by William Gibson
Putnam, 485 pp., $28.95
William Gibson has spent his career in the shadow of his first novel, Neuromancer, which was published in 1984 and greeted as at once a punk revolt against traditional science fiction and a crystallization of the anxieties of the age. The book depicted a future in which identity was dictated by technology, the natural world had been subsumed by cities, and the geographic distinction of borders had given way to a frenetically visual monoculture dominated by the neon ads of multinational corporations.
Critics found resonances with Guy Debord’s attack on “mechanical civilizations” and Jean Baudrillard’s recently promulgated concept of the hyperreal, particularly in Gibson’s forecasting of the Internet—which at the time of his writing was still inchoate, text-based, and the insular preserve of programmers—as a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions,” with “lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding,” and a user experience akin to mysticism, drug use, and sexual release. (It hasn’t exactly turned out that way, but Gibson’s coinage of the term “cyberspace” lives on.)
Neuromancer still has a shimmer, three decades later, but those who celebrate it today, as a cultural landmark or divination, likely don’t remember the more eccentric specifics of the plot—the interconnection of voodoo gods and artificial intelligence, for example—which got only more improbable in the book’s two sequels. In the 1990s, Gibson began to create characters and skylines less distanced from our own time, occupying an exaggerated, sped-up present. With the turn of the century, he recalibrated again: his most recent books, published after, and directly confronting, September 11, were anchored in a recognizable now. This shift prompted some critics to argue that he had become a realist writer and was accordingly of greater literary interest, as if abandoning science fiction were a sign of evolution.
His new novel, The Peripheral, could be read as a rebuff to that notion. On the surface, it is a return to science fiction, taking the form of one of the most traditional of science-fiction narratives, an anthropological account of first contact between cultures. In this case, the encounter is not interplanetary but between two different periods of time. (Gibson has rarely strayed from Earth and its immediate orbit, or entertained the notion of off-world life forms.) The book unfolds in two distinct futures, one approximately a decade or two from ours, the other a century out. In the former, the point of focus is Flynne Fisher, the latest in a line of alliteratively named Gibson heroines dating back to the “street samurai” (i.e., assassin) Molly Millions, first seen in the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981).
Flynne’s existence is more constrained than her freewheeling predecessors’ and could well be described as peripheral: she’s trapped in a dead-end Appalachian town loomed over by global chain stores with names like Hefty Mart (headquartered, it’s noted in an aside, in Delhi). Off in the distance, there is still a president, notably female and Hispanic, but locally, little distinguishes the government from the drug cartel. To keep up with her mother’s medical prescriptions (“paying the cancer rent”), Flynne pulls shifts at Forever Fab, a 3-D printing outlet that churns out everything from personal drones to the croissant-doughnut hybrids called cronuts that have a cult following even in our reality. (The reference is a small joke, Gibson retreading a favorite theme, the ever briefer passage of a product from fetish to banality.) The brightest young men have returned from wars overseas with wounds visible and invisible; what little emotional life Flynne allows herself involves mourning the futures they might have had, without being able to picture an alternate one. It’s a vision of America not so far removed from our day—the present, congealed.
To supplement their income, Flynne and others in her circle freelance as virtual mercenaries, fighting in a multiplayer online video game on behalf of wealthy enthusiasts, who deploy them like chessmen and bet on the outcome. (In our own time, people have hired stand-ins to play the tedious early rounds of games as a shortcut to higher levels.) To Flynne, her employers are “rich fucks” who neither “needed the money they won, or cared about what they lost.” She suspects that one particular gambler, who plays the game himself instead of outsourcing, gets off on killing her friends because “it really cost them…. People on her squad were feeding their children with what they earned playing, and maybe that was all they had.” Her apprehension of class politics is more instinctual than articulated, but it makes her a kind of conscientious objector to her society’s general blasé embrace of corruption and violence.
If Flynne is a version of the classic plucky small-town girl whose moral sensibility puts her at odds with her surroundings—complete with a name that has the zing of the comic strip—her counterpart in alternating chapters is the world-weary loner, embodied by Wilf Netherton, publicist and virtuosic liar, alcoholic and “purposeless” malcontent. He is introduced hungover, in an eerily hushed, deserted London that it is immediately apparent belongs to a more technologically advanced era than Flynne’s. This is eventually identifiable as the twenty-second century. (Starting a Gibson novel is a bit like sitting down to an uncaptioned film in a foreign language, the expectation being that by the end you will speak it; readers are thrust into the story, as if in enforced empathy with the characters, both scrambling to figure out what’s going on.)
Wilf is more worldly than Flynne, but his world is a shrunken place: 80 percent of the human population has died in a cataclysm called “the jackpot,” not a single event but a slow burn over forty years, the collective result of man’s impact, simply by existing, on the environment:
Droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.
(Gibson isn’t plucking numbers out of the air; the controversial environmental scientist James Lovelock has predicted similarly radical climate change and warned, “There are about 80 percent more people than the world can carry.”) Post-jackpot London is run by an alliance between unfathomably wealthy clans that Gibson calls “klepts” and some modern and not entirely benign incarnation of the city’s historic trade guilds. When Wilf loses his job, he retreats to the home of his friend Lev, the scion of an old klept and a “man-child of leisure” who has a new hobby: accessing and manipulating a segment of the past, via a mysterious, “massively encrypted” wormhole server.
Gibson has said that he was inspired by the story “Mozart in Mirrorshades” (1985), by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, in which time travel is used for imperialist ends, to extract mineral resources from the preindustrial past. Sterling and Shiner get around the grandfather paradox—what if a traveler going backward in time accidentally kills his grandfather, thus preventing himself from being born?—by positing that once the present has made contact with a specific moment in the past, that strand of time forks off from recorded history and heads toward an alternate future. This enables the people of the present to keep pillaging different parts of the past, like colonial possessions, without affecting their own history. It’s a clever setup, although it is employed by Sterling and Shiner largely for comic effect, with Mozart composing Billboard hits in an eighteenth-century Salzburg whose cobblestones are undercut by oil pipelines.
The Peripheral follows this model but has stricter rules. No corporeal time travel is possible, only an exchange of data, including Skype-like communications and financial transfers. How Lev approaches his “stub” of time is not so different from Flynne’s employers and their video games; while he takes a paternalistic interest in the lives of the people in it, to him, they aren’t fully autonomous or “real.” (From a twenty-second-century legal perspective, they aren’t: anyone who was alive in Flynne’s time is likely long dead in the jackpot and technically a ghost.) When others in Lev’s time start interfering with his stub, it launches a kind of transtemporal Great Game, with opposing sides struggling for dominance, pouring outsized resources and weapons into Flynne’s small town. “Imperialism,” one of Lev’s tech liaisons says blandly. “We’re third-worlding alternate continua.”
When Flynne and Wilf finally “meet,” via a chronologically flexible Facetime, the encounter is played for laughs—Flynne’s blunt American talk (“Does a bear shit in the woods?”) vs. Wilf’s elegant British obfuscations—but it gives Wilf, for apparently the first time in his life, a moral imperative: to try to save Flynne, who’s witnessed a murder, from the thugs coming to get her. Inevitably he starts to imagine himself half in love with her. What follows is one of the more oblique and chimerical courtships in recent literary memory, as Wilf escorts Flynne around twenty-second-century London, or more precisely her consciousness, lodged inside a “peripheral,” the word for a living mannequin. The peripheral functions like a video-game avatar, except that instead of a graphical representation on a screen it is a corporeal figure in the real world, biologically human, without independent thought. (Gibson is a master of the barbed aside: bespoke peripherals are made by the likes of Hermès and Vuitton, and “Vuitton are always blond.”)
As in other Gibson novels, the pulpish plot is the golden thread through a maze of strangeness, cliché as something to cling to in the face of the unknown. The latter includes such twenty-second-century technological accoutrements as cell phones that are embedded in the body and called into action by the stroke of a tongue. In lieu of computer monitors, a “feed” is opened directly in the eyes—the logical evolution of Google Glass, perhaps. After the ravages of the jackpot, London has been rebuilt by mechanical “assemblers,” with cleaned, excavated rivers under glass roofs, forests of “quasi-biological megavolume carbon collectors that look like trees,” and a grid of skyscrapers called shards (presumably after the eighty-seven-story Shard tower, finished in 2012 and as of now the tallest building in Western Europe). Department stores have gone the way of most animals, lost in the Anthropocene extinction (a term in current science usage for the depletion of species in the time of man); of the real estate free-for-all that ensued after the winnowing of Homo sapiens, Wilf recalls, “Selfridges had actually been a single private residence, briefly.”
This is a more complicated scene than the typically conjured postapocalyptic landscape, with bands of survivalists hunkered in the dark, gnawing at raw meat. From the perspective of Flynne’s backwater, it doesn’t seem such a bad place to be. What’s wrong with a world where a portable miniature medical device can cure a hangover and fix a broken collarbone; where manual labor has been handed off to nanobots, enabling lives of leisure; where tattoos fetchingly roam the skin and WiFi connections seemingly never go down? But Wilf is convinced that “some prior order, or perhaps the lack of one, afforded a more authentic existence.” He’s fascinated by how “entirely human” the people of Flynne’s time are: “Gloriously pre-posthuman. In a state of nature.” There’s bit of magical “noble savage” thinking here, since Flynne and her friends are almost as far removed from nature as Wilf. At a certain point an old detective who lived through the jackpot tries to disabuse him of his “nostalgia for things you’d never known”:
“I personally recall that world, which you can only imagine was preferable to this one,” she said. “Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experienced them. We carve history from totalities beyond our grasp. Bolt labels on the result.”
Gibson is toying with familiar tropes: of a decadent civilization looking back wistfully on an imagined prelapsarian past; of the clash between urban, etiolated aristocrats and country rubes, neither of whom prove to be exactly that.
But Gibson has always been better at exploring ideas than plumbing psychology, at constructing outer worlds than inner ones. His characters tend to function as bundles of nerves, reacting more than reflecting, and his incessant cross-cutting from one to another has often made it difficult for fully developed personalities to emerge. This changed with Pattern Recognition (2003), his only novel thus far to stick with a single perspective, that of the “coolhunter” Cayce Pollard, whose slightly fantastical handicap—a physical allergy to logos—was balanced by a convincingly sketched past (she became disoriented and unable to grieve properly after her father’s disappearance in the September 11 attacks), and who achieved on the page a rare fidelity to life. Neither Flynne nor Wilf has much by way of personal history to inform who they are; they are intensely creatures of their moment. One could go so far as to say that they aren’t characters at all, merely avatars or peripherals for Gibson’s own restive consciousness.
The Peripheral may be Gibson’s bleakest book, for all its glints of humor and feint at a happy ending. In earlier novels, his characters were wildcatters, untethered to the places they found themselves in, ever en route to somewhere else. Flynne and her friends have little sense of the outside world beyond the trickle-down cuisine offered at the local Sushi Barn. Their isolation is as much a matter of class as geography. When, in the thicket of plot, Hefty Mart is acquired by Lev’s clan, Flynne marvels: “It was like buying the moon.”
Perhaps as a result, the language of the twenty-first-century sections seems stilted. Gibson has often evoked Dashiell Hammett in his characters’ speech, but here it’s particularly fragmentary and gnomic, almost impoverished, with articles and pronouns often jettisoned entirely, along with self-reflection. (It’s typically the “I” that gets lost: “Scares me.” “Hurts my eyes.” “Haven’t slept.”) While it’s believable that this is how these characters would talk and think (Gibson grew up in Appalachia), I missed the precision and flash of his earlier prose, his fistfuls of sparks—like a throwaway line in Virtual Light (1993), describing a woman’s hair as “the pelt of some nocturnal animal that had fed on peroxide and Vaseline”—and his crisp indictments, perhaps never better than in Pattern Recognition: “There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.”
Missing, too, is the kind of shambolic bohemian subculture that Gibson once called “where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies.” In his previous books, these functioned as refuges for people on the margins, from the secret hacker network in Idoru (1996) to the shantytown jury-rigged on an earthquake-damaged bridge in Virtual Light.
In The Peripheral the sole example of subculture is more gruesome: a neoprimitive cult of self-mutilated cannibals has set up a colony on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a whirlpool of plastic debris buoyed by the rotating ocean currents of the North Pacific Gyre. The colonists believe they have opted out of the system, when they’ve merely created “another manifestation of it, but with heritage diseases.” Their aggressive body modifications, including “benign skin cancers, supernumerary nipples” and “pseudo-ichthyotic scaling,” seem indulgent set against the combat wounds and multiple amputations suffered by soldiers in Flynne’s time.
In Gibson’s last two novels, Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010), the figure of “the old man” appears, a former intelligence officer who still keeps an eye on the government’s machinations. I’ve always thought of him as Gibson’s proxy, a quiet dissident, motivated by “some sort of seething Swiftian rage…that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.” Like most of Gibson’s novels, The Peripheral turns frantic toward the end, with a series of increasingly zany thriller scenes; the build to the climax involves a burrito delivered by drone, a corporate merger, and a weaponized pram. This is fodder for Gibson’s fans, not those seeking insight, but no Gibson novel would be complete without the moment when “the localized high-pressure zone of weird begins to manifest.”
Gibson’s early work was dubbed “cyberpunk,” a genre that Fredric Jameson declared “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.” But Gibson himself repudiated the label after it lost its connection to ideas and came to be associated with a deracinated style, all flash and gleaming surfaces. And while Neuromancer is still potent, Pattern Recognition is arguably his most completely realized novel. Not because it is more “realistic”: in fact, it’s the way in which Gibson makes the real world seem eerie and alien, simply through a shift in focus, that lends it conviction.
Coming a decade later, The Peripheral sometimes has the awkward feel of a transitional work, as if Gibson were trying to adapt to how quickly the present has nearly outstripped his imagined futures. It’s tough being an oracle, but that was never what was most interesting about Gibson’s work. He is better understood as an interrogator of our own time, ferreting out the strangeness in our everyday and the ways that “the future is already here,” as he says—“just not evenly distributed.”