While perhaps not the greatest film ever made, Duplicity nevertheless touches upon a premise rarely used: corporate spying. ‘Corporate’ of course the key word in that term, lots of spying has been done in films, just little of it oriented toward gathering information that can be used to gain some advantage on the market over competitors. But a company’s undisclosed research data is a concrete entity; it can be stolen, leading to the question: what of the more subjective elements leading to a firm’s success on the market—branding, design, logos, and marketing campaigns? And what of the underworld below? William Gibson’s 2003 Pattern Recognition is the novel capturing this idea in a contemporary, corporate world.
Cayce is a ‘coolhunter’. At some conscious level she is aware of what logos or ideas will be popular and which not, and as such hires out her abilities to various companies, providing recommendations on their latest brand proposals. Contracted by a marketing consultant named called Blue Ant at the outset of Pattern Recognition, Cayce is asked to evaluate the latest logo designs for a London company. Once her evaluation is complete, however, her work is not done for Blue Ant. Brought on full-time by the CEO, a man named Bigend, Cayce is asked to track down the maker of indie films being leaked onto the internet. The films causing a serious buzz, Bigend gives Cayce an unlimited credit card and sends her off to find the creator. Where Cayce ends up, however, is anything but the corporate backroom.
Pattern Recognition is classic Gibson. From the bone-white prose to the jet-set tech, fascination with Japan to the reaches of corporate interest, Cayce’s story traverses territory that is analogous to Gibson’s previous novels in many ways. The evolution of Pattern Recognition, however, is found in the novel’s setting. Where the Sprawl trilogy was near future and the Bridge trilogy near-near future, Pattern Recognition continues with the trend, being set in present day Earth. The innovation (i.e. sensawunda so many sf fans are looking for) lies in how Gibson captures sub-cultural fascination with certain art movements and the corporate response once the awareness of this fascination seeps into the public realm; corporate branding both an artistic and corporate venture in the 21st century, Cayce’s story is more than just graphic design.
Thus, for as much as Cayce’s abilities seem intriguing, they do not play a strong role in the story. Gibson not delving into consciousness to present a vision of what inclines humans toward certain marketing campaigns, the focus is more on the people and corporations behind those campaigns, and the lengths they will go to guarantee a successful campaign. From creating original ideas to thievery to legal subsuming of existing ideas, Cayce’s boss Bigend is portrayed as a man who will go to many extremes to guarantee his and his clients’ commercial success. The climax of the novel (thankfully) does not feature an evil man, laughing maniacally as he manipulates the world through advertizing for his own profit. Instead, it illustrates the number of layers and places within society that present day marketing derives from, which makes for more equally interesting reading.
In the end, Pattern Recognition is an fascinating novel in how it transforms itself before the reader’s eyes. One minute they are participating in the story of a style expert, and the next caught up in a bizarre thriller addressing, of all things, internet sub-cultures, the power of graphic art, humanity’s need for ‘cool’, and the economic players (above and below ground) with their hands in all these pies. The novel retains a cynical tone left over from the ‘80s that feels quite outdated—like someone from an earlier generation trying to address issues in the current generation, but besides this is a highly readable novel that proves Gibson remains a singular entity.