William Gibson: The Peripheral – A Tale of Time

You can’t go there. Nobody can. But information can be exchanged, so money can be made there.”

– William Gibson,  The Peripheral

What if the future were run by gangsters? Not your old Italian or Russian Mafioso’s, but families who live beyond their years who control secrets and knowledge bases larger than governments. Who can roam through time or at least send bits of data back to do their bidding. To murder, perhaps? At least so goes the basic plot of William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral.

“It’s new . It’s quiet. Lev looks for new things, things his family might invest in. He thinks this one may be out of Shanghai. Something to do with quantum tunneling.”
“How far back can they go?”

“Twenty twenty-three, earliest. He thinks something changed, then; reached a certain level of complexity. Something nobody there had any reason to notice.”
“Remind me of it later.” She reached for him. On the walls, the framed flayed hides of three of her most recent selves. Her newest skin beneath him, unwritten.1

A hint of the Singularity? AI run amok? 3D printing builds a new world? Designer skins for those lucky elites that need a new sleeve for the right occasion? Who knows? I’m just on page 70 and I’m hooked finally realizing just where this story is going, at least I tell myself that hoping it is leading somewhere dark and darker. Gibson seems to be back in tidy form, his prose snaps and bristles with the old cyberpunk flippancy. Yet, one sees a more mature shadow of the former self, a revisionary gleam floating out of the prose from a seasoned veteran who has taken in the hype and spit it out again refraining from the glib glitz of our networked utopianism, and instead conveying the bitter truth of dystopia with a caged smile.

Somewhere ahead of us on the peer to peer communications line of time are two worlds, one in which Flynne Fisher and her brother, Burton live out their lives in a near-future rural America and, while in the other, Wilf Netherton wanders among dark lords of crime in a far flung future-future London. The plot is simple enough: Burton Fischer knows something, something that the overlords of some gangland world of the future wish to erase, so they seek to kill him by wiring money and information back in time along that point in space where he can be found, then killed. As Wilf finds out from another family of criminals who have been tracking such things:

“They want to kill a dead man in a past that effectively doesn’t exist?” Netherton asked. “Why? You’ve always said that nothing that happens there can affect us.”

“Information,” Lev said, “flows both ways. Someone must believe he knows something. Which, were it available here, would pose a danger to them.” (Gibson, 70)

Yet, it’s Flynne who comes alive as a character, her puckish punkishness, her no nonsense matter-of-fact observations, cynical yet full of the old style rebelliousness: grace under pressure? She more than other characters shapes the novel to something that keeps you reading. The other characters still seem a little bland and commercial compared to her Appalachian youth. But, for all that, this isn’t your homegrown variety of Appalachian satire, but rather the emergence of an especially acute intelligence in the midst of a world gone south in more ways than one. America on the decline, fallen on bad times; yet, still working in pragmatic home down fashion with what is at hand to make a living, and survive. Flynne is a girl who outwardly is tough as a boot, but inwardly still harbors those deeper qualities of femininity that marks the need for recognition and independence for women. She can handle what you throw at her, yet she also knows that some things aren’t worth throwing or having. 

There’s a moment when she intervenes into a situation that seems about to go viral, where a young punk named Conner “who was half a machine, like a centaur made out of a motorcycle” has been baited by a couple of football types and is about to show them what violence truly is when she walks out of the bar and confronts him:

“It’s a tiresome asshole town. Least you got an excuse. Go home. Burton’s on his way back from Davisville. He’ll come see you.” And it was like she could see herself there, on the gray gravel in front of Jimmy’s, and the tall old cottonwoods on either side of the lot, trees older than her mother, older than anybody, and she was talking to a boy who was half a machine, like a centaur made out of a motorcycle, and maybe he’d been just about to kill another boy, or a few of them, and maybe he still would. She looked back and saw Madison was on the porch, bracing the football player who’d thrown the bottles, titanium glasses up against the boy’s eyeballs, boy backing to keep from being poked in the chest with the rows of pens and flashlights in Madison’s Teddy Roosevelt vest. She turned back to Conner. “Not worth it, Conner. You go home.”

“Fuck-all ever is,” he said, and grinned, then punched something with his chin. The Tarantula revved, wheeled around, and took off, but he’d been careful not to spray her with gravel. (Gibson, 65-66)

So here I am reading this, realizing Gibson’s hooked me again. Up to this moment I kept wondering what it was all about, not now… now I just want to enjoy the ride of how this strange tale will unfold.

I’ll return with a full review in the short future… stay tuned.

1. Gibson, William (2014-10-28). The Peripheral (p. 39). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

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