I am a huge sci-fi lover, especially stuff by Neal Stephenson, Charlie Stross, and Chia Mielville. So when I heard that William Gibson has a new novel out, a sequel to one of his other works that I hadn’t read yet, I immediately added it to my library list. The Peripheral is a novel based around a concept the Gibson describes in his acknowledgement as “third worlding alternate timelines” via remote controlled avatars and drones.
The novel’s short chapters flip-flop between the two main characters, a woman named Flynn Burton, who resides in our near future in an unnamed place referred to as the county, an Appalachian community beset by job loss and drugs. The other main character, Wilf Netherton, is a publicist in Flynn’s future, where eighty percent of the population was wiped out by climate disaster and other calamities. Some of the ones who survived this period, referred to as The Jackpot, are lucky indeed, as they have access to uber-wealth and amazing technology: nano assemblers that can build (or destroy) anything, and Peripheral technology, which allows them to control biological android avatars via remote control. What Wilf and his kleptocratic friends also have access to is a stub, a way to reach back to Flynne’s time and communicate with people there.
Flynn’s brother, a former special forces soldier, is hired by Wilf’s associates to run security in their future. Thinking it a video game, Flynn covers for her brother and witnesses a murder, and from there the novel takes off as Flynn’s world, in fact, her entire timeline, gets turned upside down. As Wilf and his friends try to uncover the mystery in their timeline, their adversary has found a way into Flynn’s time also, and the two sides engage in economic warfare, using AI to manipulate the markets, using the cash to buy up every corporation, crime boss and politician that gets in their way.
Flynn and her brother, as well as his combat buddies are soon given directions on how to build tech from Wilf’s time, and spend a good deal of the time in Peripherals in what would have been their future. By stubbing Flynn’s timeline, it has diverged from Wilf’s time, and they start taking steps to prevent the Jackpot from occurring.
I enjoyed the book, but almost gave up at the beginning because Gibson doesn’t explain much in Wilf’s future London from Wilf’s point of view. Things become more clear once we experience them through Flynn’s eyes, but the first fifty pages I could barely understand what I was reading and had to step away from it for a day or two before I could bring myself to come back to it. That said, Gibson is a great storyteller and futurist, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.
Not surprisingly, Amazon is working on a television adaptation of the series. Like Altered Carbon, and Dollhouse before it, the idea of consciousness transfer or remote control seems to be in the zeitgeist these past few years, and I wonder if this tells us something deeper about who we are today. Isn’t that the point of science fiction in the first place?