This is not so much a standalone review as it is a supplement to my non-spoiler review of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, addressing a few points that can’t be thoroughly discussed without giving a lot of things away (not least of which is the conclusion). If you haven’t read the book yet and want to avoid all spoilers, turn back now. Head to your bookstore or library or your ebook vendor of choice, read it, and come back here later. After this intro, expect heavy, heavy spoilers.
All right? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Spoilers immediately ahead.
The Peripheral may the most Borgesian thing that William Gibson has written since he hooked Bobby Newmark up to a biochip called an Aleph in Mona Lisa Overdrive. (Whether you agree or not, you should still take a moment to check out Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths.”) In this story, a spy of Chinese descent meets a scholar who has studied the works of the spy’s ancestor Ts’ui Pên; the scholar reveals that Ts’ui Pên’s cryptic work The Garden of Forking Paths is “an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time”:
In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. The network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time. We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, which a favorable fate has granted me, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words, but I am a mistake, a ghost.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” transl. Donald A. Yates
Behold the multiverse, as imagined by the great Argentine writer. Nowadays, alternate timelines are as fundamental to science fiction as cyberspace and alien planets, but Gibson’s fondness for Borges makes it hard to not think about him.* The means by which Gibson reveals the relationship between the forked paths of Flynne’s mid-twenty-first century and Netherton’s twenty-second (linked by some mysterious quantum computer) is one of The Peripheral’s greatest pleasures; instead of delivering a “jar of Tang” twist, Gibson employs an accretion of small, cryptic details that, when they coalesce, may actually make you laugh out loud at the elegance of it. (Exactly when that happens may vary by reader; for me, it was Netherton’s call to Burton “seventy-some years earlier, on the other side of the jackpot.”) One of the most straightforward explanations of of the mechanism is when the dapper, scarily omniscient detective Ainsley Lowbeer learns about this unusual rich person’s hobby from Lev, member of a Russian “klept” family living in London:
“The salmon, thank you,” Lowbeer said to Ossian. “You might begin by explaining this hobby of yours, Mr Zubov. Your solicitors described you to me as a ‘continua enthusiast’.”
“That’s never entirely easy,” said Lev. “You know the server?“
“The great mystery, yes, Assumed to be Chinese, and as with so many aspects of China today, quite beyond us. You use it to communicate with the past, or rather a past, since in our actual past, you didn’t. That rather hurts my head, Mr Zubov. I gather it doesn’t hurt yours?”
“Far less than the sort of paradox we’re accustomed to culturally, in discussing imaginary transtemporal affairs,” said Lev. “It’s actually quite simple. The act of connection produces a fork in causality, the new branch causally unique. A stub, as we call them.“
“But why do you?” she asked, as Ossian poured her tea. “Call them that. It sounds short. Nasty. Brutish. Wouldn’t one expect the fork’s new branch to continue to grow?”
“We do,” said Lev, “assume exactly that. Actually, I’m not sure why enthusiasts settled on that expression.”
“Imperialism,” said Ash. “We’re third-worlding alternate continua. Calling them stubs makes that a bit easier.”
— William Gibson, The Peripheral, p 102-3
It’s one of the most clever methods of finessing transtemporal shenanigans that I’ve seen in a novel—a split history where instead of physically traveling between times, only information needs to move between one timeline and another. The sardonic observation of Ash, Lev’s morbidly gothic IT expert, ties those shenanigans directly to the political angle of The Peripheral and its variations on the theme of economic inequality.
The similarity between the “rich fucks” that Flynne played for and took down in the Operation Northwind game and the nastier sorts of continua enthusiasts is lampshaded again and again. For the transtemporal hobbyists of the twenty-second century, the less prosperous of another age are toys, characters in a game, barely real. Even for relatively benign people like Lev, they’re abstractions; until Flynne witnesses the murder of Aelita West, Burton is treated like little more than an unusual security AI and referred to simply as a “polt,” short for “poltergeist.”
And then there’s the jackpot, “a progress accompanied by constant violence … by sufferings unimaginable.” This cumulative apocalypse distributes the future so unevenly that 80% of the world’s population doesn’t survive. As Netherton explains to Flynne, these people died in a series of androgenic disasters: “everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves.” Only the richest 20% live on in a brave new world transformed by nanobots, clean energy, new drugs—“a bullet dodged.” A bullet, Flynne points out, made of “the eighty percent, who died.” And most of the survivors seem to be just fine with that.
Some aren’t. Ash isn’t, though her perpetual mourning for lost species of animals is as much a stylistic stance as a philosophical one—her black clothes and gothic aesthetic, her moving tattoos of extinct species. Netherton is a chronic low-grade malcontent, disgusted with his own time and longing for what he sees as a simpler, more authentic past. To him, Flynne is “the opposite of all this”—the assembler-built world where people spend their time inhabiting peripherals that can’t even drink—and Burton is “gloriously pre-posthuman.” He can’t stop sentimentalizing an era that that Ainsley Lowbeer remembers as being “terrible days.”
Science fiction, for Gibson, is an imaginative history of possible futures. Conversely, for anyone who didn’t live through it, the history of the past is nearly as inscrutable as the imaginary future. This is true for the characters of The Peripheral despite the “unimaginable tools of forensic transparency” (to use a phrase from a 2008 interview with Annalee Newitz) wielded by the continua enthusiasts, who can use the flow of information between their present and the alternate past to manipulate stock markets, recruit hirelings, and fix lotteries. Just as those rich in wealth and poor in morals fight to enrich themselves even when they already have everything, the impulse to romanticize the past and disdain the present is, it seems, an ingrained human trait that no technology will ever change.
Seemingly immune to this sentimentality is Ainsley Lowbeer, who encompasses the past that Netherton never lived and the future that Flynne only sees through the eyes of her peripheral. Lowbeer is one of the most interesting and unsettling characters in the book—another enormously powerful Gibson character who moves through history like a black hole: difficult to see straight on, but visible from the way they bend the light. She’s very old, her life and youth artificially extended, certain memories suppressed so that she can continue to function with some measure of sanity. That she’s transgender is, refreshingly, merely acknowledged and not made much of. (Plotwise, it’s simply a minor red herring, enabling the deeper reveal of the extent of Lowbeer’s influence when we discover that the British intelligence liaison Griff is a divergent younger self.) She is also the extremely powerful agent of an oligarchic government so all-seeing that when she meets someone for the first time, she reacts like a longtime acquaintance and admits that in a sense, she does already know them.
And by the novel’s end, Lowbeer has become the invisible hand guiding Flynne’s world away—she hopes—from the jackpot. Having tested Flynne’s strength of character and found her satisfactory, she shepherds the Fishers and their friends—now the US executives of Milagros Coldiron—into a position of wealth and power that they exercise with as much benevolence that they can. You want to cheer Flynne’s success; she’s a good person, smart and sensible, with a strong sense of fair play—someone you wish was in charge of things. But there’s no getting around the fact that her clan’s prosperity is due to access to the vast quantum computing power of the twenty-second century and the insider knowledge of a century-old detective/spy. Flynne and her friends are worthy talent that otherwise would be stifled and lost—but you can’t discount their good fortune in falling into the hands of a continua enthusiast with a desire to reshape history into something “better,” and whose idea of “better” they have little choice but to trust.
Gibson’s previous works suggest that this ambivalence is completely intentional. The Blue Ant trilogy ended with an ostensible victory for the heroes, but it effectively left the global economy in the hands of one extremely dubious and manipulative man. The good guys walk out of The Peripheral with status, power, life partners—but at what price? Flynne worries that her family—owners now of the country’s biggest retail and drugstore chains, living in a compound—is only creating its own version of the klept. Lowbeer responds that Flynne’s concern is “not just a good thing but an essential thing, for all of them to keep in mind. Because people who couldn’t imagine themselves capable of evil were at a major disadvantage in dealing with people who didn’t need to imagine, because they already were.” The amount of jaundice you feel towards humanity will determine whether you think the Fishers and Lowbeer (and whoever comes after them) will succeed in remembering this.
There’s a risk in The Peripheral that readers will either entirely miss the disturbing elements of Lowbeer’s interference in Flynne’s timeline, or will assume that the “happy” ending is an endorsement of that high-handed interference. Gibson is maybe a little too good at dazzling the reader with the audacious handling of time and the multiverse and the rich detail that you’ll still be excavating on the third or fourth reading. And admittedly, it can be tempting to think that it would be reassuring to know that all the problems in our world exist due to the interference of rich jerks from a distant future. But we’re lucky this isn’t the case; there is, after all, a lot to be said for free will.
∗After I had completed this piece, I spoke to William Gibson and he brought up an antecedent that he mentions in the Acknowledgements of the The Peripheral (which wasn’t in the advance copy): the story “Mozart in Mirrorshades” by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner. Cue palm-to-the-face from me. I had completely forgotten about that story, which I first read years ago in the Mirrorshades anthology, and which you can also read in the September 1985 issue of Omni. Never let it be said that Gibson doesn’t acknowledge his debts.
The Peripheral is available October 28th from Penguin Books.
When she was sixteen, Karin Kross mostly just thought Molly’s razorblade fingernails were really cool. Fortunately she’s grown up a bit since then. She can be found elsewhere on Twitter and at hangingfire.net.