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February 24, 2004

The Word "Cyberspace" Was Never Uttered, Thankfully

by Ron Hogan

I probably should've mentioned this sooner, but...last Saturday I ventured out to the Columbia University Bookstore for an afternoon reading by William Gibson from his latest novel, Pattern Recognition, now out in paperback. He read an early chapter in which the protagonist receives two emails, one from a cameraman on assignment at an archaeological dig of a WWII battlefield on the Russian front, with vivid descriptions of "strata of Germans, Russians, Germans" and a "rising pyramid of gray bone." The second letter is more directly tied to the book's McGuffin, going into detail about digital watermarking and steganographics in connection with mysterious film footage that, in the novel, appears online without attribution thereby generating much buzz.

Afterwards, Gibson took questions from the audience. We learned that the protagonist's phobic fear of the Michelin Man stems from his own daughter's dislike of the figure, and that he spends a lot of time on eBay, which he regards as a "vast museum of humankind." I asked if he'd felt hampered by sticking to present technology rather than the near future, and he said no, it was more difficult for him to write the story strictly from one character's viewpoint, as opposed to his usual technique of "switching cameras" between several characters, and that he was constantly second guessing the story's sense of timing because of it. He also explained that he started writing Pattern Recognition before 9/11, but was unsatisfied with how it was turning out and couldn't understand what made the lead character tick. He almost abandoned the project entirely after the terrorist attacks, but a close friend suggested he go through the novel word by word and "recalibrate everything against what had happened." The resulting story is so signficiantly shaped by 9/11 that he can no longer imagine what the novel would be like without it.

Gibson's novels are filled with cutting edge technology, but in person he cuts a decidedly lo-tech figure in denim jeans and oversize denim jacket. The audience that came out to hear him read practically made me feel old: college kids and grad students with black PVC jackets and bright maroon hair, but then I spotted about half a dozen balding middle-aged men scattered among the crowd, too, so I felt a little better. One of them asked what he'd been reading lately, and he was highly enthusiastic about Holy Land by D.J. Waldie, then suggested he would probably turn to The Devil in the White City next, as he's been seeing the paperback prominently displayed at every stop along his tour.

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