Present worries in future tense

Special to The Times

The last year and a half have been difficult for fiction writers. How, after all, are they to provide, in E.M. Forster's phrase, a "buzz of implication," a sense of cultural context, when the entire idea of context is now up in the air?

Last March, at a symposium on post-Sept. 11 literature, one frustrated novelist framed this conundrum explicitly, bemoaning her inability to evoke the textures of daily living in a world where even the most trivial interactions could no longer be assured. How, this writer wondered, was she to re-create the present when the present could now be altered in an instant? How was she to continue working in fiction when events seemed to have passed fiction by?

Leave it to William Gibson to come up with a solution. In his new novel, "Pattern Recognition," he writes explicitly about the world after Sept. 11, weaving the collapse of the World Trade Center -- as both image and crisis point -- into the fabric of his characters' lives. "Pattern Recognition," with its story of Cayce Pollard, a 32-year-old "coolhunter" who stakes out subcultures for an advertising agency, suggesting ways in which the hip and the commercial might merge, is the first of Gibson's books to be set in the recognizable present, although it is less a contemporary novel than what we might call a science-fiction novel about contemporary life.

"I think of this book as very much like my other novels, but more overt," the author says. "The scarf of imaginary futurity has been pulled off to reveal what's underneath, which has always been the unimaginable worrisome present." As for why such a paradigm shift now seems necessary, perhaps the most cogent explanation comes from Hubertus Bigend, the elusive advertising executive who may or may not be Cayce's chief antagonist in the novel:

"Where we have been," Bigend says, "is a fiction, subject to change. Where we are going, we don't know. Though we at least know that we don't know, which counts for something.... But the moment, our narrow and magnificent little now, that was restored to us when the towers fell. When they came crashing down, we blinked, and shivered, and were restored to the moment. Nothing, really, has been the same since."

Gibson has made a career of identifying these blinks, these shivers -- these "nodal points," as he has called them -- the collective flashes of transition that alter our culture in unexpected ways. In the Vancouver-based author's 1984 debut, "Neuromancer," he coined the term "cyberspace" and helped dream the Internet into being, and like Cayce, he's always been a coolhunter, investigating territories inspired in equal measure by bohemia and technology, along the imaginative cutting edge.

With "Pattern Recognition," however, he's effectively upped the ante -- or maybe it's that the game has changed. "I had been in the early stages of this book for at least a year and a half when Sept. 11 arrived," Gibson says. "And about three weeks afterward, when I went into my office and blew the dust off the computer, it struck me that something had happened that changed the meaning of everything, and either I had to abandon this book or do what I took to be the very scary and serious thing of going back to the beginning and starting again in light of what had happened.

"I had this very surreal, unpleasant, Kafkaesque sense of the world that I had been blithely telling interviewers was incomprehensible and catastrophic and terrifying -- and suddenly it was. It was like the universe had called my bluff; something had happened that I couldn't get my head around. I felt like my science-fiction writer's head was screaming with the stretch to do so

For all the implications of that statement, Gibson offers it up matter-of-factly, with the offhanded tone that has become a trademark of his work. At 55, brown hair thinning at the crown and eyes electric behind John Lennon-style glasses, he perches like an enormous praying mantis on the edge of an ancient sofa in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, speaking in a high monotone that carries just the slightest trace of a Southern accent, left over from his boyhood in South Carolina and Virginia.

He's tall, angular, dressed in black jeans and an olive-green button shirt, cuffs fastened with a pair of playing-card cuff links. As he talks, he carves precise shapes in the air with his fingers, and in conversation, he often pauses or repeats a phrase as a kind of place holder, a way of retaining a listener's attention while he searches for the proper word.

That attention to detail, to the nuances of imagery and language, has always been one of Gibson's most essential attributes as a writer. From the now-iconic first sentence of "Neuromancer" -- "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" -- to the recently completed trilogy, "Virtual Light," "Idoru" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" (in which, among other things, the San Francisco Bay Bridge has been transformed into an elaborate squatters' compound), his prose is vivid, crystalline, creating an environment that exists in three dimensions, beyond the borders of the page.

This, Gibson notes, was one of the challenges that led him to consider writing science fiction in the first place, the idea of creating a fully manifested imaginary world.

"When I had a good hard look at science fiction as an adult in the late '70s," says Gibson, who had been a devoted reader of the genre, "one of the things I found lacking was specificity of language. I'd read short stories where nothing was described in detail, stories that often seemed to take place -- as indeed does the entire 'Star Trek' universe -- in what one could easily conceive to be a world of absolutely evolved communism, in which no one has a job, there are no brand names, no advertising. No logos. Gene Roddenberry's universe is like Danish socialism squared, and I wanted to go the other direction. I wanted to try for a kind of high naturalism, or a kind of noir naturalism, to make science fiction more mimetic, and that kind of writing became my technique, or my style."

What makes such a style so compelling is its immediacy, its sense of reality, which allows Gibson's universe to seem less a matter of some invented future than an extrapolation of the present, "an alternate history." This notion also runs throughout "Pattern Recognition," which, as its title attests, is a book about connections, about taking the detritus of a suddenly unfamiliar landscape and piecing it into a world we understand.

Cayce, we learn early on, has lost her father, a former U.S. intelligence official, at the twin towers; he was last seen heading toward lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, and was never heard from again. His absence adds an undertone, a deepening, to his daughter's dislocation, a sensibility Gibson makes explicit by staging much of the novel's action in London, which the American-born Cayce refers to as a "mirror-world," a real-time alternate universe in which not only is the slang, the terminology, different, but even the technology. ("The switch on Damien's Italian floor lamp feels alien," Cayce reflects, "a different click, designed to hold back a different voltage, foreign British electricity.")

This is heightened further by "the footage" -- short, apparently related bits of film that appear at odd intervals on the Internet, and have spawned a hermetic subculture devoted to deciphering their meaning in discussion forums and chat rooms. "I'm fascinated," Gibson says, "by how projection works in art and marketing, by 'apophenia' as Cayce's father calls it, the apprehension of patterns that may, in fact, not be there. We are so much the animal that recognizes patterns that we see them when they're not even there. I wondered about the people on the footage site, what they're projecting into what they've seen, how each of them is making his or her own film."

In other words, the novel seems to be saying, we can't help but make our own meaning, even, or especially, if there is no apparent logic to what we see.

In many ways, this is the issue all of us are confronting as we try to navigate the open-ended layers of post-Sept. 11 life. These days, everyone has been cast into a mirror-world, where, as Don DeLillo once wrote, "Stories have no point if they don't absorb our terror," and science fiction and reality have finally merged. "You know," Gibson says, "on my last couple of book tours, I kept trying to make the point that I could write a novel set in the present and nobody would know the difference. It would have exactly the effect of my previous books. I was never sure if that was really the case. I didn't want to look at how much of a stretch it might be, but I finally called myself on it, with considerable misgivings, and decided that I would give it a try."

In the end, Gibson realized, he needed to move beyond the universe he'd first staked out in "Neuromancer." He needed to reorient himself as a fiction writer to allow himself to get caught up.

"It was very challenging," he says. "It took longer than I thought. It would have taken longer, I think, without Sept. 11 to put the whammy to it. But I needed a baseline for present weirdness. I'd started with a baseline, really, for '80s weirdness, took the measure of the mid-'80s and headed into the future, and I'd been working from that for a long time."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Fiction quote -- A March 4 Calendar article on author William Gibson incorrectly attributed a quote saying that fiction should provide the "buzz of implication" to E.M. Forster. That sentiment was from Lionel Trilling.
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