Reading William Gibson is like learning a new language. At first you struggle. It’s a bit boring, although you can tell that’s just because you don’t understand, that there are exciting things happening under the surface. Then, one day, you’ve learned enough vocabulary and grammar that it starts to click and you can converse.
His latest novel, The Peripheral, which I listened to on audio, read by Lorelei King, follows two interlocking story-lines. One is from the perspective of Flynne, a young woman in a not-too-distant but horribly bleak American future. Her brother Burton, an ex-Marine, gets Flynne a job running security in what she believes is a virtual reality game. While on the job, she witnesses a horrifying murder. Flynne soon realizes that what she saw was not virtual, but actually happened. As the sole witness, she is drawn into the murder investigation. Puzzlingly, she is still only able to interact virtually with the people investigating the murder; the reason behind this is unveiled about 100 pages in.
The other story-line is Wilf Netherton’s, a publicist, although I’m not entirely sure Gibson is using that word the same way I understand it today. At the beginning, he is indirectly associated with the murder victim and with Flynne, but becomes an integral part of the murder investigation. Netherton is a liar and a drunk. In one of the first scenes, he lies convincingly to one of his celebrity clients, getting her to do what he wants. When the client agrees, Netherton’s partner croons over his earpiece, “I’d want to have your baby now, . . . except I know it would always lie.”
The future that Gibson creates for readers in The Peripheral is complicated enough on its own without the vocabulary he invents. Some are invented, like Michikoid (which I’m honestly still a little fuzzy on), but others are just words repurposed, like “stub,” “jackpot,” “builders,” and the titular “peripheral.” Gibson doesn’t bother explaining the terms, either; he dumps the reader into the scene as if you’ve actually been transported there, presumably by the virtual technology he writes about. It took about a hundred pages for me to understand what a peripheral was; basically it’s a virtual body someone can operate remotely, even across time.
At first, the experience of reading so much intentionally opaque dialogue and description was frustrating, but as I went on, I found it perversely satisfying to try to put the pieces together — a little like hitting your head against a wall because it feels so good. The weird thing is, even when I didn’t understand the larger context of what’s happening, I kept reading because Gibson’s characters in The Peripheral are likeable and the immediate stakes of the action seemed important. Some of this was down to King’s sympathetic reading of Gibson’s characters; she got Flynne’s hard-nosed, smart, capable, and kind nature. Her deliberately slow, deep-voiced reading of Netherton’s made him a lovable bastard, kind of a mess but still thoughtful about the world and his effect on it. My favorite was her reading of the celebrity, Daedra, which was child-voiced and completely self-obsessed, like Tara Reid’s Bunny Lebowski from The Big Lebowski. All of the characters were so human, so relatable, that I was happy to read along until I got it. This very fact puts me in awe of Gibson; I’m not sure what crossroads he sold his soul at, but I want directions.
As the murder mystery begins to unravel, the book becomes more and more engrossing. For such a dense book, there is actually quite a lot of action: battles, a kidnapping, some undercover operations. Several of the characters have fascinating backstories that we only get tantalizing hints of here and there. My favorite was Detective Inspector Lowbeer, whose perfectly coiffed white hair hides a brain that, thanks to some added technology, makes it so that she is practically omniscient.
One of the best things about The Peripheral is the worldbuilding. Gibson’s vision of future London — the greenway down Oxford Street, the tiny steamship battles in the Serpentine, the way Cheapside has been turned into a live 24-hour Victorian cosplay event — is breathtaking. The future technology is also imagined with great detail. One character, Ash, is covered with “tattoos, a riot of wings and horns, every bird and beast of the Anthropocene extinction” which move around on her body: “the drawings of animals, startled, fled up her arm, over a pale shoulder, gone.” Ash also has a weakness for amazing outfits, such as “a Napoleonic greatcoat apparently rendered in soot-stained white marble. When she was still, it looked like sculpted stone. When she moved, it flowed like silk.” Of course, not everything about the different futures that Gibson draws is glamorous; Flynne’s world is populated by chain stores and “pork nubbins” from China.
The peripherals themselves are not just clever inventions, but they also allow for effective character-building. One of the most moving moments in the book is when Connor, a friend of Flynne’s who was seriously disabled in the Marines, wakes up in his peripheral skin, the body of a young, extremely athletic man. He immediately takes off for a run:
And as he ran he screamed, maybe how he hadn’t screamed when what had happened to him had torn so much of his body off, but between the screams he whooped hoarsely, she guessed out of some unbearable joy or relief, just to run that way, have fingers and that was harder to hear than the screams.
The least ambiguous part of The Peripheral was its ending, which is almost too happy; [spoiler, highlight if you want to read it] everyone lives, is super-rich, and ends up successfully coupled off. It’s like the ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. [end spoiler] Some of the reviews I read found this problematic, and I empathize. It feels like emotional coddling to have all the protagonists live happily ever after, which is especially odd given that, if you’ve made it through the gauntlet of Gibson’s terminology, you’re probably not the kind of reader who needs to be coddled. But maybe that word “coddling” is too condescending; is it immature to desire a happy ending, to want your favorite characters to live, and live well? Maybe I’ve been spoiled for unambiguously happy endings by living in a world circumscribed by HBO and irony. Perhaps the future Gibson has created is gritty, grim, and, in his words, “sadass” enough to provide the dose of harsh reality we’ve become accustomed to from all the deaths in A Game of Thrones.
The other night I went into the new Target store in town. I rarely go to Target. It was surreal. Target had everything — bedding, furniture, electronics, auto parts, food. For a giddy moment I felt like I had transported into a bizarre near-future universe where one multinational corporation controlled all the goods to all the people. (I mean, you could live in a Target, for, like, a week, if you had to.) It was scary.
This is why I love William Gibson. I have that vague impulse, then go get my gift cards and move on; he creates the Hefty Mart. Hefty Mart provides nearly everything in the near-future world inhabited by Flynne Fisher in Gibson’s most recent book, The Peripheral. Pharma Jon is the pharmaceutical company with the monopoly on the meds Flynne’s mother needs, and Forever Fab will meet all your 3D printing needs. And those aren’t even main players in the story.
Gibson is a keen observer and, more importantly, a deep one, so he can take drone technology, nano-tech, the increasing militarization of the everyday world, three-dimensional printers and information theory and create not one but two future universes; one in our near future, one nearly a hundred years farther on, and have them interact, creating a type of time-travel that smooths the suspension of disbelief better than anything I can remember reading.
I wouldn’t care that much about those worlds, though, if I didn’t connect to the people who live there, and with Flynne, at least, Gibson has created another of his smart, scrappy, blue-collar champions. Flynne is the moral center of The Peripheral. Wilf Netherton, a publicist who lives in the farther-future world, has compromised ethics and an alcohol dependency problem. He is still, ultimately, a decent chap, and he’s engaging. Flynne, caring for her sick mother and dealing with an overbearing brother, was the person I could identify with.
The book bounces back and forth between these point-of-view characters, with very short chapters. In Flynne’s world, she is playing a first-person shooter game for money, covering for her brother Burton, a returned veteran whose neural modifications, provided by the military, seem like the early stages of the technology that allows people to enter cloned bodies called “peripherals” in Netherton’s time. While she is playing, Flynne witnesses a death that seems too real and too strange to be a game. In the meantime, Netherton has witnessed an apparent murder committed in the most public way possible, implicating his current client, a performance artist. These two storylines entwine as the book progresses.
While Flynne’s small country town somewhere in the American southeast is as familiar as a Target store, Netherton’s London is much stranger. There are far fewer people and far, far fewer animals. There is a devaluation of human life. This difference is glaringly obvious compared to the family-above-all loyalty we see in Flynne’s family and her brother’s friends.
In the BLUE ANT (BIGEND) trilogy, Gibson introduced Hubertus Bigend, a powerful and strange character who seemed like an AI himself. In The Peripheral, Netherton and Flynne contend with Inspector Lowbeer, another strange and powerful character who is only nominally human. Lowbeer, like Bigend, is functionally an artificial intelligence, and she is nicely designed to provide necessary exposition to Flynne (and us); explaining, sort of, the events that changed Flynne’s future — or one future, anyway — to the present that is Netherton’s world. I’m sorry. That’s confusing. Read the book, and you’ll get it. She is also able to explain why there is little worry that changes in Flynne’s timeline will affect the “kleptocracy” of future London; and why Flynne’s present means as little as a video game to the players of future London.
Gibson invests heavily in close-third-person narration, and dumps his readers head-first into his worlds. You don’t get a tour guide. You just follow the locals and pretty soon things become clear. He builds his worlds with precise sentences like, “She smiled, displaying teeth whose form and placement might well have been decided by a committee,” or “A few stray bits of Lego edged fitfully about among lower strata, like bright rectilinear beetles,” or when Flynne thinks that taking a kill shot in a game is like the term “balancing an equation.”
This is how you build a world for a reader; with concrete details about everyday things. If you’re Gibson, you “push” on the smartphone until it takes its next logical leap; you use a reduced value on human life, cloud computing, and cloning to create peripherals; you make wild leaps about how global economics work (which is pretty safe, since no one really understands how it works) and you write it so convincingly that it feels real.
Both Flynne’s and Netherton’s worlds feel real, and Netherton’s is far colder and scarier. The ease with which the powerful in Netherton’s world can interfere with Flynne’s is scary too, and makes me disagree with other reviewers who have said that Gibson reaches too far to give nearly everyone a happy ending. There are dark questions left unanswered at the end of The Peripheral, even if Flynne, Burton and their happy band of brothers are doing well at the moment. Gibson tends to writes thematically linked trilogies. I think Gibson plans to answer some of those questions. I think there will be more books, and more to learn about this powerful kleptocracy of the future.
I love William Gibson’s work, but you’ve really got to work at it. He always throws you into the deep end to see if you will sink or swim. He could be a little less abstruse. But I love the ideas and the futurism in his stories.
I always like a happy ending, but jeez, that was surprising.
I listened to the audiobook of The Peripheral which was produced by Penguin Audio and narrated by Lorelei King. She did a fantastic job. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Agency, in audio format.