Toward the end of The Peripheral, I had cause to use my iPhone to look up Newgate Prison in London. For his past two novels, William Gibson has assumed there exists an invisible cloud tag surrounding his work. He writes with the expectation that the reader can look up obscure places and references with the aid of Google.
I found Newgate to be much as he described in the book, though the picture he downloaded into my head was far cooler. What struck me, though, was that as I held this iPhone I was looking at the putative form of the technology Gibson creates in the novel. Like a lungfish that eventually becomes a hominin, the iPhone evolves into entire worlds inside Gibson’s mind. I say worlds for a reason. Spoilers must necessarily follow.
After eleven years, William Gibson has returned to tomorrow, having spent his last trilogy of novels exploring the “speculative fiction of the very recent past.” The future, it seems, caught up with Gibson, and he took a step back to take its measure before diving back into sci-fi. Gibson has re-calibrated what he calls his “yardstick” for the future. The result is, in its way, as revolutionary as Neuromancer, the novel that made him famous.
In The Peripheral, Gibson gives us not one future, but two, both existing in relation to one another, both on each other’s periphery. In one future, it is perhaps the mid-21st century (Gibson is never specific) and we are plunged into a rural America taken to a certain logical, if depressing extreme. There, a professional gamer named Flynne Fisher subs for her enhanced ex-Marine PSTD brother in a hyper-realistic virtual game. In the game, drones known as “paparazzi” swarm around a strange building and its stranger occupants. While her brother saw real combat, Flynne experienced her own trauma in a “virtual” combat simulation. Gibson explores our current culture of gaming through the eyes of a woman who actually suffered her own kind of PTSD after taking out an opponent online.
Flynne’s America is in a permanent recession. The southern county in which she lives is fueled by the megacorporation known as HeftyMart and the production of drugs on this future’s iteration of 3D printers. In this tomorrow, almost everything is printed, including phones that can bend around your wrist like a bracelet. Again the lungfish evolves to reveal what has always been one of the hallmarks of Gibson’s work: his seeming predicative ability. But Gibson is always cognizant of the fact that sci-fi has never really been about tomorrow, but a different set of tools for looking at today. His toolbox is as sharp as it’s ever been.
Inside the game she’s being paid to play, Flynne witnesses what may be a very real murder, and so the plot begins. Meanwhile, in another future set in a 22nd-century London all but devoid of people, Wilf Netherton serves as publicist to a strange celebrity who is living performance art. This future is post-Singularity. Nanobots called assemblers make whatever someone needs on the fly, and Wilf’s friends include a Russian member of the ruling kleptocracy—whose pets include resurrected Tasmanian tigers—and a woman who has four pupils and a device called a Medici which heals almost as if by magic. Wilf is, uncharacteristic of most Gibson characters, uncomfortable in his future.
His London is an alien city, and it takes a few chapters to ease into it. We are dumped into Wilf’s strange world where the Thames is rerouted at will and the skyline of old London is comprised of nothing but versions of The Shard. An entire section of the city is devoted to a Dickensian cosplay zone. In this future, Wilf is one of the few people who don’t routinely use proxy bodies called peripherals.
These biological nano-assembled simulacra allow people to experience the real world by remote. You want to visit Paris? No need to take the Chunnel, just transfer your senses to a peripheral. These auxiliary selves attend parties, go shopping and hang out in bars. The barrier between cyberspace and reality, which Gibson has long suggested is eroding, vanishes completely in Wilf’s future. Plot-wise, Wilf’s client has just assassinated a terrorist who is wanted dead by a hyper-aggressive, all-too-recognizable America. Wilf is in some amount of trouble, and it appears to relate to the murder Flynne witnessed in Wilf’s “past.”
But plot takes a backseat to what Gibson does best: prose and provocation. We are more interested in the characters and their worlds than we are the specifics of the plot. Indeed, Gibson has all but done away with the physical presence of the villain; what propels you through the pages are the prose and the miracles he weaves with words. “And then she was rising, out of what Burton said would be a launch bay in the roof of a van. Like she was in an elevator. No control yet. And all around her, and he hadn’t told her this, were whispers, urgent as they were faint, like a cloud of invisible fairy police dispatchers. And this other evening light, rainy, rose and silver, and to her left a river the color of cold lead. Dark tumble of city, towers in the distance, few lights.”
Which isn’t to say the plot doesn’t move. It does. Before long, you realize the two futures are connected via a mysterious Chinese server that allows travel between both timelines. Flynne’s world is fought over by powerful, shadowy figures from Wilf’s, as if her “past future” was little more than a game. Indeed, Wilf’s future is all about entertainment. People no longer want anything, and a pervasive malaise has subsumed the culture.
Flynne’s world leads to the future Wilf inhabits. You can see the DNA of the later timeline in the technology of hers. At one point, Wilf visits her world via a proto-peripheral known as a “Wheelie Boy”—a wheeled device with a tablet attached that allows a virtual visitation—and Gibson again demonstrates the connection between lungfish and fully developed human. He asks, what is the connection between today and tomorrow? It has always been his wheelhouse to explore, but he has never asked this question so provocatively before.
Flynne and Wilf are sympathetic—two people pushed to the extreme edge of technology, but still coping as people will. The characters are among Gibson’s most likable, and are, for better or worse, terribly, fragilely, human—existing inside worlds only Gibson could imagine. But neither is entirely comfortable in their future. Sure, they take miracles for granted, but an existential angst underscores their interaction with technology. In a way, this is Gibson’s most personal book since 2003’s Pattern Recognition. It is also a triumphal evolution of his prose.
Gibson has always been one of the living masters of English prose. Here, he painstakingly pushes his gift. The dialogue sparkles like Elmore Leonard sheathed in chrome, and the descriptions evoke wonder. Toward the end of the novel a character named Lowbeer says, “The aunties, continually mulling it over. A process akin to repetitious dreaming, or the protracted spinning of a given fiction. Not that they’re invariably correct, but over a sufficient course they do tend to find the likely suspects.” We know only that these aunties are advanced data-sorting and surveillance algorithms, and yet a whole world is crafted in a sentence. The book satisfies on every level.
Many fans waited impatiently for Gibson to return to the future. They weren’t fond of an author shifting his brand. These fans will not be disappointed. There is nothing like The Peripheral out in the world so far as I know. It is a return to his roots, but also a return to a certain weirdness that his books have marginalized since Neuromancer. There are no guideposts for the reader to follow into his latest tomorrows, just as there are none for us in real life. That, if anything, is Gibson’s view of the human condition. The Peripheral is a poignant, alarming and exciting vision.