THE JOURNAL OF EDUCATION, COMMUNITY, AND VALUES
by Jeffrey Barlow <firstname.lastname@example.org>
William Gibson is an unavoidable name in the field of modern fiction, whether reading "science fiction" or contemporary novels whose protagonists seem, like ourselves, to be wandering about in a world whacked out of focus by technology, searching for a path back to something resembling reality. Gibson is usually given the credit for having devised the term "cyberspace."  Gibson's work is often referred to as "Cyberpunk" for the favored personae of his edgy protagonists, who are usually located on the violent fringes of clashing cultures.
Gibson's latest, Pattern Recognition, is difficult to summarize. Its heroine, Cayce, is afflicted with an allergic reaction to brands, whether pushed at her from electronic advertisements or attached to her clothing. Tommy Hilfiger is close to life-threatening for her. This, of course, makes her invaluable to the advertising world because her reaction to a planned ad campaign or style is usually a clue to its probable success.
At first, it seems that Cayce lives in some future world, but slowly the reader becomes aware that in fact she lives in the present; it is just that her life and work is completely intertwined with the electronic fringes of our culture. In this jaded society, a constant topic of discussion (largely electronic, of course) is the mysterious appearance on the Internet of snippets of files which may or may not be part of an ongoing film. Cayce is hired to locate the creator.
An important element of this work is that it is firmly set in the world after 9-11. In Gibson's view, 9-11 was the end of history; after it we are without a history, careening toward an unknown future without the benefit of a past---our lives before 9-11 are now irrelevant.
Gibson has many appeals for me, at least. His prose is both supple and sharp; he frequently comes up with dazzling descriptions of artifacts and events. What we would call "reality" is to Cayce the "mirror world," a world we can look into, but not reach; we are separated from it by our irreconcilably conflicted reactions to its bits and pieces. If we push to hard toward it, it breaks into shards.
Gibson is also, by now, an old hand at writing. His characters are economically drawn and yet each is an absolutely unique individual. They appear and disappear mysteriously, yet each is always in the service of the plot.
And for Gibson to take on both the nature of the world after 9-11 and the welter of impacts of the increasing networking of every element of our society is a nearly breathtakingly risky feat. And to do so successfully is truly remarkable.
Like much fiction that grows out of technology and its impact, Pattern Recognition, is difficult to bring to an end. We are left without knowing whether the film snippets are some vital message to us, or merely the beginning of a wildly successful advertising campaign. But Gibson's striking prose, sharp vision, and colorful world are difficult to forget, long after the reader returns to the mirror world.
The importance of artists is at least in part to show us a very different vision of the world from our own. In the review in this issue of Interface of Neil Stephenson's work Cryptonomicron, I ask if the author can properly be placed among the ranks of previous writers such as Jules Verne or H. G. Wells. I believe that Gibson can. Gibson focuses closely on the impact of electronic communication and is well worth reading, either as social commentary, as entertainment, or as a visionary pointing into a possible future.
 See Marshall McLuhan Meets William Gibson in "Cyberspace" at: http://www.ibiblio.org/cmc/mag/1995/sep/doherty.html