Recognising patterns

Seduced by the name of William Gibson peering out at me from the science fiction and fantasy shelves in my local library the other week, I picked up, took home and read Pattern Recognition. It took a while to get into but eventually I did to a limited extent, always waiting for the twist. It was only when I’d got to the end that I realised the library had been seduced by the name, too, and there was in fact not the tiniest hint of science fiction in it; it was a zeitgeist novel which could almost have been written by Douglas Coupland. Nothing wrong with Coupland (if my limited experience of his work is anything to go by) but that wasn’t the kind of book I was in the mood for at the time. Maybe Iain Banks has the right idea with the careful separation of manstream and sci-fi by means of his middle initial. William Gibson himself has said he doesn’t agree with the separation, and I’m sure I’ve said before that I’d prefer every work of fiction in the bookshop or library to be arranged alphabetically, regardless of genre. However, given that genre categorisation does exist, I’d rather I could trust it.

Pattern Recognition seemed to be something of a cold war spy thriller, but with corporations and rich post-Communist Russians to the fore. Not a description that would have grabbed me if I’d read it on the book-jacket, and the central character’s background in fashion and advertising wasn’t something I could relate to either. Add to that my inability to follow any spy story I’ve ever read or watched, and the novel became a long journey through patches of unenlightening but darkly poetic prose reminiscent of Neuromancer, as I waited to find out if I’d finally grasp what was going on.

One of the things I did notice in the novel was the use of cultural shorthand; describing the clothes or possessions as a quick way of suggesting character traits. Fine, a good way of doing it, but not when you use brand names that either aren’t as widespread as you think, or have already faded (see my previous comments on this kind of thing). Cayce putting on her Buzz Rickson’s MA-1 brought no image at all to my mind, but by process of elimination (she was getting dressed at the time) I figured it was a shirt. A page later it becomes clear it’s a jacket, then that it’s a flying jacket, so now I’m picturing brown leather. Wrong again – it’s black nylon. That was the only one where he didn’t even say what the object was, but there were plenty of others with just a designer name that meant nothing to me, and no further description. Once I started feeling excluded like that, I admit I was picking at flaws continually, and the ‘mirror-world’ differences between Britain and America annoyed me because at least a few of them seemed to me to be specific to London. Or rich people in London. Maybe even rich, young people in certain parts of London. Britain isn’t the same as England, and England isn’t the same as London – people seem to forget that, particularly people in London.

Sometimes he went the other way – Cayce, about the age I am now but in a book set 7 years ago has never heard of a ZX-81 computer (OK, she’s American, they were British) and her reaction when she sees one is ‘that’s a computer? Only 1K of RAM?’ yet surely she’d remember that sort of computer even if she never saw that model. I remember the ZX-81, and Big Brother had a ZX-Spectrum which I think is still in my parents’ house even though it hasn’t worked since about 1992. Google and iBook and various similar things are thrown in as though everyone will know what they are, yet emoticons are explained, in the middle of a sentence, with disruptive effect. As a Canadian I used to know would have said, go figure.

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