William Gibson returned to cyberpunk with his novel The Peripheral. The book features plotlines in two future settings, one in the 2030s and one much farther into the future, beyond 2100. Characteristically for Gibson’s approach, he completely overloads these plotlines with countless inventions of future technology. It’s what we love him for. The world in the 2030s is still somewhat recognisable as it lies close to our reality, but the other one in the 2100s is hard work for the reader as it takes place in some post-singularity world full of bio and nano technology. And time travel.
The characters in these two timelines are typically living on the outskirts of society. In 2030 we have a cast of a war veteran with the remains of technological implants in his body, and his sister and their relations living in an impoverished American county that’s running on drugs. In 2100, a Russian kleptocrat and the people he hires from shady backgrounds. The two timelines connect not far into the novel as there is a way to exchange information between present and future.
The style and structure that Gibson wanted to go for, here, is one of fast, short sentences and the truncated lines of realistic daily speech, in a large number of extremely short chapters. So, as you read about these two futures, each chapter gives a little bit of information about what is going on, but at the end of each chapter the reader is still left puzzled about much of what’s happening. And so you read the next chapter; you read chapter after chapter just to figure out what the story is about and what these two future worlds are like, and with each chapter you learn a little bit but are also left puzzled by new stuff. And only after about the first hundred pages do you start to get a feeling for what is going on.
It’s not an easy start.
Gibson’s version of time travel has some fresh concepts that I haven’t seen before. It has a lot to do with information technology. A link to a past time is created through a specialised server, and the new budding alternate timeline so created Gibson named a stub. A stub is a truncated remnant of something, of a past timeline, and in programming language, a stub is a temporary substitute for something real – a piece of code, a piece of information, that simulates the behavior of something else. From the 2100 point of view, creating a new stub from the past is not much different from creating a game environment, and crowdsourcing the people from the past in that stub is like a “crazy form of artisanal AI”. It isn’t actual time travel, but it is exchange of information and communication between times.
Besides that, there are the usual cyberpunk trappings: the grungy lifestyles of scrabbling together a living with futuristic tech, and the accentuation of the power and presence of companies in society. It’s funny how well-known brand names sell future tech like androids or replicants in the 2100s. For the 2030 timeline, Gibson’s storyworld and tone feel grounded in reality and close to how Neal Stephenson writes his near-future stories (you know, create a cast of odd characters with unusual names, dedicate a lot of pages on the development of some tech project). But Gibson’s writing is a bit emotionless, a bit mechanical, this time. He doesn’t have the sense of humor that lights up Stephenson’s work, and the novel lacks the melancholy and dreaminess of a novel like Neuromancer.
I flip-flopped between feeling excited to read on and feeling a bit bored with it. The plot reveals itself very slowly and there is little pressure on the characters to get things done or to engage with the world in some character journey. For some main characters, like Netherton, I had no idea who he was or what he was even doing in this story deep in the novel. He’s the most unengaging POV character you could imagine. There were also too many characters and some could have been merged into one. On the other hand, Gibson deliberately chose viewpoint characters who are not in charge and not kept in the loop. Some crazy tech-heavy economic scheme is being developed and Netherton and Flynne are running to keep up. This is the main source of excitement in the novel, and it works once the plot starts rolling. The drawback of this approach is that the crazy tech-scheme becomes the main character, and the actual characters become unengaging and get little agency, and it doesn’t keep the novel from sagging now and then.
The first 100 pages are like a test if you’re smart enough to follow it, and then you’ll be rewarded with story that I couldn’t figure out if I liked it. I guess I come down on the side of liking it. Towards the end, it struck me how real the characters and locations felt, so Gibson might have been sparse with his descriptions but he had been economical and consistent, building up believable worlds. But I kind of wish that this was written by Philip K. Dick. Then it would have been more quirky and alienating and half the length, and those were things I felt I missed. There is a perfect 250-page Philip K. Dick novel hiding inside here.