DECEMBER 12, 2014
NEAR THE END of The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, there is a short chapter dedicated to the problem one character faces in acquiring a breakfast burrito.
The burrito is for one of the novel’s two protagonists, Flynne Fisher, who is traveling to see her mother. Assassins have been pursuing Flynne ever since she witnessed a murder while she was playing what she thought was a video game. To protect her, her brother Burton, a former Marine who fought with a group called “Haptic Recon 1,” has ensconced Flynne in an armored truck that looks like a “Hummer limo,” which is itself protected by two manned SUVs as well as a small fleet of drones.
Getting a burrito into Flynne’s hands, through these layers of security, creates a logistical problem that Gibson relishes in describing:
Flynne saw a boy in a white t-shirt come running out across the gravel, something in his hands. He passed it, through an open window, to someone in the SUV, which had almost but not quite stopped. The SUV pulled out again. Tacoma sped up, matching its speed, maintaining a fixed distance.
When Jimmy’s was out of sight, Flynne saw something lift out of the SUV, headed back toward them. It became a small quadcopter, toting a fabbed cornstarch travel tray with a silver-foil bundle and a paper cup clipped in it.
Gibson subsequently outlines, in considerable detail, how the airborne burrito, carried by quadcopter, docks with the truck, laboriously makes its way through the truck’s airlock, and then arrives into Flynne’s hand, hot, filled with greasy cheese. “Lots of trouble, for a burrito,” Flynne observes.
It is a lot of trouble, and the mini-odyssey of the breakfast burrito might at first seem like an odd interlude so near the novel’s action-filled climax. But anyone familiar with Gibson’s novels will not be too surprised by the drone-borne burrito episode. Across his many novels, for 30 years, Gibson has built his fictive worlds through the accumulation of fine-grained, offbeat detail. He loves the lived texture of his imagined worlds, enjoys peppering his sentences with mealy phrases such as “fabbed cornstarch travel tray” and “silver-foil bundle.”
Inspired partly by the sculptor Joseph Cornell, Gibson has aspired toward a sort of science-fictional miniaturism. His characters and stories — those narrative elements supposedly central to the art of fiction — often, by comparison, feel tossed off. His most memorable characters, such as Hubertus Bigend and (in this novel) the detective Ainsley Lowbeer, more resemble forces of nature than people. The rest fade quickly from memory. Ten years from now, you will be unlikely to remember who is trying to kill Flynne, or even why. But indelible details such as Gibson’s drone-delivered foil-covered breakfast burrito — and the rough fabric of his style — will remain.
This is not just true of his science fiction. Take, for instance, the opening paragraphs of his last novel, Zero History (2010), part of the so-called Blue Ant Trilogy, which is ostensibly set in the present, but feels very much like his science fiction:
Inchmale hailed a cab for her, the kind that had always been black, when she’d first known this city.
Pearlescent silver, this one. Glyphed in Prussian blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.
Gibson begins his first sentence by describing characters, place, action, almost out of a sense of professional obligation, but quickly transitions to the true object of his fascination, contemporary London cabs. He obliquely reflects on how these iconic cabs have changed, how their transformation into silver, faux-leather-filled simulacra of their older selves is complexly, if obscurely, enmeshed in processes of capitalist globalization. In Gibson’s hands, even the present comes to resemble science-fictional Imagist poetry.
The Peripheral is a culmination of Gibson’s Imagism. His new novel gives us two arresting futures for the price of one, which are called in the novel “continua.” The first continuum, the novel’s mid-21st-century future, is set in an economically blasted zone of the American South whose primary industry is the manufacture of illegal drugs; the second continuum is set in an almost wholly depopulated 22nd-century London, transformed almost beyond recognition, ruled by hideously rich oligarchs known as the klept. Both at the level of plot and style, Gibson’s novel emphasizes the friction between these two timelines. Alternating chapters jump from one time to another, and back again. Each timeline has its own characteristic style, its own lived texture, and its own pleasurable confusions.
In dramatizing the conflict between timelines, the novel returns to themes that have haunted Gibson’s imagination from the beginning of his career. Indeed, the original template for The Peripheral may well be his 1981 short story, “The Gernsback Continuum.” The story features a photographer protagonist who is taking pictures for an illustrated history of retro-futuristic architecture called The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was. He has received a commission to photographically document “a 1980 that never happened,” an “architecture of broken dreams.” As he collects photos of ruined 1930s modernist architecture, he comes to wonder “what the inhabitants of that lost future would think of the world I lived in,” and, startlingly, finds himself penetrating “a fine membrane, a membrane of probability.”
Pulp science-fiction futures — “semiotic ghosts,” “Fragments of the Mass Dream” — frighteningly materialize before him. He fears he’s had a psychotic break. While parked on the side of a road he observes “a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era.” It’s a city that’s “real, entirely real,” populated by heroic white blond blue-eyed people, “Heirs to the Dream.” In this story, as in The Peripheral, different timelines are called “continua.” The contemporary 1980s, our 1980s, which suffers from various energy crises and from post-Vietnam political malaise, the protagonist sees as a “near-dystopia.” But the alternate 1980s imagined in SF pulps is even worse, a near-fascist world.
The Peripheral literalizes the interaction between different continua that “The Gernsback Continuum” depicts in a more playful way. The 21st-century storyline prominently features drones, 3d-printers, flexible smartphones, and a host of other technologies that mostly already exist. The protagonist in this timeline, Flynne, has worked as a waitress, but earns some extra money on the side by playing video games for rich gamers who are too lazy to do the hard work of having fun on their own. At the start of the novel, Flynne’s brother Burton, the former Marine, asks her to take over a shift for him, beta-testing a video game set in what seems like a science-fictional version of London. While playing the game, she observes a character being eaten alive by nanobots. Of course, the murder turns out to be real, but it has occurred in a future version of London, 70 years removed from her timeline.
Gibson’s 22nd-century future is at first cryptic, but is ultimately familiar to science fiction readers: we have geoengineering towers which scrub carbon from the air, ubiquitous nanotechnology, which performs miraculous feats of construction, humanoid drones (called peripherals) that people can tele-operate, and — most interestingly — a mysterious Chinese server that allows hobbyists to communicate with Flynne’s 21st century. Wealthy “continua enthusiasts” enjoy messing around with earlier timelines, manipulating them as if they were games. Gibson is careful to clarify that only information can travel between the continua, and emphasizes that at the moment the 22nd century started communicating with Flynne’s timeline, that timeline diverged from its original course. It has become what characters call an independent “stub.”
Our 22nd-century protagonist is Wilf Netherton, an alcoholic publicist who has, through various baroque means, become entangled with the murder Flynne has witnessed. At some point between Flynne’s time and Netherton’s, a slow-moving apocalypse — ominously called “the jackpot” — has wiped out 80 percent of humanity, not to mention most animal life. The wheezing, sickly remnants of democracy that survive in Flynne’s America have, in the wake of the jackpot, formally been eradicated. Netherton’s future — a Utopia for the plutocrats who survive the jackpot — is openly ruled by the klept.
None of these speculations, in either continuum, is particularly innovative. Indeed, Gibson’s vision of a klept-controlled London does not seem too distant from today’s version. The power of The Peripheral does not arise from any of its specific technological concepts, but rather in the way that Gibson constructs the relationship between the mid-21st century and the 22nd century. Each continuum treats the other as if it were a game. Flynne and her friends, of course, make money by playing games in Netherton’s time. Netherton’s compatriots, meanwhile, use advanced algorithms to game the stock market in the 21st century, accumulating capital easily, helping Flynne become instantly wealthy within her own world, nearly wrecking the economy of the 21st century, as if the future were playing Sim America. More generally, Netherton’s stub is, as one character puts it, “third worlding” Flynne’s stub, exploiting unemployed reserve armies of workers in the more populous past to do shit work in the 22nd century.
The relationship between the two timelines is not only a matter of economic exploitation. Gibson also focuses on the way that each continuum tries to understand the other. Each timeline is alienating not only to us but also to the other timeline that it encounters. Flynne and Netherton each enter the other’s time through peripherals, trying to make sense of the other world in much the same way that the reader must.
This drama of mutual incomprehension between continua allows Gibson to sustain his characteristic style for much longer than he usually does. Typically, Gibson begins his novels with dense, oblique prose. He has quipped that he makes the early chapters of his novels especially difficult in order to scare off readers unwilling to put in the effort to piece together his stories. After this initial difficulty, his stories usually come into view, and the remainder of each novel simply brings the story to completion.
Unfortunately, his plots are rarely as gripping as his world-building technique. They are for him, it often seems, beside the point, means toward the literary end of evocative description. I have long felt that Gibson should give up on the convention of putting his characters through the paces of chasing this or that MacGuffin. The best moments in his novels invariably happen when his characters walk around their fictive worlds, looking at all the familiar-strange stuff around them.
The Peripheral gives us exactly this. It is, for the most part, not very interested in its murder plot. For long stretches of the novel, Flynne and Netherton tour each other’s timelines via tele-presence, Flynne in a humanoid peripheral body, Netherton in a proto-peripheral toy called a Wheelie Boy. At one point, Netherton gives Flynne’s peripheral a tour of Oxford Street, which has been transformed into a “linear” forest, part of a larger “regreening” London effort after the jackpot. Gibson writes:
He said they built all this with what he called assemblers, which she guessed were what she’d seen kill his ex’s sister.
What he called a feed was a window in her vision, not so big that she couldn’t see to walk, but watching it and looking where she was going could be tricky. Like a Viz would be, she guessed, but without having to wear it.
Architects had told the assemblers to cut a cross-section, down the length of the original street, in the shape of a big circle, a long central tubular emptiness. The buildings had been ruins to begin with, only partly standing, so the profile the assemblers cut away had mostly been less than the bottom half of that circle. Where the cut had gone through, regardless of the material encountered, the surface it left was slick as glass. What you’d expect with marble, or metal, but weird with old red brick, or wood. Assembler-cut brick looked like fresh-cut liver, assembler-cut wood slick as the paneling in Lev’s RV.
Nothing in this passage affects the novel’s plot. Gibson’s prose is, instead, almost casual, lingering on the liver-slick surface of assembler-cut materials, focusing on how Flynne struggles to connect Netherton’s world to her own. By dramatizing the way that two different time-periods mutually attempt to make sense of each other, Gibson creates a sort of meta-science fiction. Gibson’s characters do what we as readers have been asked to do all along when reading his fiction.
The Peripheral is thus less interested in specifying two fully articulated hypothetical futures than in inviting us to reflect on our present-day imaginative relationship to the future, the semiotic ghosts that haunt our collective concept of that future. The ultimate purpose of this meta-reflection is to help us think more clearly about how the hypothetical futures Gibson imagines are, in nascent form, already here. Advanced capitalism is producing and distributing the future — indeed, many competing possible futures — across the globe. It is, in many ways, a factory for producing semiotic ghosts. Gibson wants to help us recognize these techno-capitalist phantasms within our world — and within ourselves. He hopes not only to show us how the future is already here, but also how it might be redirected, and perhaps changed for the better. Though he is rarely didactic, Gibson has always been a political writer. He treats fiction as a technology of attention-management, an invitation to notice new dimensions of the near-dystopia in which we find ourselves living.
The Peripheral is one of his most sophisticated attention-management machines, a culmination of his career, both a return to old themes and a step forward, and his most sustained experiment in helping us, even if only for a moment, see the world with new eyes.