Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Peripheral by William Gibson

I started late with William Gibson. The first of his novels I read was Pattern Recognition. The fact that I didn’t have the decades of memories of Neuromancer is probably one reason I think The Peripheral might be his best book (Neuromancer is the only one I’ve read twice, and it, the Blue Ant books, and The Difference Engine are probably next on my list). Another reason might be that Gibson primed me to like this one by describing this as akin to the TV show Justified, but set in the future. That’s not a bad comparison. There’s one character who seems to be modeled on Boyd Crowder. In one of the two future timelines that comprise the novel the characters live in an economically depressed area in southern America and try to scrape by both inside and outside of the law.

The thing that most disposes me to this book, I suspect, is that in that hardscrabble future the characters use makerspaces. I run a makerspace at a library, so this automatically put the book on good footing in my eyes. In the book, the technology, 3D printers and the like are sufficiently advanced that they can make almost any technological object. This includes smartphones that several characters use to play virtual reality games professionally. At the behest of bored rich people. Far from some of the more prominent Twitch users, these folks are barely scraping by. Flynne, one of the two protagonists of the book, uses it to buy her mother’s meds. The tension between wealth and bohemia that runs through all of his work is on full display here. In Gibson’s words “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

That future is sometime later this century. The other timeline is in the next century, post- an initially unclear apocalypse. In that time reality TV has “merged with politics and then with performance art.” Wilf Netherton is a publicist who is working with Canadian secret service. Figuring out the way in which these two timelines merge is part of the pleasure of the novel, so I won’t say too much. In the beginning, Flynne is operating a drone in that alternate future from her timeline all the while thinking she’s playing a game. She witnesses a murder. Solving that murder, and figuring out how the two fit together provide the forward momentum of the book.

Gibson knits his future with some interesting strands: Speculating out from algorithms that currently used to game the stock market based on the difference of microseconds. People scraping by with what they can fabricate themselves. Eking out survival wages playing virtual reality games. The use of smaller and smaller drones which allow for nearly miraculous feats of engineering. Many parties competing in the market of near ubiquitous surveillance. Body modification/posthuman theory. Much of this will seem familiar to readers of Gibson’s previous work.

In that milieu, Gibson tells a compelling story. It took 70 or 80 pages to establish the the worlds, but once it did the book is hard to put down.  Blurbs are often misleading or an author doing a favor for another. That said, I think that Cory Doctorow nailed it in his when he said it “features all the eyeball kicks of Neuromancer and all the maturity and wit of Spook Country.” It is a great novel.


MILD SPOILER: One of the things I liked best about the book is its refusal to go for simple explanations. In the strand that farther into the future, there was no single event that caused the apocalypse. The Jackpot, as it was called, was the result of many factors, environmental, economic, cultural and political. This is something many apocalyptic books don’t seem to understand.

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