What do you do when the future that you predicted arrives?
William Gibson has built up his literary and technological-thinker reputation on books that prefigured many phenomena, including the internet (Neuromancer , Count Zero , Mona Lisa Overdrive ), big data (All Tomorrow's Parties ), drone surveillance (Zero History ), and megacorporations that wield more power than entire governments (Neuromancer, Count Zero).
His latest novel, The Peripheral, comes out in the context of all these things having come to pass. The Peripheral takes place not too far in the future. Flynne Fisher, the protagonist, is a girl scraping by in a rural poor "tiresome asshole town" (p. 65), picking up shifts at the local 3D printing shop, which is not much of a leap from today's slow death of low-skill manufacturing jobs in the United States. Flynne used to make much more money playing virtual combat games, being bet on and getting cuts of prize money if she killed other players. But one bad kill ruined her for that life; not such a far cry from the PTSD reported by remote combat soldiers in our own world.
Her brother Burton has fought in his own flesh, and has physical scars plus a tiny VA disability payment to show for it. More pragmatic and less scrupulous than Flynne, he flaunts the law and picks up a second job, working security in yet another virtual game. One night he promises Flynne a percentage if she picks up his virtual shift. She accepts and immediately witness an atrocity.
This virtual world exists seventy or so years and one apocalypse, called the "jackpot", into the future. It has suffered mass extinctions, human die-offs, severe pollution, rampant corruption. But those seventy years were enough to develop far better technology, including a limited sort of historical manipulation, through the game that Flynne is playing. I should note at this point that this process is insistently not time travel:
"Can't you," asked Netherton, "just jump forward and see what happens? Look in on them a year later, then correct for that?"
"No," said Ash. "That's time travel. This is real." (p. 92)
It's not long before a police officer of the future takes an interest in Flynne of the past. Complications ensue, including a race to prevent the apocalypse in question—in Flynne's timeline.
To those used to Gibson's obsessions, this book is something of an anomaly. Not in terms of quality, which is the usual: the plot hangs together well; the mechanics of accessing another timeline are unexplained but consistent; and the characters are the usual cast of dissociated marginalized underclass and capable but jerkish antiheroes
Rather, the feeling, if you will, is completely different. Gone are the frequent discussions of human systems and their artifacts, the obsessions with detail and worship of design, the extrapolations on repurposing emergent technology. Gibson has previously plotted via wildly disparate threads that all collide at the end, thereby illustrating the strange and surprising, invisible, systemic bonds that tie everyone together in the emergent human technological society.
The Peripheral does very little of that. In fact, the book doesn't do as much emergent-tech speculation as we're used to seeing from Gibson. Corrupt megacorporations, continual citizen surveillance, and drone warfare also make their appearance—once they were mostly fiction, but now they are all fact. And the vast majority of the technologies in Flynne's time already exist in our world, though they haven't been commodified to the same extent.
In another anomaly for Gibson, the one enormous speculation at the center of this novel is a sort of time travel, which is based on nothing that even remotely exists today. It's also a fairly well-used trope, which cannot be said of most of Gibson's other stories, whose plots turn on points like secret label designer jeans, curio boxes of unknown provenance, and sunglasses used as data storage devices. An exception could be made for Neuromancer, which hinges on an AI, but in all fairness, Gibson got there before most.
(I am not saying that Gibson is phoning it in with respect to his inventions. The future does have plenty of interesting technology, and there's a plethora of his characteristically evocative yet off-kilter names. Some particularly nice ones: nicknaming Homeland Security as "Homes"; calling fluorescent colors "flu" for short; a band called the "Sacrificial Anodes," and a banking service called "Hefty Pal," which I read as a prediction that Paypal and similar services will one day take over the world.)
In spite of invoking time travel, Gibson seems to be trading in his focus on speculation for hard reality, not only in the set-dressing but in the plot as well. The tension in many of his past stories was largely intellectual, which is to say, at no point would the reader be worried about someone dying or a country being nuked. Even when the big future tech guns were brought out, they existed to serve the thinky plot point, and were never the focus. For instance, Rei Toei "marrying" Rez in the virtual world of Idoru (1996) involved nanotech, but it posed no concrete threat to the world at large. Finding the hidden filmmaker of Pattern Recognition (2003) pulls in Russian oil barons, and yet the story's conclusion has no effects except on an obsessed cult. Gibson's characters, too, tend to be dissociated from the present that most of us face: we are not broken hacker cowboys, marketing gurus, kickass razorgirls, or ex-supersoldiers running international conspiracies. Even though Gibson set these characters in (post)cyberpunk dystopias, they had vicariously entertaining lives, and their grimy adventures had the romantic tinge of survivalist power fantasies in the same vein as zombie movies or anything featuring a gun-toting badass wandering around a nuclear wasteland.
The Peripheral stands in contrast to Gibson's past fiction in all those aspects. It features ordinary protagonists with ordinary hard-knock lives living in a world with very nearly ordinary technology. The military is presented as an entity that breaks its soldiers, without any of the glamorously dangerous edge found in Gibson's earlier works. And even the future apocalyptic world, though it's full of shiny toys and fascinating tech, is a losing game, with no future of its own.
And to top it off, the characters are faced with the biggest consequence of all: nothing less than the apocalypse. And actually, they're too late. Hence the not-time travel.
This brings up yet another divergence from Gibson's previous books: they tend to feature visionaries, of varying levels of ability and sociopathy. For all their enormous flaws, they tend to be very good at reading the future, if only the better to exploit them. His characters speak often of "nodal points," tipping-points in historical events that start a domino effect of wide-ranging consequences. Gibson, who has written so many books about people who were able to predict the future, includes no such prophet in The Peripheral. Nobody knows what history hinged on until many years past the event in question.
In sum, I found this to be the most pessimistic of Gibson's novels, even though it technically contains the happiest ending and biggest victory of his books, with all survivors happily riding into the virtual, multi-timeline sunset. Read in a vacuum, or written by another author, this might be a heartwarming tale of redemption. But given the rest of Gibson's bibliography, I found it incredibly sad. It gave me the feeling of Gibson trying to roll back—literally, with a not-time machine—many of the changes that he had predicted, now that they have come to pass in real life. It's tempting to feel like Gibson has become a character in one of his own books: a genius at understanding patterns of human technology, without the ability to do anything about it. This isn't to criticize; who among us can do any better?
The Peripheral, compared to Gibson's previous books, is less thought experiment, more straight-up warning and call to action. It says that the future is here, and that we shouldn't be waiting for the apocalypse to hit. And righting the world is going to be on us, since the future is probably not going to come back for us any time soon.
Z. Irene Ying is a research scientist and science writer. She blogs about the science in pop culture (and every so often, the science in real life) at Aperture Science Journal Club.