The Peripheral by William Gibson

peripheralIn The Peripheral, William Gibson returns to truly speculative fiction, after three novels which he set in the world of today – a today which has, in a remarkably short time, become last year.

It is my preference, before reading a book, never to read reviews, blurbs or other ‘spoilers’, which might blunt my enjoyment of it.

As a result, in the first few chapters of The Peripheral, I was struggling for context. There is some joy, for a reader, in the sensation of wonder (“I wonder what’s going on” type of wonder) that William Gibson can evoke. Reading becomes, not a passive activity, but an adventure of discovery as you begin to grasp the thread, and, in this novel, the thread leads to somewhere particularly mysterious and gripping.

In his 1980s first novel, Neuromancer, Gibson introduced, among other ideas, the vision of cyberspace, a concept some ten years or more ahead of its time. We tend to forget that most of the other concepts in that early book: eye implants, orbiting habitats for the rich, whole brain dumps, for example, have not yet come to market.

In The Peripheral, Gibson weaves a story, interesting enough in itself, around lots of exciting concepts. There is nothing a science fiction fan likes better than a book full of cool concepts. Some of which, like 3d printing and haptics, are currently in their infancy, while others are still remote from the drawing board, to put it mildly. But we are never treated to an illuminating explanation of these marvels. It is Gibson’s style to show technology, even speculative technology, in practical use, leaving readers to comprehend for themselves the implications.

The two main protagonists are an unlikely couple – Flynne, a girl from backwoods America, and Netherton, a London-based PR executive from the upper echelons of celebrity. They play out an enforced dance, their actions being controlled by a loose organization with immense power and money, an organization in conflict with a similar union of political and financial resources. Flynne is the stronger of the two – indeed most of the powerful characters are female; Gibson seems to favour strong women in his novels.

The characters from near-future rural America – Flynne, her brother, some ex-military pals, and the townspeople nearby – are drawn into an elaborate alliance devised by Netherton’s colleagues – a campaign in which Flynne and her cohorts prove surprisingly capable, despite being suddenly immersed in technology beyond their experience.

Other than Flynne and Netherton, most of the characters are not explored. Mostly you are expected to deduce personality from what they say and do, rather than sharing in their thoughts. This is a novel of ideas and action, not personalities.

Also, because Gibson doesn’t waste many words on irrelevant description or expansive atmosphere creation, quite a lot happens in very few paragraphs, leading to a large number of very short chapters. There is a reason for this, in that a lot of simultaneous and parallel narratives are taking place throughout, but it made me a little uncomfortable, though this is my only niggle with this excellent novel.

Above all, it is Gibson’s fertile imagination, his instinctive knowledge that people will use technology in ways the inventors couldn’t have predicted, and his effective use of language that make this book, like all his previous oeuvre, a fascinating read. I have already started reading it again, because I know I must have missed quite a lot on a first reading.

Below: The commemorative bookmark for William Gibson’s London promotional tour Nov 2014

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