REVIEW: Playing with the past: The Peripheral By William Gibson

Published May 11, 2015
The Peripheral

By William Gibson
The Peripheral By William Gibson

FLYNNE lives in a small town in the US in our near future. Her world is somewhat like ours, only much more so in every way: her technology is more advanced, the rich really are very few and are now much richer, and the less fortunate are scraping a living either by joining the military (and suffering later as injured veterans), or by printing pirated 3D objects for illegal sale, or perhaps by playing online RPGs on behalf of rich people who want to win but don’t really want to waste time with actual game play. One day Flynne covers a few shifts working security for her veteran brother Burton in what she thinks is the beta test of a new game, and witnesses a gruesome crime, the likes of which she has never seen before in even the most violent of virtual reality. So starts the prophet of cyberpunk William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral.

While Flynne struggles to understand what she’s seen, in a far distant future London, a publicist called Netherton is attempting to salvage the reputation of a concept artist who tattoos and then flays her entire epidermis as art but now appears to have committed an apparently random and violent crime. Netherton lives in a future set after a sort of apocalypse Gibson names the “jackpot”, which was “nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there”.

The post-jackpot world is very different from Flynne’s and ours — this is a world inhabited by few people, many of whom use organic android bodies called ‘peripherals’ to move around, bodies that have been created to host a human conscience. Society is managed primarily by the few wealthy families and there are many ‘continua enthusiasts’ who like to play with the past, almost as if it were a role-playing game; a sort of strange time-travel monopoly perhaps, with players seeking out times in history that they can basically mess about with, influencing economies and manipulating societies. The people living in these past times have no idea this is going on — until Netherton is forced to tell Flynne that she and her brother are in danger, and someone wants to kill her even though she is a person “in a past that effectively doesn’t exist” because “information flows both ways” and what she knows could ruin someone in Netherton’s time.

There’s no physical jumping back and forth in time in The Peripheral — there’s no De Lorean here (like the one in Back to the Future), and even if you can source 1.21 gigawatts of power, it won’t get you anywhere. People are not physically able to reach the past, but ‘continua enthusiasts’ interact with it via a server, considered a “great mystery … Assumed to be Chinese, and as with so many aspects of China today, quite beyond us”.

Of course, none of the usual ‘don’t mess with the past in case you change the future that is your current present’ stuff holds Gibson back. He’s actually pretty clear on this particular sort of time travel: each interaction with the past creates an alternate timeline, a new ‘stub’. As Lev, the story’s main ‘continua enthusiast’ explains, “the act of connection produces a fork in causality, the new branch causally unique” and so unable to affect the enthusiast’s present in any way. How does this Chinese server work? How can a server contact the past? Don’t get it? Don’t worry, neither do any of the characters in the book. “We know absolutely nothing about it,” admits Ash, one of the future post-humans with figure-eight pupils and creature tattoos that move around over her body.

It doesn’t matter that Gibson effectively skips this explanation. It’s just strange enough to be plausible and when everything else in the narrative is so taut and well drawn, a little suspension of disbelief can go a long way. Because interference is possible, a few ‘continua enthusiasts’ have developed into very serious gamers of sorts, conducting “deliberate experiments on multiple continua, testing them sometimes to destruction, insofar as their human populations were concerned”. Because it is assumed that no one in the past is still alive, there are some who do not consider the cruelty of their actions; one person is even “a weapons fetishist, famously sadistic in his treatment of the inhabitants of his continua, whom he set against one another in grinding, interminable, essentially pointless combat, harvesting the weaponry evolved”.

Things get complicated as Flynne moves back and forth via ‘peripheral’ between her time and Netherton’s, with bigger players attempting to change the game Flynne has only just understood the rules of. She and her family are moving towards a future that isn’t inevitable, though how are they to avoid a “progress accompanied by constant violence … by sufferings unimaginable”? At one point Netherton asks Flynne if she knows what collateral damage means and she replies, “people get hurt because they happen to be near something that somebody needs to happen?” Someone does indeed need something to happen but Flynne isn’t willing to be their collateral damage.

The Peripheral is about Flynne and Netherton, their strange meeting and eventual friendship existing beyond the limitations of space and time. It’s about playing with human lives and the disregard for them by both individuals and governments. It’s about trying to change your world and attempting to save it. Gibson has always had an incredible ability to take the familiar and render it alien with a few strokes — everything we know becomes something new, something strange and even potentially threatening. There is a darkness to The Peripheral, one that is so perfectly unheimlich that it becomes impossible to avoid its lure. Gibson has always been prophetic, from back in the day when he came up with the term ‘cyberspace’, to now, where he very easily uses present-day technological concepts to create a world that is frighteningly possible. From highly complex mobile phones, to exoskeletons for wounded soldiers that turn them into mechanical Cyclops, to 3D printing, to being able to transfer your conscience and mind into a vacant waiting organic body — true to form, Gibson creates a world that is just far enough into the future to captivate and frighten.

There is a lot going on in The Peripheral. It’s not just Gibson’s highly crafted world-building but there are also many characters and an elaborate plot that connects the two timelines. It’s not always easy to keep straight, but then none of Gibson’s novels are ‘easy’ and why should they be? From a writer who is so fantastic at extrapolating from our current lives to create such dark, sharp future visions, ‘easy’ would be a disappointment. The Peripheral is the best sort of challenge — rich, intelligent and rewarding.


The Peripheral

(NOVEL)

By William Gibson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, US

ISBN 978-0399158445

496pp.

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