With his new novel The Peripheral, William Gibson returns to the genre that made him famous: near-future science fiction. But the world of The Peripheral is very different from the hyperactive cyberpunk citiscapes of Neuromancer. His canvas is much bigger — and his prophesies are far more melancholy.
The Peripheral centers on two characters, Flynne and Netherton, who live on either side of a catastrophe known simply as "the jackpot." And by "either side" I don't mean just geographically. Flynne lives a few decades in the future, working as a gamer-for-hire in a small town called Clanton in what seems to be the southeastern United States. Netherton is a PR flak living over a century in the future, in a London whose skyline is punctuated by tall, dark towers like something from Judge Dredd's world in the 2000 AD comics.
At first, it's not clear that they live in different time periods at all. Gibson jumps quickly between Flynne and Netherton's points of view, splicing their worlds together by using short chapters written in a cool, hardboiled prose that treats every object — even the most familiar — as something intriguingly alien. Both characters live in worlds edged by terrifyingly vague violence, trying to scrape by doing weird, gray-market jobs. When she's not gaming for cash, Flynne helps out at a 3D printing shop called Fabbit, where the techs make money on the side by printing "funny" (AKA pirated) items. And Netherton — well, he's doing something that's deliciously impossible to explain. Let's just say it involves organized crime, the Pacific garbage patch, social media artists, and a lot of booze.
Though we see a lot of Netherton's world, it never feels as intimate to us as Flynne's — this is essentially her story, and her arc carries the most emotional weight. As the action begins, her war veteran brother Burton asks if she'll take over on a gamer job he's taken. He's been hired by a shadowy organization in Latin America to run a drone in some game — maybe for testing, maybe to rack up points for a lazy rich person who wants to level up. But when Flynne puts on her rig, which sounds like some sort of Google Glass deal that actually works, she discovers that this game is seriously creepy. A woman is murdered right before her eyes, in a way that seems far too realistic and mundane to be part of the gameplay.
Quickly, we realize that this murder has happened in Netherton's time. Somehow, through some futuristic quirk of the computer network, Flynne and Netherton's worlds have been connected. It's not exactly time travel — in fact, it's something a lot more mysterious and interesting than that. Without giving too much away, what I can say is that Gibson uses this time-connecting technology to explore one of his often-quoted comments: "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."
In The Peripheral, we are able to watch as the future and present leak into each other, binding people from different time periods. While these relationships are literal in The Peripheral, this novel offers Gibson a powerful metaphor for the ways that relationships of power play out at every period in history. Economic decisions made in the past can affect people for decades to come, and political traumas like the war that Flynne's brother fought in have reverberations that are felt for generations too. Ultimately, The Peripheral is an exploration of how people with power use it to change other people's futures.
In most of Gibson's novels, power accretes around criminals. He likes to portray all forms of organized authority as being, ultimately, some kind of scam or thievery. The goal for our heroes is always to figure out who the least horrible criminals are — the ones who love their children, who appreciate art, who cook delicious dinners for guests — and ally with them to survive. And that's exactly what we see Flynne and Netherton doing. Both are in relatively vulnerable positions, and their only hope is that they can ally with the kleptocrats who prefer peace over cruelty.
Gibson drops you into Flynne and Netherton's worlds, complete with their own slang and cultural touchstones, without any preparation at all. As a result, part of the pleasure of reading is figuring out where the hell you are, and what has changed in the world to make these futures possible. As I said earlier, we learn quickly that Flynne and Netherton's worlds are separated by some sort of collapse/technological acceleration called the jackpot, and the ramifications of that future/past event hover just out of view, haunting everyone.
For people familiar with Gibson's work, what's striking about this novel is the overwhelming sadness that seems to fill up all the empty spaces around each clipped chapter and bitten-off sentence. Perhaps this is because Gibson is evoking the region where he grew up, somewhere in the environs of western Virginia. The hopeless poverty of the characters there, their lives distorted by war, feels dishearteningly real. And the glimpses they get of the future reveal a hollowed-out place, its citizens shadowed by losses so huge we can barely conceive of them.
It feels like Gibson has layered a hardboiled thriller with breakneck pacing over top of a muted, personal tale of sorrow. And that's part of the point. This is a novel about how time streams converge, whether those are the tiny, frenetic spans of time that comprise a human life, or the vast, slow arcs of history, built by thieves' armies. Sometimes, The Peripheral reads like ethical philosophy, and sometimes like a caper. That mix may be hard to take sometimes, but it will grab you by the brainstem and won't let go for a very long time.