Review: The Peripheral, by William Gibson

peripheralThe problem with cyberpunk is that it generated a handful of wonderful, iconic works and then as far as I can tell, it just sort of disappeared. On one hand, I think we left behind the context that birthed it pretty drastically in the 1990s. On the other hand, as I understand it, both William Gibson and Neal Stephenson moved on from cyberpunk because reality was aggressively overtaking cyberpunk.  And they’re probably right about that; the other day, my wife was buying food for a visiting vegetarian friend of hers and opted for soy chicken nuggets. Seriously: our whole world is linked with computers, we deliver things with drones, cybernetic implants and limbs are becoming reality, Russia is a the enemy again, and my wife is buying soy nuggets. Cyberpunk became nowpunk, which we get to see in Gibson’s relatively unsatisfying Pattern Recognition.

So Gibson birthed this thing and we got some other people making some major contributions to it: Blade Runner, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, the anime and manga Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, the Deus Ex games. Some other stuff that partakes of  the platonic ideal of cyberpunk to a lesser extent, like Minority Report and Dollhouse. (This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’m aware I’m leaving out Sterling’s contributions and Gibson’s Bridge trilogy.) But after however many years it was, Gibson finally decided to tell a cyberpunk story again.

The Peripheral follows two narratives, initially separate but quickly intertwining. One is a near future, flyover country/Appalachia setting; the other in a future that quickly begins to identify itself as being much farther along than the first, possibly post-Singularity, definitely post-apocalyptic. In the near future, Flynne and Burton Fisher are doing what work they can to pay for their mother’s medical bills. Flynne works in a 3D print shop, Burton is a disabled marine (some sort of nervous system damage from combat implants that leave him with small but recurring seizures) supplementing his VA benefits by moonlighting as a paid gamer. When Burton has to skip one of his shifts to protect a military funeral from a Westboro Baptist-style group, he gets Flynne to take his shift “doing security” in an as yet unreleased “game.” Two days in, Flynne witnesses a murder and, other than a bad reaction to a very detailed death animation, blows it off. After all, it’s a game.

The more distant future follows Wilf Netherton, a publicist whose career is cut short when a a diplomatic contact he is handling publicity for ends in disaster and assassination. To make matters worse, back home in England, a woman he knows has been murdered, despite the security drone he had given her. A security drone piloted, theoretically at least, by Burton Fisher; in reality, by his sister while Burton was off at a counter protest. In the future-future, it seems, there is a mysterious “server,” probably Chinese, that allows communication with the past. Sending a message to the past causes a “stub,” a divergent history (and presumably a universe). Netherton’s world is full of hobbyists who curate stubs like a garden, cruelly alter history, or whatever else one might want to do with their own private history– including using it for “bespoke AI,” as Netherton did with the security drone. The future-future’s police are, of course, interested in the murder, but the only witness to it happens to be a girl in a stub who was subbing for her brother. And unfortunately for her, the people behind the murder have access to the same stub and have taken out a hit on her entire family.

There’s a lot of things going for The Peripheral. The old Gibson cyberpunk vibe is back; maybe he managed to evolve cyberpunk sufficiently, or maybe life’s just come back around enough that cyberpunk feels real again. Either way, the near-future of The Peripheral feels like both a reasonable extrapolation of our modern world and a return to cyberpunk form. The post-“Jackpot” future-future feels something like Gibson writing an earthbound Star Trek episode. London looks a bit like a post-scarcity utopia, but that utopia has a fairly grim history behind it, and the goings on are all classic Gibson.

There was something really very refreshing about The Peripheral‘s near-future; it’s stuffed full of crooked politics, hitmen and drug dealers, but somehow manages not to feel terribly grimdark and cynical. Most works that focus on a place like flyover country or Appalachia would do so with a certain condescension– hillbillies ain’t smart, don’t ya know. But pleasingly, The Peripheral never falls into that trap. Burton, Flynne, and the rest of the people in the “stub,” are likeable and intelligent– or at least, as much as they should be for their various roles in the story. The Peripheral is, near as I can tell, free of the snide disdain we see directed at Appalachia and the Midwest that we see in a lot of fiction.

On the downside, The Peripheral feels like it is missing at least a few chapters on either end of the future-future, and maybe some in the middle. There is almost no discussion of the mysterious Chinese “server” that enables the creation of the stubs. The bad guy’s plot is never clearly explained. A plot twist involving a particular character is revealed, but just sort of taken in stride without ever investigating what the devil it meant. When you get to the big reveals in Neuromancer and find out that what’s going on isn’t quite what you thought, you realize that Case, Mollie, and the others are players in a bigger game than they know– but you have a decent idea of what that game is. Not so with The Peripheral; we never get a good understanding of what goes on there. The near-future feels more or less like a complete story; the future-future feels like a portion of a story. That having been said, those complaint are relatively minor, I think, given what the novel is actually about. It was at least worth my library time.

Josh Young is  a seminary student, Castalia House author (featured in God, Robot and author of the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at Superversivesf.com If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!

  • Matt

    I picked this up on a whim in an airport. I couldn’t get into it at all and never finished it. Gibson’s prose worked well in his earlier stuff, but I found the choppy sentence fragments really off-putting in this setting.

  • That’s probably a valid criticism– Gibson’s got a noirish style, and hardboiled/noir can definitely descend into choppy sentences if it’s not careful.