William Gibson is one of those authors whose books I think I like a lot more than I do. Likely because his fingerprints are all over science fiction these days, some subgenres more than others of course. There’s no denying that he is a brilliant inventor of ideas and extrapolator of futures. But I think there is probably a reason it has taken me so long to finally read The Peripheral. I kept telling myself, since the day it came out, that I needed to “catch up” on his previous novels—which I think I did, at some point, and then I just never got around to buying this one. So I finally borrowed it from the library. It’s all right.
Gibson continues his tradition—which I am all in favour of, by the way—of writing female protagonists in cutthroat plots that will make the hair on your arms stand up with Flynne. She lives ten minutes into the future, in a poor, hollowed-out county in the United States. Technology has crept along but not in any way that has benefited the citizens of this county, who subsist on welfare and money from an economy propped up largely by illicit trade in drugs. When Flynne subs for her brother, Burton, as a security guard in what she thinks is a video game, her world ends. The game is actually a window into a future—the future, once upon a time, but no longer so because its interaction its past has sent Flynne’s timeline careening down a new, unknown path. In this future, Wilf Netherton gets sucked into helping questionable friends and even more questionable allies. He must help Flynne acclimate and then identify a killer, even as his and his allies’ intervention reshapes Flynne’s life as she knows it.
From a narrative perspective, this is a lot to like (or dislike) about The Peripheral based on your preferences. Generally speaking: if you like Gibson, you will like this; if his other stuff hasn’t worked for you, I’m not sure this would change your mind. It’s slightly (and I do mean only slightly) more grounded in meatspace than novels like Neuromancer—likely a tacit acknowledgement that virtual reality is almost certainly being supplanted by augmented reality in everyday usage.
Like much of Gibson’s writing, this book eschews a ton of exposition. We are thrown into both Flynne’s world and Netherton’s without much backstory and asked to pick up the pieces ourselves. The chapters are short, sometimes even staccato, always alternating faithfully between these two characters’ limited third-person perspective. Many of the chapters are rich with dialogue, usually back and forth between two characters, always referencing events, people, and technologies that we must parse without much context. It’s frustrating in that exhilarating way good writing can be.
I do like how Gibson handwaves with alacrity and little fanfare the central novum that is the synced timelines. Just take it on faith, basically, that this technology exists and works in this way. Once you do that, everything else kind of falls into place. It’s a neat idea, a different version of time travel I haven’t seen explored much elsewhere, and that helps hold the attention. The way that events from either time period can affect the other bidirectionally even though the past is no longer the antecedent of this future is pretty cool. You can tell Gibson has put a lot of thought into the economics of both of these time periods, can see the places the scaffolding must have been before he took it down and tucked it tidily away so that all that was left was story.
As far as story goes, that’s where I get to the “it’s all right” part of my critique. Flynne was cool. Netherton is a self-aware asshole, so that’s something at least. I figured out Lowbeer’s angle pretty quickly. Like, the characters are neat in a cookiecutter checkbox kind of way. But despite the science-fictional plot devices, the story itself is a fairly straightforward thriller, and the climax and resolution aren’t all that engaging. Flynne is in danger for maybe two point seven seconds, I don’t know, and then it’s all right again. Which is probably the point, now that I think about it—Gibson wants us thinking about how past affects present affects future, not about the survival of a single individual (who is, as the story stresses to us, wholly unremarkable to the future were it not for being in the wrong place at the wrong time).
There are some deeper questions about the ethics of messing with stubs (as these continuua are called), and Gibson only scratches the surface of those questions, often with throwaway lines that don’t go deeper than that. As is often the case with Big Ideas books, The Peripheral feels frustratingly incomplete despite being, for all intents and purposes, a complete and self-contained, standalone novel. I liked it. I was annoyed by it. So it goes with the works of William Gibson.