/ Cory Doctorow / 3 am Tue, Oct 28 2014
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  • The Peripheral: William Gibson vs William Gibson

    The Peripheral: William Gibson vs William Gibson

    In The Peripheral, William Gibson's first futuristic novel since 1999's All Tomorrow's Parties, we experience the fantastic synthesis of a 20th century writer -- the Gibson of Neuromancer, eyeball-kicks of flash and noir; and the Gibson of Pattern Recognition, arch and sly and dry and keen. Cory Doctorow reviews.

    In fact, The Peripheral is a novel that is doubly futuristic, set both in our near future, and in a more distant future, further down the line, beyond a kind of terrible singularity called, simply, "the jackpot."

    Flynne -- and her redneck, PTSD-shocked brother -- live a rural existence, sometime in the next 10 or 20 years, in a Picketty dystopia, where the one percent hoard nearly all the world's wealth, merely scraping off a crumb or two to spend on guard labor to fight in overseas military adventures or to spy on the domestic population. In Flynne's town, the only economy to speak of comes from builders -- people using illegal printers to run off narcotics -- and the corrupt money they spread around to keep themselves safe from homes (Homeland Security) and the other appendages of the distant, crumbling state.

    Wilf Netherton lives in Flynne's future -- sort of. He's the disgraced publicist for a performance artist/reality TV star, jobless and dependent on the charity of Lev, part of the klept -- a paranoid, post-Putin global Russian diaspora, unimaginably rich and powerful. And Lev has a weird hobby: he's part of a clade of bored aristos who've discovered a heavily encrypted gateway that gives them access to a past. Not the past, but various stubs off the past, off of Flynne's era, a network bridge between the present and the future. No one is sure where this server is, or who operates -- possibly the mysterious Chinese, who were better prepared for the jackpot than most.

    When Lev began interacting with the past, he created a new stub, a new timeline that runs at the same time as his own, one minute per minute, separated by decades, reality, and the unbridgeable gulf of the jackpot, which has produced a radically depopulated world of unimaginably advanced tech and unimaginable authoritarian surveillance. If Flynneville is Picketty-complete, then Lev-ville is the Picketty Singularity.

    Using a front, Lev hires Flynne's brother to operate a private security drone, a job that is subcontracted to Flynne while her brother goes to beat up some Luke 4:5 protesters, the spiritual descendants of the Westboro Baptists. And while Flynne is flying that security drone, she is the sole witness to a ghastly murder. Flynne can't go to the alternate future to identify the killer, but as information can pass between the worlds, she doesn't need to physically do so anyway. And so it begins.

    The 20th century William Gibson produced dense, beautiful, well-turned books that sparkled with dark flash and bohemian chic. But in this century -- up until now, at least -- Gibson has confined his fiction to contemporary, brooding thrillers, a strange kind of science fiction set just a few years in past. Both Gibsons are marvellous, both are literary treasures, but in 2014, we get a new Gibson altogether, the synthesized Gibson whose political commentary is every bit as nuanced and deft as the Spook Country material, but whose plotting and flash and sheer velocity are the match of anything from Neuromancer to Virtual Light.

    This is, in other words, a perfect fusion of Gibson's pulp heritage with his fine-tuned design and social sensibilities. As he says in Conversations with William Gibson:

    The only kind of ghetto arrogance I can summon up from being a science fiction writer is, I can do fucking plot. I can feel my links to Dashiell Hammett. If I meet some guy who subsists on teaching writing in colleges, and if there's any kind of hostility, I think, I can do plot. I've still got wheels on my tractor. The great thing is when you're doing the other stuff and you whip the plot into gear, then you know you're driving something really weird.

    You could hardly ask for a better example of this principle in action than in The Peripheral. From the microscale word choices to the macroscale plot, structure and themes, the book is strange and contemporary in a perfectly futuristic way.

    The Peripheral

    -Cory Doctorow

    (Image: Portrait of author William Gibson taken on his 60th birthday, Gonzo Bonzo, CC-BY-SA)

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