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.

the peripheral william gibson review header

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.

Reviews from the past: the Mechanical Turk

For the next of my Reviews From the Past I’ve dug out a review of another popular science book and yes, it is another one I found utterly fascinating, a look at some quite incredible mechanical automata, ingenious clockwork devices of astonishing intricacy which counterfeited life. As well as entertaining they also raised philosophical questions about the nature of life and the possibility of artificially creating life and intelligence, questions which have come to the fore once more in our digital age as we build ever more powerful computers, learning system and robotic designs. Its a story of invention and showmanship that takes in crowned heads of Europe, signatories of the Declaration of Independence, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Babbage and even PT Barnum as the Mechanical Turk crosses continents and history. This review dates from 2002 and first appeared on The Alien Online.

The Mechanical Turk,
By Tom Standage,
Allen Lane, Penguin Press

A chess playing automaton from the 1770s – father of modern AI or a clever illusion from an age of wonders?

It is the mid-1760s, the beginning of the Age of Reason. Science and engineering are creating new wonders almost every week. Intricate clockwork automatons are devised which highlight the ingenuity and skill of the mechanical age – skills often used for more practical purposes, such as Watt’s perfection of the steam engine or Jacquard’s loom. Mechanical trumpet players and flute players, with moving fingers, artificial lungs and a range of music to play. Mechanical ducks that swim, splash around, flap their wings and even eat food proffered to them. Such devices delighted the Europeans of the time, much as the Victorians would delight in intricate clockwork toys for their children a century later. Into this time comes the Turk.

Devised by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a nobleman in the service of Empress Maria Therese, this was a life-sized automaton, dressed in the oriental style popular at the time. Seated at a cabinet with a chess board before him, this Turk was rotated around on castors while his panels and doors were opened and a light shone through to show his inner workings and ensure no trickery was possible, much in the way a stage magician will do with his cabinet before an illusion today. A challenge for a player was given and soon the Turk was not only astounding the court by playing chess against a man, he was beating the human player. Mechanical fingers grasped pieces and moved them precisely, his hand would rap on the cabinet impatiently if the opponent took too long to move and illegal moves were swiftly adjusted.

Kempelen was keen to move onto his other devices, but the Turk was to overshadow him for the rest of his life. Ordered to take it around Europe, it appeared before the great and good of the land. Doctor Johnson and Charles Babbage were amazed by it. Babbage, like many was not sure it was truly machine intelligence, it may have been a trick. But if it was true mechanical thinking, then could he not use similar mechanics to create a calculating machine? A Difference Engine? Napoleon plays the machine, as does the great American scientists and diplomat Benjamin Franklin.

Long after Kempelen’s death, the Turk had his career, now under the stewardship of Maelzel, an automaton maker with a flair for showmanship. A young Scot is intrigued by the device and the speaking machine of Kempelen’s which has been fitted to it to allow it to say ‘check.’ An artificial voice? Could such a voice be transmitted in some way, Bell wondered, as with the new-fangled telegraph?

In America the Turk plays the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence (it throws the game) and is written about extensively, just as it was in Europe. Many speculated about what trick it conceals. Is there a dwarf hidden in a small compartment inside the machinery? Is it a double amputee Polish officer hiding form the Czar? Or does the operator use magnets or wires? But it is moved around and opened, so how is this possible? Such speculation followed the Turk for a century and only increased its popularity. Even Edgar Allan Poe attempted to rationalise its mysteries, using a scientific detective model, which he would later use in his novels.

As with the wonderful Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester, Standage has created a compelling science history, which is as fascinating for the historical figures and events around the main character as it is for the actual tale itself. The idea of this device inspiring Babbage and laying the foundations for the information age, for Bell and his telephone – even the later operator Maelzel giving lessons in showmanship and publicity to a young P.T. Barnum – the characters are fascinating. Of such little interconnections are our histories made, as intricate as the clockwork of the automatons themselves.

Standage brilliantly captures the mood of a world where knowledge was progressing quickly and engineering the casually miraculous was becoming an almost everyday event. He wisely keeps his chapter on the real secrets of the Turk to the end of the book, allowing our interest to peak. We all loves a good show and we all love a good mystery – the Turk gave both for a century, as well as fuelling speculation about artificial intelligence to this day. The final chapters discuss chess playing machines and computer intelligence in our time, from the brilliant Alan Turing’s early programming to IBM’s Deep Blue finally beating the human chess champion, Kasparov. This final chapter cleverly reminds us that our own time has produced great marvels of our own, that we are direct inheritors of that age of genius and passion. This is a delightful scientific history that will appeal to the sense of wonder in us all.

Conflicted by denial

David Irving (I refuse to give him the honorific of ‘historian’) has been jailed by an Austrian court for Holocaust denial, a crime in both Austria and Germany. I’m more than a little conflicted, I have to confess – I loathe this odious little apologist for Nazis and genocide (the shame being that apparently once upon a time he was a pretty good and knowledgeable historian) but although I despise people who persist in this fantasy of Holocaust denial it also troubles me that it is a crime punishable by jail (although obviously this is an offence with more troubling resonance for citizens in Austria and Germany than for most other nations, excepting Isreal).

It is pretty hard, if not impossible, to believe solidly in the freedom of expression if that freedom is not afforded to those who we not only disagree with but actively despise. And those of us in the bookselling trade have special reason to dislike this man, over and above his despicable lies on the Holocaust: when booksellers (including some of my colleagues in my former employer years back) refused to stock his books he launched court actions against them. Not the shops, the individual booksellers in those shops. Fortunately the company put up lawyers and he was laughed out of court. He continued to shuffle sadly around the country preaching to right wing fantasists and attempting to sell copies of his books from the back of his car and being abusive to bookstaff who said they had little interest in stocking it. Perhaps that is in itself a mild form of censorship, but booksellers should be able to decide that there are certain books they do not want to sell without fear of litigation from bullies.

Then he attacked Deborah Lipstadt (he has a history of using the courts to bully people) and found that she and her publisher Penguin were prepared to go the whole nine yards in a British court with him. He lost the libel case and was officially labelled a Holocaust Denier by a British judge, meaning we could all now apply this to him without him suing us. I ordered in a pile of Deborah’s book and we sold a ton of it – Irving was bankrupted and as such unable to run a new book company. His right wing chums stepped in to help by reprinting his tat on his behalf. Sad enough, but they also employed dishonest advertising, including taking pictures of Hitler and his senior staff used on one of the covers and arranging a picture so it looked as if they were standing around a table in a bookstore of my former employer, making it look as if they were behind his book, which they most certainly were not – nor were they happy to have their logo co-opted in this way. Gives you more of an idea of the sort of person you are dealing with, doesn’t it?

But I don’t like the notion of making the expression of a distasteful idea against the law; it is in essence what Tony Blair is trying to ram through Parliament right now with his ‘glorification of terror’ clause, which is vague and could mean almost anything, potentially threatening books, newspaper articles, books, TV, film and stand-up comedians with a possible legal attack. And it is pointless – it is not needed to tackle people such as Hamza who was recently convicted without such legislation or the creeps who marched in London after the Danish cartoons with placards which called for the beheading of those who mocked Islam or for Europe to be punished by terrorist attacks; these are all crimes under existing legislation. Even someone like me who believes in freedom of expression draws the line at people who call for harm to another and this is already dealt with under law – Blair’s new addition would create such a vague potential threat it would restrict free speech on important issues for no gain in security.

Farrah Mendlesohn, a well respected critic and writer in the SF community is so irritated that she is putting her own time and money into a new anthology of stories which would all fall foul of this new law if it goes through. And that’s what we do in a free society – we do not say we are free to speak as long as we don’t offend anyone or say something most people know to be false; no we engage in debate, write articles and books and demonstrate to those people and to society at large how wrong they are and why they are wrong. Details of Farrah’s project can be found here on Notes From Coode Street.

Still, it was hard not to smirk when Irving got sent down today; he reversed his previous claims that the Holocaust was a myth in order to weasel out of his charges. He knew when he travelled to Austria that he had an outstanding warrent for this offence from years previously, so it seems obvious he assumed either he would not be charged or he would be charged but not jailed, thus reaping the publicity and esteem he craves but which his ridiculous books have made impossible from most historical readers or academics. He told Channel 4 News earlier that he had booked a first class ticket home on a plane for this evening, so cocky was the little sod. So it is rewarding to see such a weasely and smug little git falling on his own face – and because of his own arrogance. But again I’m not happy about the restriction by law on anyone’s freedom of expression, even little creeps like him. Freedom of expression, like freedom of all types, is a double-edged sword, but one which must be applied equally to all or it is no freedom at all.