Tech by VICE

William Gibson's 'The Peripheral': Sifting Through the Ruins of the Present

For those interested in how today becomes tomorrow, his new novel, "The Peripheral," is necessary reading.

by Claire L. Evans
Oct 28 2014, 12:00pm

The Peripheral. Image: Penguin

I'm sitting at a bar in Toronto. A monolithic slab of polished concrete, worn and pockmarked from years of hard-lived nights. Listening to the opening band as they trudge through their soundcheck, reading The Peripheral, William Gibson's first new novel since 2010.

Flynne Fisher, the novel's protagonist, is sitting at a bar too, at a diner in her rural hometown in the American South, thirty-odd years in the future. She's sitting with a plate of eggs and bacon, no coffee. Behind the counter, a Red Bull mirror leers in her direction, the cartoon bull nosing beyond the edge of the frame to wink at her. "She hated it when they spoke to you," Gibson writes, "called you by your name."

Thumbing a bookmark into the page, I look up, and find myself at eye-level with my own Red Bull mirror. The bull, a rudimentary mosaic of orange, white, and red LEDs, is pulsing along with the beat of the music. If it could wink at me, it most certainly would.

It would be tiresome to catalogue the many instances in which the real world begins to feel as though it's been poorly reverse-engineered from William Gibson's imagination. Suffice to say they are frequent, and their cumulative effect ranges from horrified recognition—like seeing your own face, ragged and sallow, in an airplane bathroom mirror—to something more like proud resignation, the comfort that comes with accepting one's place a the foot of Gibson's many timelines.

Our man in the futures. Photo credit Michael O'Shea.

William Gibson. Image: Author's website

The Peripheral takes place, or rather time, in two distinct milieux: one, in Flynne's Southern near-future. Here, as in many of Gibson's novels, corporations and the government are largely interchangeable. Red Bull notwithstanding, pretty much everything is owned by a company called Hefty—salaries are paid in HeftyPal, consumer goods bought at HeftyMart—and the law is enforced by Homes, a cyclopean mutation of the Department of Homeland Security. Our protagonists are Flynne, her brother Burton, and a ragtag group of ex-Marines who take uppers and work part-time shifts at the local 3D printing shop.

The second future in The Peripheral is a leap forward in time, through a transformational event referred to only as "the Jackpot." It's not the South but London, where the government has been largely replaced by oligarchical families and the planet is criss-crossed with surveillance and cloud computing systems so sophisticated that they're indistinguishable from deiform omniscience. Biological telepresence agents called "peripherals," flesh-and-blood puppets accessed through haptic interfaces, are common placeholders for people.

What connects these two realities is information. In the distant future antipode, the very rich have found a way to effectively touch the past through data. The mechanics are unclear—sufficiently advanced technology et cetera—but the contact is very real. Once it's been made, the timelines diverge, so that the contacted past no longer becomes the future that made the initial contact. Residents of the future call such a disconnected past a "stub." Fucking around with stubs is recreational God-playing, a millionaire's hobby.

The Peripheral is William Gibson's first science fiction book written in the 21st century; Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History, his most recent trilogy, are post-9/11 novels set in the approximate now. While much ballyhoo will undoubtedly be made of this "return" to genre, and while The Peripheral's futurism is both bankable and hallucinatory, like all of Gibson's work, it's rooted in a canny knack—even reverence—for history. Its central mysteries can only be solved by invoking the past. 

In fact, the most impressive speculations in The Peripheral are its temporal acrobatics, the way it depicts a future looking backward. The future-Londoners struggle to understand how their world came to be, and are resistant to the idea that their perception of the past may be clouded by nostalgia and false imaginations. "One of the things I'm playing with in The Peripheral,Gibson explained in our interview last week, "is the way in which, in time-travel stories, we tend to imagine that the people in the past are hicks and rubes. And when we imagine people in the future in time-travel stories, they're always weak and decadent."

Of course, people are people, no matter where they fall on the timeline. Ancient Romans wrote bawdy sex poems that still shock; Charlie Chaplin, fluted on cocaine and ramming mashed potatoes into his ears in Modern Times, is still hilarious. There is nothing precious or elementary about people who lived and died centuries, or even decades, before us. 

Still, much as we do, the characters in The Peripheral's future fetishize and coddle the past, while the citizens of its more imminent present don't particularly give a shit about the future. Much as we do. The split portrait it creates of humanity is uncannily bleak and accurate: hubristic to the nines, only regretful in the rearview. When it's trendy.

Gibson has referred to The Peripheral as a time-travel story, and it is. By virtue of the conceit, however, it dispenses neatly and immediately with the ("endlessly tedious") grandfather paradoxes that often mire such stories. Without the tether of cause and effect, they both read like potentialities; there, but for the grace of God, go we. Like Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle, The Peripheral is a kind of alternate history novel, a tale of two disconnected timelines co-existing in uneasy detente on either side of an unspeakable event. 

The physical objects that survive this event—I'm tiptoeing around the spoilers here—are the only real time-travelers in The Peripheral. Like any physical stuff, like any of us, like the planet itself, they trudge forward one second at a time, surviving. This is the first and most basic form of time travel, and it only works in one direction. To convey physical things backward is an impossibility that Gibson circumvents by having his far-future Londoners dispatch information to the stub-past: information which can materially alter the present, and instructions, too, for building functional iterations of future technologies.

With the rudimentary tools at the past's disposal, the end result is hopelessly elementary in comparison to the "real" thing—think crummy LED Red Bull mirror-thing versus some iteration that prances beyond the frame to say hello. Such is William Gibson's uncanny skill at hard-line cultural and technological extrapolation. He transforms the present-day into a cheap echo of a future so robust and strangely realistic that it feels inevitable, positioning our most prized and advanced stuff on the edge of obsolescence, and then ruin. Which of course it is.

"I grew up in an old place in the South," Gibson explained to me, "and there were a lot of old things around." He continued:

As long as I can remember, I've had this kind of poignant sense of things. I'll see things at a flea market that are a couple of hundred years old, and they may not be very significant objects, but hundreds of years ago one day they really mattered to one person. And there's no way of knowing who. And in this whole market, everything in it has that secret history.

Gibson's interest in the aura of objects that have weathered the passage of time, as opposed to having been patinated to appear old, feels, too, like an homage to Philip K. Dick, whose uneven canon is bound by an obsession with historicity. In fact, of the many kinships between The Peripheral and The Man In The High Castle, the most visible is the idea that the future might fetishize the past vigorously enough to support an industry of historical antiquities trading. "At some point it occurred to me," said Gibson, "that…people in the future might well be going to the specialist antique store to buy bits and pieces of the physical past."

Those bits and pieces are a reminder that the mundanities of our world can become relics. That the things we manufacture for short-term benefit, the objects we may consider disposable, unimportant—well, these objects will probably outlive us. We don't get to control what lasts, or how the future will interpret our ruins. Archaeologists learn a great deal from ancient garbage.

Do androids dream of electric bulls? Photo by the author.

I can't help but think of that garbage LED Red Bull mirror in Toronto, pulsing at barmaids and passing musicians. One day, soon, it will stop leering. It'll be unhooked from the wall, replaced with a new piece of advertising technology delivered to the bar alongside a pallet of energy drinks and mid-shelf vodka. The new one will pulse faster, sell harder, and know more intimate details about the people sitting across the bar.

The old mirror will be kicked to the curb. Years from now, it may resurface in a junk shop, having become—with all the certainty of time—a middlingly material testament to our forgettable present.