Critics of science fiction grouse that Gibson can't get far while steering the same old postmodern spacecraft, and dismiss his inventiveness as mere bells and whistles. But some die-hard fans lament that he's deserting the mother ship every time he tries something off the flight path of his first novel, ''Neuromancer'' (1984). All of which puts Gibson in the unenviable position of being able to displease many of the people much of the time.
If his elegant, entrancing seventh novel offers an answer to his detractors, it could be roughly translated as: so sue me. ''Pattern Recognition'' is almost nose-thumbingly conventional in design. Despite the requisite tech toys, it's set squarely in the present. But then the dates of Gibson-action have been creeping steadily backward. Predicting the future, Gibson has always maintained, is mostly a matter of managing not to blink as you witness the present.
The novel's heroine, Cayce Pollard, -- no relation to the Case of ''Neuromancer,'' though Gibson does like a sly self-reference -- is a freelance marketing consultant. She's so suspicious of trademarks that she sands the logos off the metal buttons of her jeans and has been known to suffer panic attacks at the sight of Louis Vuitton luggage, or the ''terrible eyes'' of the Michelin Man. But the advertising world reveres her. As a ''coolhunter,'' she penetrates ''neighborhoods like Dogtown, which birthed skateboarding, to explore roots in hope of finding whatever the next thing might be.'' Her current top-secret assignment takes her to London to evaluate a new logo for an athletic footwear conglomerate.
Single and self-contained, Cayce travels light, with the eccentric clothing that her director friend Damien calls C.P.U.'s (Cayce Pollard Units). She's too hip to lug her own laptop, using Damien's Mac to follow a message board, ''Fetish: Footage: Forum,'' devoted to 135 strange, unexplained, pointedly unattributed film clips that have appeared on the Net and developed a cult following. Entire warring subcultures of interpretation have sprung up around the footage: ''Zaprudered into surreal dimensions of purest speculation, ghost-narratives have emerged and taken on shadowy but determined lives of their own.''
When Cayce's employer, a billionaire Belgian named Bigend, asks her to track down the footage's creator, she agrees. Although she mistrusts his motives, she's deeply curious, and at the same time secretly hopes to solve another mystery: her father, a retired C.I.A. man, was in New York for unexplained reasons on Sept. 11, 2001, and is presumed dead. With Bigend committing bottomless resources to her search, Cayce embarks on a jet-setting trek that takes her from London to Tokyo to Moscow.
Gibson himself has always been something of a coolhunter, and ''Pattern Recognition'' gives Cayce his own sharp, wry eye. Her effortless hyperintelligence ought to put to rest any complaints that science fiction's computer cowboys are members of an all-boys' club. With such a tour guide, you don't skip the descriptions.
Here Cayce observes a public statue in Moscow: ''Lenin, aerodynamic to the point of featurelessness, molded in white concrete, pointing the proletariat forward like some kind of giant Marxist lawn jockey.'' She particularly admires design that transcends its time period, like Aeroflot's logo, which has ''a sort of a Victorian Futurist look,'' or her cherished Buzz Rickson's jacket, ''a fanatical museum-grade replica of a U.S. MA-1 flying jacket, as purely functional and iconic a garment as the previous century produced.''
After a burglar tampers with the Mac she's been using, Cayce finds herself on the trail of what may be an international conspiracy or may, like the footage itself, be merely ''an illusion of meaningfulness, faulty pattern recognition.'' As an ode to paranoia, ''Pattern Recognition'' resembles not that Pynchonian bible, ''Gravity's Rainbow,'' but ''The Crying of Lot 49.'' In fact, it can almost be read as a tribute or, as Hollywood would say, a remake. After all, when Pynchon explored entropy, counterculture and the postal monopoly in 1966, there was no Internet.
But does our technology really produce a cataclysmic shift, or is human nature immutable? That has always been Gibson's über-issue. As Pynchon has taught us, the right answer isn't necessarily either/or. It may well be both/and. (Even the paranoid can be followed.) When Cayce bumps up against the Russian mafia, a Gibson staple, she muses, ''Turns out there are some very not-nice people, out here.'' Money also makes cyberspace go round. Despite itself, however, this mafia is thrust into new territory when it must contend with the Net.
In Gibson's fiction, to see our souls, look at our cities. Cayce calls London a ''mirror-world'' -- like urban America but, with its oversize appliance plugs and steering wheels on the wrong side, disconcertingly off. Distant cities seem both strange and familiar, especially under the influence of jet lag, here also called ''soul-delay.'' Culture itself, Gibson suggests, is a kind of jet lag, or, as Cayce's therapist puts it, ''liminal'' -- a ''word for certain states: thresholds, zones of transition.''
If our new century is unsettlingly transitional, it becomes even more difficult to fix an individual identity within it -- especially given the fear that, as Cayce's tech-geek colleague worries, there will soon be no national identity left. ''Not if the world's Bigends keep at it: no borders, pretty soon there's no mirror to be on the other side of.'' The danger is of ''all experience having been reduced, by the spectral hand of marketing, to price-point variations on the same thing.''
Gibson has considered these themes before. He has even considered himself considering them -- postmodernism's mirror world. (Or, as Cayce grumbles about
, ''simulacra of simulacra of simulacra. . . . There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.'') But ''Pattern Recognition'' is Gibson's most complex, mature gloss on the artist's relationship to our ever more commercialized globe.
Bigend contends that ''the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was. Everything, today, is to some extent the reflection of something else.'' The novel argues otherwise. There is a man behind the curtain in Oz -- or, for equal opportunity's sake, a woman. Those who expect apocalypse from their science fiction may be dismayed to find Gibson saluting the grisly tenaciousness of the imagination, even celebrating the transformative power of loyalty and love. But his ending is hardly syrupy. Like the most satisfying resolutions, this one manages both to tie everything up and to suggest further loose threads.
As usual, Gibson's prose is -- to use some of his favorite adjectives -- corpuscular, crenelated. His sentences slide from silk to steel, and take tonal joy rides from the ironic to the earnest. But he never gets lost in the language, as he sometimes has in the past. Structurally, this may be his most confident novel. The secondary characters and their subplots are more fully developed, right down to their personal e-mail styles. Without any metafictional grandstanding, Gibson nails the texture of Internet culture: how it feels to be close to someone you know only as a voice in a chat room, or to fret about someone spying on your browser's list of sites visited.
Cayce does some fancy travel on Bigend's dollar. Her globe-trotting gives ''Pattern Recognition'' its exultant, James Bond-ish edge. Yet the book also manages to be, in the fullest traditional sense, a novel of consciousness -- less science fiction than Henry James. After all, Oedipa Maas, the truth seeker of ''Lot 49,'' is sort of a pot-smoking Isabel Archer, inheritance and all. Cayce is Isabel, with a search engine.
Can a book with references to
, iBooks and Hummers become a classic? Can anything transcend its time now? Or is any novel about our tumultuous era bound to be a blip on the radar screen -- the equivalent of 20 seconds of stray footage on the Net? ''Pattern Recognition'' considers these issues with appealing care and, given that this best-selling author is his own kind of franchise, surprising modesty. Gibson's novel succeeds in being both up-to-the-nanosecond and also, in Cayce's highest praise, ''curiously difficult to date.''