Present Shock and Pattern Recognition

I read this book!

I haven’t really felt like writing about anything I’ve been reading, but I recently read both Pattern Recognition [William Gibson] and Present Shock [Douglas Rushkoff], and now I guess I feel like writing about that.

Something that’s been on my mind for a while is the idea that science fiction writing, in general, doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the pace of change in our culture — or, where it is, it seems pretty inadequate or incomplete, to me. This is the kind of sweeping thought I sometimes have, and trust me — I treat these thoughts with appropriate skepticism.

But, it does seem like SF falls into a couple of categories lately: nostalgia for SF-that-was, and the dystopian future story, which has actually stopped being very SF-like, in a way, and looks and feels much more fantastical and/or horror-ish. Less SF-like because these dystopian stories seem less and less interested in possibility-based analogs and more and more interested in treating these futures as some kind of certain future. It’s not about what a dystopian future might be like, and more about how we will handle this inevitable dystopian future.

I liked Pattern Recognition largely because I enjoy Gibson’s writing style, with his choppy rhythms and his fetishistic attention to lifestyle objects and overall fashionphilia. It wasn’t until about a third of the way through the book that I realized it was a thriller, since the beginning of the book was so focused on these (pretty rad, though super dupes hipstery) details. And I wondered how intentional it was to have a protagonist named Cayce that’s involved in some kind of gun-for-hire work that they don’t understand, funded by some uber-rich and mysterious type, up against an unseen threat. Wasn’t that the exact setup of Neuromancer? Note: his only other novel that I’ve read is Neuromancer. I kind of assumed this was self-referential.

But it’s interesting to me that this book is ten years old and still feels like science fiction, despite its present-day setting, and its lack of science fiction elements. What does SF feel like? Well, it was awarded as though it’s SF, though maybe that’s just because of the SF niche that Gibson carved out for himself.

I didn’t read Present Shock or Pattern Recognition with any kind of preconception of connectedness between them, but they feel very similar in their ideas, in a way. I read an interview with Gibson some time ago where he talked about why his writing has drifted more and more toward the present-day, and cited some of the challenges in remaining “futurist” in the face of current technology.

In Rushkoff’s Present Shock, he begins by discussing the shift in culture from futurism to presentism — and the title is a response to the 1970 novel, “Future Shock.” So, maybe that resonance is where I see the similarity between the two authors.

But Rushkoff isn’t shy about offering advise for coping with “narrative collapse,” and the other concepts he discusses. I thought the book was pretty fascinating, and maybe most of all because he actually has a coherent approach to offer for the treatment of the concerns he illustrates.

My assumption about the tendency toward dystopian stories has been that the culture-at-large is caught up in pessimism. And sure, pessimism makes some sense in the face of real-worl events of the last 5ish years. But is that really accurate to the culture at large, or are SF authors not digging deep enough? I may have just accepted a false premise, and some time ago at that.

Rushkoff’s book made me consider certain emerging areas in a way I hadn’t before. In the case of his writing about Occupy, it made me suddenly feel SO old. I have been officially generation-gapped, and my remaining avenue to understanding the young people is by sitting in a recliner and reading a book by an even older guy. I have become an anachronism. Ugh.

But his book made me feel very hopeful, actually, which is a nice feeling to leave a book with. Like, literally hopeful for the world and the people in it. It made me believe that the current state of shock is a transitional period, and that we will all eventually reap the rewards of increased transparency. We don’t need to accept a near-biblical apocalypse of Singularity, where our own agency is eliminated. And if we want to, we can imagine a world continuing on the same trajectory that doesn’t involve complete de-evolution into a pre-connected dystopia.

So, back to my perception that SF has become self-limiting — I think I do see some areas of opportunity for story-telling. I’m going to try and work on that a little bit.

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3 Responses to Present Shock and Pattern Recognition

  1. Skye says:

    Growing up in the 80s, I think we were conditioned to believe there was no future — nuclear war was going to finish us off. So I’m not surprised our generation of writers and the next one have inherited a pessimistic lack of imagination about the future, and/or a bleakness about the present. I’ve been wondering where the imaginative future stories are too, beyond the dystopia model.

  2. Linda says:

    I really want to read Present Shock….even more now. 🙂

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