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Review: The Peripheral by William Gibson

There’s a moment midway through The Peripheral where Flynne Fisher, the book’s young female near future protagonist, returns from visiting the far future and has to remind herself that she’s physically in the present, not situated in the past. Which accurately describes the sensation the reader has of putting the book down at that point too. William Gibson has crafted a step ladder to look over the horizon of present, past an economic and social collapse to glimpse what lies beyond a technological singularity. The science-fictional world we inhabit today quickly becomes mundane, and artful writer that he is, you find yourself not just accidentally thinking of today as the past, but thinking of the now in terms of the language of two separate fictional futures.

In The Peripheral we have Gibson first conjuring the USA in the endgame of the economic collapse to come, according to many a futurist; pitched as kind of a Justified of the Future. The big-box franchises of WalMart and its like, mixed with a society seemingly only kept afloat by the narcoeconomy to one side and the security state from the other. Everybody is hustling, which is how Flynne finds herself subbing for her brother who’s himself moonlighting for some corporation, remote-operating as security for… exactly what they’re not quite sure, but they presume to be a new game engine.

She witnesses what appears to be an overly graphically rendered death, and events are set in motion. It turns out that Flynne was acting as security for something occurring in a different realm. And by witnessing the event her, her family, friends, town, country and the entire planet’s fate are successively entangled with those of its almost god-like residents, and forever changed as a result. Giving the plot an aspect of “as above, so below.”

The novel’s plot is simply a matter of having Flynne identify someone from the crime scene. But manoeuvring her into a position to do so takes her and her friends on a compelling and transformational journey.

This is on one level a straight murder mystery. A basic whodunnit. A witness to be protected from unknown, powerful forces. A crime to be solved, wrongs to be righted, notions of order maintained and two different worlds elaborated in the process of the telling. It’s the mechanics of this – the how and the why and the frankly amazing setting – that make this a mind-blowing read.

All the signature elements of a Gibson story are here – the attention to detail about fashion that exists on a natural continuum from haute couture to milspec, the Russian gangsters, the tight knit group of former military operators, the spy with spooky powers and deep state access, and the wealthy patron exploiting novelty to find the next angle and increase their capital.

The setting of the crime and home of The Peripheral‘s second, alternate protagonist, Wilf Netherton, is another Gibson favourite, London. A place that is very much the City, but in a world unrecognisable in many aspects of its every day life – both to us and Flynne. All pretence of a separation between capitalism, democracy and multinational crime has been abandoned and a posthuman kleptocracy is the dominant order. The NeoReactionary Future many of us fear has to come pass.

The circle of wealth and privilege Wilf exists in adds to the contrast of Flynne’s everyday struggle just to keep her mother in life-giving medication. As their paths converge their different backgrounds and attitudes are emphasised with Netherton’s casual declaration that “it’s only money”.

This London is in the far future Vernor Vinge warned us about in his classic “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”. Their powers are immense – nanotechnological assemblers make them near omnipotent – but the world has been vastly depopulated in the transition. They have seemingly everything, but are also not without their own problems. As fellow cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling has described this likely scenario:

“The posthuman condition is banal. It is crypto — theological, and astounding, and apocalyptic, and eschatological, and ontological, but only by human standards. Oh sure, we become as gods (or something does), but the thrill fades fast, because that thrill is merely human and parochial. By the new, post Singularity standards, posthumans are just as bored and frustrated as humans ever were. They are not magic, they are still quotidian entities in a gritty, rules — based physical universe. They will find themselves swiftly and bruisingly brought up against the limits of their own conditions, whatever those limits and conditions may be.”

The bridge between these two worlds is a piece of magical technology of unknown workings and providence. Exactly the kind of thing to occupy the attention of a posthuman kleptocrat who has seemingly everything we could ever imagine.

Treating the past like a toy pocket dimension. One that is accessed via something like a game server, its residents treated like game pieces and then used as a board to compete against others as if it was all just a Real-Time Strategy.

The act of reaching back changes the present, for reasons also not understood, while the future goes on. This is a comfortable scenario to those familiar with the Many World’s theory. A different timeline, or continuum, branches off but the connection between the two is magically maintained by whatever it is that initiated it in the first place.

The human citizens of Flynne’s present, and the neoprimitives of the post-Singular world – populations that have survived the singularity with their baseline humanity intact – these are both valuable sources of novelty to the posthuman klepts, something that with all their power (and possibly a consequence of it), they seem unable to generate themselves, but are desperate for, if only to relieve their boredom.

To those conversant with early cyberpunk fiction, the mining of the past to enrich the future is a familiar scenario, as explored in the Mozart in Mirrorshades short-story, from the Mirrorshades anthology. To others, the short-lived tv series Terra Nova may serve as a reference point.

Flynne is transported into this future world by the same game server device connection. Just as Neo breaks out of and then jacks back into The Matrix across realities, and Jake Sully pilots his Avatar across space, Flynne, and the others who come to join her, operate remote bodies; varying from bioengineering humanoid drones, to exoskeletons, to almost indescribable physical objects.

To say any more now would really ruin the enjoyment of reading such a masterful tale. The vocabulary of these futures is slowly built up such that by the end of the story you’re reading a sentence with a completely different meaning ascribed to it than before you’d started this book.

Speculative fiction serves to pose not just well constructed thought experiments of what might become, but to also cast a new light on the present in doing so. Just as the klepts come to use their far future knowledge to grind the lives of Flynne & co. like it was just another MMO, so we can inform our own actions today by reading this tale about two tomorrows.

Most notable to me, apart from the foreground of economical collapse and subsequent radical transformation, is the thread of extinction woven into the world view. One of the characters is in permanent mourning for the species being killed by the ecological collapse under way right now. Another keeps simulacra of animals long vanished from our world as household pets, resurrected to act as perhaps no more than a status object. As Gibson is wont to do, this is an emergent part of the zeitgeist that is being tapped into. The question it leaves me with most of all is, as consciousness of this is raised, what is to be done?

All of which makes The Peripheral more than just a tightly constructed, fascinating piece of story-telling. It makes it an important element in a cultural conversation that desperately needs to be more visibly taking place.


Contributing Editor
  1. How on point this is
    I recently finished this book and was simply taken way by its close walk with the world we are living in now . All the stupid mistakes we are making–empowering an uber-rich class, refusing to defend the economy for the middle class, letting the world creep ever-so-close to ecological disaster–all come to bear bitter fruit in the bizarro world of Flynne. Two major corporations are battling it out for total economic domination, which will all end in a massive meltdown called the Jackpot. “The stupid people’s tax,” as one of the characters puts it.
    What exists after that is the massively depopulated Earth of Wilf Netherton.

    Look now at our corporate-ruled political process and see this already happening.

    I had gotten used to Gibson’s quirky just-ahead of-tomorrow novels starring cool hunter Cayce. But I really like this return to real science fiction. Time-travel has always been the most brainy type of the genre.

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