Science Fiction Review: THE PERIPHERAL by William Gibson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A murder mystery plays out between two universes. The sole witness to the murder exists in a past time-space continuum, where she becomes the target of killers from the future. Relying on protection from a government law enforcement and security agency that does not yet exist in her world, she must participate in a risky bid to catch the murderer. The catch: she has to leave her body behind in her world while she operates telepresently in the future — a future that is no longer her world’s destiny. Clearly, William Gibson’s new work of fiction, The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), marks a return to some of the major motifs of his early science-fiction work — in particular, his first and probably best-known novel, Neuromancer (1984). However, it not only maintains, but also advances, the more speculative approach of his most recent trilogy, the Blue Ant series.
This is not to say that Gibson has returned to writing straight cyberpunk stories. In fact, the novel has more of a “post-cyberpunk” feel. Its protagonist, Flynne, joins forces (however uneasily) with and uses the power of corporate and governmental entities that the traditional, radically alienated, cyberpunk hero would defy and attack.
Gibson places his heroine in a very near-future setting that resembles the contemporary world of the reader — or what it could soon become. Like Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition (Blue Ant, #1) (2003) and Spook Country (Blue Ant, #2) (2007) and Hollis Henry in Zero History (Blue Ant, #3) (2010), Flynne is a memorably strong and fascinating heroine. There is no anti-hero who looms as large as Hubertus Bigend, the charismatic founder of the fictional advertising/marketing agency, Blue Ant. However, there is a much less self-confident, yet more sympathetic foil for Flynne in the character of Wilf Netherton. Unlike Bigend, Netherton changes markedly under the influence of his relationship with Gibson’s protagonist in this novel.
Like the three novels that preceded it, The Peripheral is dystopian in theme. For Gibson, a society becomes a dystopia through multiple processes, not because of one particular, cataclysmic event. The Peripheral maintains this position. In it, Gibson posits a near-future terrestrial setting that projects current sociocultural and socioeconomic conditions into a (more?) dystopian future. However, it is a much darker vision of our world’s potential decline and fall than Gibson offered in the Blue Ant trilogy.
Gibson’s fans might miss this shift at first because of The Peripheral‘s congruence with Gibson’s other Twenty-First Century works. It features many of the themes and tropes that the author developed in the Blue Ant trilogy (most notably, London and advertising/marketing). However, it also reintroduces the theme of cyberspace, a quintessential Gibsonian theme not foregrounded by him in a story-line since All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999).
In fact, much of the action The Peripheral takes place in (or via) cyberspace. There is, however, a twist. The technology of cyberspace is used here to communicate between alternate universes (or “continua”). Characters are able to operate in an alternate time-space continuum via simulacra (shades of Philip K. Dick here, with a touch of Richard K. Morgan). The two continua in question are the world as Flynne knows it (slightly in our future, but close enough that the reader can see it coming) and seventy-some years hence in that world’s future.
Yes, it’s a time-travel trope, but with a difference. The future world has irreversibly changed the path of its putative past by making contact (and thereby interfering) with it. The reader learns that “continua enthusiasts” in the future world, using its superior technology, have been “Third-Worlding” past continua, exploiting them for their own amusement and financial benefit. This comes naturally to them, it seems, since the world of this possible future is dominated by bored kleptocrats who, having acquired all the material possessions they desire, value privacy and security above all other things.
What separates the two continua in time and causality is a slow-motion, multi-factorial, secular apocalypse — known as the “Jackpot” — which wipes out the eighty percent of the world who comprise its “have-nots.” In Netherton’s world, it has already occurred; the world has been rebuilt by the wealthy survivors, who have created a security state managed — through intrusive surveillance — by prescient AI known as the “aunties.” In Flynne’s world, the Jackpot is in its preliminary stages.
Thus we have Gibson’s vision of what will happen if the super-rich continue to become richer while ignoring the plight of the less fortunate and of the planet they are cannibalizing. Revealing this information is a pseudo-spoiler at worst. It will not spoil the ending (I promise) because Gibson withholds key details about the Jackpot until a chapter late in the novel.
The representative persona for the post-Jackpot future is Netherton. A posh London publicist by profession, he is irony incarnate as a human being: he hates the society whose celebrities he represents, yet “plays the game” rather than acting on his feelings. Instead, he drowns his sorrows in alcohol and serial affairs with his female clients.
All of this comes to an abrupt end when a recently-seduced performance art client, Daedra, goes way off script during a publicity stunt that Netherton set up, causing an international incident that ultimately costs Netherton more than his relationship with her. In an attempt to return to her good graces, Netherton gives her access to a continuum, known in his world as a “stub,” for her amusement. Daedra regifts it to her sister, Aelita, in an apparent rejection of Netherton’s gesture. Then Aelita goes missing.
The “stub” in question is Flynne’s world. She lives and works as a game beta-tester and part-time 3D printer in a small, impoverished town located in a rural area of the southern United States. The US has become a nation of even wider income disparity than it is today. Its daily life is apparently dominated by a government agency (Homeland Security) and a superstore (Hefty Mart — guess which corporation this is modeled after). In Flynne’s world, people who live in her town have only a few options for making a living: working for the local “builders” (illegal drug manufacturers), beta-testing video games, “fabbing” items with 3-D printers, or serving in the military.
Flynne’s brother, who chose the latter, lives in a trailer behind the family home. Like many of his friends, he draws a VA pension for disability incurred during his military service. His time as a grunt in a “Haptic Recon” unit changed him physically and psychologically and also left him with unusual neurological symptoms related to the implants that made him and his comrades into super-soldiers. When he isn’t flying drones with his buddies, he earns money (under the table) as a video game beta-tester. When Flynne takes his place as a favor, she observes the gory murder of a glamorous woman in a futuristic London setting. Flynne is haunted by this experience, even though she “knows” it was only a virtual reality death. She starts to question this assumption when Netherton — representing the company that employs her brother — contacts her and warns her that she is in danger.
What follows is an escalating, cross-continuum, global economic and political war, punctuated by actual physical combat as well. This complex story will engross the reader. Its characters and settings, imaginatively drawn and painstakingly developed, will fascinate. The readers who will derive the most pleasure from the novel, however, are those who are already Gibson fans. Like most works of art, it is not perfect — although it comes close. The apparent obscurity of the novel’s opening chapters, which present details of a strange new universe that does not fully make sense until more of the story has been told, might put off those who are not already die-hard Gibson loyalists. The pace of the story slows somewhat in its middle (i.e., a “second act” problem, a common malady that afflicts films). However, it soon builds to a satisfying climax and denouement. When the afterglow fades, readers might just find themselves thinking about how our world is not so different from both of those that Gibson has just shown them.