The future has been worrying us lately. A good deal of conversation has taken place online about how it looks to us, in fact as well as in fiction, and how that matters. A smart example is Virginia Postrel’s 10/08/14 post on Bloomberg View, though it’s not, and doesn’t pretend to be, comprehensive.
William Gibson’s new novel has something to add to this. After working with the future in his early fictions, he steadily moved his settings closer to the present, and his previous three books (sometimes called the Bigend trilogy) took place more or less in the here and now. In a move that seems remarkably well timed, Gibson has returned to the future in The Peripheral, and what he finds there isn’t likely to please those hoping for techno-optimist visions.
The story is a doozy, a complex and elaborate version of a basic thriller scenario: Somebody saw something happen, and someone else is now after them because of it. The task for the main characters is to figure out what they’re mixed up in, and Gibson aligns our interest with theirs by giving us a similar experience, requiring us to make sense of what we’ve gotten into. There are no thumbnail sketches of characters as we meet them, no explanatory descriptions of world elements as we encounter them. The novel employs a tactic of indirect and delayed exposition that begins with the first sentence: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him.”
We soon learn a little about Flynne’s brother. But who is Flynne herself, whose point of view we follow in the first chapter? Who is Netherton, the man with a hangover whom we follow in the second chapter? What kind of world does he live in, where phone calls seem to present themselves directly to his eyes and ears? What’s the connection between these two? Scores of pages pass before we can work that out, although a parallel between them soon emerges: Flynne witnesses a death in what she believes to be a game-world version of London, Netherton witnesses a death on a strange island of repurposed plastic in the Pacific, and each of them ends up in trouble because of it. But who died, and why, and who’s after them? As the novel’s short chapters (averaging 3.9 pages each) alternate between these two, tentative answers arrive, the picture develops, and further questions accumulate.
Gibson’s method is fascinating and is one of the book’s major pleasures. It shares something with noirish fictions of the past in which the truth about the nature of things takes time to emerge, but the way Gibson proceeds has more in common with a modern-day style in which interpreting the story is a game of collecting and connecting numberless bits of information. The TV series Lost may be the most extreme example: that was a hugely baroque exercise in casting viewers as Tantalus, for whom a coherent and comprehensive explanation always eluded the grasp. You’ll find no polar bears in The Peripheral; Gibson isn’t interested in piling up perplexities. Bit by bit, with many small, deft moves, a large structure is assembled before your eyes—much like the way 3-D printing operates.
That’s not to say that everything is explained. A degree of uncertainty is part of the game. Indeterminacy litters the story, in such statements as these:
“Something flew into [the woman’s] mouth.”
“Looks like the thing we’re printing is for doing something that something a lot more evolved could do a lot better.”
“Netherton…looked like he was standing in the back of something’s throat, all pink and shiny.”
“Something stilled the part of him that knitted narrative…”
In a way, Gibson is again dramatizing what the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry for him (speaking of the Bigend trilogy) called “the indecipherability of the real world,” though the real world in this case is in the future.
Actually, there are two plotlines and two futures in The Peripheral. One of the futures—I’ll call it Neartime—is a pretty recognizable extension of our present and takes place in an economically depressed, small-town region of the American South. Here, gaming for pay is one way of earning cash—Flynne did it in the past but gave it up for work in a 3-D print shop, and her brother’s been doing it lately—but the main local product is illegal drugs, manufactured by way of nanotech, and drug money has corrupted the county political system. Gaming now uses a form of virtual reality, but phones are still, as in our world, separate objects. That’s no longer the case in Fartime, the second plotline, which is situated in London 70-odd years later. Here, “phones” include video and have been integrated into people’s bodies, controlled with a tongue tap on the roof of the mouth, and that’s just the beginning of the differences.
In a sense, this is the future of Neartime, but in another sense it’s not. Gibson proposes that someone in Fartime has figured out how to communicate with the past but that, once you establish a connection, that entire world branches off, detaches itself from your history, goes its own way. You can tinker with one of these stubs, as they’re called, all you want without affecting your world; doing so is one of the hobbies of Netherton’s idle-rich friend, Lev, a scion of the Russian kleptocracy, which wields much influence here. What’s more, because communications with that past world are two-way, someone in your stub can employ a form of telepresence and participate in your world.
That summary says very little about the novel, but it includes an important point. Gibson has always been concerned with the blurring boundary between the virtual and the real. In The Peripheral we have two entire worlds that are, to some extent, unreal to each other. From the standpoint of characters in Fartime, Flynne’s world exists and must be dealt with (they need her help in solving the murder she saw), and yet that world doesn’t matter in that it has no other bearing on their present. They’re connected with a past that was but no longer is their own. Similarly, Flynne and the others in Neartime come to know the future to which they had been headed, but they still can’t know where they’re going instead. The people of The Peripheral are detached from both past and future, stuck in the volatility of the now.
As is his wont, Gibson reverts to convention when it comes time to resolve the story. The habit upsets some readers. “I don’t like novels that end happily,” says Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II. “They depress me so much.” Likewise, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry remarked of Gibson’s work that his tidy plot resolutions “[diminish] the impact of his harsh visions.” It should be remembered that Cecily’s complaint leads to Miss Prism’s oft-quoted observation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This entitles us to regard an ending as a mere matter of form and to look elsewhere for the substance of a story, which is how we can best judge The Peripheral. In this work, the weight resides, not in the neatness of its final chapters, but in all that comes before, where tech junkies will find much to get high on, and where readers sensitive to Gibson’s immense craftsmanship will discern much to worry about.
(Notes: Quotations were drawn from an advance reading copy and haven’t been verified. A slightly longer version of this review is available on Goodreads.)