By STEPHEN JEWELL*
With his 1985 debut novel Neuromancer, William Gibson launched the science fiction sub-genre cyberpunk, which replaced starships, alien races and galaxies far, far away with computers, cybernetics and Blade Runner-style futuristic metropolises.
Unlike universe-spanning space sagas such as Star Wars, cyberpunk has always kept its feet on the ground and one foot planted firmly in the era in which it was written.
But the best science fiction authors, from J.G. Ballard to Philip K. Dick, have always written more about the world they live in than the future.
The same is true of Gibson, who followed Neuromancer and the other two novels in The Sprawl trilogy with another loosely linked trio of books, Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties, set a mere decade from the point of publication in the 1990s.
"When I was writing Neuromancer, I was certain that one day it could be read pretty accurately as a fable of Reaganomics. That is why there was no middle class in Neuromancer, just a disparate, scuttling kind of cyber Victorian underclass and a bunch of super-rich folks.
"Neuromancer seems to me to be very much a novel of the early 80s and that offered me some kind of freedom in what I was doing that I don't think some of the other people writing science fiction had because they thought they were writing about the future," Gibson says.
Now with his eighth novel, Pattern Recognition, Gibson has landed with a bump in the present day, following a trajectory mirrored by contemporaries like Snow Crash and Cryptonomincon author Neal Stephenson and Vurt author Jeff Noon, who also began their careers writing about fantastical futures only to then gradually set their work closer and closer to the current era until they were writing about the here and now, if not the past.
"I'd been threatening to do it for the past three books," says Gibson.
"Whenever I do interviews, people want to talk to me about the future and I say [the book] is not really about the future. So I finally called myself on that bluff and with Pattern Recognition, what I seem to have done is what I've always done but now it's completely overt. "Pattern Recognition is another William Gibson novel just like all the others, but it's not pretending to be a piece of science fiction."
Pattern Recognition centres around Cayce Pollard, who suffers from a pathological sensitivity to advertising, meaning that she throws up at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger, something Gibson says "we all have a little bit of".
Cayce has turned her affliction to her advantage, becoming a cool hunter, a highly paid consultant for advertising agencies, who advises on the street fashionability of big name brand logos.
Cayce, who is reminiscent of Virtual Light's bicycle courier Chevette Washington, is surrounded by a typically Gibsonesque supporting cast including the standard Japanese computer freaks and Russian Mafioso figures. The curmudgeonly Baranov and his antique Curta calculator-collecting buddies bring to mind Ian Sinclair's shifty secondhand book dealers.
Cayce begins to get out of her depth when she is hired to track down the mysterious Garage Kubrick, who created The Footage, a compellingly beautiful film which has been anonymously placed on the internet.
The chase takes Cayce to London, New York, Tokyo and Moscow, and Gibson weaves a satisfying plot of double-cross and industrial espionage which keeps the pages turning.
But Gibson is more concerned with exploring his usual technology-inspired themes than resolving mysteries, and fans of the imaginative gadgets found in the likes of Neuromancer and Virtual Light will not be disappointed with Pattern Recognition's present-day scenario.
There are many connections to the author's past work such as the Garage Kubrick's nebulous existence, which is reminiscent of Rei, the digital pop star from Gibson's 1996 novel, Idoru.
Gibson predicted the advent of the internet in Neuromancer but he was upstaged on Idoru when such supposed fantasy became a reality before the book could be published.
But by setting Pattern Recognition in our third-millennium times Gibson sidesteps any such problems, and by packing the narrative full of so much cutting-edge technology, from e-books to Google, he conjures up an increasingly accelerated everyday world that could well be the product of futuristic speculation.
According to Gibson, The Footage and Cayce's special talents are the only inherently sci fi elements in Pattern Recognition, but the reader is blinded with so much science that you indeed feel as if you are reading just another William Gibson novel, which is no bad thing.
* Stephen Jewell is an Auckland journalist.
By STEPHEN JEWELL*