Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson

Whether he wants it or not (probably not), William Gibson has come to represent a messianic, or at least idolatrous role in the science fiction community. Since the publishing of Neuromancer and the short fiction which lead up to it, many readers have looked to the author for the ‘next thing’ in genre. And, he’s delivered. His novels steadily honing in on more and more detailed scenes of the intersection of technology and society, his novels have been ground-breaking, or at sharply singular at the time published. Temporal matters likewise shifting linearly, each novel—or perhaps better stated, each trilogy—steadily moved its timeline closer and closer to the present, the most recent, The Blue Ant, essentially set in the here and now. With 2014’s The Peripheral, however, we see a different Gibson—at least in the context of how the genre evolved in and around Gibson’s ouevre.

Flynne Fisher thinks nothing of taking a shift for her brother Burton while he attends a rally. Running virtual security inside a video game, she gets easy money chasing camera drones away from a celebrity’s London home. Witness to a women’s murder at the hands of nanotech, Flynne thinks nothing of it, such happenings in video games not so strange. When real people start showing up at her door in the days that follow, however, asking about the murder, she starts to think twice. But it’s the assassination attempts that push her, and her ex-Marine brother, on the offensive.

Seventy years later, in the middle of the 22nd century after a slow burning apocalypse nicknamed The Jackpot has taken its toll, the publicist Wilf Netherton attempts to reconcile personal and business concerns. One of his clients, the artist cum diplomat Daedra West, is attempting to establish relations with a fringe group calling themselves The Patchers. Negotiations going poorly, people end up dead and Netherton out of a job. Hired by an old friend thereafter, he’s asked to start investigating the disappearance of a wealthy London woman whose home was supposedly well secured… 

The murder/disappearance obviously more than a coincidence, the Chinese have figured out a way to connect the past and future via quantum computing. Matter transmission not viable, it is possible, however, to send digital signals back and forth, meaning people from the past can occupy avatars (called peripherals) in the future through the right tech. Flynn discovering her security gig was unwittingly a part of the real-world future rather than video game, the chase begins to get to the bottom of the murder and survive, if possible.

Gibson’s trademark ideas are virtually (no pun intended) all on display in The Peripheral. Tech comes in all shapes in sizes, from duct tape and exposed motherboard to sleek chrome and molded plastic. Manufactured narcotics only gain popularity on the streets. Corporations remain intent on the bottom line, and shit flows downhill from there, the environment along with society steadily crumbling. And humanity, despite its setbacks and for all its virtues and vices, continues to adapt to the times. What’s new for Gibson is quantum time travel, or at least the time breaching technology present in the 22nd century timeline.

For those reading between the lines, The Peripheral is Gibson’s most straight-forward, most accessible novel to date. The genre having evolved around him, the ideas presented have become the norm. On one hand showing the influence Gibson has had on the field, on the other, readers who believe the author to occupy the messaniac role may be disappointed that he didn’t continue pushing the genre’s envelope. Where Gibson does makes his signature presence felt is in the other facets of his fiction: the sharp prose and sound plotting. Otherwise the ideas, as presented in 2014, could have been Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, and many other writers who owe a debt to Gibson. 

The Peripheral a finely tuned mix of time travel, cyberpunk, and post-humanis that sees Gibson moving into the realm of mortals. There is little in the novel that marks the singular nature of his previous works save the tightness of prose and plotting. The ideas in the novel blend in very smoothly with commonly used tropes of science fiction today. Not as original, fair enough: Gibson is not required to be the genre’s prophet, and The Peripheral remains engaging storytelling.

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