Let’s just get this out of the way: lots of people are going to say that The Peripheral is William Gibson’s return to science fiction. But what do they mean when they say that? Is it that he’s gone back to writing about some future time decades ahead of our own, extrapolating current technology into a future world where cheap consumer goods are made to order on 3D printers and paparazzi operate through tiny drone cameras?
Sure; by that definition, yes, Gibson is writing science fiction again. But he never really stopped. Although what’s variously known as the Blue Ant trilogy or the Bigend trilogy is set in the first decade of the twenty-first century (9/11, the Iraq war, the financial crisis), it’s rendered in queasily paranoid tones that make “our” world nearly as unfamiliar and otherworldly as cyberspace might have seemed in 1984 or portable VR goggles in 1993. Gibson is of the school of thought that science fiction is necessarily about the present in which it’s written, and The Peripheral, future setting notwithstanding, is in keeping with that philosophy. There are damaged young war veterans, a pervasive surveillance state, drones of all kinds, drastic economic inequality, and a powerful sense of impending manifold catastrophe.
The Peripheral is built on a mystery-thriller plot in the tradition of Blow-Up or The Conversation. Flynne Fisher, the latest of Gibson’s likable, resilient, and deeply moral heroines, lives in an unnamed small town somewhere in rural America—perhaps the South or Appalachia—where she looks after her chronically ill mother and drifts from one job to the next. It’s the mid-twenty-first century; five thousand dollars pays for two bags of groceries, and there are only so many ways to earn it. “Builders” are a cornerstone of the local economy—cooking up drugs. Otherwise, you can join the military, but you might come back with the not-quite-PTSD glitches and shivers that Flynne’s brother Burton suffers as a result of the haptic tattoos that USMC Haptic Recon 1 “put there to tell him when to run, when to be still, when to do the bad-ass dance”, or you might be missing a limb or three, like Burton’s best friend Conner. You might run a store where shoes, phones, and holiday decorations are constructed on 3D printers, or quietly gin up illegal copies of same.
Or you might play video games for a living: multiplayer shooters for wealthy people to bet on, your pay based on how long you survive in the game. Flynne quit that line of work after a run on a World War II game called “Operation Northwind”; her sense of justice outraged by a “rich fuck” who enjoyed eliminating Flynne’s fellow players who needed the money, she went on a stimulant-fueled three-day revenge hunt in-game, and after beating her opponent, she never went back. But her experience as a gamer is why Burton asks her to fill in for him on a sideline she didn’t know he had—a beta test of a drone surveillance game, developed by a company called Milagros Coldiron. While she’s doing Burton’s job, Flynne sees something in the game that is either a grim-dark twist in the game’s plot or a murder. Matters escalate to a carful of hitmen at the end of her street, and it only gets worse and weirder from there.
It’s not immediately obvious what Flynne’s story has to do with a glib, alcoholic PR man named Netherton, or his attempts to manage a loose-cannon performance artist-cum-ambassador on a mission to a scary, cannibalistic colony in the middle of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Netherton inhabits a casually luxurious London of glass and steel “shard” skyscrapers and creepy technology like the “peripherals” of the title: remote-controlled drone bodies with direct sensory experience for the controller, used to go to the opera or have a face-to-face meeting in another country, for instance. (Gibson fans will remember Case accessing Molly’s sensorium in Neuromancer; this is similar, with added physical control of what is effectively an entire prosthetic body.) Everyone knows Gibson’s maxim that “the future is here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”; the distribution between Netherton’s London and Flynne’s rural town is as uneven as you can get before you factor in the poorest of third-world countries.
Describing the nature of Flynne and Netherton’s inevitable collision and Coldiron’s true agenda will reveal pleasures of Gibson’s narrative that I’d rather leave for the reader to discover on their own. Without getting into spoiler territory, one can safely say that this may be one of Gibson’s most political works to date. Economic disparity is no new subject for him, but there’s a distinct thread of anger against the wealthiest of the wealthy who enjoy enormous levels of power and manipulation over others. Among the worst, their power is inversely proportional to their concern for the lives that they damage in pursuit of more money, more power, or even just a little advantage over someone they don’t like.
Some writers might resort to the “particular flavor” of histrionics of which Gibson described his distrust in his essay “Time Machine Cuba”—like when H.G. Wells announces that his epitaph “will manifestly have to be ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’” Gibson doesn’t do shrillness. He does do atmospheric dread, and that quality communicates the anger well enough. The Peripheral is infused with the awareness that catastrophe is no single apocalyptic moment, but a series of events that most people stumble blindly through, only seeing the entirety of the disaster clearly in hindsight. If you’re rich, your money will insulate you, but if you’re unlucky, poor, or otherwise marginalized, those events will mow you down.
Flynne and her family would be among those mowed down, but as they and their allies find their roles in the world changing, they must protect themselves with drastic measures against increasingly high stakes; tension mounts, violence ensues, daring gambits are played by highly-trained specialists. Gibson brings his narrative threads to an abrupt, explosive conclusion over an oddly anticlimactic macguffin—though the sheer meanness and pettiness of it only underlines the villains’ banal venality.
This conclusion depends on a character whose abilities nearly make them a literal deus ex machina, and whose manipulations carry other characters along like corks floating in a river. It seems too easy and neat, as does the Shakespearian level of matchmaking that ties up events after the big showdown. But further consideration of events suggests sinister undercurrents; while matters may seem pleasantly assured for the characters for the time being, there are uncomfortable questions about how they got there, and what the unintended consequences might be.
Nevertheless, The Peripheral isn’t a polemic, and polemics aren’t what you go to Gibson for anyway. You show up for the theatre of ideas, and for the detailed art direction and his magnificently precise, descriptive language. Flynne’s brother lives in an antique Airstream trailer lined inside with a Vaseline-colored polymer that traps dirt and artifacts like fossils in amber: “a legally sold cigarette, older than she was … a rusty jeweler’s screwdriver, and somewhere else a 2009 quarter”. A programmer’s user interface devices are a set of finger rings, “gotten up like the rusty magic iron of imaginary kings, set with dull pebbles that lit and died as her white fingers brushed them”. Flynne’s phone isn’t described in detail, but we know that she can bend it to wear on her wrist and or to use it as a game controller—just one example of many judiciously deployed signifiers of technological proximity or distance.
Similarly, the near-future slang is just different enough to be slightly disorienting—counterfeit goods and corrupt officials are “funny”, and Homeland Security—a term encompassing all law enforcement here—is simply known as “Homes” (and accepted by everyone, with some resignation, as an omnipresent fact of life). And Gibson’s evocations of setting are note-perfect. Flynne’s home town (curiously distant from our culture wars, it seems) is a backwater where strip malls sit half-empty and everyone knows each other the way their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did; Netherton’s London is a cold, eerie bubble of extreme wealth, where no hobby is too esoteric if you have enough money.
Gibson has argued that the “dystopia” of Neuromancer had a lining of optimism in positing a world where the USA and USSR hadn’t actually blown everything up. The crack through which the light enters in The Peripheral is Flynne, who resists the worst temptations of power and learns that “evil wasn’t glamorous, but just the result of ordinary half-assed badness, high school badness, given enough room, however that might happen, to become its bigger self.” In her own world, she is peripheral, existing on the far edges of power, barely existing to the great and not-so-good until she calls attention to herself. Her home town and her family are, from a certain point of view, a statistic. But seen up close, they are human and vital, their struggles are real—and given the opportunity, they can make a difference. Possibly only for a little while, but perhaps that’s better than nothing.
I have much, much more to say about The Peripheral, but to go any further requires a spoiler warning. For that, a second post will be coming soon.
The Peripheral is available October 28th from Penguin Books.