William Gibson's futures offer readers a wild ride
Time past and time future collide in William Gibson's latest science fiction novel
by William Gibson
If you were to plot your reading of a William Gibson book on a graph - reading speed on one axis, progress through the book on another - it would produce a strange, choppy waveform.
The first 30 or 40 pages take a good couple of minutes each, as you struggle to place yourself in the novel's world, acclimatise to its language and make out what is going on. By the time you're properly drawn into the plot you'll be burning a page or two a minute - and then some fresh development will slow you down again.
"They didn't think Flynne's brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him," runs the opening sentence of Gibson's 11th novel.
By the end of the next page we've had unexplained mentions of "pickers", "Hefty Mart", "Luke 4:5" and Flynne "walking point, for that lawyer in Tulsa". (In reverse order they mean: being paid to play in a first-person shooter game; a religious protest group along the lines of the Westboro Baptist Church; Walmart's mutant offspring; and God alone knows.)
One of the great pleasures of Gibson's fiction - though he is canny enough to include periodic expository info-dumps to help the confused catch up - is that sense of not being spoon-fed: his futures convince because the reader arrives in them as a tourist and learns their languages by immersion. It makes them both plausible and pleasurably strange. The reader's work is hard at first but richly satisfying.
In this book, there are two futures to be deciphered - and I should warn fans for whom the deciphering from scratch is going to be a prime pleasure that the paragraphs which follow contain some spoilers with regards to the set-up.
The future containing Hefty Mart is just about shouting distance from our own. We are in a smallish town in the US, where everything is more or less like it is now, only more so. There are wounded veterans from foreign wars. The only real money in the economy comes from "building" (a perfect Gibsonian tweak) drugs. "Homes" (aka Homeland Security) is the main power in the land.
Most of what you need you either buy at Hefty Mart or get "fabbed" at a 3D-print shop (which is where our heroine, Flynne, works). And playing video games is, for lots of people, a proper job.
The other world of the novel is a desolate London, further into the future after a hazily described apocalypse known as "the Jackpot" has wiped out 80 per cent of the population. The streets are all but deserted - although there are androids amusing tourists in bleak Dickensian cosplay zones - and power resides in the hands of wealthy Russian oligarchs, or "klepts", while the police don't like to talk about terrorism because "terror should remain the sole prerogative of the state".
In this world we meet Wilf Netherton, a fecklessly charming alcoholic PR man who "looked like a low-key infomercial for an unnamed product". Wilf has a problem.
One of his clients is Daedra - a post-postmodern celebrity who gets naked a lot, tattoos herself liberally, and periodically has her skin flayed and then regrown, selling miniature figurines of her previous skins to subscriber-collectors. But an I'm a Celebrity-style publicity stunt goes wrong and all hell breaks loose.
The two worlds are linked because the later world contains a black-market technology, popular among hobbyists called "continua enthusiasts", that allows people to reach into the past. Paradox is avoided because, at the moment they make contact, that past splits off: it ceases to lead up to the present and becomes a "stub", another fork in the timeline.
Flynne's world is - unknown to her - one such "stub". A melancholy undercurrent of the book is how the inhabitants of Wilf's world envy the inhabitants of Flynne's seemingly more innocent age. The plot whirrs off: after beta-testing what she thinks is a new video game, Flynne witnesses a murder. She wasn't, as it turns out, playing a drone-piloting simulation game: she was piloting a real drone in this divergent future.
This ties up with Wilf and Daedra and Wilf's friend Lev (the Russian klept) in increasingly baroque ways and soon, as she gabbles to her friend Janice: "… Wilf, he f***** up, over some woman, and somebody else got in here, where we are, and hired those dead guys from Tennessee to kill my family." Janice made her eyes wide as she could. "Brain 'splode."
The "peripheral" of the title is not, as you might think, a mouse or a printer. It is a body-for-hire: in the post-Jackpot world you can strap a special doohickey to your forehead, close your eyes and wake up - somewhat disoriented - piloting a genetically engineered android on the other side of the world or, indeed, in another timeline altogether. It is through one of these that Flynne and her brother establish a presence in Wilf's world.
Imagining how that technology would work - what would be funny about it and what would be disorienting and queasy-making - is one of the absolute triumphs of this book.
The novel's givens may be as good as magical, but they are bodied forth into practical life by Gibson's imagination.
The Gibson of The Peripheral is interested in ideas but he's also very much interested in big-screen, popcorn-chewing thrills. He takes glee in kick-assery of an adolescent sort. So we have a gothy girl with double-pupils in her eyes and tattoos that move all over her skin. We have super-tough veterans of a US Marine Corps "Haptic Recon" team. We have assassins in invisibility "squidsuits". We have a disabled guy roaring around on a hefty motorised trike which sprouts a mechanical scorpion's tail. We have guns: lots of guns, some of which do extraordinarily gnarly damage. And ceramic robots called Michikoids which - in combat mode - suddenly "sprout multiple spider-eyes and muzzle slits".
Gibson is such a polished and propulsive writer that you nearly won't notice that the plot is sort of a mess, that he's peopled the novel with too many characters too sketchily delineated, that hinted-at arcs involving the macroeconomy of Flynne's stub and a plot to assassinate the president are cursorily wrapped up, and that the ending - from the imagination that brought us Neuromancer - needs only a "Goonight, John-Boy" to be The Waltons.
The strength of The Peripheral is that its technology isn't weightless; its weakness is that, too often, its characters and its situations are.
But, my goodness, what a glorious ride. Like the woman said: brain 'splode.
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