Like the protagonist of Neuromancer, William Gibson is an artiste of the slightly funny deal. In The Peripheral the first slightly funny deal is between some people in England who hire some other folks in a small-town part of Appalachia in the US. The English contingent wants the people across the pond to fly a drone, ostensibly in a game, and keep other paparazzi drones away from a window high up on a London tower. They’ve contracted Burton, a partly disabled veteran of an unspecified American war, to do the remote flying. It’s close enough to what he did during wartime to take advantage of the skills that remain even after the government took back the haptic enhancements they had given him. But Burton has things to do besides swatting drones in a game, so he lets his sister Flynne take a shift or two and thinks his employers will be none the wiser. She’s at least as good with the drone as he is, and it’s all done remotely, what can go wrong?
Meanwhile, Wilf Netherton is a publicist with a problem. Daedra West, a performance artist who is his current client and not incidentally a former lover, is about to cause an incident by parafoiling into a mid-ocean meeting wearing nothing but a lot of brand-new tattoos. That will upset the sponsors who include puritanical Saudis. That reaction is likely to be mild compared with what her counterparts at the meeting might do: eat her right up, as they have done to more than one person who recently attempted contact. That won’t be the worst of it, says Rainey, Wilf’s partner on the project. “She’s a death cookie, Wilf, for the next week or so. Anyone so much as steals a kiss goes into anaphylactic shock. Something with her thumbnails, too, but we’re less clear on that.” (p. 6) What can go right?
The opening chapters are unforgiving, alternating between the two settings and giving readers little in the way of description and a lot in the way of terms particular to each. Gibson shows what his characters experience and has them talk like regular people of the worlds that they inhabit who know that everyone they talk with shares the same context. What gradually emerges (although the text on the cover spells much of this out) is that Burton and Flynne are in the near future, living in a poor county in the hills where much of the economy runs on drug manufacturing, while Wilf and Daedra are about seventy years further into the future on the other side of interlocking disasters — pandemics (The Peripheral was published in 2014), climate crises, social breakdown — that are collectively called “the jackpot.” Those disasters kill a large share of humanity, but the survivors have mastered advanced technologies such as nanotech assembly, carbon sequestration, personalized medicine, full-brain telepresence, and more.
Gibson implies that Wilf’s London is not home to the latest technology by having the book’s central conceit come from China and being as mysterious to the characters as to readers: Advanced computation has worked out ways to contact alternative pasts to the characters’ present, known in the book as “stubs.” Once contacted, the possibilities from that past branch off and lead to different futures, thus preserving causality at the future end. It’s all a bit handwavy, as it must be, but it works within the book because the limitations feel real, and Gibson keeps the rules consistent once he establishes them. Information can pass between times, but not physical objects. The stubs are largely playthings of some of the ultra-rich kleptocrats who run Wilf’s post-jackpot world. (Their power is so entrenched that they are simply called “the klepts,” and everyone knows what they are like.)
The deal with Burton and Flynne gets slightly funny when Flynne sees something she shouldn’t — a crime involving Daedra’s sister — and the pretense that the London she’s flying in is just a game falls apart. Soon competing klepts are taking an interest in the stub that Flynne calls reality. Nor are the pre-jackpot people content to be mere pawns in games played by the future. Soon past and future are as entangled as any pair of quantum particles.
Some novels, especially science fiction novels, have intriguing ideas that the author spends much of the book working out. Other novels have characters whose lives fascinate readers, while still others portray worlds different from the one that readers know, settings that feel real and immersive, worth visiting for that reason alone. The Peripheral offers all three in service to a story that’s propulsive and comes to a satisfying conclusion. Despite Gibson’s spare style in this book, I could clearly picture the scenes where the novel’s events play out, from the initial confrontation on the great garbage spiral in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, through the county boss’ pseudo-plantation compound, to the greenways and cosplay areas of further-future London. At first, I had a little difficulty keeping track of the various people in the main characters’ lives, but that’s because they, especially Flynne, have the numerous connections and long histories of real relationships. There are friends, and friends’ cousins, and cousins’ friends and they’ve all known each other since forever so they don’t explain things as they talk to each other. The investment pays off later in the book when readers know why characters are doing things, cheering when they care for each other and hurting along with them when bad things happen. Because even if they happen to objectively bad people, the characters knew them when they were all just kids, and regret what became of them.
Gibson has famously opined that the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed, and parts of The Peripheral show that he is on the early distribution for important aspects of the late 2010s.
“How many [lawyers] is that?” [asked Flynne]
“Enough to buy all the chili dogs from Jimmy’s, noon and night,” [said Janice]. “They preorder, send drones to pick ’em up. Danny went to Commercial Kitchen Warehouse for new chili pots.” Danny was the man who ran Jimmy’s, a grandnephew of the actual Jimmy, who [Flynne’s] mother remembered from when she was little. “He wanted to put his price up, but Burton had Tommy tell him not to. So I think you’re subsidizing the chili dogs, kinda.”
“So’s not to put the town off Coldiron [a company future London founded in the stub]. They already think it’s about Leon. Conspiracy theory’s that he won a lot more in that lottery than the state let on.”
“No sense in that.”
“Conspiracy theory’s got to be simple. Sense doesn’t come into it. People are more scared of how complicated shit actually is than they ever are about whatever’s supposed to be behind the conspiracy.”
“What’s the theory?”
“Not that firmed up, yet.” (pp. 328–29)
“[Daedra] has herself tattooed,” [Wilf] said. “But it’s more complicated than that.”
“Like with rings and things?” [asked Flynne].
“No. The tattoos aren’t the product. She herself is the product. Her life.”
“What they used to call reality shows?”
“I don’t know. Why did they stop calling them that?”
“Because it got to be all there is, except Ciencia Loca and anime, and those Brazilian serials. Old-fashioned, to call it that.”
He stopped, reading something she couldn’t see. “Yes. She’s descended from that, in a sense. Reality television. It merged with politics. Then with performance art.”
They walked on. “I think that already happened, back home.” (p. 347)
The Peripheral is also full of terrific moments of people acting in the funny ways that they do. Conner is one of Burton’s oldest friends, a friendship that survived the military service that came a lot closer to killing Conner than it did Burton. At home, Conner is a damaged survivor, taking out his anger in inappropriate places. In the future, telepresence lets him inhabit a body that’s whole and in great shape; he also gets to try more exotic things as well. Clovis is a special agent, part of the group that London has instructed to help Flynne and company.
Flynne went over to [Conner]. “What were you in, up there? Mason says you’re training.”
“Kind of like a washing machine, inertial propulsion. Big-ass fly-wheels inside.”
“About three hundred pounds. Big red cube. I’d just learned to balance it on one corner, then rotate, when they made me come back.”
“What’s it for?”
“Fuck if I know. Wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley.” He lowered his voice. “Macon’s high on a government stimulant. Like builders’ best, but minus the jitters. None of that dys-fucking-functional kind of paranoia.”
“Not like your own super-functional kind?”
[Conner] looked from her to Macon. “Won’t give me any,” he said.
“Doctor’s orders,” Macon said. “And anyway they engineered every last thing out of it that people do drugs for. Except staying awake.”
“You quit being so whiny-assed special,” Clovis advised Conner … “like every other butt-hurt Haptic Recon pussy it’s been my misfortune to meet, and maybe I’ll get you a nice cup of coffee.”
Conner looked up at her like he’d discovered a kindred spirit.
The deals remain slightly funny until the very end, though they have long since stopped being laughing matters. And in that end, the characters get what they need, if not necessarily what they deserve.
Laura’s review, written when The Peripheral was more newly published, is here.