Gibson’s The Peripheral

Some summary thoughts on William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Gibson’s writing can be frustrating. He plunks you into a foreign land with no map or guide book, yeah feeling that a phrase book would be just the thing.  Many critics complain that it takes 40 pages or so to find you footing in a Gibson novel, to start to decipher the foreign language that Gibson invents.  The Peripheral took me more like 100.  This is deliberate on his part of course.  You can start to identify a shift in his discourse strategy 100 pages in or so.  There is something like exposition in the second act, as characters start to actually “explain” things.

The Peripheral on its surface is a sci-fi novel about gaming and time travel.  Flyne Fisher, a protagonist in our near future is asked to sub for her brother in a videogame he has been hired to participate in.  This harkens back to the world of Neuromancer and Case the cyberspace cowboy, hacker for hire.  In the case of The Peripheral, talented gamers like Flyne and her brother are hired by wealthy individuals to play for them.  It is not such a far-fetched speculation, given the popularity of multi-player online games, to imagine a future in which individuals would hire other players, ringers as it were, to augment our playing experience.  In Flyne’s case, however, the wealthy players, it turns out, are from some 70 years in her future, and her online experience turns out not to be a simulation but of an experience of her employers’ reality.  Flyne is the witness to a murder there and so as the story unfolds is called upon to return to the future to identify the murderer.

Another story conceit is that individuals from the future are able to send back technology and influence the past. Indeed two competing factions vie for domination in Flyne’s time period, manipulating the economy, even threatening to collapse it, and this is where the novel becomes allegorical.  Today we are indeed able to time travel from our technological present, which at times feels “future” to technological pasts in the form of less “developed” countries.   In a society defined by celebrity, style and fetishized technology (all constructs of course) we can with little effort travel virtually through media or physically with drone strikes and boots on the ground to societies without many of the trappings of modernity.  In fact, with modest intervention we can bomb many of these technologically “past” countries into the temporal dark ages.  Afganistan comes to mind.  So in this respect The Peripheral would seem to be less speculative fiction and more a meditation on contemporary geopolitics.  We in the comfort of our time frame can watch individuals motivated by greed and power obliterate other societies in a geopolitical chess match.  In The Peripheral they’re what Gibson calls continua hobbyists, wealthy individuals who dabble in the past.  In contemporary society, they are individuals and corporations with global interests and little interest in the inhabitants of the globe.  In the world of The Peripheral, homeland security is such a common feature of the popular consciousness as to be called “homes” (invoking a gang slang familiarity).  It echoes a phenomenon John Risen calls the “homeland security industrial complex,” referring to a society (ours) in which the fear of terrorism (hence the word) is leveraged to create hundreds of billions of dollars wealth defending “our way of life.”

So what to make of The Peripheral over all?  The allegory is the fun part, what makes it worth the read.  The first 40 pages are part of the experiment are an indulgence we afford Gibson, like the first reel of a Tarkovsky film, necessary to put you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the journey.  The last 40 pages are a kind of a throw away for me, particularly the denouement.  Gibson’s high-action climax and ending all neatly wrapped up with a bow are not the high points for me.  It’s ironic too the Hollywood endings of Gibson novels because they haven’t translated that well to film.  Could be the experimental quality of Gibson’s writing.  The speculative landscapes are, it stands to reason, difficult to imagine.  But when I think about it, Gibson’s characters are also difficult to flesh out.  They don’t speak to me say the way John Irving’s do, or William Styron’s, or even Sven Larson’s.  Case and Flyne are difficult characters for me to picture.  This should be a good thing I suppose when translating a novel to film.  I was disappointed in the casting of Lisbeth Salandar from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Sophie from Sophie’s Choice not taking anything away from the actresses who portray them but because I had such a strong mental image of them from the books.  Okay maybe Jennifer Lawrence as Flyne, not the Jennifer Lawrence of Hunger Games but the Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone.

Would I recommend The Peripheral.  Who cares!  My recommendation isn’t worth much.  I don’t think The Peripheral is as important a novel as Neuromancer.  But then Neuromancer wasn’t as important a novel as Neuromancer when it was written.

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