William Gibson blew my mind with Neuromancer back in 1984. I’ve been a regular reader ever since.
However, my response to his last few books has been more…muted. So it was with some trepidation that I bought the hardcover version of The Peripheral, which came out last fall.
But the investment was well worth it. The Peripheral is engrossing, sometimes aggravating, often mind-expanding, and always compelling.
What is The Peripheral about? I’d love to provide a tidy précis, but Gibson’s prose is so spare, the exposition so subtle, and the cultural/historical/technological references so layered, I was never 100 percent certain what the hell was going on.
I do know the book explores drones, 3D printing, time travel, and a post-apocalyptic future that is remarkably clean and tasteful, and still requires the services of public relations professionals (chilling!).
Gibson also tosses in the ability to shift one’s consciousness into a custom-designed body. This is the Peripheral of the title.
As for the plot, the general outlines follow a pattern that Gibson has used (to excellent effect) several times before:
A wealthy, powerful, and secretive cabal of dubious moral standing employs the protagonists to achieve some goal. Expensive, exotic technologies are put to use. Opposing forces attempt to thwart the mission.
The protagonists rely on native cunning, kick-ass tech, and occasional fisticuffs, to achieve their objectives. Throughout, there are few clearly defined white hats or black hats, only the grey, grinding machinations of powerful competing interests.
This book is chock full of cool ideas and high-tech show pieces, but what I find most engaging is the way Gibson extrapolates how today’s emerging technologies insinuate themselves into the daily lives of people in both the near and far futures.
And while the sci-fi elements are cool, what really makes Gibson’s work stand apart is his interest in people.
Technology supplies the book with vivid colors and gleaming chrome, but the story itself is propelled by human motivations, including desire, jealousy, fear, and familial bonds of affection, concern, and exasperation. This makes for a much richer experience.
Gibson draws his protagonist, Flynne Fisher, from the working poor, a class of people who rarely appear in sci-fi.
His portrayal of Flynne and her family and friends resonated with what I experienced living in western Pennsylvania: people who are proud, often insular, fiercely loyal to home and family, and bound up in a community that shares similar hardships, pleasures, and values.
Themes of class, opportunity, and economic injustice thread through the story, but Gibson avoids preaching or political posturing. Readers are allowed to come to their own conclusions.
Gibson is working at the height of his abilities in The Peripheral. If you haven’t read it yet, get to a library or bookstore or the Internet as soon as you can.