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A futuristic time travel tale resonates today

The Peripheral

William Gibson
Putnam
2014
496 pp.
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William Gibson both coined the term “cyberspace” and vividly brought it to life in his award-winning 1984 book, Neuromancer. In his latest science fiction novel, he fashions an intricate portrayal of the future that touches on a range of social and ethical issues. The result is an often satirical meditation on the science and politics of today.

The plot revolves around two time points in the future: one a couple of decades from now and the other a century hence. The two futures exist on either side of the “jackpot,” a global disaster that has decimated most of the world’s population—a disaster that might yet be prevented.

The nearer future is set in a corner of small-town America that is a sharply observed extrapolation of the present-day United States: Strip malls are dominated by warehouse supermarkets and 3D printing outlets, a chronically depressed economy has fostered a thriving black market for illicit synthetic drugs, computer gaming has become a form of employment for the young, and Homeland Security waits and watches in the background. We see this world through the eyes of Flynne Fisher, a pragmatic and unflappable young woman who gets more than she bargained for when she accepts an opportunity to earn much-needed cash in exchange for beta-testing what she is told is a new virtual game.

Engaging characters and a cyberpunk slant bring the future to life in William Gibson's The Peripheral.TEEKID/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Engaging characters and a cyberpunk slant bring the future to life in William Gibson’s The Peripheral.

The “postjackpot” future is set in the early 22nd century and is mostly based in London, now a form of city-state run by powerful guilds. This part of the book is told from the perspective of Wilf Netherton, a hapless publicist and failed celebrity-handler whose patent ineptitude is in many ways the comedic antithesis of Flynne’s level-headed practicality.

Gibson lets his imagination range freely in this farther future, as illustrated most strikingly in a massive floating island formed from the agglomeration of plastic waste in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is inhabited by a community of genetically engineered grotesques. We encounter one of Wilf’s clients here, an artist who repeatedly tattoos and then flays her skin for exhibition, and discover a boutique body-rental industry, where people can rent and virtually control fully organic human and nonhuman bodies—the “peripherals” of the title.

For all of the stylistic parallels, Gibson’s vision of the future is not as single-mindedly focused as it was in Neuromancer, and the themes are more obviously derivative of the genre. Additionally, some of the major plot points were less clearly defined than I would have hoped, and we never really learn the “why” behind the book’s climax, visceral though it is. Still, The Peripheral succeeds in creating a menagerie of compelling characters—from Flynn and Wilf to Ainsley Lowbeer, a cool and calculating detective; Daedra West, the “epidermal artist”; and Conner Penske, a traumatized war veteran—and provides a wry and oddly disturbing view of the future.

About the author

  1. The reviewer is on staff at Science Magazine, AAAS, Washington, DC 20005, USA.