William Gibson connects a small Georgia town to Russian-British kleptocrats in his intricate 2014 novel, ‘The Peripheral’

February 17, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 17, 2019

To read a William Gibson story is to embark upon a journey of discovery.  What kind of world — often at once amazing and dispiriting — has the U.S.-born writer created, and what convoluted scheme are the characters enmeshed in, voluntarily or otherwise? Moreover, what kind of inventive gadgets will they wield?

Gibson, who moved to Canada in 1968, after initially traveling there to explore options for avoiding the draft, is one of the titans of science fiction. Beginning in the early 1980s, Gibson’s enormously popular short stories and novels fueled the genre’s cyberpunk movement. The subgenre typically posits dire futures in which a small number of powerful corporations, oligarchs, criminal syndicates and autocratic, sometimes rogue, governmental organizations oppress large civilian populations; clever hackers who infiltrate computer systems also appear often.

Naturally, Gibson’s writing has evolved over the past three and a half decades. He’s no less enamored of novel scientific concepts and technology, but over time his stories have shifted their focus from heroic figures to regular people. That transition is on display in his most recent novel, 2014’s The Peripheral, which features as its main characters a dissolute publicist from (presumably) the late 21st or early 22nd century and an underemployed 27-year-old from small-town Georgia about a decade in our future.

Gibson’s main characters are both involved in a strange incident concerning the disappearance — or was it murder? — of a woman in a London high-rise in what is initially described to Flynne Fisher, the young Georgian, as a high-resolution virtual-reality game. The true nature of the incident, and of Fisher’s connection to Wilf Netherton, the publicist, emerges only gradually.

‘The Peripheral’ by William Gibson.

Along the way, Fisher; her ex-Marine brother, Burton; and their friends in the (evidently fictitious) hamlet of Clanton find themselves caught in an escalating race to control the financial and political levers of power, at first locally but soon enough in state-wide and national settings. Their rivals, a shadowy group, appears to be interested mainly in concealing evidence of certain of deeds. Meanwhile, Netherton is drawn into a byzantine scheme to protect his wealthy Russo-British friend Lev, whose gift to Wilf indirectly helped to set the book’s plot into motion.

Lev and Wilf’s machinations, assisted by Lev’s “technicals” (a.k.a. servants) Ossian Murphy and the evidently mononymic Ash, become far more elaborate when they attract the attention of a certain Metropolitan Police official. The gnomic Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer is extraordinarily old, highly cunning and very influential — although, in a rare moment of candor, she tells Netherton that she sometimes “feel[s] like an antibody… One protecting a disease.”

A central conceit of Gibson’s book is that In Netherton’s time, technology is capable of projecting consciousness into artificial vessels, such as bipedal robots, known as peripherals. But no matter how amazing a period’s gadgets, they can’t erase certain aspects of human existence, as Gibson shows in introducing the publicist:

Netherton woke to Rainey’s sigil, pulsing behind his lids at the rate of a resting heartbeat. He opened his eyes. Knowing better than to move his head, he confirmed that he was in bed, alone. Both positive, under current circumstances. Slowly, he lifted his head from the pillow, until he could see that his clothes weren’t where he assumed he would have dropped them. Cleaners, he knew, would have come from their nest beneath the bed, to drag them away, flense them of whatever invisible quanta of sebum, skin-flakes, atmospheric particulates, food residue, other. 

“Soiled,” he pronounced, thickly, having briefly imagined such cleaners for the psyche, and let his head fall back. 

Rainey’s sigil began to strobe, demandingly. 

He sat up cautiously. Standing would be the real test. “Yes?” 

Strobing ceased. “Un petit problème,” Rainey said. 

He closed his eyes, but then there was only her sigil. He opened them. 

“She’s your fucking problem, Wilf.” 

He winced, the amount of pain this caused startling him. “Have you always had this puritanical streak? I hadn’t noticed.” 

“You’re a publicist,” she said. “She’s a celebrity. That’s interspecies.” 

His eyes, a size too large for their sockets, felt gritty. “She must be nearing the patch,” he said, reflexively attempting to suggest that he was alert, in control, as opposed to disastrously and quite unexpectedly hungover. 

In reading The Peripheral, I found myself having trouble sorting out the different members of Flynne and Burton’s circle of friends; it also took me quite a while to realize that “Homes” was slang for the Department of Homeland Security, which may be operating under expanded emergency powers in the Fishers’ time, and that “Luke 4:5” referred to an analog for the noxious Westboro Baptist Church. I won’t reveal the meaning of what the book refers to as “the jackpot,” but suffice to say that, like many concepts bandied about in The Peripheral, it offers a frightening glimpse of times to come.

Gibson is in fine form in The Peripheral, although I felt that the book arrived at far too upbeat a conclusion. However, I suspect that the author’s oblique writing style won’t play well with non-genre fans, who are likely to struggle to comprehend the complex world and plot Gibson has constructed.

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