The Peripheral

Although William Gibson’s first professional publication was the story “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” appearing in 1977, his true debut on a larger stage occurred in 1984 with the publication of his first novel, Neuromancer. Thus we denizens of 2014 are inhabiting not only the actual cyberpunk world that seminal, awards-sweeping book limned — and in fact helped to create — but also celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of Gibson’s career.

During that time, Gibson has largely gone from strength to strength. At his own deliberate, measured pace, seemingly immune to marketplace anxieties and publisher exigencies, he has never set a foot wrong, choosing his themes and literary venues with clever, instinctive, topical precision; exfoliating his eternal themes in a thoughtful and intelligent manner; daring to change modes from pure science fiction to a kind of hybrid “the future is now” mimesis. His ten novels cluster into three trilogies and one singleton, the latter, The Difference Engine, being exceptional not only for its steampunk flavor but for its collaborative genesis with fellow cyberpunk Bruce Sterling.

Now we have The Peripheral, Gibson’s first foray into actual futuristic territory since 1999’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Stand-alone, or start of a new series? I’ll save speculation on that topic to the end of the review. But I think you’ll be so busy marveling at this outstanding book, and wishing it would go on forever, that the question will become moot while you’re reading it.

Gibson immediately embarks on a two-track narrative, a not uncommon strategy — although the relationship between the two milieus of the novel is anything but common. In fact, their relative ontological foundations and their mutual interactions form an essential aspect of the tale that must be discussed in any review.

However, to discuss this feature of the book, we must “spoil” a Big Reveal, albeit one that takes place early on, about 100 pages into a 500-page book.

Knowing this to be the delicate and debatable case, I sought the wisdom of a senior critic, the esteemed John Clute, with whom I’ve spoken before about the fetishization of spoilers. Here’s his guideline:

I suggest that any one about to use the term “spoiler” substitute (at least mentally, as an exercise) the term “understander.” The term understander implies that a proper understanding of some stories — like Hitchcock’s Psycho — includes the understanding that a reveal should be deferred. But that understanding is an integral part of the critic’s judgment on the work in question, not an a priori tag designed to placate the Entitlement Vigilantes for whom their own reading experience must be the primary consideration for everyone else in the world, and which we dassn’t “spoil.”

As though a fairy story were ever spoiled by our knowing the breadcrumbs get eaten but so does the witch.

So then:  prepare yourself in a few paragraphs for a spoiler/understander about The Peripheral.

Our first venue is an unnamed small town in the USA, some relatively short but significant time into the future. The place” — “the county” — feels southern, perhaps harking back to Gibson’s own roots as a lad in Virginia. There we encounter a vividly drawn group of scraping-by sorts, all struggling to make do and get by in the wasteland of modern global capitalism. Primary among them is Flynne Fisher, a woman in her late twenties, still living at home with her ailing mother. Flynne has earned dough in the past by performing competitively in online multiplayer games and by helping out at the local 3-D fabbing facility run by her pal Shaylene.

But now she gets a small, temporary gig from her brother, Burton, a combat-damaged veteran who lives on his benefits in a kludged-up antique Airstream. Burton wants Flynne to helm his avatar (a flying drone) in a new experimental video game he’s beta-testing, while he’s away. She agrees. But while inside the realistic app, she witnesses a grisly murder she is unable to prevent, as per her assigned mission. This rather spoils the fun.

Cut to a different narrative: Wilf Netherton, a louche and dissipated London resident, is acting as manager-cum-publicist to a celebrity named Daedra West. Daedra is a kind of performance artist, all ego and an inch deep. Under remote surveillance, Daeadra is about to parasail onto the oceanic Great Garbage Patch and establish contact with the odd, reclusive residents of that floating mess, thus garnering some juicy and lucrative headlines.

But Daedra’s stunt proves to be merely a distracting sham to allow a military assault on the Garbage Patchers, wiping them out. Daedra’s a shill for USA spooks! Horrified at what he witnesses, Wilf cuts his ties with Daedra and retreats for solace to the luxurious London home of Russian kleptocrat Lev Zubov. But he can’t escape all the fallout, as a tough and scary cop, Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, soon comes calling. Moreover, Lowbeer brings news that Daedra’s sister, Aelita, has been assassinated — and in the precise manner and circumstances witnessed by Flynne Fisher.

Sounds like two contemporaneous intersecting tracks, right?  But here’s where the “understanding” comes in.

Wilf’s moment of nowness exists some seventy years after Flynne’s. He is living literally in Flynne’s future. (But then again, not precisely, as we see below.) Canny readers will have had suspicions all along that Wilf’s realm was technologically advanced beyond Flynne’s but chalked up the disparity to Gibson’s famous maxim, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” But no, Wilf lives in the “post-jackpot” era (shades of Heinlein’s “The Year of the Jackpot”), inhabiting a condition akin to a less drastic Singularity. Turns out, he and his crowd had set up the fake video game/real monitoring system to safeguard Aelita, then got Burton to run it from his vantage in the past, as cheap labor and something of a showoff stunt.

But the past of Flynne and her brother is not exactly on the same continuity as the historical years that led to Wilf. The two time streams were identical and one, up to the point where Wilf & Co. contacted the past. That intervention created a newly formed “stub,” an unpredictable branch of the multiverse brought to life by these amateur “continuaa enthusiasts.” And while the relative existential superiority of each era keeps flipping and inverting, in a kind of Philip K. Dick Ubik-style mind game, we ultimately accept all players as equally real.

Confused? Don’t be. Gibson lays all this out with absolute clarity, economically aided by sharp dialogue and clever incidents not quoted by me. What results is an absolute killer setup for plotting and speculative head trips.

Although there is no physical travel between the eras, communications flow two ways between the synchronized, lock-stepped periods, and that’s all the armature Gibson needs for his story. In Wilf’s era, brainless androids that can be run by telemetry from quiescent human operators are standard. The concept has long existed in SF, on exhibit most recently in  James Cameron’s Avatar. But Gibson’s inspired twist is to have the telemetry run from past to future. Flynne is going to get to visit Wilf “in person,” leapfrogging the decades between them and landing in an android body: a “peripheral.” And that’s when things really start to get weird.

Meanwhile, back in Flynne’s time and place, she and her crowd are dealing with a varied set of antagonists intent on hindering or killing them. Burton gets a chance to deploy his ex-Marine skills, as does another handicapped cyborg vet, Conner Penske. Wilf’s knowledge of how history once happened cannot help him forecast the events in the stub. But because Wilf & Co. operate with superior post-jackpot technology, they can direct their minions in the stub to perform near-miracles on behalf of their old-era allies.

Jumping dizzyingly back and forth between venues — this 500-page book has some 124 chapters, some as short as a paragraph or three — the story zips through the parallel, interwoven plots in masterful fashion until everything is resolved with a taut, literally explosive climax.

The result is a masterful accomplishment in several ways. First, the fact that Gibson has, out of these materials, written not a tragedy but a comedy, is a refreshing surprise for an old “punk.”  This book is full of laugh-out-loud dialogue (from Flynne and her set, who have cultivated a sense of ironic humor against life’s injustices) and droll observations (from the effete and wasted Netherton, a man struggling to overcome his demons with quips and bon mots, and from his jaded peers). There’s plenty of amiable satire, too, from Simpsonian riffs such as the ubiquitous Hefty Marts with their HQ in Delhi, to more savage jabs such as a presidential assassination enacted by none other than the vice president. And fulfilling the tenets of pure Aristotelian/Shakespearean comedy, the book’s coda features a handful of weddings and shackings-up, and even a pregnancy.

Second, in his dual-world setup (which will remind some of China Miéville’s scenario in The City & the City), Gibson has wrought not only a brilliant story engine that harks back with its chronal paradoxes to such wild-eyed time-travel tales as A. E. van Vogt’s “Recruiting Station” and The Terminator (note that when Wilf gets to visit the past via telemetry, he embodies not as a sexy, savage killer robot but as a lollipop on wheels), but also a parable about innocence versus experience, privation versus privilege, ignorance versus knowledge, egocentricity versus self-abnegation. Likewise, it’s not too far-out, I think, to interpret the book as a meta-commentary on the nature of SF itself: Wilf’s future (science fiction literature) reaches backward to shape the present (Flynne’s era) but is in turn re-channeled by influences from the present.

Third, Gibson not only performs his usual insightful and kicky miracles regarding non-standard “street” usage of day-after-tomorrow technology during the Flynne sections, but he also dares to take on the posthuman world for the first time, envisioning the near-magic super-science of Wilf’s era with far-out, Clarkean precision. In this latter mission, he comes close to Doctorow and Stross’s achievements in The Rapture of the Nerds. There is probably one new speculative element on every page of this book, if not more. The reader will encounter squidsuits and weaponized baby prams, Medici robo-docs and workout exoskeletons, among many other wonders.

Employing a mordant, biting sensibility throughout (“Wilf . . . looked like a low-key infomercial for an unnamed product”), conveying his twin futures with care and  sensuality (“Inside, the trailer was the color of Vaseline, LEDs buried in it,  bedded in Hefty Mart amber”), building a huge spectrum of solid, sympathetic characters (“Whole worlds falling, and maybe hers too, and it made [Flynne] want to phone Janice . . . and see how her mother was doing”), Gibson has created a book that will serve as a portal into another thirty years of great writing, we can hope.

So: stand-alone novel or first in a series? I’m betting the latter. Having expended immense energies inventing these complex dual interlocked worlds, Gibson will naturally want to explore them more deeply, for maximum return on his intellectual investment. And although this book reaches a complete and satisfying resolution, there are still some major unanswered questions. Why are all records of Flynne’s eventual demise missing? Has the jackpot been prevented in the stub? And most vitally, what is the mysterious Chinese “server” device that allows stubs to come into being and communicate?

I can’t wait to learn these answers, and I’m sure other readers will feel the same. But we’ll have to wait for revelations on the only person whose technology can see into this timeline’s tantalizing future.