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Pattern Recognition and Dead Air
Reviewed by Ivan Lerner, © 2003

Format: Book
By:   William Gibson and Iain Banks
Genre:   Fiction
Review Date:   January 09, 2003

A work of obvious effort, William Gibson's latest novel, the non-science fiction (or "straight") Pattern Recognition ($24.95; 358 pages; G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin), was ultimately very disappointing. Disenchanted with Gibson for a while, I've avoided his last few books, but I was actually looking forward to this one. I was hoping that a leap out of the SF genre would reinvigorate him, like it has with some of his contemporaries, that Gibson would use this opportunity to shed the hyper-intellectualized "to cool for school" straightjacket he'd created for himself. Unfortunately, he provides a book that is cloddishly convoluted and an utter chore to read. I really got the feeling that this was a poor attempt to mimic Neal Stephenson's non-SF success.

Using the events of September 11, 2001, as a distant backdrop, Pattern Recognition follows lead character Cayce as she tries to figure out who has been uploading bizarre video footage onto the Internet which has become a cult phenomenon. Cayce is, if I may borrow a term from Jim Munroe's much better novel Everyone in Silico, a "coolhunter." She seeks out variations in subcultures that might be used in future lucrative marketing and merchandising -- like the first person that managed to identify and sell super-baggy pants to white suburbia. Cayce's shady boss has sent her on a global quest to find the origin of the footage, in order to exploit and
profit from it.

But plagued with inertia, by page 150 the book became tiresome, a drag to read. A main problem is Pattern Recognition's resolute humorlessness and lack of passion. It's so serious and self-important that it practically gets crushed by its own pretensions -- pretensions so heavy that I couldn't help but wonder if we were on the verge of some weird satire -- like an Andy Warhol-esque spoof of media and cybertech. But if that's the case, the satire is too oblique. Nor does the book feel like it's evolved naturally; but rather like it's been programmed to grow to certain precise specifications, with character movement occurring by the numbers. There's a mystery, but no surprises.

And I'm really not too sure about Gibson's use of the WTC attacks as background detail. No one watching that horror would record it as calmly as Cayce, and since she's describing it after the fact, knowing that her father is missing in that area, it's twice as shocking that she seems so blasÈ about it. Cayce's cool-as-a-cucumber reaction to the buildings going down is downright bizarre. If the author is trying to indicate that she's traumatized by the event, he fails, instead making the attacks seem like nothing more than a "bother" to the woman. Of course, Gibson, in his attempt to make everything seem so "cool," has made Cayce's father an ex-CIA man as well. He's a man with a mysterious past, rather than just one of the thousands of working stiffs who perished that day.

This is emblematic of Gibson's poorly drawn characterizations -- none of his characters feel real; with their areas of interest and knowledge so specialized, and many with such precious quirks, that they might as well be characters out of a mediocre pulp sci-fi novel, where personalities are delineated by their occupations.

The book would have been so much better if Gibson had just written a series of essays observing the world. When he's playing social commentator, as he does occasionally in Pattern Recognition, Gibson is aces. But as a non-SF fiction novelist, Gibson falls short.

Meanwhile, another stalwart of the SF scene, Iain Banks, has also contributed a piece of "straight" fiction touching on 9/11. As "Iain M. Banks," this prolific writer is known in SF circles as the creator of the "Culture" series. But it was as "Iain Banks" that he first debuted as an author, with the violent, morally confusing and highly recommended The Wasp Factory (1984), a bizarre tale about a murderous teenage boy. Banks' non-SF novels are not as well known in the US, but can definitely be compared with such practitioners of "Contemporary Modern Literature" as Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh and Jonathan Lethem.

Entitled Dead Air (£16.99 in the U.K.; 408 pages; Little, Brown), Banks' new book starts off with a frivolous party in London being interrupted. In a creepy and effective scene, the drunk partygoers are wastefully throwing food and furniture from an apartment's balcony, when one by one, all their cell phones begin to ring, all bearing the bad news of the disaster taking place in New York City. The narrator is Scotsman Ken Nott (although obvious, I enjoy Banks' infrequent doses of heavy symbolism), a left-leaning London-based shock jock, a Howard McStern who occasionally plays some very hip music. (Although a bit of a show-off, Banks has great musical taste.)

Banks uses Nott to deliver a multitude of delicious screeds about the state of the modern world, from the controversy surrounding George W. Bush's election to the Israel/Palestine situation to why liberalism is nothing to be ashamed of. If your politics are conservative, or very old school, you'll probably hate what Banks (through Ken) is saying, but lefties (and the cantankerous) certainly can use Nott's diatribes as leaping off points of their own. Right-wing critics may certainly call Banks anti-American, and I would not be surprised if Dead Air never gets published in the U.S. due to its scandalous content. The following is probably the only one of Nott's screeds that I can quote without deeply offending some segment of RevolutionSF.com's readership:

[I]magine if paintings were produced the way Hollywood films are. . . .The Mona Lisa as we know it would be just the first draft; in the second she'd be blonde, in the third smiling happily and showing some cleavage, by the fourth there'd be her and her equally attractive and feisty sisters and the landscape behind would be a jolly seaside scene; the fifth draft would get rid of her and keep the sisters, lose the seaside for a misty mountain and make the girls both redheaded and a bit more, like, ethnic looking, and by the sixth or seventh the mountain would be replaced by a dark and mysterious jungle and there'd be just the one girl again, but she'd be a dusky maiden wearing a low-cut wrap and with a smoldering, alluring look and an exotic bloom in her long black tresses. . . .Bingo -- La Giaconda would look like something you were embarrassed your elderly uncle bought in Woolworth's in the early seventies and never had the wit to get rid of in subsequent redecorations.

Like Pattern Recognition, I felt that the early references to 9/11 in Dead Air had no real bearing on the plot, and were tacked on. Of course Nott should comment on the attacks during his radio show -- he comments about every other political topic -- but 9/11 is such a huge signifier these days that to start a book with the attacks, then never bring that incident into play in any serious way smacks of callous exploitation. I would not be surprised to find out that Banks had written most of this novel before the attacks, and then rewrote to fit them in.

If I'm wrong, I would guess that Banks feels that in the post-9/11 world, polite discourse is either no longer necessary or even useful; that now is the time for serious rants. Thus, he makes his protagonist a professional ranter. But the frame of the story is Nott's misguided secret affair with the beautiful wife of a ruthless gangster. The stuff of airport paperbacks, it has some distracting soft-core smut, but the rest of the novel doesn't really seem to jibe with it.

Banks would've been better off creating a more experimental book by removing everything except Nott's rants on his radio show, sort of like Eric Bogosian's play Talk Radio. But I feel about Iain Banks the same way I do about Martin Scorsese: Even his mediocre stuff is better than some people's best. I never feel like the experience hasn't been somewhat worthwhile. But as such, I have to say that Dead Air is really for Banks completists only. If you want to experience some of his better more recent works, check out Whit or The Business, both intriguing and subtler Banks books.

IVAN LERNER dreads the holidays, and is so glad theyíre over.

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  • RevolutionSF Rating:

    Pattern Recognition: 4/10

    Dead Air: 6/10

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