Occupying The Periphery | A Review Of William Gibson’s The Peripheral

There’s a lot to like in the Peripheral.

Everywhere you look in this uncharacteristically long novel about two timelines connected by technology you find classic Gibson, complex ideas melded into relatable drama that never get in the way of telling a good story. But the world these days if full of good stories. Does The Peripheral do something more?

Occupying The Peripheral

Flynne Fisher is a young woman living in rural America sometime in the not too distant future. At the request of her brother Burton, an ex soldier in the special military unit Haptic Recon One, Flynne fills in beta testing a video game where she witnesses an horrific murder. Not to long after that, we figure or that this isn’t a game.

Wilf Netherton is a publicist some 70 years the future whose client, a performance artist named Daedra West, has just pissed off a new nation made from floating plastic. Deadra’s sister, Aelita, is the one Flynne saw killed. Wilf’s friend Lev possesses access to the Stub, Flynne’s world, and they had been using Burton as a kind of drone controller security detail. Shit just got real, and Flynne is going to travel to the future, well… a future.

Also, she’s not going in person. So she’ll need a body.

The hardware in question is a semi-synthetic human with basic cloud AI and ostensibly the title character of the book. But the title is also about the novel’s structure, because the edge of the periphery is where everything in this novel takes place. Though Flynne and Wilf are our protagonists, they are not the leading agents. So much if what happens to drive the plot of The Peripheral happens outside our field of view. There are dozens of characters in the novel and few of them do anything more than minor tasks largely off screen, but they fill in the robust world and drive the story to its almost too logical conclusion.

Days Of Future Past

The separate timelines in The Peripheral remain separate, and we are repeatedly told that Flynne’s world is a stub, a branch from the future timeline that will now progress differently just by the interference, the act of contact. This quasi-quantum concept, where both worlds are held in entanglement, time passing forever at the same rate between them, is an interesting take on time travel that recalls the indie film Primer, where time travellers must spend time in the box equal to the time they want to travel back, making anything more than a day or two essentially impossible.

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More interesting is that while Flynne’s past world can’t affect the Wilf future, Wilf’s future can, and does, affect Flynne’s past. ‘Superior processing power’, is essentially the methodology by which the future actors can stockpile resources enough to turn a few friends in small town into a global power and almost bringing about an economic collapse in the process. Underpinning this is the idea that our current day economic system is so convoluted, so reliant on math, computer modelling and statistics that it is entirely possible that a trans-dimensional force with advanced technology could mess with the global economic system and we’ve almost no way of ever knowing

While this might be a catharsis for the increasing insecurity brought about by technology’s impact on economy, is also a poignant metaphor for that famous Gibson quote, now decades old but still valid,

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Maybe Another Time

In a world where individuals can possess the wealth of nations, the ability to manipulate the market to one’s own needs is within reach, for a lucky few.

In my reading of The Peripheral this was the idea I felt held most weight. The theme that would propel this novel into ’classic’ status. Ultimately the victims of this interdimensional market manipulation are increasingly moved to the periphery, and come across as rubes and inconveniences rather than genuine victims. The bad guys are just typical brown terrorists and replaceable bureaucrats (one of whom literally doesn’t appear in the novel until the very end, basically showing up to die).

Similarly, the conclusion tries to normalise evil as a force, almost an apology for the needs of mass surveillance. This normalcy might satisfy the flattening of social hierarchy that connectedness brings us, but it’s also supremely at odds with the klept (the prevailing economy in future world) and indeed the meteoric rise of Flynne and family into a world superpower. The sentiment that the best people in charge are the ones who recognise the capacity for evil in themselves but don’t act on it is a disappointing idea to force on a reader – churlish and glib. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

I can’t help but think that for every step forward there’s a step back. The bad guy is a beard middle eastern terrorist and the only Arabic person in the book. The plot is the blandest police procedural, essentially 50 pages at either end with a set up and knock down filled in with 450 odd pages of world building, fun side adventures and clever, consummate writing.

At its best The Peripheral is a great way to write a novel in a modern era, where our interconnectedness leaves daily gaps and absences, and where our agency as individual actors seems to decrease in correlation with the promise of more freedom.

At its worst, The Peripheral engages in pointless cycles of subplots that lead nowhere, do nothing, and die wordlessly somewhere off page. Gibson has literary chops, but there’s this unwillingness to really weave the threads into anything more that a tangle. Perhaps that’s the renegade in him. The dissident. But The Peripheral is crying out for something more; a risk, a strike, a sacrifice of the aesthetic for just a bit more substance. At over 509 pages long, I’m still waiting.