The Peripheral – William Gibson’s superb return to science fiction

The Peripheral,

William Gibson,

Viking

the peripheral william gibson cover penguin books

Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline...”

I’ve been reading Bill Gibson’s work since my teens (which now feel like a lifetime ago, back in a former century); Neuromancer remains a firm personal favourite as well as being generally held not just to be a classic of modern science fiction but one of the most iconic and influential. In the last decade and a half though Gibson has moved away from science fiction to a fair extent, but his writing has remained fascinating, his technique sharper each time but his ability to craft a wonderfully descriptive line (such as the quote above) in one sentence where other writers may take half a paragraph of descriptive text remains, and he remains laser-sharp in tapping into elements of today’s society, morals and tech. Now with his return to full-on science fiction I am delighted to say those skills has sharpened in the likes of his less-SF works like the Blue Ant series remain pin-sharp, an intriguing story, beautifully paced, mixed with his laconic descriptive style and superbly accurate observations of problems we are facing today and tomorrow in the real world, transposed into his future setting. Of course commenting on today’s problems using a futuristic setting is something good science fiction has done forever, but Gibson does it so much better (and with so much style) that most.

Set across two time periods, the near-future, around the early 2020s, and we meet a young woman in a trailer park in the South of America, Flynne. In this not too distant version of the future there’s a lot to be recognised from our own present day, an economy that simply doesn’t work anymore, out-competed by fresh international rivals, wearied by endless wars (Flynne’s brother Burton is a veteran, still suffering sometimes from the tech implants – ‘haptics’ the Marines use in this era), few jobs, even fewer that pay a wage you can live on, what’s left of the economy and the local and national government run far more by corrupt politicians in the pay of corporations and a wealthy elite who have hung on to their wealth and increased their influence as the mass of population grows poorer – democracy is pretty much a fig leaf now. Sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it?

Flynne, like most of the population, has to be on the look our for ways to make a living – sure there is a military pension for her brother but the cost of living keeps going up and keeping food on the table and a roof over the head is increasingly expensive, while employment opportunities grow scarcer, their small town drying up, shops closing, only a few chain conglomerates still in business, apart from a few local enterprises which operate frequently in the grey area between the legitimate economy (if you can call it that in this corrupt future) and the dark economy. Flynne never served herself, having to look after their mother (and earn money for her medications), but she has some formidable combat skills, albeit virtual ones – so good she’s made money as a virtual mercenary for rich gamers, helping them look good. Burton, with his tech enhanced skills from his Marines days also makes some extra money on the side checking out beta versions of new software and games for corporate clients. When he needs to be elsewhere (basically heading to nearby towns to tussle with a religious-political group he can’t stand) he asks Flynne to stand in for him and run his shift on what both think is testing out parts of a new game. And it is while remotely operating a flying drone in this virtual city online that Flynne (logged in as Burton) witnesses what looks very much like a real murder, realistic enough to be disturbing (especially for Flynne, who after some too-realistic war gaming for a rich client is sickened of this kind of thing, even if it is virtual).

But was it just a test of a beta version of a new game in development? Or was it something more…

And this is where the second main element of Peripheral comes in, almost a century further down the timeline from Flynne’s era, in a sparsely populated world following an event, an odd version of London, parts of it new but parts of it recognisable to us, but somehow different. This is the world after an event known as The Jackpot, the human race hugely reduced in number after this event – or really a series of events, a rapidly accelerating downward spiral of various disasters, some natural, many problems we are all to aware of right now, problems of our own making, allowed to run rampant, no one single event or disaster, just one after the other, like a war of attrition oh humanity. This sparsely populated future London was recreated mostly by nano assemblers and the main humans left are descendants of the hugely rich oligarchs, like the Russian billionaires who buy up huge sections of the wealthiest parts of London today then extend their properties underground, Gibson again taking a far future but lacing it with elements of the way things are already recognisably going in our own day and age.

Among this rich elite we meet Wilf, not rich himself, nor especially important, but he has some influence, a mover and shaker of media (we first meet him as his carefully orchestrated media piece on his artist client – who periodically flays her own skin from her body and displays it as art before growing a new one – ends up in a total mess witnessed by all). And this is where it becomes even more interesting, as we find out Wilf’s rich oligarch friend has been playing a new game. Not exactly the game Flynne thought she was testing – in fact his new hobby is like a strategy game, building your own world of resources and planning, a Civilisation style game, perhaps. Except this isn’t a virtual reality, this is history – this is Flynne’s time. A mysterious server – perhaps in China – somehow allows a few of the rich elite in this future to dabble in the past, the ultimate in gaming, actually getting to play with real people. Gibson neatly avoids this causing any causality problems by the fact that whenever a new game is started it cannot actually be the past of the player’s time, rather it causes a splitting off, a splinter, a different timeline, which they can interact with in the future knowing if they cause any changes it will not affect their own present. It’s a nice spin on a hypothesis about possible time travel which has been used before in both science fiction and theoretical science as a way around the the causality problem (how could you go back and change the past, as any change would alter your own future so that your future would now be different from the one where you decided to change the past… Yes, very confusing conundrum, time travel really can induce headaches) by automatically having these ‘stubs’ become their own timeline, linked by the mysterious server but not part of the timeline of the gamer, so it cannot effect their time. In effect a parallel reality, something that has been theorised for many years in science, a multiverse where each different course of action leads to its own distinct timeline where each plays out.

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But while this stub timeline Flynne inhabits may not directly effect events in Wilf’s time, his time has serious effects on her era – not least that some of the other shady operators from Wilf’s time, others playing in this timeline as if the people there were game pieces (which to these bored, rich oligarchs they effectively are) see her – or Burton – as a possible threat to their own plans and decide they need to be removed, necessitating direct contact with Flynne and her timeline. a contact Wilf is chosen to be the frontman for. There is no actual time travel here, but it is possible to exchange data between the different times, and Flynne ‘visits’ their future via a remote android body, the eponymous peripheral, still in her own time but able to use it to physically interact in Wilf’s future period. A tense race soon develops, which draws in an enigmatic London detective, who is clearly much more than a police officer, and while the timelines may be separate, they are parallel and it’s not hard for those in each period to see events of their own timelines being mirrored in the other, but must everything play out one way or can they determine their own possible future?

I’m not going to go into deep details here for fear of spoilers – this is a large novel (especially by Gibson standards) but it flies past at a cracking pace, with the intensity slowly ratchetting up as the events start to spiral ever faster, cutting back and forth between the two futures. Despite the length of the book Gibson keeps it never less than engrossing, and it isn’t long before you get drawn into the lives of the characters, especially those of Flynne’s era and the way her family and neighbours band together in the face of threat, be it from the other shadowy future operatives playing with their time, or from their own corrupt local politicians and businessmen – when the world is going to hell there is something warmly human about this small group of the have-nots circling the waggons and looking after each other, in stark contrast to the predatory super-rich, the politicians and the corporations, the latter with huge amounts of money and all the resources they can buy, the former relying on their own personal bonds and ingenuity, classic Us versus Them. The story riffs on a number of hot topic subjects from our own era’s concerns – virus outbreaks, terrorism, economic collapse, the ever growing chasm between those at the top, entrenching their positions while the mass of the population has to get by with less and less, an environment we’ve pushed beyond breaking but still don’t do much to repair, not to mention the metaphor of these future rich kids in a post Jackpot event world playing with real lives in alternate timelines as if it was a game (which to them it is), and the allusions that casts to the way so much of our own world seems to be run beyond our own control by elite groups who answer to no-one but themselves.

Through this gripping story and the social-historical-political-economic observations Gibson so deftly weaves (into the background, giving these futures a realistic texture and context but without slowing the main narrative) we’re also treated to more of those superb brief but oh so evocative descriptive lines Gibson is the king of, such as one character boarding an armoured Zil limousine, noticing “it had no rear window whatever, which gave him the sense that it had turned up its collar.” And through it there is the nature of morality in both timelines, one older character reminding a younger that those plotting against them may have evil intent, but they’re not monsters, they’re “all too human, dear, and the moment we forget it, we’re lost,” the implication being that every single one of us has the potential to be that selfish, banal evil person, and we need to remember, because that’s what keeps us different, keeps us on the right side. Absolutely compelling return to science fiction by Gibson, I already know this will be one of my Best of the Year picks.

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