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May 31, 2005


J. W. Hastings

I love the phrase "toughening-the-geek": it strikes at the heart of what I find annoying about all these "action" novels with computer-guy/techie heroes.

I thought Pattern Recognition fell short of its promise. It is certainly bizarre for Sterling to write a novel about the Bush administration's response to 9/11 while leaving out the war in Iraq. However, it is even more bizarre to me that Gibson wrote a novel about 9/11 that leaves out Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.


See, J.W., I've been trying to write a response to your initial post about Pattern Recognition for months or a year or as long as it's been since you wrote about it because I'm just not convinced I see where the content you want could have gone (or how). The whole book deals with the pressure of absence, if you want to look at it that way, and I don't see why this peculiar silence should be seen as anything other than another instance of that, of the way things loom when they aren't really there. In a way, that's how I think the Gibson cyberpunk heritage fits in, as a shadow of something not really there, or at most off to the side. It's Boone who would be the hacker anti-hero in a more standard story, Cayce as a sleekly unbranded femme fatale of sorts, and the story is much more full and human because it doesn't go in that direction at all.

Since I haven't read the other books and am just talking around the edges of things here, I'll stop, but maybe this will finally push me to either come up with something on my own or give up on the prospect of doing so.

J. W. Hastings

(spoilers in comment)


I'm not sure where it would've gone/fit either, but it just seems perverse to write a novel about 9/11 where the real threat of globalization is posed by the Russian mob.

I see your point about absence, etc., but, more than anything else, 9/11 brought home the presence of virulently anti-American Islamic fundamentalism--something too many people were unaware of/ignoring/etc. Gibson's point seems to be that the specifics don't really matter, but Marc's point about Sterling's novel was that the specifics do matter.


I'm not sure Pattern Recognition is a novel about September 11. It's about globalization and the disconnected modes of living it engenders (as well as some new possibilities for connection that otherwise wouldn't exist, seen especially in the surprisingly tender wrap-up). Virulently anti-American Islamic fundamentalism can be seen as a violent reaction against one face of that globalization, but I don't see how that mandates its inclusion any more than the inclusion of, say, virulently nativist anti-global American aggression, also absent from Gibson's novel. The September 11 material is just one manifestation of the novel's larger concerns about the collapse of late-twentieth century, Cold War paradigms and the emergence of new ones, and the confusion as we try to make the transition.

J. W. Hastings


I think you're being somewhat disingenuous. Pattern Recognition was marketed--by Gibson and his publishers--as a response to 9/11. And I do find it just a tad unseemly that Gibson has taken his standard techno-noir-thriller story and tried to give it more relevance/meaning by setting it in "the shadow of no towers." One of the major subplots in the book is the heroine's attempt to find out what happened to her father, who was one of the WTC terrorists' victims. I mean, he wasn't abducted by aliens...


Steven just pointed out that we bought a copy of The Zenith Angle a few weeks ago, so I think I'll try to read that tonight. (I wrote this before seeing J.W.'s latest comment, but I'm not changing anything I said even if it isn't really in response to that at all. I've also made several unsuccessful attempts to post and will be appropriately chagrined if they all show up later. This is my last try.)

I'm still hung up on the presence/absence thing because Pattern Recognition isn't about September 11 as much as about Cayse's response to it or movement from it. As far as specifics go, no one from the past is reading this novel. No one right now is reading it without echoes of terrorism and their own experiences and memories and politics playing in the background. My worry about J.W.'s argument has always been that any specificity would seem false. The events of September 11 as a whole remain more a specter than anything more tangible in the story, and I don't see how adding specificity could have helped. Either small allusions would be read as trite and dismissive or there would have been too much exposition given over to something we apparently all realize. I don't see an alternative better than leaving this "in the gutter," so to speak.

But even more is that it's not our story but decidedly Cayse's, and I think that focalization helps. Well, and it doesn't hurt that the charming ending is so much more satisfying to me than any other Gibson ending ever and that it gives the personal storyarc precedence, but I think Cayse is shielding herself from so many of the things surrounding her father's death, from the recordings her mother send to any political analysis that would let her make sense of something she still sees as senseless. She wants something clear and personal and maybe beyond hope, not a pedestrian reality, even though that's what she eventually gets and accepts. I'm not making much of an argument, but I'm still convinced that this emphasis on absence was definitely the right way for Gibson to go for many reasons. But I also think for many reasons this was unlike other Gibson books and not a standard thriller and not a standard anything, which was what made it most satisfying of all.


J.W.: I think you're being somewhat disingenuous.

You're free to think so, but I'm not. The Footage; Cayce's jet lag, apophenia, and branding allergies; the various personal relationships she and others maintain almost entirely through e-mail (Damien, Parkaboy, the otaku, etc); her professional assignments as brand evaluator and marketing detective; the repeated masking of professional relationships as personal ones by the deep niche marketer and other characters; and countless other aspects of the novel, comprising its vast majority, have no causal connection to September 11 and everything to do with the book's more predominant themes of global capital and global culture and the alienation and loss they engender. September 11 is not unrelated to these themes, especially with the disappearance of Cayce's father, but it's a subset of them, not the other way around.

Gibson or his publishers may have marketed it as a "9/11 book," but that's the hype and not the book and as such it's about as trustworthy as any Grant Morrison interview. Nor have I personally seen the book marketed that way; looking at the various editions, I see that every single inside cover flap and Publisher's Weekly blurb restricts its September 11 comments to one sentence, always about Cayce and her father. I think that's fairly representative of the novel. The dustjackets are instead filled with quotes about the collapse of the future into the present and glowing reviews christening Gibson "our great poet of crowds" - themes and labels normally reserved for Don DeLillo. So I'd say it's being much more heavily marketed as a DeLillo novel, the SF writer's bid for serious mainstream literature. But I don't think that's unrepresentative of the novel either.

I don't disagree with you about the seemliness of incorporating September 11 as a minor subplot just to lend the novel some somber importance (although that's a massive presumption of intent on our part), though it does at least mesh well with the novel's themes. I'm not sure if it's possible to argue that the 9/11 material is irrelevant to the novel's plot and that it's the major theme of the novel and that Gibson has therefore erred by not addressing its causes.

I don't think that addressing September 11 automatically overwhelms every other aspect of the book and makes it "a novel about 9/11." Gibson defies that assumption, acknowledging the pain and loss the attacks caused without subordinating everything he sees in the world to that day. If anything the novel is filled with reminders, from the Buchenwald calculators to the Russian excavation site, and the story behind the Footage, that no nation, no historical moment, no single day has a monopoly on tragedy.

J. W. Hastings


Gibson has written a novel where the main character's father was killed by the WTC terrorists, where the mystery surrounding precisely why her father's path intersected with that of the terrorists frames the entire story, and where the rest of the novel is mainly concerned with how she's coped with this loss (by getting involved in the mystery of the Footage). Yet Gibson leaves out any mention of the terrorists or any of the specifics of the actual attack. That's his choice, and I agree with you that it fits into his larger thematic concerns, but I think its a bad choice, kind of like writing a book that used the Holocaust as a framing event but never mentioned the Nazis...


I disagree that the mystery of Win Pollard's disappearance "frames the entire story." It lurks there for the duration of the novel, but "frames" implies that everything else in the novel is predicated upon or subordinated to it, when more accurately it's the other way around. Gibson is far more concerned with the effects of that loss (and of loss in general) than its causes.

Your Holocaust analogy is pretty apt since Gibson also references it but doesn't have much to say about the Nazis or the specifics of their genocide. Nor does he need to - is it likely that any of his readers don't know the Nazis were the cause of the Holocaust? Or that al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center? I don't see how mentioning these crimes mandates that the novel say more about the perpetrators.

Going off on a tangent, there's a strange line where Cayce thinks about Voytek "and his calculators from Buchenwald, whatever that was." (Or something to that effect.) I'm not sure how to parse that line - I initially thought it was some badly overplayed commentary about the ignorance and erasure of history, but I'm not sure that's possible as Cayce later makes an informed reference to Nuremberg. So I assume her confusion is about the calculators and not Buchenwald itself. Still, an odd sentence.

J. W. Hastings


I'm not too interested in wrangling over word choice here, but.... I used the word "frames" because her the mystery of her father's death is brought up at the beginning of the book and then again at the end. Yes, you're right, the mystery really does thread its way through the entire book, but its also the thread that Gibson chooses to close the novel on, so I think it does have a slightly more important place in Gibson's scheme than your allowing for. The rest of the book isn't subordinated to it, but the 9/11 stuff does fuel the novel's thematic engine, which is an awful metaphor, I know. If you look at the beginning and the end of the book, you can see the heroine's major "arc" is that she moves closer to coming to terms with losing her father on 9/11.

And yes, Gibson references the Holocaust, but he didn't write a novel about the daughter of a Holocaust victim, who is driven by that loss to investigate some seemingly unrelated, but thematically similar, mystery. My argument isn't about thematic issues: its about nuts and bolts plot/character issues. No matter how thematically appropriate it might be, it still seems bizarre/wrongheaded to write a novel (1) whose main character is the daughter of a WTC victim and (2) that has a major plot thread devoted to her trying to deal with not knowing the specifics of his death without ever mentioning terrorism.

At this point, I'm tempted to say that what I'm saying about Gibson is pretty similar to what you were saying about Sterling, but I'm sure you have lots of reasons why its a completely different issue. I really don't think it is though: Sterling has set his novel in the real world and is dealing with real world events. Your criticism (which I agree with) is that he presents at best an incomplete picture of these events and at worst a badly skewed one. By leaving out the stuff he doesn't want to deal with (or that doesn't fit his theme), Sterling has written a novel that rings false to you. Likewise, Gibson's novel rings false to me because of what he has left out. I'm not trying to say that you should feel the same way, but arguing that Gibson's choices about the way he deals with 9/11 are organic to the novel's overall thematic structure just isn't going to make those choices seem "right" to me.

This has been fun... Now I've got to go work on my post about why Sin City really is noir...

William Burns

One of the things that most forcibly struck me about Pattern Recognition is that Gibson has become one of the best male writers about female characters around. I'd be particularly interested to know what actual women think about this, though.


I guess I can see enough competing (or really, complementary) arcs for Cayce, equally present throughout the novel, that I'm not inclined to elevate September 11 above every other theme or plot element; most of the the ones I mentioned before are equally persistent. I worry that insisting the novel become About 9/11 is just doing as readers what I hope Gibson wasn't doing as a novelist: letting the gravity of the event elevate it beyond its actual prominence in the story.

Nor do I really see much to compare Gibson and Sterling on this point (except in the broadest possible strokes: each one leaves out something one of us wanted them to talk about, but that's really more of a comparison between our reactions than their novels). Gibson does address September 11, just not in the way you wanted him to; Sterling completely avoids Iraq. Moreover, al Qaeda is fairly orthogonal to Gibson's subject matter; Iraq and its consequences are directly relevant to Sterling's, and in fact spring from some of the same personalities whom he exalts for their dedication to national security. (I confess I'm not clear why Sterling setting his novel in the real world clinches the connection to Gibson, except again in the broadest possible terms.)

And I doubt either one of us was going to convince the other to change their mind about Pattern Recognition, but the value of conversations like this tends to be in the opportunity they offer to represent (and hone) our interpretations, not to make converts.

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