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Paul Youngquist After the Future (on William Gibson, Pattern Recognition [New York: Putnam, 2003]) In science fiction the future ain't what it used to be. That's the verdict of William Gibson, whose dazzling early novels made him the high priest of cyberpunk—the dystopian scifi subgenre in which lowlife hackers pit their wits and reflexes against the digital defenses of transnational corporations. While he was at work on his most recent novel, Pattern Recognition, something happened that changed the world—and his writing—completely. As he put it to Andrew Leonard at Salon, "I was about 100 pages into the book on Sept. 10th. Then I got up on Sept. 11 and whoa—nodal point!" As usual, Gibson had set his story in the near future. But after 9-11 he found that his future no longer made sense: "the meaning of everything, ever that had gone before had to be reconsidered." It was either junk or rewrite the book. He chose rewrite, and the result is Gibson's first novel set completely in the present, or more precisely the summer of 2002, only months after 9-11. The future died in that catastrophe: "The present is actually inexpressibly peculiar now," Gibson told Leonard, "and that's the only thing that's worth dealing with" (Leonard). Strange words coming from the author who gave a name to cyberspace and made it sexy beyond the wildest wet dreams of code crunching geeks. If the present is peculiar, it's in part because of the imaginative force of Gibson's own novels: Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light, ldoru and All Tomorrow's Parties. But Pattern Recognition avoids all their flash and with it one of the traditional gimmicks of science fiction—imagining the future. If the present is the only thing worth dealing with, science fictionwilleitherhave to adaptor die. Michael Berry suggests that"Gibson's recent novels have displayed a certain weariness with the tropes of science fiction." He views Pattern Recognition as a critique of the genre, including Gibson's own cyberpunk variety. Change comes too fast and furious to sustain plausible futures any more, at least of the sort science fiction used to imagine: "the world-building that science fiction takes for granted just at the moment doesn't seem as possible" (Berry, in Vitale). Pattern Recognition depicts a cyberpresent in some ways as grim as the futures of cyberpunk, but what's less clear is what gets lost when the future collapses into the present. Gibson voices his new attitude toward the future through his character Hubertus Bigend, global entrepreneur and chief operative of the Blue Ant advertising agency: we have no idea, now, of who or what the inhabitants of our future might be. In that sense, we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a 276 the minnesota review future, or thought they did. Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which 'now' was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents' have insufficient 'now' to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. (Pattern Recognition 57) Among the dead in Gibson's version of 9-11 was Wingrove Pollard, a specialist in security and crowd control caught in traffic in lower Manhattan— the wrong place at the wrong time. His daughter Cayce (the name gestures toward Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer) is a cool-hunter by trade, a free-lance corporate identity consultant whose visceral reaction to street fashion and corporate logos makes her valuable to advertisers. For Cayce too the legacy of 9-11 is violent change: "nothing really is the same now" (195). But the future isn't so obsolete as it might appear. Something replaces it in these characters' lives, something they experience through their capacity to see patterns in the roil of events: '"We have only risk management / says Bigend, "The spinning of a given moment's scenarios. Pattern recognition'" (57). Managing risks involves imagining possibilities, tipping the present into what's to come by means of observed trends. Recognizable...


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pp. 275-281
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