Thursday, 7 January 2016

William Gibson: The Peripheral

The Peripheral might be Gibson’s most optimistic book, for all that it’s set either side of the apocalypse. All the main characters are trying to be decent people, no matter how badly, and their collective muddling through leads to a sort of happy ending in which the bad guys get a bit of a comeuppance and a doomed past gets a second chance to be a little less doomed.

I’ve read all of Gibson’s fiction, though not always in the same tearing hurry that I’d read other writers. I’ve noticed that I buy his books when they come out in paperback and then they sit there for a while waiting for the moment when I feel like reading something which will require some effort. China Mieville has much the same effect; I’ve got at least three of his books sitting around waiting for me to read them. I’m like St Augustine; I know I want to be good, but I keep putting it off. There’s always something easier which I can read, and I read that instead.

And The Peripheral didn’t make it easy; Gibson always requires you to start in first gear, dropping you into the world with no explanation and leaving it to you to figure out what’s going on. Somehow, the first couple of chapters of the book didn’t grab me at all, and I must have started it three different times before I finally got past the initial resistance and got going in earnest.

It was worth the initial grind. Gibson is fizzing as usual with throwaway ideas about the way the future is going to mess things up (I was taken with the casual bleakness of his idea for outsourcing haircuts to the third world through telepresence, an unsettling notion which takes up four lines and is never discussed again). Overall, his near future dead-end USA is chillingly plausible. Most of the action in that time zone plays out in a Gibson-esque take on Harlan County from Justified, but rather than giving Raylan Givens a space helmet, Gibson rips out everything but the drug business and strip malls and rubs our noses in what a US county would look like where the only money is in building designer drugs, greeting at Walmart or living off veterans’ benefits after you let the Marines chew you up past usefulness in yet another sideshow war. It’s the Walmart analogue which feels most on the nose; in Flynne’s world, everything you buy comes one way or another through the Hefty Corporation, which has obviously absorbed eBay, Walmart, and pretty much every other brand name you thought was going to last forever. Meanwhile ubiquitous 3D printing has created a black economy of “funny” manufactured items which are all most people can afford.

Up the line, in the post-collapse world, the action unfolds in a re-imagined London where anything seems possible thanks to nanotechnology, but society has been crippled by anomie from the loss of 80% of the world’s population, then hobbled by the quiet tyranny of the suriving plutocrats who have remodelled the world to make sure that nothing can ever threaten their position again. One - never-explained - technical wonder is a mysterious file server which somehow allows hobbyists to communicate with the past. No-one in the book has the slightest idea how it works; it just does. And because every individual set of contacts splits off a new future for the past, as a very literal many-worlds demonstration, there’s no way to exploit the past for profit, which leaves talking to the past as a hobby for bored plutocrats.

The Peripheral is about how that goes subtly, and then wonderfully, wrong. The fundamental decency of the main characters is underlined by the occasional references to what some of the other hobbyists have got up to in their own little sandboxes, which also maintains a sense of creeping dread at just how bad things are going to get for Flynne and her family in the past. 

As always with Gibson, a lot of the fun is the characters around the edges; Gibson loves to hedge his protagonists around with infinitely more capable operators who intervene at just the right moment to make the ghastly problems a little less ghastly. They ought to feel like annoying plot conveniences, but they’re so much fun that it would be churlish not to enjoy them. Perhaps that’s just the pleasure I always feel in watching smart people do smart things and get away with it.

Up until now, Gibson’s books have tended to fall into loose trilogies, where problems and sometimes characters overlap and intertwine, not always in obvious ways. I found myself wondering whether this is going to be the start of another loose trilogy, or whether Gibson has written himself into a corner. It could go either way, I suppose, but such a lot of questions have been left open for the bigger world of the future that I daresay I will be here in a couple of years meandering about how it’s all coming together.

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