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Pattern Recognition: Book Review

Pattern Recognition  was William Gibson’s first non-science-fiction novel, although it shares much of the style of his cyberpunk novels. It was published in 2003 as the first part of the ‘Blue Ant Trilogy’, named after the marketing/industrial espionage agency that appears in all three novels.

Pattern Recognition: Logline

A marketing consultant who lost her father in the 9/11 attacks tries to discover who is behind cryptic video clips discovered on the internet. But someone is trying to stop her following the trail to its source, and she has to decide who she can trust if she wants to track down the enigmatic filmmaker.

Pattern Recognition: Plot Summary

Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.

It’s 2002. Cayce Pollard, is an American marketing consultant with an unusual illness – she is allergic to logos. She is also obsessed with a series of mysterious video sequences known as The Footage.  Cayce’s father, who was a CIA spy, has been missing since the 9/11 attacks, although he has not been confirmed dead.

Cayce is in London. She goes to the headquarters of the avant-garde marketing firm Blue Ant to assess how allergic she is to a proposed sportswear company logo (less allergic is better in marketing terms). Cayce dislikes the logo, much to the annoyance of Dorotea Benedetti whose company produced it.

Returning to her flat, Cayce realises it has been searched and suspects Dorotea is behind the intrusion. She also meets two men who are collectors of rare mechanical calculators known as Curtas.

That night, Hubertus Bigend, Blue Ant’s founder, takes Cayce for drinks. He tells her that Dorotea is an ex-spy who wants to work at Blue Ant and sees Cayce is a rival for the position. He also offers Cayce a job discovering who is producing The Footage.

The next day, Dorotea has a new logo and Cayce goes to Blue Ant to review it. Dorotea deliberately shows Cayce a logo that she is violently allergic to.

Cayce has an internet friend whose alias is Parkaboy. Parkaboy tells Cayce he has discovered that a Japanese okatu (obsessive fan) has discovered an electronic watermark on The Footage.

Cayce goes to Tokyo, meets the okatu and gets the watermark details from him. Afterwards, two men attack her, but she fights them off using self-defence skills taught by her father. She decides Dorotea must be behind the attack.

Back in London, Bigend calls Cayce to a meeting where he announces Dorotea has told him the truth in return for a prestigious position at Blue Ant. Dorotea tells Cayce that a Russian with espionage contacts had paid her to intimidate Cayce into leaving London and stopping working with Blue Ant.

Cayce works out that the watermark on The Footage could be traced to an email address by someone with the right contacts. The vintage technology collectors Cayce met earlier know a retired cryptographer for the NSA and Cayce makes a deal with him: she will buy him an early Curta calculator, and in return he will find the email address the watermark refers to…

Cayce succeeds in buying the fourth Curta calculator ever made and receives the email address from the cryptographer. She then emails the address. Stella Volkova replies, and arranges to met with Cayce in Moscow. Cayce travels to Moscow without telling Bigend.

Cayce and Stella meet, and Stella admits that her sister Nora is the artist responsible for the video clips. Nora was badly injured by a bomb supposed to kill her uncle, and now her only means of expression is via The Footage. Cayce goes to meet Nora, and is overwhelmed by The Footage’s  beauty.

Later, at her hotel, Cayce is confronted by Dorotea, who drugs her. She wakes up in a prison, but manages to escape. Wandering in the countryside outside the prison, Cayce is found by Parkaboy. He takes her to Bigend, who has negotiated a deal with the Volkovs (it’s hinted to be that he will use Blue Ant’s PR skills to improve Volkov’s mafia-linked image).

It emerges that Cayce had been caught in the middle of a power struggle between two factions of the Volkov’s empire – one wanting to distribute  The Footage and the other paranoid about security, who hired Dorotea. In apology, the Volkovs give Cayce half a million dollars and a KGB account of her father’s movements on 9/11, which places him near the twin towers.

Pattern Recognition: Analysis

Plot and Style

Pattern Recognition has a ‘mystery’ plot (see Spy Novel Plots )

The ‘Mystery’ Plot

The Protagonist:

  1. Discovers a disaster perpetrated by an unknown Antagonist for unknown reasons (or is assigned to investigate by their Mentor).
  2. Makes a plan to investigate the tragedy and discover who the Antagonist is.
  3. Investigates and gathers clues suggesting who the Antagonist is.
  4. Is impeded by the Antagonist.
  5. Involves one or more Allies in their investigation (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
  6. Attempts to discover further clues to the identity of the Antagonist, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
  7. Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
  8. Discovers the identity of the Antagonist and the reasons for their actions and any wider plan.
  9. Is involved in a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.

Some critics have argued that Pattern Recognition doesn’t really work as a thriller, primarily because the protagonist, Cayce, is not placed in any serious jeopardy for much of the novel. Cayce’s harassment by Dorotea is mostly just annoying, not the kind of run-for-your-life level threat that most thrillers include. It could also be argued that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax and even has shades of deus ex machina.

That analysis though ignores the fact that  Pattern Recognition  whilst having the structure of a thriller is really a literary novel and so a more dramatic finale would not have struck the right tone.

Others would argue that Pattern Recognition is not a spy novel at all. I see it though as a modern version of  the ‘amateur caught up in events beyond their control or understanding’ sub-genre of the spy thriller, thematically similar to spy novels such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and Six Days of the Condor.

The novel also has the concerns of a spy novel – secrecy, trust, surveillance and paranoia. It does lack the pace and cliffhangers of most spy thrillers, but again that’s because it’s a literary novel.

Pattern Recognition is also the most accessible of William Gibson’s novels, having a less obtuse plot and more stripped-back language than his sci-fi novels.

The M1 Jacket

Much of Pattern Recognition is spent describing branding, marketing and particular cult items of clothing or technology. Cayce herself is allergic to branding in a specific way that makes her very useful to marketing companies. As well as that, she is a ‘cool-hunter’, someone who is paid to spot independently emerging street fashions and help brands to commercialise them. Because of this she constantly comments on her environment, its design and marketing overload and trends she knows to be artificial and commercially driven.

Buzz Rickson's M1 Jacket from Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Personally, Cayce maintains an anti-branding lifestyle, sanding the logo off her watch, for example, and dressing in deliberately timeless clothing.

Throughout Pattern Recognition, Cayce wears a copy of a US Air Force M1 flying jacket in black. The jacket is produced by a Japanese company called Buzz Rickson’s to the precise specification of the original, down to exact copies of the original zips.

Ironically enough, considering the novels preoccupation with precision, the M1 jacket described was not actually available until Pattern Recognition made it popular, as black was not the original M1 jacket’s colour. However, Buzz Rickson’s responded by producing a ‘William Gibson Collection’ version of the M1 for fans of the novel, in black.

The Curta Calculator

Curta Calculator from Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

Another unusual product that features heavily in Pattern Recognition is the Curta calculator – a mechanical calculator first designed by Curt Herzstark in the late 1930’s and perfected when he was held in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.

The Curta was capable of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at a time when most mechanical calculators only did addition and subtraction and were also much larger. The numbers were set using the sliders on the side and operations performed by turning the handle on top.

For Herzstark (who was half Jewish) designing the calculator ‘as a present for the Führer’ was a route to survival. After the war, he patented the design and it remained in production until the 1970s. Herzstark himself died in 1988.

9/11

Pattern Recognition, written in 2002/3, is heavily influenced by the 9/11 attacks. Cayce’s father went missing during the attacks, and Cayce spends much of the novel musing on this, her own experience of the attack and its aftermath, and on how the world had changed in the two years between the attack and the story. To be honest some of the “9/11 has changed everything” rhetoric seems a little dated now, over a decade later.

Pattern Recognition: My Verdict

Not so much a thriller as a journey. One of my favourite novels.

How to Stop Procrastinating by watching Television

Want to read it?

Pattern Recognition is available on Amazon US here and Amazon UK here.

Radio Play

The BBC produced a radio dramatisation of Pattern Recognition in 2007, voiced by Lorelei King. It’s sometimes available on the BBC iPlayer service here.

The Sequels to Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition is part of a loose trilogy continued in Spook Country and completed in Zero History. The series centres on the Blue Ant marketing/industrial espionage agency, and recurring characters include its owner, Hubertus Bigend, who manipulates events, mostly unseen.

Pattern Recognition: The Movie

There have been various rumours of a movie version of Pattern Recognition , but none has emerged so far.

Agree? Disagree?

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