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William Gibson's 'The Peripheral': looking back at the future

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A smart, nuanced twist on time travel

Every decade, a few pieces of hot technology — augmented reality, drones — make their way into the imaginary future. Whether or not they’re common in real life, they take hold of our imagination so well that we barely question whether they belong in science fiction; they’re sort of always already there, alongside more powerful computers and weirder fashion. Sometimes, we get it right. Often, we get it wrong, or at least right in a way that’s majorly off-base, like the internet that so many people imagined as a virtual copy of the physical world.

It’s tempting to feel embarrassed about this, to worry about looking like naifs, but it’s usually more interesting that way. We’d rather see something that feels right — that feels like some general idea of the future — than get an encyclopedia of our now-boring present. And no one is better at building places that are somehow familiar and strange at the same time than William Gibson.

In 2010, Gibson concluded the Blue Ant trilogy, a series of novels about the recent past that was so full of strange high-tech culture and secret knowledge that it was practically a new kind of science fiction. Now, for the first time in 15 years, he’s back to speculate on the future with a novel set in a new world: The Peripheral. Actually, he’s speculating on multiple futures — the novel alternates between two different time periods, one a generation or two past our own and the other much further ahead. In some ways, they’re both places Gibson has been writing about for decades: a future backwater full of mass-produced goods and semi-legal hustling, and a hyper-networked high society whose every facet, from art to business to technology, seems unavoidably bound up in some vast conspiracy. In others, they’re treading very new ground.

The plot is most enjoyable when you let yourself get swept away

Flynne Fisher, the protagonist of the former world, is stuck supporting her mother in a dismal and vaguely Southern American town. She ekes out a living as, among other things, a professional gamer. Her brother has something akin to PTSD from serving in the Marines, and Flynne seems similarly affected by the steady grind of poverty, which her games exaggerate starkly: what looks to the rich like play is really a grueling way to survive. Sometimes, as Flynne finds out when she witnesses a gruesome murder in a virtual London, it might even be real... in a way.

Generations later — in a far future London, in fact — lives Wilf Netherton, The Peripheral’s other protagonist. He’s separated from Flynne by an extended disaster known as "the jackpot," which kills most of the human race over a period of decades. His most immediate problems involve an outré performance artist poised to cause a diplomatic disaster in a micronation on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And its citizens’ extreme body modifications are just the start of what technology can do. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of figuring out exactly how they connect, but the slowly-unfolding reveal is fascinating.

From there, The Peripheral is a fast-paced murder investigation and political thriller — which, like many Gibson plots, is more enjoyable when you let yourself get swept away by the mass of ideas and set pieces than when you try to carefully fit every bit together. It’s not exactly a time travel story, but it grapples with some of the problems that they often do, including the future’s responsibility to the past. If you knew something terrible was going to happen, but you weren’t sure why, how would you try to stop it? It also bears a marked resemblance to his 1988 novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, thrusting a streetwise young woman into a plan that alters the nature of reality itself.

A 20-minutes-from-now blend of pop culture and extrapolated technology

Gibson, as he’s said many times, isn’t trying to be an oracle. Instead, he’s uniquely good at recasting today’s culture. That often involves a 20-minutes-from-now blend of pop culture, slightly extrapolated technology, and people who are supremely unimpressed by all of it. For anyone who read the Sprawl or Bridge trilogies after the ‘80s and ‘90s had passed, this is the first time we get to see him do it in, you could say, real time. Accordingly, people in Flynne’s world drive Teslas, fly quadcopters, and understand how to properly 3D-print a cronut. London contains anachronistic "cosplay zones" in which historical accuracy is legally enforced. It’s strange to watch your own fads fixed down like this, especially when you’re not quite ready to let go of the idea that they’re either new and exotic or stupid and ephemeral. The same goes for the jackpot, an environmental apocalypse that’s become a common nightmare scenario in contemporary science fiction. It seems self-consciously dated, but in a way that’s actually more interesting than a straightforward attempt at perfectly accurate prediction.

You keep imagining someone 20 years from now reading "The Peripheral"

The Peripheral is a book about how the future sees the past. It’s not the first to make the connection between time travel and colonialism, or see our one-dimensional understanding of the past as something like orientalism. But it almost functions as a guidebook to the things the future will find dated about our conceptions of it. You keep imagining someone 20 years from now reading The Peripheral the way that we read Neuromancer today, perplexed at the now-unfathomable ubiquity of cassettes and modems. We laugh at the past or mine it for influence — think of steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk, and the million other microgenres based on the incongruity of old societies and future tech — but someday, the future is going to do the same to us.

Fortunately, the worlds are compelling in their own right as well, despite their desolation. Flynne’s town is dominated by big-box stores, the economy fueled by a combination of service jobs and 3D printing piracy. Netherton’s London is a rehabilitated disaster area, where you’re more likely to see telepresence robots outside than real people. But they’re as full of personality as any crowded city, described in Gibson’s pithy, poetic prose. The Peripheral also feels more accessible than his last several books. Pattern Recognition and its sequels slowly spiraled into a whirlpool of name-dropping — brands, art pieces, trends, all described in increasingly close detail. At best, the resulting aesthetic was fascinating, exposing the weirdness of our present. Sometimes, it was impenetrable. The same passion for minutiae is on display here, but it’s toned down, integrated more into the characters’ lives. The stakes are higher, and Flynne in particular is nuanced and relatable in a way that jet-setting artists and coolhunters often aren’t.

Though cyberpunk is often characterized as a cynical genre, Gibson has said that in the context of the Cold War and the ‘80s, it was hopeful to suggest that the world would survive at all. The Peripheral is undeniably bleak, but it takes this idea further — occasionally, to a point that feels like slightly forced optimism. Netherton’s half of the book is a post-post-apocalyptic novel, set in a world where we’ve weathered disasters but managed to finally overcome them. The scenarios that populate our nightmares are horrifying, but they aren’t permanent. And Flynne’s pre-apocalyptic wasteland might not be doomed. Even the future, it turns out, doesn’t really know what the future holds.