For a book review in a publication dedicated to art directors and graphic designers, sci-fi author William Gibson is a seemingly odd choice. Gibson, who in 1984 gave us the groundbreaking Neuromancer, coined now commonplace terms like “cyberspace” and “the matrix” years before the internet or Agent Smith.
In his latest work, Pattern Recognition, Gibson is no longer inventing future cultures fast-forwarded by technology. Set in our present, just after 9/11, Pattern Recognition portrays a world with much of Gibson’s future already existing in our present. “The world,” says Gibson of his latest book, “is weird enough without needing to invent anything.”
The hero of this story is Cacye Pollard. As heroes go, she doesn’t have adamantium claws or a nifty tool belt. Her power is a pathological sensitivity to branding. “Pattern Recognition” is about Cayce’s uncanny ability to sense the architecture, the patterns, of our global brand-obsessed culture.
Her brand sensitivity is so strong that she’s physically allergic to some brands and logos. A wrong turn in a London department store sends Cacye reeling away from a Tommy Hilfiger display. She pays a local handyman to grind the trademarks off buttons on her 501’s. Her black DKNY cardigan is “un-Dikini-ed” with a pair of nail scissors. Worst of all is the appearance of Bibendum, the proper name of Michelin’s chubby tire man, whose image can cause Cacye to vomit.
She uses her brand sensitivity as a freelance coolhunter with an almost supernatural ability to spot trends and products before they hit the commercial big time. Cayce also consults as a logo evaluator for multinational mega-advertising agencies. She can just look at a logo and know whether it will succeed or if the illustrators need to go back to the drawing board. She does it intuitively, and with flawless accuracy.
In his previous stories, Gibson created worlds with AI’s acting as puppet masters pulling invisible strings and setting change in motion. In Pattern Recognition, it’s advertising agencies that are pulling the strings. In particular, the ad firm Blue Ant.
Blue Ant is described as “relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational. The agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores. Or perhaps as some non-carbon-based life-form, entirely sprung from the smooth and ironic brow of its founder, Hubertus Bigend.”
Bigend is “a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates” who “seems to have no sense at all that his name might seem ridiculous to anyone, ever.”
The plot takes off when Cacye agrees to take an unusual assignment from Blue Ant. Bigend wants Cacye to use her sensitivity to track down the creator of mysterious, brief segments of beautifully rendered film uploaded anonymously to the web by some undiscovered ‘garage Kubrick’.
The footage created a global buzz. It’s spawned an authentic subculture with ‘footageheads’ who gather on virtual forums to argue about its meaning and origin. Bigend sees it as a completely new, and very lucrative, way for Blue Ant to establish itself as the preeminent marketing force of the 21st Century. “I saw attention focused daily on a product that may not even exist,” Bigend says. “The most brilliant marketing plot of this very young century. And new. Something entirely new.”
The point of all this is that stories of futuristic technology no longer shock us because the future, in many ways has already arrived. Gibson’s trademark cyber-genre has become passé and the truth of our popular culture is now stranger than science fiction.
When Cacye’s quest for the footage takes her to Japan, she comments on the “remarkably virtual-looking skyline, a floating jumble of electric Lego, studded with odd shapes you wouldn’t see elsewhere, as if you’d need special Tokyo add-ons to build this at home.”
Like the add-ons of the Tokyo skyline, brands themselves are Legos from which our marketing-centric world is built. Read Pattern Recognition and revel in the future world we’re constructing right now.
This article originally appeared in a periodical published by AIGA Houston.