In most science fiction, the future is a glamour (even when it’s a gritty cyber-punk glamour) filled with almost-magical technologies that promise to make the world a different, usually better, place.
William Gibson is a master at casting these glamours, tempting us with not-quite-fantastic extensions of current cutting-edge technologies and dazzling us with intricate social forms that support technology-enabled life-styles that seem to be without constraint.
I am fascinated by his work because, although the glamours are vivid and novel, he invites his readers to see beyond them and understand that the fundamentals of what people do and why they do them remain constant. Gibson’s technologies and ecologies are plausible enough to be tempting speculations but his people, especially his women, are real enough to make you care what happens to them.
“The Peripheral”, published in 2014, was Gibson’s first science fiction novel this century. In it he offers us not one but two future times, connected by a mysterious technology that allows people in the two time streams to connect via a telepresence called Peripherals.
The first future is set in a poor town in West Virginia, in the not too distant future, where people are doing what they can to turn a buck, knowing that they’re being screwed but powerless to change it. In this world, Flynne, one of the strongest and coolest female characters I’ve seen in a long time, covers for her brother on a job that’s supposed to be testing a game but ends up witnessing a very real-seaming and vicious crime in somewhere far away.
The somewhere far away is a future London, seventy years ahead of Flynne’s time. The people there are either rich and ruthless or rich and bored. In both cases they are rich and extremely dangerous. Flynne becomes a bridge between the two worlds and ends up in danger in both.
I won’t go into the plot here. If you’d like a summary, here’s a better one than I can provide. I want to talk about the impact the book has on me.
I found myself pondering the title. What, in this novel, is The Peripheral? Of course it refers to the tele-presence technology that allows people to be present when their bodies are somewhere else. I think it also refers to how the people in London, see the people in West Virginia, as peripheral to their own existence, on the boundary of the real. Extending that, it made me think that all futures and perhaps pasts, are peripheral. They pull the eye away from the now, which is where reality is happening.
Then I asked myself what Flynne sees as being peripheral and the answer is almost everything that doesn’t directly affect the welfare of her and her people. She understand how screwed they all are and how little power they have and she doesn’t expect that to change. When wealth appears to arrive, she treats it with suspicion. When she meets the powerful, she is not seduced. She recognises them as predators and tries not to become prey.
In my day-to-day life, I’m paid to imaging the impact of technology on commerce: digitalisation, the Internet of Things, Social Media and so on, so I enjoyed watching William Gibson imagining the world where 3D printing is so commoditised that even a strip mall in Nowhere West Virgina has a local fabrication to order outlet, and the idea of weaponing haptic technology to direct soldiers in combat )making them another form of peripheral and so on. Yet what I enjoyed most was that none of this technology made anything better. The poor are still poor and the powerful will always screw them over.
What makes “The Peripheral” grown-up science fiction isn’t the pretty technology but the depth of the society using the technology. The folks in West Virginia have parents and siblings and social affiliations that mean things to them. They are people first and protagonists in an SF novel second.
I think the ending of “The Peripheral” may cause some people problems. It seems to me that Gibson’s books have a tendency to stop rather than end. I think this reflects real life, where all endings are artificial to some extent but I understand that some readers may feel sh0rt-changed.
In this case, I rather like the inconclusiveness of the ending. Did they all live happily ever after? Does anybody? Ever?
I think Flynne ended the book financially better off but knowing that her world was hurtling towards hurt that she can’t avoid. This was no surprise to her. You take the money when it comes your way and you hope for the best but you know the worst is much more likely. No amount of technology is going to change that.
If you’d like to hear an extract from “The Peripheral” click on the SoundCloud link below.