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. He published it 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: Title
The title uses a classic title archetype, the Premise. In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s premise is that humans have a propensity to find patterns in events that are actually random and to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. As one character says:
Homo sapiens are about pattern recognition… both a gift and a trap.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
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.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Pattern Recognition: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. 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. Cayce also has an obsession with a series of mysterious video sequences known as The Footage. Cayce’s father, who was a CIA spy, has been missing and presumed dead since the 9/11 attacks.
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 someone has searched it. She suspects Dorotea is behind the intrusion. She also meets two men who are vintage technology collectors interested in 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.
Searching for 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’s 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 someone with the right contacts could trace the watermark on The Footage to an email address. 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 [blackout]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 meets with Cayce in Moscow. Cayce travels to Moscow without telling Bigend.[/blackout]
Cayce [blackout]and Stella meet. Stella admits that her sister Nora is the artist responsible for The Footage. A bomb that was supposed to assassinate her uncle instead badly injured Nora, and now her only means of expression is via The Footage. Cayce goes to meet Nora, and The Footage’s beauty overwhelms her.[/blackout]
Later, at her hotel, [blackout]Dorotea confronts Cayce and then drugs her. She wakes up in a prison, but escapes. Parkaboy finds Cayce wandering in the countryside outside the prison, and 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).[/blackout]
It emerges that [blackout]two factions of the Volkov’s empire have been struggling for power with Cayce caught in the middle. One faction wanted to distribute The Footage. The other, paranoid about security, hired Dorotea to stop Cayce finding it. 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.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Pattern Recognition: Analysis
Pattern Recognition has a ‘mystery’ plot (see Spy Novel Plots)
The ‘Mystery’ Plot
- Discovers a disaster perpetrated by an unknown Antagonist for unknown reasons (or is assigned to investigate by their Mentor).
- Makes a plan to investigate the tragedy and discover who the Antagonist is.
- Investigates and gathers clues suggesting who the Antagonist is.
- Is impeded by the Antagonist.
- Involves one or more Allies in their investigation (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to discover further clues to the identity of the Antagonist, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Discovers the identity of the Antagonist and the reasons for their actions and any wider plan.
- Is involved in a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.
William Gibson’s twist on the mystery formula is that the person producing The Footage, whose identity Cayce tries to discover, isn’t the actual Antagonist.
Pattern Recognition as a Thriller
Some critics have argued that Pattern Recognition doesn’t really work as a thriller, primarily because the protagonist, Cayce, doesn’t face any serious jeopardy for much of the novel. Cayce’s harassment by Dorotea is mostly just annoying, not the run-for-your-life level threat that most thrillers include.
Also, The Footage is a MacGuffin, and the ending is a bit of an anti-climax and even has shades of deus ex machina as Bigend arrives to solve all Cayce’s problems.
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 might not have struck the right tone.
Is Pattern Recognition a Spy Novel?
Some would argue that Pattern Recognition isn’t 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 most of his novels.
The M1 Jacket
William Gibson spends much of Pattern Recognition describing branding, marketing and particular cult items of clothing or technology. Cayce herself is allergic to branding in a way that makes her very useful to marketing companies. As well as that, she’s a ‘cool-hunter’, someone who gets 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.
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. A Japanese company called Buzz Rickson’s produces the jacket to the precise specification of the original, down to exact copies of the original zips.
Ironically enough, considering the novel’s 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
Another unusual product that features heavily in Pattern Recognition is the Curta calculator – a mechanical calculator first designed by Curt Herzstark in the late 1930s and perfected while the Nazis held him in a 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 operator sets the numbers using the sliders on the side and performs operations 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.
The 9/11 attacks heavily influenced Pattern Recognition. 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 William Gibson’s “9/11 has changed everything” rhetoric seems a little dated now, decades later.
Pattern Recognition: My Verdict
Not so much a thriller as a journey. One of my favourite novels.
Want to read it?
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 William Gibson’s ‘Blue Ant Trilogy’, a loose trilogy continued in Spook Country and completed in Zero History. The series centres on the Blue Ant marketing/industrial espionage agency, and 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.
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