I just finished reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. It’s a book an erstwhile colleague of mine was pretty obsessed with, to the extent of owning the Buzz Rickson jacket owned by its main character.
Gibson imaged the internet, and made it cool and sexy. As a teenager reading Neuromancer or Idoru, while watching ludicrous anime like Cowboy Bebop, the future seemed impossibly exciting. Dystopian, admittedly, but exciting.
Then the future caught up with us all, and Gibson started writing novels set in the present day: “what’s happening now is the real-world version of what I was imagining in the early ’80s,” he explained in an av club interview.
Except it isn’t, quite. Published in 2003, Pattern Recognition’s breathless edge-of-now descriptions of checking your email seem quaint in a way that Gibson’s genuine science fiction will never be.
Still, the book captures a version of the internet that doesn’t exist any more, and it did make me feel nostalgic. Cayce Pollard, the anti-fashion / fashion central character, is a member of a forum in which her and assorted other people obsess over some strange video footage. It is “one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar cafe that exists somehow outside of geography and beyond time zones.”
I remember that.
And chat rooms she doesn’t like so much, because:
It’s strange even with friends, like sitting in a pitch-dark cellar conversing with people at a distance of about fifteen feet. The hectic speed, and the brevity of the lines in the thread, plus the feeling that everyone is talking at one, at counter-purposes, deter her.
While it was fun to luxuriate in a version of the internet that no longer exists, one thing that jars throughout is how Gibson seems utterly in thrall to wealth and shiny things. The book is filled with loving descriptions of travelling first class or owning a very expensive computer.
Cayce gets herself a bottomless credit card from an odious PR kingpin with an extremely silly name to pursue the mysterious video. From here on in, the narrative luxuriates in a new class of globalised marketing trash. The characters easily from a Richard Curtis-style London to high-end Tokyo to proto-oligarchical Moscow.
None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, even the ones I presume we are supposed to warm to, such as Damien, a Nathan Barley-esque figure directing tasteless documentaries for no other reason than he can.
Still, everything here is driven by an overbearing sadness. Gibson doesn’t – isn’t able to? – make clear what it is about the footage that causes people around the world to obsess over it so, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. They’re all desperate to feel part of something, for the footage to have some kind of greater meaning.
And to fast forward 14 years, all that’s happened is the corporate spivs have got a lot better at herding us into the kind of online spaces where our need to belong is less likely to lead us to somewhere that we need to be.