William Gibson’s latest novel, The Peripheral, isn’t about fancy bluejeans or projecting dead stars on sidewalks. It’s about the myriad disasters of a near future, and their impact on a distant future. And although critics might try shoving Gibson into a genre to comfort themselves—speculative fiction, science fiction, literary thriller, crossover—the truth is The Peripheral is frighteningly close to reality.
Flynne Fisher lives with her brother Burton and their ailing mother, Ella, in a middle American nowhere town called Clanton. The Fishers inhabit the “post-Jackpot” era, a dystopic future approximately 70 years hence. The Jackpot isn’t any singular apocalypse, but rather a series of smaller, equally devastating events that steadily sicken and depopulate the planet.
The Fisher’s world is a damaged place. Their home lacks running water. Antibiotics are barely effective. Capitalism has shrunk to a single big box store called Hefty Mart. Animal die-off is the norm. In an early scene, Flynne is offered a plate of pork nubbins, freshly grown in China. She ponders how pork nubbins are less smelly than chicken, perhaps because they use less red dye. Readers will be reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Jimmie, eating ChickieNobs and SoyYummie products in the MaddAdam trilogy, another dystopian future where animal protein has become a scarce treat, available to only the wealthiest consumers.
Burton Fisher is on disability after suffering neurological damage doing haptic recon in the United States Marine Corps. As Ella’s pharmacy bills mount, he begins gaming on the side. One night he asks Flynne to sub for him, flying a helicopter. There she witnesses what may be a murder in what she rapidly realizes isn’t just a game.
The Peripheral revisits many of Gibson’s favorite themes: neurally-fried characters, beautiful women with gender-neutral names, and gender-neutrally-named women who kick serious ass. Untouchably wealthy Russians and dark governmental forces are at work. Then there’s the technology: wildly imaginary stuff that over time becomes less outlandish and more realistic. Like that Matrix thing in Neuromancer. We call it the Internet.
Drones are an accepted fact of life in The Peripheral; Facebook has given way to a social network amusingly dubbed Badger. Instead of dozens of annoying adjusting levers and turning knobs, Burton’s office chair adjusts automatically as one sits down on it.
In this barren world, Flynne sits in her brother’s overheated Airstream trailer, batting paparazzi away from a glamorous woman’s apartment. She watches a man push the woman from the 56th floor. She finds it upsetting. Even more upsetting, a contract is taken out on Burton’s life by those mistakenly thinking he is flying the helicopter.
The contract holders are from the future.
The future, here a group of Londoners, is able to access the past via a Chinese server. Dubbed “continua enthusiasts”, these people interfere with the course of events in Flynne’s time, altering it into offshoots called “stubs”.
Lev Zubov is part of an enormously wealthy Russian family now residing in London. His job is to search for new, interesting things for the family to invest in, which lead him to continual play. He shares this discovery with his school buddy Wilf Netherton, a publicist who is in the midst of a brief, disastrous relationship with celebrity Daedra West. Wanting to impress her, Wilf gave her access to Burton Fisher. The relationship sours. Soon after, the woman dies.
The London of the next century has even fewer people than Flynne’s time. Nanobots called assemblors create and maintain a largely ersatz city inhabited by humans, AI-controlled Michikoids, and biologically engineered peripherals. Peripherals are as physically perfect as they are mindless. Technology allows people to rent them, “appearing” in places remotely.
Now, in an effort to unravel the murder, Zubov pulls Netherton into his home. With the help of Zubov’s technical assistants / butlers / jack-of-all trades Ash and Ossian, a peripheral is readied for Flynne Fisher.Contact is made between times, and Flynne is brought into the peripheral.
At this point, Gibson’s novel widens into more than a whodunit, probing deeply into global warming, politics, the ways veterans are (mis)treated, and the distribution of wealth. On Netherton’s side, there would be no story without his ridiculous effort to impress a shallow woman. But Burton and Flynne’s reasons for gaming could not be more dire: they are paying off Ella’s pharmacy bills to a man called Pharma Jon.
Flynne and Netherton are fascinated by one another’s worlds. Netherton, accustomed to genetically engineered female perfection, is struck by Flynne’s beautiful imperfection, visible to him only by monitor. Her peripheral, chosen for its superficial resemblance is, as she says, “prettier and tittier”.
Clanton is an unending source of amazement. Granted access to the Fisher home via a freely-rolling computer, Netherton avidly takes in the mesh across the door, which he deduces is up to keep out flies, like the one buzzing around. This fly, he decides, is not a drone, but an actual bug. Other curiosities include the odd headwear Flynne’s cousin Leon has wrapped around his head (we would recognize this as a doo-rag or scarf) and their home’s casual, lived-in untidiness.
Flynne’s visits to Netherton’s London are equally eye-opening. But this London is an imagined one, new to Flynne and the reader, thus less bittersweet. Novel and alarming, yes.
Gibson creates a seminal character in Ainsley Lowbeer, a technologically preserved English spy now working in law enforcement. Called in by Lev to assist, she is The Peripheral’s Hubertus Bigend without the teeth, perfect suits, or propensity for Full English Breakfasts. Yet where Bigend was fun to loathe, Lowbeer is the opposite, even as her morality is called into question. Is this ancient creature, with her yen for pumpkin-spice candles, a good or bad cop? Readers must get to the end to find out.
Connor Penske is another creation who may make waves. Penske is Clanton’s only other Haptic Recon vet, grievously disabled in the service: he lost an arm, the opposing leg, the remaining foot, and the thumb and two fingers of his remaining hand. He tears around Clanton on a customized trike motorcycle, high out of his mind. Penske is a violent maniac—as violent as a person missing two limbs and portions of what’s left can be. Burton tends him, carrying him about like a child; Penske tolerates it.
When Lev and company require assistance of a physical nature, they borrow his brother Anton’s personal peripheral, Pavel. Pavel is a brute of a thing, used for sparring, a terminator-esque creature of size, strength, and grace. When Penske is brought into Pavel, he is overjoyed at his restoration. Radical disability advocates may be angered at in this portrayal; those of us in situations similar to Conner Penske’s due to illness or accident will long for Pavels of our own.
As the dead woman’s identity comes to light, the hunt for her killer becomes increasingly urgent. Far more than murder is at stake: Lowbeer has existed in both times, and hopes to effect positive changes in the past. First, Flynne and Netherton must attend, and survive, a party where the murderer is certain to be present. Then perhaps the damages can be either prevented or undone, depending on which time you inhabit.
The Peripheral’s conclusion may disappoint some readers. Those finding it saccharine wouldn’t be wrong. Then again, Gibson may be aiming for a hopeful note at the close of an otherwise bleak novel. A final note: Gibson’s inclusion of gay characters as a regular part of Clanton’s community is commendable, and merits remark until such inclusion is no longer remarkable.
Sad, scary, gripping, and thought-provoking, The Peripheral is a book you can’t afford not to read.