The Peripheral by William Gibson (2014) 485 p.
Gibson’s return to science fiction after a decade of writing modern-day techno-thrillers, The Peripheral is a time travel story taking place in two different eras of the future. The first of these is the near-future American South, where teenager Flynne Fisher scrapes together whatever odd jobs she can to support her ill mother and disturbed veteran brother; an evolved version of WalMart owns pretty much everything else, the Department of Homeland Security has become the predominant federal agency, and the American economy has collapsed to the point where dealing drugs is about the only profitable industry left. The second is a far-future London, sometime in the early 22nd century, where our protagonist is alcoholic PR man Wilf Netherington. Most of Wilf’s fellow Londoners live in gargantuan tower blocks, pervasive technology has finally become indistinguishable from magic, and an unspecified collection of gradual disasters has wiped out most of the human race except the very well-off.
It’s from Wilf’s future that the time travel is initiated: a mysterious foreign technology which allows a well-connected minority (in this case, Wilf’s tremendously rich friend Lev) to communicate data with certain points in the past. One of the odd jobs that Flynne does, circa 2035, is professionally playing video games (a thread which reminded me of Cory Doctorow’s short story “Anda’s Game”and which does of course already happen in real life); in this case, she’’ filling in for her brother, beta-testing a game where she controls a drone nudging paparazzi drones away from an enormous tower. While doing so she witnesses a particularly grisly murder, and is disturbed that somebody would put that in a game – but of course it’s not a game, and she was unwittingly performing security for associates of Lev in the future, and now – despite the gap of seventy years – she’s an inconvenient witness.
And so we’re off, on a timehopping thriller in classic Gibsonian fashion; a pulpy plot serving as a reassuring anchor in an unfamiliar world. (Or two unfamiliar worlds, in this case.) Gibson, as always, does not spoonfeed his readers; you’re dropped into his playground and left to figure it out as you go along. Many things escaped me; others I was only familiar with because of stuff I picked up working for the BBC in the UK, such as the character Lev being referred to as a second-generation klept who lives in an iceberg house in Notting Hill. The Peripheral is full of throw-away lines like this, and even if you don’t pick up what they mean you eventually begin to figure it out from context. I particularly liked a scene where characters in Flynne’s timeline are eating cronuts; I recall an interview in which Gibson described that as working for him both ways. Either the cronut has legs, and readers in the 2030s will see nothing unusual about it; or the cronut will be a brief fad, so readers in the 2030s will assume it was yet another of his own inventions.
Either of these worlds would have been enough for one novel, but it’s a pleasure to hop between them. Flynne’s is a familiar Gibsonian vision of unequal technologies – a place where people have high-tech phones but are using outdoor drop toilets, only this time it’s America that’s groaning with poverty. It’s a place where people are dirt poor, the government is corrupt and things are getting better, not worse, but also a place with a touching sense of community; when Flynne is threatened, her extended family and friends rally around her without question, her brother’s fellow vets patrolling her family’s acreage as an amateur militia. (It has a great sense of place, too; I particularly liked her brother’s Airstream caravan where she pulls gaming shifts, down by the overgrown subtropical creek.) The future London, too, is wonderfully drawn; familiar yet alien, a playground for the rich and wealthy, eerily deserted at ground level and maintained by robots and nanotechnology. We get a few tantalising glimpses of the ruined world beyond these urban citadels, the skies criss-crossed by airships and “mobys,” the Great Pacific Garbage Patch colonised by a bizarre “primitivist” religious society.
These fascinating worlds, and the high-stakes thriller that bounces back and forth between them, is such fun that it’s easy to overlook The Peripheral‘s many flaws. Gibson introduces far too many thinly-sketched extraneous character’s in Flynne’s timeline; the plot drags out before suddenly resolving itself in an egregious deus ex machina; and the ending is the most uncharacteristically saccharine thing I’ve read since the end of the Harry Potter series. The strength of The Peripheral‘s worldbuilding certainly exceeds that of its story. Nonetheless, it’s the best thing Gibson’s written in years, and I enjoyed it a lot.