DAYS OF FUTURE NOW: “THE PERIPHERAL” by William Gibson

Figure 1 - Gibson at lunch

Figure 1 – Gibson at lunch

I am indebted to my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, for the title of this column. She hasn’t yet read either of the two William Gibson books I’m going to talk about in this blog entry, but was going on my description of what I was reading as I devoured (not literally; there’s little food-type nutrition in paper and ink, although the mental nutrition is unbelievably high) not only The Peripheral—his brand-new book, for which he has just finished a coast-to-coast tour—but also his previous, non-fiction book, Distrust That Particular Flavor, which I hadn’t heard of until a few days ago, but now own as a Kindle ePublication. I recently had lunch with William Gibson, at which he gave me my very own ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of The Peripheral (Figure 1), but I now have purchased that one as a Kindle eBook as well. Amazon may well be a soul-destroying all-devouring conglomerate, as I heard someone describe it recently, but they have some good stuff available for purchase. (The reason this photo’s a bit weird is that a) Bill was backlit; and b) my camera has taken to doing extreme zoom as soon as it’s turned on.)

Before we start, I’d like to echo, in my own way, something Gibson said in his book Distrust That Particular Flavor, when he was talking about a Steely Dan record. He said, “I’m not a reviewer: I just want to say I like this record a lot, okay?”1 I know that I do a lot of book and movie “reviews” in this particular blog/column, but I just want to say that I don’t think I have that “reviewer” state of mind—I don’t particularly look for motifs, links to classical or popular culture, clues to the writer’s state of mind or whatever; I just say whether I liked that particular flavour and why. My opinion is purely subjective—and maybe simple, compared to someone’s opinion who is a reviewer—but it will be honest, and based on a very large sample of books read and movies watched. And if you read a few of my “reviews,” you’ll know whether or not to trust my opinion.

Here’s Amazon.com’s blurb for The Peripheral:

Where Flynne and her brother, Burton, live, jobs outside the drug business are rare. Fortunately, Burton has his veteran’s benefits, for neural damage he suffered from implants during his time in the USMC’s elite Haptic Recon force. Then one night Burton has to go out, but there’s a job he’s supposed to do—a job Flynne didn’t know he had. Beta-testing part of a new game, he tells her. The job seems to be simple: work a perimeter around the image of a tower building. Little buglike things turn up. He’s supposed to get in their way, edge them back. That’s all there is to it. He’s offering Flynne a good price to take over for him. What she sees, though, isn’t what Burton told her to expect. It might be a game, but it might also be murder.

Figure 2 - The Peripheral by William Gibson Hardcover

Figure 2 – The Peripheral by William Gibson Hardcover

It’s a bare-bones description of the early part of the book, which barely hints at the power and complexity of the whole novel. Burton Fisher is not one of the driving characters; Flynne is. Here’s the actuality: Burton and Flynne live at least a couple of decades in our future, in an impoverished section of (I’m guessing here) Virginia—or at least somewhere in the Deep South—where the drug trade (“building”—called that, probably, because the actual drugs are “built” using some form of 3D printing—as are most things in that near-future world) is almost literally the only job in town. Flynne and her brother are not part of it; he has his veteran’s disability, like their friend Conner, who is missing an arm, a foot and a leg and drives around town in a biofuel-powered tricycle called a Tarantula (possibly made by the Portland-area Tarantula group, or maybe an offshoot of the Can-Am Spyder); she has been a game designer and hacker. When Burton offers her his cut of a job (he’s going off for a confrontation with a religious group called Luke 4:5) supposedly working in a Beta version of a VR (Virtual Reality)-based game, she—as an experienced game and VR-designer/coder—is only supposed to keep some virtual bugs, supposed to be paparazzi or something like that—away from a virtual building in a virtual London (England). But what she sees, in the “game,” is (no secret this) a woman literally eaten up by some kind of nanomachines. Although distressed by the sight, she puts it down to an overly gory game and thinks little of it, other than it’s another in an increasingly gory game world.

Here’s the deal, though—although Flynne doesn’t know it yet, that particular VR experience was not a game; it was actually 70 years in the future of her time, although not exactly in her future. There’s a kind of a Heisenbergian “server,” possibly Chinese, that allows future people to interact—digitally, not physically—with the past. (One of the modern corollaries of Heisenberg’s work, as you probably know, is that by observing things, we change them.) These future people get kind of a window into a certain segment of the 70-year-past, which they can interact with in “real time”; it’s a one-to-one correspondence from the moment they log into the past. They can’t go forward from that time except in the same way we all go forward: one second per second. And no backwards, either. But the Heisenbergian part of it is that from the instant they start interacting with it, it is no longer their past. There is a new branch of the space-time continuum created (called a “stub,” for reasons that aren’t really germane to the reality), which diverges from the reality of the people who looked into the past. Really mind-boggling stuff, to be sure. The future folks think that Burton is the one who witnessed the murder, and the murderers—because they have all the money in the world, practically, and are part of the world government and have all the access in the world—begin making plans to have Burton killed. And then, when they find out about Flynne, to have her killed.

It’s clear that the information flow—whether just “information” or video, or VR—can go both ways. The future people can affect Flynne’s timeline, her stub, by hiring assassins, or politicians, or whatever they need—including having future technology printed (“built”) in the past; after all, with the right printers, all one would need is schematics and knowledge of how things are constructed, right? So future you—even though it’s no longer your future—could show you how to build something that you can’t build on your own. Future you could show you—with enough information and access to bigger, faster and better computers and databases—how to manipulate the stock market, for example. Future you could act with impunity because no matter what you changed in the past, it would not be your past any more. But there’s the rub—what if you in the past had knowledge—like the face of a murderer—that could be passed to your present/future and affect you there?

We slowly find out that—as if the murder hadn’t told us—the future’s just as full of assholes as the present—or rather, Flynne’s present. People jockeying for power, money, position, sex, whatever. The games started back when we began to form groups, back in the prehuman days, and will probably continue as long as someone sees something to be gained—or thinks there is—by screwing someone else over. One of the semi-innocent ones in the future is named Wilf Netherton; he became involved because he was the publicist for someone famous, and had an affair with her. Netherton is an alcoholic, kept perennially short of drink by those who know him; his best friend is Lev, whose father is one of the richest men in London, England. (In fact, future London figures large in this book; it appears that after something called “The Jackpot,” London is one of the largest and most influential cities in the West. The Jackpot lies still in Flynne’s world’s future.) So Flynne becomes our “present-day” (still future to us) protagonist and Netherton who, while still being an alcoholic badly in need of a drink is found to be likeable by almost everyone, even the main London cop—Ainsley Lowbeer—who is investigating the disappearance of Aelita, the woman Flynne thought was a game character. The future “good guys” (Netherton, Lev and Lowbeer) are aware that providing information about their past to the near-future Flynne and company can alter Flynne’s future, and maybe even prevent The Jackpot in Flynne’s stub—though that’s not talked about much, so this is not a spoiler of any kind. It’s a very complex dance that is performed in two separate but intertwined dimensions/timelines.

This book is full of the kinds of writing that made Gibson famous; in an echo of his 1984 debut novel Neuromancer’s opening line, The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, there is a line here that reminded me of it: Macon’s rented car smelled of freshly printed electronics.2 Gibson’s near future is plausible: Costco has been replaced by Hefty Mart; you can use Hefty Pal to pay bills. Most of the U.S. is under surveillance by “Homes”—the Department of Homeland Security. There are—at least in Gibson’s Deep South no bakeries—“cronuts” (a trademarked present-day cross between a croissant and a filled donut) are printed fresh daily by Coffee Jones; there are no factories, unless you count the ones full of heavy-duty printers churning out everything from cardboard cars (Oops! My bad—those come from China!) to pork nubbins, a snack sold by the barrelfull, one assumes, by Hefty Mart to cell phones. It’s never said, but I’m guessing the Sushi Barn’s sushi is also printed. Phones are printed, food is printed, everything possible is printed. And that’s just the near future—in the far future, this capability grinds into a higher gear.Figure 4 – Sushi Barn T-Shirt (women’s) from Zazzle RIGHT

There are also a few terms that aren’t fully explained, but you are expected to pick up from context: “polt,” apparently from “poltergeist,” used by the far future folk for people from Flynne’s timeline; “Michikoid,” a humanoid robot in the far future, used to perform many menial tasks–with functional AI (artificial intelligence)—name probably from “Michiko,” a Japanese woman’s name; “Medicis,” a medical attachment capable of doing wonders; “klept”—the upper-classes of that far future (from “kleptomania”?), and so on, including the mysterious Jackpot, which—I don’t want to give too much away—turns out to not be a single event, as you might expect. There’s also Luke 4:5, a religious group similar to—I think—the Westboro Baptist Church; from the Temptation of Christ (New International Bible: “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.”) Although Gibson explains a lot in context, there are seldom info dumps, so the reader is kept on tiptoe throughout the book. The Aelita mystery is what starts the book off; who’s trying to kill Flynne and her brother, and who are all the various factions in both past and future are the mysteries of the second part of the book. All of it, as far as I’m concerned, sparks and sparkles with a verve that a lot of science fiction has been sorely lacking lately.

And I haven’t even touched on the titular “Peripheral,” which is a printed human body (flesh and blood) that someone can virtually inhabit. Peripherals are much in use in the far future; they have a minor functional AI that can keep the body moving, talking and so on when not being used; most appear to be made without digestive tracts and are “fed” by allowing them to absorb nutrients directly through the skin or something like that. The breadth of ideas in this book is almost staggering; a lot of them are just throwaways that you note in passing because you’re too busy following the plot. They can print animals, too, by using and modifying other animals’ DNA, including extinct species.

Figure 4 - Sushi Barn T-Shirt (women's) from Zazzle

Figure 3 – Sushi Barn T-Shirt (women’s) from Zazzle

I’ve read some criticism that the plot bogs down in the second half of the book; I beg to differ. Whatever criticism is leveled at this book will usually tell more about the critic than the book, in my opinion. Look, I’ve known William Gibson for more than thirty years; I have (certified by him) the first autograph he ever gave, and I’m a fan of his writing (I’m not bragging; it’s just a fact). But I do recognize when—and not all that often—he plods in his fiction or makes a technological mistake. This isn’t one of those times. This is a stellar book, and if you listen to the nay-sayers, you’ll be cutting yourself off from a fun, thought-provoking and fascinating read. (And by the way, one of my criteria for a good science fiction or fantasy book—one that I’ll enjoy reading more than once—is that it have at least a leavening of humour. And by that I don’t mean juvenile puns like Piers Anthony’s Xanth series; I’m talking about humour that’s inherent in the writing—like the whole Luke 4:5 thing. For a serious somewhat future-noir SF book, this one has quite a bit of that. (I’m not insulting Anthony or Xanth when I say that: there’s a place for juvenile puns, and I’m often guilty of that very sin.)

Another thing I’d like you to think about: when Gibson was interviewed by the Vancouver Sun for a blurb about the recent Vancouver Writers Fest, he said (I’m paraphrasing here): “Books about the future are usually mostly about the time they’re written in.” By the way, you can buy Sushi Barn T-shirts (and Coldiron USA T-shirts—a company set up by the future people for Flynne and her brother) online from Zazzle.com. Dunno if Gibson gets a cut, but if he doesn’t, he should. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3 - Distrust That Particular Flavor PB Cover

Figure 4 – Distrust That Particular Flavor PB Cover

Now, before I go away and leave you to your own devices, I’d like to say a few words about the book I missed last year and just purchased from Amazon, called Distrust That Particular Flavor. If you haven’t read this, and you’re a Gibson fan, I urge you to pick it up. (I think I paid under $14 CDN for the Kindle version.) It contains twenty-five articles with afterwords for each article, containing afterthoughts on each one. The articles were, originally, either published in some larger or smaller venue (from the New York Times to Wired magazine, the Whole Earth Catalog to Rolling Stone and everything in between) or were given as speeches in various places at various times, ranging from the 1990s to the early-to-mid 2000s.

Beginning with the intro, “African Thumb Piano”3, in which he tells us why and how he became a fiction writer—and a look at why he’s a fiction writer and only reluctantly a non-fiction writer in his mind. (In my mind, he’s equally good at both.) There’s the famous Wired article on Singapore, “Disneyland With The Death Penalty,” there is something here for just about any taste in Gibson-related non-fiction.

So if you have any interest at all in how William Gibson became a writer, or how he comes up with some of the things he writes; or indeed, how he processes ideas—because for me, these articles give me an insight into a man I have talked to, partied with and been friends with for thirty-plus years, but who in many ways remains a stranger. This is a guy who knows celebrities like Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (of Steely Dan fame) or Mick Jagger; who knows London, England, better than he knows parts of his native Vancouver area (by his own admission); who has always been fascinated by—not only technology, but by technology’s effects on society, whether it’s our North American/Western society or Japan’s singular post-World War II society (for that, you should read the one called “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls”). He’s always been someone I listen to, and I think maybe you should listen too.

1Gibson, William (2012-01-03). Distrust That Particular Flavor (p. 34). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
2Gibson, William (2014-10-28). The Peripheral (p. 165). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
3Gibson, William (2012-01-03). Distrust That Particular Flavor (p. 6). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

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