'Pattern Recognition' is Gibson at his best

William Gibson's new novel is so good it defies all the usual superlatives. Sentences as smoothly balanced as Calder mobiles, descriptive passages at once apt and surprising, and chapters that reel along like glass beads strung on silk — "Pattern Recognition" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $25.95) is more than the sum of these parts. It's a whole that examines wholeness and its lack in the debris-filled light of our post 9/11 lives.

Gibson is one of science fiction's superstars, crossover king of the '80s cyberpunk movement. Twenty years ago this book would have been labeled science fiction; though it's not, it has the same hip, high-tech feel of the work that established his reputation.

Heroine Cayce Pollard (named after the occult writer Edgar Cayce) inhabits a borderless world of Pilates franchises and e-mailed spam. As the novel opens, she wakes jet-lagged in London, "to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm." Cayce is a "cool hunter," a corporate consultant who pinpoints trend sources and predicts how they'll spread.

Commercial logos give her panic attacks, a liability she's leveraged into a sideline — measuring various logos' potency according to her reaction to them. This work has brought her temporarily to Britain to work for a Belgian ad agency. We never see her New York apartment.

Cayce feels most at home in an online forum devoted to "the footage," mysteriously beautiful scraps of a film released anonymously on the Internet. Her fascination with the footage was born in 9/11's immediate aftermath, when it seemed that piecing together a story from these luminous fragments might be easier than making sense of the real world. Her father, unexpectedly in town on business, disappeared during the attacks. Is he dead, or only missing for a while? Cayce doesn't know. She's not sure she ever will.

Her London assignment finished, Cayce accepts a commission to find those responsible for the footage. She travels to Japan, to Russia. But wherever she goes, she's in the same post-geographic space.

Cayce loathes handsome marketing boy-genius Hubertus Bigend, supplier of her largish expense account ("... she is authorized to buy automobiles but not aircraft") and suspects his interest springs from mercenary motives. She accepts his help while concealing her search's results, hoping to maintain the footage's non-consumerist purity. She gets additional assistance from Ngemi, a gravely knowledgeable African immigrant to Britain, a collector of antique computers; Baranov, a creepy, alcoholic ex-cryptographer; Taki, a mouth-breathing Japanese game designer with a thing for really thick knee socks; and, of course, fellow footage enthusiast Parkaboy.

Even the quirkiest of these minor characters glows from within, lit by entertaining and believable obsessions and errors in judgment. Cayce herself is instantly likable: resourceful, perceptive, brave, determined — a sort of grimly humorous thirtysomething Girl Scout. When she finds out that those trying to hide the identity of the footage's creators have gotten into the flat where she's staying, she secures her perimeter with hair and spit, a trick she picked up watching old James Bond movies. After (literally) butting heads with the baddies, she comforts herself with her "mantra," a line from one of her father's unsuitable bedtime stories: "He took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots."

"Neuromancer," Gibson's first novel, followed the exploits of another Case (different spelling, same pronunciation), a cyberspace hacker. "Pattern Recognition's" Cayce resembles him slightly; both are rootless, talented specialists. She's certainly much more like him than she is "Neuromancer's" female lead, the iconically lethal assassin Molly. No surgically implanted knives, no permanently affixed mirror shades here; only "a very specialized piece of human litmus paper," testing her surroundings' integrity.

The results of Cayce's inquiries are satisfyingly clear, yet not at all pat. It's the images of her attempt that stay with you, though, such as a rescue helicopter's "long white beam of light sweeping the dead ground as it comes, like a lighthouse gone mad from loneliness, and searching that barren ground as foolishly, as randomly, as any grieving heart ever has."

Author reading

William Gibson will read from "Pattern Recognition" this week at two locations in Seattle: 7 p.m., Monday, Kane Hall, University of Washington, Seattle, tickets through University Book Store at 206-545-4365; and at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle, 206-624-6600.