Folklore used to be songs, dances and tales told around the fire, in the inns, before the hearth, that connected us with our past. The first mass media, radio and television, put the hearth in an electrical box that we gathered 'round to hear and watch the tales retold. Now, with the Internet, we sit, each one of us, alone before another electronic box to peer into past, present and future.
William Gibson, best known as one of the inventors of cyberpunk, has crafted a novel of the here and now, weaving together the threads of the unravelled 20th century into a thrilling tapestry of the 21st. Pattern Recognition is a tense, tautly constructed and darkly funny tale of post-9/11 angst and what may be the brave new world of globe-spanning Web-based community.
Cayce (pronounced "case") Pollard is a special case. She's an American free-lance trend-spotter, hired by global marketers to: a) find the next big thing, and, b) tell them whether their campaigns will sink or swim. What her employers don't know is that part of her skill stems from what she thinks of as a psychic allergy to trademarks. A display of Tommy garments or a glimpse of Mickey Mouse or the Michelin Man sends her into a hysterical swoon that combines features of a migraine, a grande mal seizure and a hissy fit.
Cayce is also a ground-floor member of a worldwide Web craze. Somebody is anonymously posting short clips of mesmerizing film footage to Web sites around the globe, spawning a cult-like mass of fans as only the Web can do. Newsgroups and forums in every language pick apart each segment as it appears, dispute over what order (if any) the segments should be reassembled in, and whether they're a work in progress or the scatterings of a completed film.
Cayce is also the daughter of a former spy of some sort, who disappeared from lower Manhattan without a trace on Sept. 11, 2001.
Our heroine is enlisted by a Belgian marketing type and given a nearly unlimited expense account to track down the creator of the film segments. Anyone who can so quickly capture the imagination of people all over the world has some potential in global advertising, this mogul thinks.
Her errand takes Cayce from London to Tokyo and back, exploring what she calls the "mirror worlds" of these two cultures with so many similarities to and differences from her native America. It's a tour-de-force of the forces of globalization, seen from the point of view of an unsophisticated Yankee suddenly thrust into what used to be called the Jet Set. Japanese game programmers, New Russian oligarchs and Italian thugs all whirl into and out of Cayce's life, as she fights jet lag, grief and her own inner demons to come to some sort of understanding of how the forces of history affect her and everybody she knows.
I've liked nearly all of Gibson's books, but didn't identify too closely with the characters: denizens of some Blade Runner-like near future, jacking into the Net and coming up against the impersonal forces of the digitized cyberworld. But Cayce Pollard and I have much in common. We both hate designer fashion and the proliferation of "branding" and "product placement." And we both love good coffee, unpretentious clothing and the way the Internet allows you to find people with shared interests around the world. I love Cayce Pollard and Pattern Recognition.
There's an excellent Gibson bibliography at this fan Web site.