The Peripheral

The Peripheral
William Gibson

Now that we are shambling raggedly out of Vintage SF Month, it’s time to take another look at The Future as seen from the cutting edge of now. That description fits William Gibson better than anyone else I can think of, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a brand new Gibson book out there, illuminating the path to tomorrow like a cheap, buzzing, neon sign for some establishment our mothers would never recommend. All the cool kids know that Gibson’s place is where it’s at, that no matter the décor, we’re going to leave with something mind blowing. We also know the squares will never understand what’s hip and Chez Gibson won’t ever get that Michelin star or Booker prize. It’s their loss though, so put on your mirrorshades and jack in.

Most reactions to The Peripheral call it a return to form for the author. Not that The Peripheral is traditional cyberpunk, but that the author is back to bigger futures, deeper themes, and a more colorful palette. Or at least a palette with more shades of black than before. I enjoyed the preceding Blue Ant books, but each felt progressively narrower. While the stories were as slick and hypnotic as ever, the stakes and characters grew more rarefied as the trilogy progressed. In The Peripheral, Gibson opens up his vision again and creates two futures for the price of one, on the biggest canvas he’s used since the Sprawl books. The plot beats are familiar, but the book maintains deep connections to right now while showing a radically different future.

While all SF naturally reflects that era it was written in, Gibson makes that more of an obvious feature in his writing. Think of the 80s sheen of the Neuromancer books or the embryonic otaku culture in Aidoru. The Peripheral is no different, with its meth cooking, 3D printing near future and deconstructed post-Singularity secondary timeline. We all feel right at home in Clanton County, where the entirety of the local economy is drug production and illicit printing and many of the prominent locals are wounded, messed up vets. It’s pretty clear from the outset that the US has slid into an untenable economic state, that the superrich have sucked the country dry, the climate is out of control, and things are going to get very bad, very soon. Some people have called this “political,” but to me it just seems an all too plausible destination of the track we’re on.

The parallel, further future timeline is wildly different, but still connected intimately with today. An anti-Singularity called The Jackpot has depopulated most of the middle and lower economic classes, finally bringing environmental problems under control simply by eliminating much of humanity. This future is run by kleptocrats, the very rich and very corrupt 1%, though one could argue that what portions of humanity remain are doing alright. Most of the political questions are toned down in this future though, with more of the focus on the requisite array of very strange people out there in this brave new (sparsely populated) world. The action centers around a London populated by PR flakes, whacko conceptual artists, Russian organized crime, strangely omniscient policewomen, body guards with quirks and flaws, and other typically Gibson-esque creations.

The Singularity isn’t Gibon’s only target for subversion. There are nods to cyberspace, consciousness transfer, and time travel. The last makes for the core of the book, as Gibson posits a mysterious ability of the future to view and interact with the past. There is no “travel,” per se, though people can cast their consciousness into empty vessels on either end. It’s kind of like time travel, but more like on online game. Time passes in parallel, one’s body stays in the same place, and destruction of a vessel does not necessarily equal death in the “real” world. In this way, people from Clanton County and London visit each other, meddle in the other’s affairs, wonder who’s really manipulating who, and solve the mystery driving all of the action.

The writing and plot will be familiar to veterans of other Gibson campaigns. Things take a bit of time to get rolling, but the action is dizzying once the final quarter begins. We are dropped into both worlds with little to no infodumping, puzzling out the situation from hints dropped through interactions and language. A completeness is present in the details that somehow never overwhelm the bigger picture, though looking back one is surprised by the small things that appear in the story, little descriptive nuggets that are optional but somehow perfect and appropriate. Gibson is almost pointillist in the way he creates the bigger scene through tiny dots of language and minutia; I often had to read passages more than once to figure out exactly what happened, though it all made perfect sense once I saw the whole outline. I’ve always found his writing both elegant and spare, with a mix of humor and cynicism that is immediately recognizable.

I realize as I go that by trying to dig out the crunchy fun inside The Peripheral, I’m obscuring it, and by explaining my long-running Gibson fandom, I’m reducing his overall cool stat by at least two six-sided dice. Many of the interviews and reviews I’ve been reading are written by people like me: Gen X types who discovered Neuromancer and the primitive internet at roughly the same time, who grew up on computer games like Star Control and Bard’s Tale, and who got an electric vibe from cyberpunk that still resonates, even as the aesthetic of the subgenre has long since been absorbed by its surrounding society. I try to separate my unavoidable hero worship of the author from hard hitting literary analysis, but it’s will nigh impossible. I am a massive William Gibson fan and I’m ecstatic that he wrote something huge and complex like The Peripheral.

So sycophantic fawning aside, everyone should read this, except maybe people that just don’t like Gibson’s books, but I don’t know why they’d be reading this blog anyway.