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Present worries in future tense

William Gibson weaves surreal post-Sept. 11 daily life into his latest science-fiction work.

March 04, 2003|David L. Ulin | 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.

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.

"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.

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