All that work, all that cool, has to be in the service of something. Its my ideology of story, and Im sticking to it. So despite my enjoyment, I was waiting: waiting for Gibson to decide what, post-Neuromancer, he had to say now. The hard, cold, nasty heartbreak of Neuromancer added up to more than the sum of its clever set dressing. Despite how fond I might become of Chevette, Chia Pet, Rydell, Laney and the others in the last three books, their plots were almost comforting, they were so classical. I was waiting for that uncomfortable sensation of having my world re-arranged, and disappointed when I didnt find it.
Pattern Recognition rearranged my world, and thats a pun, because in this novel Gibson has brought his arsenal of allegory to bear on the world we really do all share, the present day. Hereby he has completed a hat-trick that he started in Neuromancer and continued with Sterling in the (sadly) flawed The Difference Engine. This time he has undertaken - and achieved - the more significant and difficult task of reinventing the present.
Its far easier to convince readers to imagine a different future, or think about an alternate past, than it is to cause us to see the world we live in now as if it were a completely strange and fantastic landscape. Gibson has done that, and in doing so has again found a perfect fit for his combination of dense, intense prose, eerie objectivity and chaotic cultural synaesthesia.
In fact, pretty much all the patented Gibsonia is there, but it has found a home more comfortably, in many ways, than in any book of his since Neuromancer (despite the promise of 1993s Virtual Light). The meticulous mise-en-scène science fiction demands of a writer, the foregrounding of place which Samuel Delany so cogently pointed out (in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw) is what distinguishes speculative fiction from its mundane cousin realism, has an explosive effect when wielded as realism. Here I make as diverse a comparison as with Sarah Williss 1950s coming-of-age novel Some Things That Stay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000): Willis, too, cut her teeth on SF, but turned her attention to the so-called real world and rendered it strange and sharply-cut with the prose techniques SF had honed.
The landscape through which Cayce, Gibsons protagonist, travels is as strange as anything seen in fantasy or science fiction, but the reader recognises it with a chill: it is home. It is here, all around us every day. Edgy, beautiful prose slices to the heart and lungs and viscera of the First World, the North, and lays bare all their polluted, cancerous spendour. All done through the medium of Cayces search for the author of the footage, deeply mysterious flash movies found on the web by a growing core of subcultural aficionados.
Oh, yes, its all there: lonely, alienated hero(ine) in touch with the worlds electric pulse, called to evaluate the brand names twisted and curled around the cold heart of the businessman employer who is a vampire of the real and emotional; the contrasting subplot friend who sleeps with the wealthy (literally) to fund the excavation of the foundations of things (in this case, of genocide and human greed); great clothes worn to destruction; good coffee drunk in exotic places; characters of diverse and eccentric charm or evil; the inside track on internet cafes; the requisite portrait of techno-artistes - and even the tormented, alienated creator who has appeared before now in his prose in a body cage, a virtual matrix, an absinthe haze, and now ... well, that would be a spoiler, wouldnt it? And its too good to spoil.
Between The Difference Engine and Pattern Recognition has stretched a long, eventful decade, and the author who in 1984 (the Neuromancer year, the Orwell year) was thirtysomething is now in his fifties - still long and lean, still soft-spoken and cynical, still looking sideways at the cultural boil in which the developed world is stewing.
That same Brian Fawcett cited above, made a remark, in Cambodia: a book for people who find television too slow (Talonbooks, 1986), to the effect that when Marshall McLuhan posited a Global Village, he didnt know it would be a suburb of Los Angeles. In that suburb, with the help of commentators like William Gibson, we have become all too cynically aware of the corrupt potential of high-tech and cyber-culture: surviving Survivor and other reality TV; using our debit cards worldwide; hopping into the Hummer with our handsfree cell phones; living in a soup of branding, which doesnt mean cows and horses any more.
In Seiyu Department Store in Singapore, I bought a watch. Not for pretty or trendy, but because Id forgotten mine at home in Canada. Two young men waited until I had turned away then captured the clerk and one of them insisted on buying the same model I had just buckled onto my wrist. When he heard that there had only been one with that exact configuration, his face crumpled as if he were going to cry. The same body with the brown strap wasnt good enough.
Watching his panic that he might have slipped off the edge of cool represented by the foreigners choice of wristwatch, I felt the same zero at the bone Cayce feels when confronted with the Michelin Man. She, however, being a fictional character and thus as allegorical as all hell, has to live at that crux of nausea and danger her whole life, at risk of being raped by her culture every time she passes a Tommy Hilfiger display (and how I laughed as I read of her Tommy-nausée). Amid the rapists, shes looking for love, the heart of romance, represented by the heart of the footage, but she must find, first, the heart of betrayal, greed and loss.
Much will be made of the similarity of name between Case, Neuromancers angst-ridden antihero, and Cayce, named after psychic Edgar Cayce by her wee-whoo mother, but self-pronounced the same as the male 1984-model protagonist. I think that Cayces name may or may not be a joke on Cases, but more likely it is a joke on the future and its original Sleeping Prophet; for Cayce achieves an eerie penetrating understanding of the extended present in part through possessing as instinctive and percipient a perception of trends as does Gibson himself.
But it is not just trends which are clearer to her than to others. Of all the clever people in the novel, Cayce is the only one uniquely gifted with the vision and rigour to see beyond the footage to its source. Cayces mom now spends her time listening to squelch and static, deciphering therein messages from her dead husband, but Cayce has no such recourse to self-delusion. When she finds that source, she knows what she sees. In a sentence in which I hope Gibson takes a justifiably huge pride, she sees: Only the wound, speaking wordlessly in the dark.
In John Clutes definition of fantasy in The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (Orbit, 1997, 1999), he says the fantasy protagonist starts the journey through the story with a perception of wrongness, which intensifies into a dangerous and painful thinning of the worlds texture, and the protagonist must journey to the moment of transformative recognition when he or she finally gazes upon the shrivelled heart of the thinned world and sees what to do. For Cayce, whose journey through the real world of the novel rivals any other, more classical fantastic voyage, this shrivelled heart is the wound, speaking wordlessly in the dark; therapys narcissistic wound is suggested, as is the trauma from which all art is said (by the Romantics, especially) to grow.
But the mature Gibson is no longer obsessed, as he was in Cases day, by La belle dame sans merci. He has found the courage to allow Cayce the catharsis that he denied Case, and the compassion to ask of her a much smaller price than the soul Case had to lose. If anything, Cayce finds her soul at last, and the passage through recognition to healing, eucatastrophe Clute calls it, is as satisfying as any Greek specialist in rhetoric millennia ago, first naming this crucial passage toward new understanding, possibly could have wished.
So in Pattern Recognition, Neuromancers dead channel has finally been tuned in. The channel of the present is full of bad commercials, product placement, jet lag, cell phones, sellouts, disillusionment, but somewhere behind it is the footage, the transformation one can derive from recombinant culture, and behind it is also the speaking, creating wound, ever perceptible to the hungry heart. Gibson has proved that even if success has filled his belly, his heart is still hungry enough for honesty. And as a reader as well as a fellow writer, Im glad. Much as it moved me, I wouldnt have wanted the cold comfort of Neuromancer to be William Gibsons last best word.
Candas Jane Dorsey was founding president of SFCanada, the professional Canadian speculative writers association. Her novel Black Wine (Tor, 1997) won the Tiptree, Crawford and Aurora Awards. Her book of short fiction, Vanilla, published by NeWest Press (Edmonton, Canada) in 2000, won the WGA Short Fiction Award in May 2001, and her second novel, A Paradigm of Earth, published in hardcover October 2001 by Tor Books (New York) and issued in trade paperback November 2002, was shortlisted in 2002 for the Spectrum Best Novel Award and the Sunburst Award for best Canadian fantastic fiction. Her other books include Machine Sex and other stories (Tesseract, 1988) (short fiction), Leaving Marks (River, 1992) (poetry) and Dark Earth Dreams (Tesseract/Phoenix 1994) (short fiction and audio CD). She has three earlier books of poetry, this is for you, Orion rising, and Results of the Ring Toss, all published in the 1970s by bill bissetts blewointmentpress imprint. She has co-edited four collections of speculative fiction, the most recent being Land/Space: prairie speculative fiction. In 1994 she headed a group of Canadian writers, editors and critics to buy her own publisher. She thus became editor-in-chief and co-publisher, with Timothy J. Anderson, of Tesseract Books, Canadas only dedicated speculative fiction publishing company.
Read her interview with William Gibson in trAce.
Gibson, William. "Pattern Recognition." G. P. Putnam's Sons; 2003; ISBN: 0399149864:
Pattern Recognition Website:
The Cyberpunk Project:
Canadian Science Fiction:
Interview with Candas Jane Dorsey: