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Living on an Alien Earth

In finishing this review of William Gibson’s new novel “The Peripheral,” I tried to find a quote about how science fiction is sometimes more about the present than the future. I found this quote on William Gibson’s Wikipedia page:

"I felt that I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction's best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going... The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now."
— William Gibson in an interview on CNN, August 26, 1997.

That’s what reading Gibson often boils down to: the best way to describe his work has often already been said by Gibson himself. That aside, the point is interesting to me when considering this novel. To keep things non-spoilerly for a moment, “The Peripheral” charts the connections and relationships between two very different visions of the future. In one, a young woman named Flynne attempts to survive in a dingy, run-down near-present version of the American Southeast. in another, a hyper-aware media publicist Wilf Netherton struggles to perform damage control when one of his clients sabotages a media campaign. The connection between these two stories, expressed through a disturbing murder observed in a game that’s not a game, forms the bulk of the plot. Although the story weighs in a more than 400 pages, the actual story is very aerodynamic. An event happens with consequences to both futures and the characters are left to navigate the wreckage.

As someone who devoured “The Sprawl” trilogy, Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novels from the 80s and 90s, "The Peripheral" was a very comfortable return to form. The characters, setting, and overall atmosphere wouldn’t be so unfamiliar to anyone whose cracked open a science fiction book written in the past two decades. The central idea behind the story, the “connection” that I mentioned above, is both the most interesting and subversive thing about the novel and the thing that is hardest to describe without spoiling the story. I’ll leave it at “The Peripheral” is a challenging but energetic exploration of several ideas churning through speculative literature circles in the past few years. If you like meditations the big ideas of the future hot-glued to the back of a breezy techno-thriller plot, this book is for you. If you’ve never read Gibson, cyberpunk, or much science fiction, I’d start with Neuromancer and work your way up. One’s man’s opinion.

SPOILER TIME: Okay, now, if you’ve already read this novel, there are a couple things I’m left thinking about after finishing it.

William Gibson remains a challenging writer to read and write about. On one hand, “The Peripheral” is a speculative fiction novel. Of that there is no doubt. You go maybe half a paragraph before encountering the tone and language of current post-cyberpunk genre writing - unfamiliar technology, sociological extrapolations, and buzzy, exotic language. If you are in the habit of reading such novels (which I most certainly am) this is all like a slightly musty, but nevertheless completely familiar and comfortable quilt that you draw over yourself, luxuriating in the decadent warmth. 

However, Gibson is unquestionably a “real” writer by which I mean he also writes fiction that non-genre fiction types don’t get nervous reviewing, most notably his near-future trilogy from past decade. There is also a self-aware, ouborobic quality to his writing, the sense that he is own best audience. His sentences chop, scatter and fragment, spinning off in idiosyncratic directions as though snippets from a conversation you’re only getting one side of.  This presents its own layer of challenge to appreciating a novel like “The Peripheral." An agreeable layer, but nevertheless a barrier to genre types used to reading four-square, non-flashy sentences following the established object verb subject format.

"The Peripheral” does take a while to get going and the first 100 pages or so are like walking into a party mid-way through the night, hopping from one group of strangers to the next, looking for familiar faces. Gibson doesn’t really bother with much explanation or hand-holding. You either know what a thylacine is or you don’t, he’s not going to explain what it is or why one would be walking around a character’s apartment. So you coast like this, soaking the ambiance of the work, quickly picking up that this novel has two distinct levels. On the lower level, the level you encountered in the first chapter, you find a sort of not-so-distant future version of an unspecificied American Southern State. The characters in this part of the party are decidedly living an impoverished and crippled existence, surviving on disability money provided to a veteran of an unspecified foreign war and the occasional gig play-testing a game. Play-testing what they think is a game. The description of this grimy and yet flashy future is probably what most people think of when they think of a Gibson novel.

There is another level to the party, and that is the upper deck. You read about this too, and what will strike any genre aficionado are the great numbers of post-singularity tropes. There is a little Ian Banks description of malleable identities and body modification. But there’s also a dash of Charles Stross’ fragmentation of an impossibly wealthy post-capitalist society through the ubiquitous use of technologies - nanotechnology, body augmentation, and augmented reality. The pervasive sense of otherness. This is the elite section of the party and right from the start you feel out-of-place, slightly menaced by the events narrated here.

These two sections, however separate they appear are nevertheless connected. The game allows characters from the lower level to see characters from the upper level. And ultimately, that proves disastrous. The protagonist of the lower level - Flynne, the younger sister to the disabled and shell-shocked veteran Burke, sees something in the upper level she should not have, the murder mentioned at the beginning of this review. An apparently the fact that she lives in a completely separate time period from the upper level does not matter at all. Her witnessing of the act must but be addressed by the unspeakably powerful forces of the upper level. They begin to pervert the structure of her world, in order to marshall enough force to end her life.

This aspect of a future preying upon a past civization is not without precedent. A story included in the  “Mirrorshades” anthology, the collection that along with Gibson’s Neuromancer popularized the idea of cyberpunk, included a story called "Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner that described the imperialism of a time-traveling future preying on the past. Gibson acknowledges as much in his afterword, but offers a vision of that interaction between future and past that is if anything, more disturbing. With the earlier story, the predation is material and physical. The future is literally robbing the past of resources. In Gibson’s world, the only interaction is through teleoperate drones and digital processes. But the very act of interacting with the past cleaves off that time-line into what the upper level characters call “a stub reality.” This one idea really seized my imagination - the idea that reality itself could be curated by some future power, that the time stream and population of an entire universe could in a sense be edited like some website, or game. Shortly after the big reveal of what’s really going on, the nature of the connection between upper and lower levels, the powers of the upper begin to take over the economy and political structure of the stub reality for their own ends. Racing against the clock, the two future powers are not gentle and nearly destablize the entire world’s economy in the process. Because certain forces become artificially more valuable, the entire market economy of the stub is distorted. One is reminded of certain flash crashes from the past decade with discomfort. What if everything that you knew was simply a means towards a very personal act of retribution and vengeance, your reality hacked by future gamers. 

Ultimately that’s the notion that sticks with me long after the sketchily drawn characters and plot twists. To his credit Gibson hones in on this aspect of the novel to just the right degree. Describing it, delimiting it, and then gently unspooling its ramifications. If you can get past the first 100 pages or so, what emerges is a description of the central dislocation of our “alien Earth." The sense that our lives’ significance is being actively, aggressively peeled away by technology even while the possibilities for an individual and committed social group are magnified. Gibson suggests that the future is not just a destination but an agency in itself, actively pulling the present away under our feet, sweeping us forwards.
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