William Gibson – The Peripheral

This is perhaps Gibson’s most purely entertaining (and dare I say it, novel) book since Neuromancer, possibly because it’s his most extravagant bit of science fiction yet: time travel rendered as a quaint hobby of the post-environmental collapse super-rich because the practice of sending information back there creates a new timeline which cannot impact the “original” present except through the nature of the information exchanged.

The alternatingly crisp and dirty surface texture of the Bridge/Blue Ant books is still in full evidence, which is all for the good since it’s these effects, so familiar and yet so strikingly alien from the “gone haptics” of the first chapter onward, that make Gibson such and essential modern novelist rather than a merely compelling one. The Peripheral‘s near future section is equal parts trailer park dust and drone filled skyline, its economy a perfect mess of drugs and 3d print goods, the creeping elements of the everyday made strange through their commonplace abundance.

I have a friend who dismisses Gibson’s modern output as a series of thriller novels about the hunt for a pair of really cool jeans, and while I rate Virtual Light, Pattern Recognition and Zero History more highly than The Peripheral, I can’t deny that there was something pleasing (because comforting?) in seeing Gibson’s usual clipped descriptions, tech-heavy dialogue and snappy chapter structure applied to a more traditionally entertaining pulp plot.

If Gibson keeps on writing more traditional sci-fi material you’ll probably find me complaining that he’s abandoned his gloriously absurd Crying of Lot 49-derived modern style this time next decade, but that’s probably more my fault than his.

In terms of Gibson’s development as a novelist, it’s interesting to look at how The Peripheral continues his exploration of his protagonists’ complicity in the exploitative/destructive business of living in the Western world. Zero History featured a proper China Mieville moment based on this dynamic, and it worked because the character who experienced this was then able to act against the cool-hunting mechanism of those books. This strength of this moral stand was increased by its position at the end of a trilogy; it felt like a block to Gibson writing any further into that world. The Peripheral ends up feeling a bit more like one of Grant Morrison’s attempts to reimagine the world as it is but a little bit nicer: redemption by way of a more personalised form of capitalist intervention. The question of whether this resolution to the “third worlding” of the past seems too easy to survive the weight of the associations Gibson has placed on it depends at least in part on how much you have invested in the happiness of the central characters.


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