What’s It About
The novel alternates between two future time periods. The first is the mid 21st Century where 3D printing is all the rage and so is virtual reality gaming. The second time-line is set 70 years later (the early 22nd Century), where an apocalyptic event called the Jackpot has seen 80% of humanity wiped out. Society has since been rebuilt through nanotechnology and those who survive live, for the most part, a life of indulgence and luxury.
Through a form of quantum tunneling a server in the 22nd Century connects with a server in the 21st Century allowing communication between the two timelines. Flynne, who lives in the small American rural town of Coldiron with her sick mother and brother (a veteran of the US Marine Corps), discovers that the game she thought she was playing is actually a slice of London in the 22nd Century. When she observes a murder take place while connected to her “game” she finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy that spans both timelines.
Should I Read It?
Yes. But it’s a reserved yes.
There’s some fantastic ideas on display here, the best of which is setting your novel in the future – with all its cultural change and neologisms – and then having that near future communicate with a distant future – with all its cultural changes and neologisms. It means that for 15 or so chapters (there’s over 120 in the book), The Peripheral is a wonderful wallop to the brain.
However, as the novel progresses Gibson appears to lose confidence in his story. He seems concerned that the audience won’t understands the concepts he’s introducing unless he keeps explaining them. And so a good chunk of the book is given over to exposition, and while some of it is genuinely interesting, the constant repetition is annoying.
IT’S NOT A TIME TRAVEL NOVEL PEOPLE!!!!!
“No,” said Ash. “That’s time travel. This is real. When we sent our first e-mail to their Panama, we entered into a fixed ratio of duration with their continuum: one to one. A given interval in the stub is the same interval here, from first instant of contact. We can no more know their future than we can know our own, except to assume that it ultimately isn’t going to be history as we know it. And, no, we don’t know why. It’s simply the way the server works, as far as we know.”
Up until this year, Neuromancer was the first and only William Gibson novel I’d read. I have vague recollections of picking up the book in the early 90s, when I was 16 or 17, captivated by the cover art on the mass market paperback. I was in the midst of a major horror / splatter-punk kick – meat and potatoes fiction with a splash of gore – and so I found Gibson’s strange world and hip prose packed with neologisms and portmanteaus to be off-putting. I couldn’t get my head around it. And while I finished the book I decided that Gibson wasn’t my type of writer.
It’s fascinating how the prejudices we form when we are in our teenage years, and well before our tastes have had a proper chance to develop, can leave an indelible mark well into our adult years. Not reading William Gibson until now, and only because his book has been hoovered up in this shortlist insanity I’m currently embarking on, has, in my humble, resulted in a significant hole in my own personal canon. And while I thought The Peripheral was a flawed novel, I’m still compelled to go back – at some point – and read through Gibson’s oeuvre.
And the thing is, the opening of this novel is just fantastic. As with Neuromancer, I found myself caught totally off guard. But unlike my earlier-self I was excited precisely because I wasn’t entirely sure what was going or where the novel was headed. Was this seriously going to be a book set between two future timelines, each as alien to each other as they are to the reader? And were they really going to be linked together via a Chinese computer server? And was this adamantly not a time travel novel because the moment the link between the timelines occurred, the past diverged from the future it was connected to? And best of all, could you visit this possible future through the aid of a Peripheral, i.e. a flesh and blood avatar that users connect to from another location such as, you know, the freaking past!?
It’s enormously cool stuff, underpinned by two well conceived future histories. Flynne, our first point of view character, lives in the small American town of Coldiron in what is essentially a trailer park. In this not too distant future, 3D printing has gone from a hobby to the way most things are made and those who join the army, like Flynne’s brother, are augmented so they can link directly to drones and other weapons of mass destruction. Flynne hasn’t been augmented but as a gamer she has the equipment to connect with security drones. As a favour to her brother, who has made money on the side using drones to run security operations for VIP clients, Flynne enters a virtual London and spends a few hours shooing paparazzi drones away from a couple of famous people. It’s in this VR world that she sees a murder take place.
Except we discover that it’s not a virtual world at all but actually 22nd Century London. And what Flynne has seen is an actual murder. It’s a couple of decades after the Jackpot, an apocalyptic event that saw the death of 80% of the world’s population and the survivors have used nanotechnology to rebuild society. Enter Wilf Netherton, our second point of view character (the chapters alternate between Wilf and Flynne). He’s a publicist who after being sacked from his previous job is now slumming it with his extremely rich Russian mate Lev Zubov:
Netherton knew there was a house of love as well, in Kensington Gore, several houses of business, plus the family home in Richmond Hill. The Notting Hill house had been Lev’s grandfather’s first London real estate, acquired midcentury, just as the jackpot really got going. It reeked of the connections allowing it to quietly decay. There were no cleaners here, no assemblers, no cams, nothing controlled from outside. You couldn’t buy permission for that. Lev’s father simply had it, and likely Lev would too, though his two brothers, whom Netherton avoided if at all possible, seemed better suited to exercise the muscular connectedness needed to retain it.
It just so happens that the girl that Flynne saw murdered – Aelita West – is known to both Wilf and Lev. And with Flynne’s assistance, and the help of the enigmatic Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, they hope to discover who and why Aelita was killed.
As you can see the set-up for this novel is monumental. Not only does Gibson have to create two very different future scenarios, he also needs to set a plot in motion and provide us with a cast of characters we can engage with. And for at least the first third of the novel it looks like he’s going to pull it off. The ideas and the plot move at a clip (Flynne’s first journey into the future as a Peripheral is a genuine “wow” moment) and both our protagonists are characters worth spending time with, even if they’re not the nicest people.
But suddenly the novel comes to an abrupt halt as Gibson seems to lose confidence in the world he has created. Every idea and concept the novel has introduced is explained, and then explained again. And the exposition runs between the timelines as once Wilf becomes aware of something he passes it onto Flynne who then feels the need to explain it to someone else. An example of this is the economic situation – or more importantly how two factions from the 22nd Century are gaming the financial markets in the 21st Century. While this does lead to the hilarious realisation that a small American town is essentially controlling the world economy – it suddenly becomes overrun with lawyers, economists and PR people – Gibson’s and the character’s need to explain the economic situation again and again becomes increasingly annoying.
And then there’s the repeated explanation of (a) how the link between the two timelines has occurred and (b) how the connection has created a divergent past and future. In Chapter 24 this is explained to us by Ash (see the representative quote above) and then it’s explained again in Chapter 26 by Lev:
“It’s actually quite simple. The act of connection produces a fork in causality, the new branch causally unique. A stub, as we call them.”
Then again in Chapter 42 when Netherton is describing it to Flynne and once again in Chapter 45 when Flynne is explaining it to her mates in the mid 21st Century. This constant compulsion to explain made me wonder whether Gibson wasn’t sure whether his readers – who might have become accustomed to his near future thrillers – would understand the crazy-arse transtemporal and financial concepts he was playing with. And because there’s so much explaining going on the middle of the novel, there’s very little room for the plot to develop. It means that one of the key moments, a party that Flynne is to attend in the future so she can point out Aelita’s murderers, happens so late in the novel (10 short chapters before the end) that the climax and resolution is abrupt and unsatisfying.
But as much as the novel’s flaws irritated me, it’s the crazy concepts, and some wicked humour especially concerning lawyers and PR people, that kept me engaged. Even with the constant need to over-explain, The Peripheral is still one of the smartest science fiction novels published in 2014.