Novel Review: Pattern Recognition

Cayce’s first footage had been waiting for her as she emerged from the flooded all-genders toilet at a NoLiTa gallery party, that previous November. Wondering what she could do to sterilize the soles of her shoes, and reminding herself never to touch them again, she’d noticed two people huddled on either side of a third, a turtlenecked man with a portable DVD player, held before him in the way that crèche figures of the Three Kings hold their gifts.

And passing these three she’d seen a face there, on the screen of his ciborium. She’d stopped without thinking and done that stupid duck dance, trying to better align retina to pixel.

“What is that?” she’d asked. A sideways look from a girl with hooded eyes, a sharp and avian nose, round steel labret stud gleaming from beneath her lower lip. “Footage,” this one had said, and for Cayce it had started there.

Published in 2003, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition has been called his best novel since the original cyberpunk trilogy. Does it live up to its reputation?

General Information

Title: Pattern Recogntion

William Gibson

Original Publication Date: February 2003

ISBN: 0-399-14986-4

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Cayce Pollard, a “coolhunter” whose father disappeared in New York on September 11, 2001, finds herself drawn into a mystery when a corporation hires her learn the origins of an enigmatic film appearing in fragments on the World Wide Web.

High Points

Gibson communicates the moments, the characters’ experiences of places real and virtual. We find ourselves in contemporary settings that might be from cyberpunk, the streets of consumer cultures and the ruined places of post-Soviet Russia, seen through the eyes of a woman allergic to certain brand logos. She meets a Japanese fanboy in the “shadow of the multi-tiered expressway that looks like the oldest thing in town. Tarkovsky, someone had once told her, had filmed parts of Solaris here, using the expressway as found Future City. Now it’s been Blade Runnered by half a century of use and pollution., edges of concrete worn porous as coral” (146).

Low Point:

Gibson devotes pages to making us believe in his characters and settings. The first two-thirds of this novel could be a style model for writers, genre and otherwise. As he approaches the conclusion, however, he seems to lose patience. I expected that the solution to the mystery would be too pat, and unequal to the journey. That tends to happen in thrillers and, if the journey proves worthwhile, it doesn’t matter. The last few chapters of Pattern Recognition however, left me cold. Gibson rushes a formulaic conclusion heavy with pages of exposition. A potentially interesting and suspenseful sequence gets narrated after the fact, minimizing its dramatic potential. He also ties up most of the loose ends– a little too neatly.

The Scores

Originality: 4/6. Gibson has produced a literary thriller, but it remains a thriller, and readers will recognize the pattern: protagonist finds herself in danger that grows as she comes closer to the Truth. Some readers will also notice elements reminiscent of Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, and echoes of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

Story: 4/6. This remarkable journey comes to a somewhat disappointing conclusion.

Characterization: 5/6. I believed in the central character, and many of the marginal figures demonstrate Gibson’s astute understanding of human nature. The principal villain remains underdeveloped.


Keiko/Judy is simultaneously pubescent and aggressively womanly, her shapely yet slender legs spilling out of a tiny tartan schoolgirl kilt, to vanish, mid-calf, into shoved-down, bunched-up cotton kneesocks of an usually heavy knit. Cayce’s cool-module, wherever it resides, has always proven remarkably good at registering the salient parameters of sexual fetishes she’s never encountered before, and doesn’t in the least respond to. She just knows now that these Big Sox are one of those, and probably culture-specific. There will be a magazine for Japanese guys into big socks, she’s sure of it…. Keiko/Judy has pigtails, huge dark eyes, free-sized sweatshirt making her breasts a mystery, and something so determinedly carnal in her expression the Caycelfinds it unnerving. Bigend would recognize the image-toggle instantly, childlike innocence and hardboiled come-on alternating at some frequency beyond perception. (128)


Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 6/6. Gibson makes our contemporary world feel like science-fiction, and his ability to evoke people and places astonishes.

Overall Score: 5/6

In total, Pattern Recognition receives 35/42