Nodal point

William Gibson talks about how his new present-day novel, "Pattern Recognition," processes the apocalyptic mind-set of a post-9/11 world.

Published February 14, 2003 12:09AM (EST)

"You're experiencing apophenia," William Gibson tells me, near the end of an interview.

I had just asked him what the significance is of the fact that Cayce Pollard, the protagonist in his new novel, "Pattern Recognition," has a first name that sounds exactly like that of Case, the protagonist in Gibson's first novel, "Neuromancer." Has he, in some obscure way, come full circle? "Neuromancer" unleashed a vision of the future that has become more real ever since the novel was published; "Pattern Recognition" is set in the very recent past, in a world that becomes more bizarre and unreal the closer you look at it.

But Gibson denies that there is any significance. It's just coincidence. I'm just being apophenic.

As defined by Gibson in "Pattern Recognition," apophenia is "the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things." In other words: Recognizing patterns that aren't actually there.

There is no connection between Cayce and Case; no meaningfulness. Gibson explains that as part of his novelist craft, he goes through a complicated artistic ritual in order to summon his characters out of the ether. In this ritual, coming up with the right name is the crucial first step. And the process by which he came up with Cayce, he declares, had nothing to do with Case. "Cayce" was its own "found object" -- much as the name Case, from "Neuromancer," was also a found object, inspired originally by Case pocketknives.

Gibson admits, though, that as soon as he realized the similarity of the names, he knew some readers would assume that something was going on, even when it wasn't.

"I had to decide whether to do it and have some people assume that it had some symbolic meaning," says Gibson, "or do it knowing that it has no symbolic meaning for me, but that some people would assume that it did, and consequently in some weird way it would."

So, in a sense, apophenia begets its own meaning, even in the absence of meaning. Welcome to the world of "Pattern Recognition," where a whole mess of people are suffering from greater or lesser degrees of what might be apophenia, except when it isn't. Cayce Pollard's mother, for example, believes she can hear the voices of the dead in the empty spaces of audiotapes. Cayce doesn't buy that malarkey, but who is she to talk? She's a freelance "coolhunter" who specializes in spotting street trends that can be commodified, who moonlights as a logo-evaluator but is physically allergic to brands like Prada and Michelin, and who is obsessed with finding meaning in mysterious segments of film "footage" that are being uploaded to the Net.

"Pattern Recognition" stands on its own as one of Gibson's best novels -- a riveting, evocative thriller that whirls around the world. But much has been made of the fact that, technically speaking, unlike all his previous work, "Pattern Recognition" isn't a science fiction novel. It is set in August 2002, in a world reeling from the impact of 9/11 and populated by people who aren't jacking their brains into the Matrix or battling artificial intelligences run amok.

But Gibson doesn't have to invent the future, any more, because it's already here. "Pattern Recognition" is a novel in which people live and die by their e-mail, flame each other endlessly in online discussion forums and fight for control of information. Advertising agencies, not AIs, are the malign puppet masters. But that's OK: The world, as Gibson notes repeatedly during our interview, is weird enough without needing to invent anything.

Gibson has always maintained that science fiction writers write about the present, and in "Pattern Recognition" he decided to dispense with the pretense, without metaphor or misdirection. The most obvious impact this has on the novel is that, inevitably, it becomes obsessed with finding meaning and connections in the most significant event thus far in the 21st century -- the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

And here we meet apophenia on a grand scale. Because if, as Gibson writes, 9/11 was "an experience out of culture," then how are we to impose meaning on it? As in another recent artistic attempt to come to grips with 9/11, Spike Lee's "25th Hour," 9/11 resists easy submersion into anyone's narrative. It is, by definition, overpowering, and any reference to it is inescapably heavy-handed.

It's a testament to Gibson's skill as a writer, and the overall tautness of "Pattern Recognition," that the shadow of the World Trade Center towers doesn't overwhelm its characters, even though it informs nearly every page. And for those of his fans who have been yearning for him to write another "Neuromancer," maybe it's time to set aside that desire once and for all. Gibson may have more to offer, in the future, as a chronicler of the now.

You set "Pattern Recognition" in the recent past as opposed to the future. Was this because the future that you originally imagined has been getting closer? Is it harder to stay ahead of it?

It's been getting more overt. In some incredibly bone-simple way, nobody can write about the future, and somehow in reading science fiction and talking about it we forget that. It's something to do with the core compact between writer and reader in the genre, so we wind up talking about it as though I had actually been writing about the future.

But just to take one example. With the "decks" that Case jacks into in "Neuromancer," you created this very alluring vision of future technology. But if you look at the laptop your Boone Chu character is traveling around with in "Pattern Recognition," you're describing something equally alluring, except that it's something people actually have. You're writing about the same things, only now they actually exist.

But they almost existed when I wrote "Neuromancer." Those decks in "Neuromancer" were inspired by ads that I saw for the Apple IIc, which when you saw it without its funny little pot-bellied monitor, was just this thing about the size of a laptop with an integral handle dangling from the wrist of a businessman. It was a very sexy ad, and I just looked at that and thought, well, they're all going to be that small very shortly. And I somehow also got the idea that they're all going to be connected. Why would people not connect them? I think I was really lucky, because I knew nothing about computing and consequently I could see the forest for the trees. Any knowledge of the technology would have been to my disadvantage. I just saw people. I sort of deduced functions from what these objects looked like.

And now you're inhabiting that world. Now you've even got your own blog.

But there were so many ways that I didn't get it right, and I didn't even come close. Like, the hackers in "Neuromancer" are these guys who basically seem to be able to type real fast. And hackers in the world that I'm walking around in are people who sit and endlessly and tediously and very, very unromantically compile code and then drop completed programs into the system to see what they'll do.

But they think of themselves and what they're doing as very romantic.

I know. That's really strange. [Laughs] And I don't get it.

Was it a challenge to keep writing about the future, as the Internet exploded and so much of what you imagined came closer?

I think my last three books reflected that. It just seemed to be happening -- it was like the windshield kept getting closer and closer. The event horizon was getting closer ... I have this conviction that the present is actually inexpressibly peculiar now, and that's the only thing that's worth dealing with. This wonderful toolkit that I inherited from genre SF has all these fabulous tools -- tools that naturalistic, mimetic, literary fiction never had.

Can you be more specific?

Any kind of novel comes with a set of instructions that we don't really think about, but you learn in school and you learn in your culture. You learn how you go to a novel and how you relate to it. There's an extra set of moves in classic SF that you learn as a reader, and then if you want to write the stuff you have to have internalized those sufficiently. Once you do that you can be in a special relationship with your readers. I find that when I transfer that special relationship into a piece of mimetic fiction set in the present, I get interesting results -- I get "Pattern Recognition." But I had almost gotten "Pattern Recognition" with the last couple of books, because, in some kind of perverse way, they played with whether they were the future or not, or I felt they did. They felt more like "alternative presents." The volume of technological weirdness was being turned up all the time, but the world felt increasingly familiar.

As a writer, what was it like to go from taking what is already around and giving it that slight twist that makes it something that doesn't currently exist, to trying to describe things as they are?

That wasn't what I found most challenging. What I think I actually found most challenging with this was sticking to a single narrative point of view.

You weren't jumping back and forth as you did in "All Tomorrow's Parties."

Yeah, where it's kind of like Altman's "Nashville," you're seeing it from 20 or 30 points of view, and with constant crosscutting. That had become a big part of my technique. And as someone famous once said of literature -- technique becomes the enemy. So I reset three basic parameters before I started this book. One was that it would be in the summer of 2002, in this world, and that it would have a single point-of-view character, and that there would be a minimum of ellipsis -- so that you would be with the point of view character from the top of the chapter to the bottom. Those last two were actually harder for me than dealing with the present as present.

I don't think I could have gone on [in the old way]. I think I'd gotten to the point where I wouldn't have been able to write more "faux-future" stories, because my yardstick for the weirdness of now was getting kind of tarnished. It was getting kind of old. I had to come back and see what now was, in order to possibly later be able to go off and imagine what the faux future would be like from this now. It's like I rediscovered now, which was, as it turned out, an apocalyptic process.

Now is a pretty apocalyptic time. Who needs the far future when you've got aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center and anthrax scares?

I was about 100 pages into the book on Sept 10th. Then I got up on Sept. 11th and whoa --- nodal point!

In the book you call it "an experience out of culture." But you can't avoid dealing with it if you're writing about the present, can you?

When I came back to the manuscript, and went to my computer and opened the file, about three weeks after Sept. 11, and I saw that my protagonist's back story, that I'd been sort of interrogating and looking for and starting to find, was taking place right then -- her memories were of that autumn -- It hadn't occurred to me until I was looking at the screen that she was there. I had this sense that the back-story world my character had been tentatively inhabiting for me, as I tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with her, had clicked off -- it had forked and diverged like Borges' "Garden of Forking Paths." It had become like nothing -- what up to that point had been my best attempt at mimesis and embracing the uncut world. And there was some terrible irony in that. But that was completely swept aside by my recognition at that point that my world no longer existed and that the meaning of everything -- I felt that just as strongly as I've ever felt anything in my life -- the meaning of everything, ever that had gone before had to be reconsidered in the light of something that had happened.

At that point I had a choice of abandoning the narrative -- it was very clear to me I was just sitting there looking at the screen: I either erase this and go elsewhere, or I go back right now and go back to Page 1 and go back through it, knowing where she came from. I opted to go back and go through it knowing where she came from, and I'm as glad that I did that as I've ever been of any artistic choice, mainly because I don't have to do it again. Mine's done. I did the very best I could do. I'm never going to have to go back to that material or work out what that meant to me any more than I was able to do then. I think probably every night, somewhere in the world, somebody sits down and gets out a blank page or brings up a blank page and prepares to start, but mine's already done.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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