They want to kill a dead man in a past that effectively doesn’t exist?
–William Gibson, The Peripheral
First off: if you know nothing about this book, and are thinking of reading it, don’t read any reviews or find a synopsis online, just go pick it up and dive in. If you don’t know anything going in, then things are wonderfully confusing right from the beginning.
If you refuse to go in blind, however, read on! William Gibson‘s The Peripheral is to John Scalzi’s Lock In what a brie cheese is to some sliced cheddar. Cheddar is simply delicious and easy to consume on the daily, but then you eat some brie and you’re like, “Man, this is cheese artfully done! I could ponder this cheese all day.” William Gibson is a master of near-future science fiction, he’s a speculative fiction genius who has been called a noir prophet, and The Peripheral is another example of why he gets all these accolades.
We meet easy going, thick-skinned Flynne in a near-future just a blink away from our own. She’s tough because she has to be, with a sick mom and a brother just home from the military, who shakes and shivers every now and then as military biotech still runs amuck inside his body and mind. Tomboy Flynne can hold her own in high-tech shooter games, as wealthy businessmen too busy to play their own games contract out their characters to skilled players for pay, like some strange fantasy football cabal.
In Flynne’s hometown, the economy is shot to hell. Flynne’s friends spend their time gaming and 3D printing pretty much everything, shying away from jobs they consider “funny,” fretting over Homeland Security (“Homes”) getting all up in their phones and their lives. Her cousin and brother, both home from vague wars considerably worse than they left, are drone experts just waiting for an excuse to put their many military skills into action.
Things get strange when Flynne agrees to sub for her brother in a side job he’s picked up, playing security for some strange new game. Paparazzi take the form of bugs, swirling at the windows of a high building. Flynne controls a drone, keeping them at bay. All goes well until she sees something she shouldn’t. And she starts thinking, what the hell is this game anyways?
In alternate scenes, in what seems to be a wildly alternate world, publicist Wilf Netherton wrangles a celebrity about to drop into ragtag community living upon the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. That’s right, this is how good Gibson is–he’s created a community living upon that big garbage patch of plastic, floating in the ocean.
Gibson leaves both Flynne and the reader in the dark as to what exactly is going on, and we get a slow reveal just on pace with that of Flynne and her family. So this is your final spoiler alert, exit the review now if you want to check out the book without knowing what’s going on!
Okay, still here?
Those in Wilf’s world, a hop and a skip into the future from those in Flynne’s, have found a portal into the past, and rich obsessives are reaching out into that past, reaching out to people like Flynne, for their own enjoyment. The past is the playground for the future’s rich.
I’ve really just let you in on the premise here, and much of the plot surrounds the past and future bleeding into one another. This is a story of high and low cultures mixing, but they are mixing through time, rather than space. Although I’ve let you in on this spoiler, there will still be much mystery and mayhem to come for you in the novel.
Once you wrap your mind around the time travel aspect, the culture clash between Flynne’s backwoods abruptness and Wilf’s well-bred timidity is quite delightful. Gibson alternates between narrating the story in Flynne’s and Wilf’s voices, writing prose to match each of their tones. Flynn’s lilting sentences read like an old farmhand’s, steady and driving, while Wilf reads twittered and fretting. Some reviewers criticized the prose, and I think they missed the intentionality here. The wealthy future is missing a simple contentment that the considerably worse off past seems to possess.
But the thing Gibson always does best is push aspects of our present forward into their furthest progression, with sometimes dreadful, and always interesting, results. He sees a future in which veterans travel to fight with the fringe religious group Luke 4:5 as it protests anything and everything, a future in which reality TV and politics mix, a future in which tattoos go mainstream and those truly alternative go for benign skin cancers. There is nothing in this book that is wildly out there as far as the future goes–all of it seems (frighteningly) just around the corner.
- Paul Graham Raven on The Peripheral – The Spectacle of Disintegration: Lessons from a Peripheral Utopia – the LA Review of Books has some insightful commentary by futurist and literary critic Paul Graham Raven.
- Interviews – William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211 – The Paris Review interviews are always brilliant, and although this interview is from Summer 2011, it is an author interview that often stays with me.
- William Gibson interview: ‘Writing sci-fi was like running away and joining a carnival’ – I just really love the drawing of William Gibson in this Telegraph article! Oh my gosh, it is cracking me up.