The Peripheral – William Gibson

Abraded by the Passage through Time

Gibson’s The Peripheral is a novel concerning two main characters, Flynne and Netherton. The novel straddles two timelines, Flynne’s ‘stub’ and Netherton’s Future, between which information but not matter can flow. The ‘stub’, whilst being closer in time to the present day, is still set in the near future, and hence this setting is far more sophisticated than the somewhat more childish, Doctor Who-style, ‘human from the present day has an encounter with the future’ plot device. In addition, the two timelines are tethered together such that they progress at the same rate, but at different points in time. However, the influence of the Future over the stub alters the stub’s timeline, meaning that the Future is not actually the future of the stub. Events in the stub do not alter the history of the Future. Altogether, this is a refreshing, believable and genuinely intriguing take on the over-explored science fiction staple of time travel.

Particularly intriguing is the Future’s use of ‘peripherals’, artificial bodies which people’s minds can occupy to become telepresent in distant places (or times). Furthermore, the relationship between the two worlds, and how little this holds back thorough interaction between them (particularly through the titular peripheral) are an interesting comment on the increasing importance of information over matter in the modern world.

The novel is certainly clever, and contains numerous references to Gibson’s other works, (such as the collection of National Geographics from Virtual Light) as well as to the works of others (such as “the banner with the big close-up of an eye behind a Viz” carrying The Great Gatsby’s famous image into the age of surveillance). Flynne’s screen name ‘Easy Ice’ is presumably a reference to ‘ice’ in the world of Neuromancer, especially since she works in cyberspace, and as a virtual security guard. These references are only odd moments, but they do add some depth to the text and raise it above more bog-standard sci-fi fare. Enjoyable too is Gibson’s inventive use of imagery, thoroughly embedded in the digital age. In one particularly memorable example, Flynne experiences a frantic action scene like a series of gifs. Overall, this is a novel with a great deal to recommend it.

What lets the novel down slightly is that its main characters feel somewhat underdeveloped. Although the novel alternates between following them, it is difficult to feel like one knows Flynne and Netherton and could predict what they would say or do in a given situation. This is not to say that the characters themselves are poor; a few scenes around three quarters of the way through the novel, in which Flynne and Netherton learn more about each others’ worlds (and each other in the process), show that there are characters hiding between the lines. Rather, it feels like good characters have been under-revealed. Gibson is a master of showing and not telling in his writing, one of the reasons he is far superior to a great many science fiction authors, but here I think we could have been shown more.

Memorable characters have perhaps never been Gibson’s forte. Neuromancer‘s Case, for example, is a character I would find difficult to describe despite being the protagonist of one of my favourite novels. But characters like Pattern Recognition‘s Cayce show that Gibson can craft memorable and unique personalities when he wishes to, which makes The Peripheral‘s cast feel all the more disappointing. This novel’s case is not helped by the bloated cast of undifferentiated characters which occupy Flynne’s universe in particular, and it feels like there could have been one fewer veteran and one fewer Fab shop worker at no cost to the plot. Whilst certain, more vivid figures like Conner, Ash and Ossian do mitigate this situation slightly, the novel cannot be said to be a masterpiece of characterisation.

The Peripheral continues Gibson’s tradition of pacey yet intelligent storytelling, slick tech and excellent world-building. However, the weakness of its character development prevents the novel from being particularly engaging, and the sentimental final chapter felt unearned, if sweet. Overall, it was an enjoyable Gibson novel, but not one of his masterpieces.

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The Causal Angel – Hannu Rajaniemi

I have never before read a book in which both Earth and Mars were completely destroyed within the first forty pages. Jupiter was polished off in the last volume, too. This is the third and final novel in his Quantum Thief series and Rajaniemi continues not to play by the rules. He crafts a world (a solar system, in fact) completely unlike the one in which we live, and his writing has the strength to carry it off.

Rajaniemi’s novels are famously packed full of an invented vocabulary which is never openly explained to the reader. Many readers have hence complained about the difficulty of following events, and at times this is problematic. This sacrifice is more than worthwhile, however. The complete immersion of the characters, who never pause to explain a term, in this vocabulary means that Rajaniemi’s novels are immersive in a way which few science fiction authors manage to match. It helps that the vocabulary, when investigated, often contains clever references (Gogol, Notchcube) or at least comes from other languages (Perhonen, guberniya, sobornost), meaning that, unlike the bland acronyms or obviously made up terminology of many science fiction writers, Rajaniemi’s vocabulary has true depth and is worth familiarising oneself with.

This novel explores in great depth the zoku, far future gaming clans (who have evaded destruction by living on Saturn). There are frequent references to modern gaming culture, with the popular, COD style ‘Gun Club’ faction (complete with a comprehensive armoury) and the more pretentious ‘Narrativists’. There is a possible reference to a common MMORPG convention in the description of how ‘dead’ zoku members have to return to the site of their deaths in ghost form in order to be resurrected. As in Iain M Banks’ Player of Games, the zoku are a pleasingly thought-provoking exploration of how people will find meaning in life in a superabundant far future. Games taking on an all-consuming significance in people’s lives is a trend which we are perhaps, for better or worse, seeing the first signs of in the modern world. The zoku are certainly cool enough to convince me, at least, that it is for to better. But towards the end of the novel there is a hint that, in some ways, it may be for the worse, in the zoku’s inability to treat a possibly apocalyptic threat as anything more serious than “a final level boss.”

“Destruction, after all, is a form of creation.” If the zoku represent the lack of seriousness which might accompany superabundance, the sobornost are the other side of the coin. These are seven powerful individuals who attained godlike powers through making endless copies of themselves. Whilst the zoku show humanity content to sink into relative unobtrusiveness in its old age, the sobornost demonstrate the extreme changes which highly advanced humans might wreak upon the universe. Rajaniemi paints a universe changed beyond recognition by their technological development. The point is especially clear in this final book, with many of the planets of the solar system destroyed but replaced by the planet sized guberniyas of the sobornost Founders. The sacrifices to be made if humans are to become gods is clear. The solar system is literally shaped in man’s image, with the faces of the Founders emblazoned in unimaginable scale on the surfaces of their creations. The sobornost therefore provide a sharp contrast with the zoku. Whilst the zoku have developed into Banks’ Culture, the sobornost have become Star Trek’s Borg.

It is always heartening to see science fiction go beyond its reputation as lightweight escapism. This novel and its prequels are prime examples of this, exploring the far future of humanity in a complex and nuanced way and using language in a new, inventive and layered fashion. I could have talked more about the characters, who are detailed, consistent and engaging. Mieli stands out in particular. Overall, this novel provided an excellent ending to an excellent series.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters – Raphaël Jerusalmy

Raphael Jerusalmy’s The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is an unexpectedly lively romp through an unlikely period of history, the dawn of the printing press. It takes advantage of the fact that its protagonist, Francois Villon, a late middle-ages French poet and ne’er-do-well, disappears from history following his banishment in 1463. Such a character, both an intellectual and a rogue, with a period of his life unaccounted for, makes for as fun and as intriguing a basis for a historical novel as one could hope for. The sharp contrasts between the criminal and book-loving sides of his persona, revealed beautifully in the novel’s first scene when Francois is visited in his prison cell by the Bishop of Paris, would almost be too good to be, if they were not in fact, true.

The plot is vivid and exciting. The characters gallivant around Europe and the Middle East, meet an array of amusing characters who are never quite what they appear, play a hand in major world events (they even inspire expeditions to the New World) and handle a surprisingly exciting range of rare manuscripts. The problem is that the pace often feels too brisk – Jerusalmy could have spent more time exploring the rich settings (Paris, Genoa, Acre etc.) and significant events which are often rushed through in only a single scene, or even quickly and matter-of-factly reported in another scene. In addition, the scenes themselves are incredibly short, only a page or two each for the most part. The adventure is certainly a rip-roaring one – no sooner had I settled into a scene than I was ripped into a new one. This gave the novel a strangely insubstantial feel which prevented a sense of engagement with events.

Similarly, Jerusalmy could take a more leisurely approach to revealing his characters, many of whom are genuinely entertaining. Francois and Colin (think Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen) are lovable rogues. Francois in particular, at turns a rough vagabond and an educated book lover, grabbed my attention. However, even these central characters have much of their character quickly explained to the reader rather than shown through their words and actions. If these characters had been shown and not told, they would have been truly memorable.

This links also to a flaw in the writing in general. There is a great deal of redundancy in the text (particularly a great many unnecessary adverbs) which explain the significance of what is occurring, when this could be deduced by the reader anyway. This makes the writing itself feel inelegant and uninspiring. Paradoxically, Jerusalmy both spends too many and too few words on his progression through the events of the plot.

Perhaps we should assume that the novel reflects the Booker Hunters’ own quest, to make books “easier to handle, lighter, less expensive. And much less serious.” One of the most interesting themes of the book is how the easily accessible books which we take for granted were born out of the handwritten tomes of scholars which were all the world had before the invention of the printing press. The novel takes big themes, the intellectual battle between religion and reason, the conflict between religion, the preservation of ancient literature, and deals with them a light way. But ultimately I felt this was taken too far, to the extent that the events and characters fly past too fast to be engaging.

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

“We’ll always have Nuremberg.”

A Man Lies Dreaming explores an alternate universe in which the Nazis lose the 1933 election to the Communists and are forced into exile. This fantasy universe exists in the dreams of Schomer, a Jewish author of pulp-fiction (shund) detained in Auschwitz. Within the fantasy, Hitler (‘Wolf’) ekes out a living as a noir-esque private eye in a London dominated by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts. Both worlds are highly, disgustingly unpleasant, both literally and ideologically. Wolf inhabits a world of grotesque sex and abuse. Some particularly graphic scenes make for difficult reading. Their details are presented uncompromisingly, and often reflect aspects of the uncompromising degradation of the concentration camp in which Schomer is detained. While links between the two worlds are not openly explored in any great depth, the presence of, say, extreme coldness or violent injury in Auschwitz are reflected in the dream. Schomer’s sections constitute a minority of the novel and, unsurprisingly, consist of a brutal depiction of life within a concentration camp.The inevitability of this sense of despair, in both the real and the fantasy versions of history, carries a strong, dark message.

Wolf’s world takes up the majority of the novel, and rightly so, containing the most original concepts of the work. We are treated to alternate versions of all the big names of Nazism, with Leni Riefenstal being the most entertaining. Moments of out-right humour like this one stand in contrast to the more restrained, tongue-in-cheek humour inevitably accompanying such a portrayal of Hitler throughout the rest of the novel.

The alternate history depicts a world populated almost entirely by characters with extreme ideologies and extreme prejudices: “‘Marxism must be destroyed,’ Mosley said. ‘It is the poisoned ideology of the Jewish race.'” In a world without the Nazis to discredit fascism, Mosley and the British Union of Fascists rise to power in Britain. In the final pages of the novel, we even hear Mosley talk of a ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of the Jews. The message that this world tells is ultimately that the evil of the Nazis could only ever have been diverted, never subdued. This message rings especially true when we consider the similarity of Mosley’s slogans to those of the right-wing in modern Britain: “Putting Britain First!” Mosley even makes a reference to “Bongo Bongo Land.” On the night of Mosley’s election, Wolf has a vision of modern day London complete with London Eye and the Shard, this flash-forward perhaps a hint at the inevitable recurrent uprising of fascist tendencies.

To what extent is Wolf Hitler? He is never named as such. He is certainly a character defined by extreme anti-Semitism, but this is a Hitler who was never given the opportunity to carry out the Holocaust. The evilness of his character is toned down somewhat, perhaps inevitably if he is to be a protagonist (even an anti-heroic one). At one point, Wolf frees a group of trafficked female Jews to take their revenge upon their captor.The act is contradictory for Hitler, but perhaps not for Wolf. At some points, Wolf’s anti-Semitism feels a little like lip-service, and it is precisely at these moments that one realises how distinct a character Wolf is from Hitler (even the moustache is absent). This is no bad thing, allowing this what-if universe to explore the well-worn figure of Adolf from an original perspective.

Also worth noting is the irony of the position in which Wolf finds himself. He often finds himself masquerading as a Jew. Furthermore, under Mosley he is, as a European immigrant, exposed to the kind of persecution which the real-world Hitler inflicts on the Jews. It is of course satisfying to see Hitler forced to taste his own medicine, and to be reminded that, when the scent of persecution of minorities is in the air, no-one is safe.

Overall, the novel is not an easy read, even though at times it is an entertaining one. The alternate-history concept, however is superbly well handled and is well worth reading for. Hitler is a difficult character to portray in an original way, being as he is the cause of so many secondary school history syllabi and History Channel documentaries. Despite this, A Man Lies Dreaming succeeds in providing an original and intriguing portrayal of the dictator.

Night Train – Martin Amis

The Devil and the Clear Blue Sky

Night Train, a novella about female detective Mike Hoolihan’s experience of the death of the beautiful Jennifer Rockwell, is primarily concerned with the elusiveness of happiness. It is cathartic in the depth of its despair, and a return to the real world after reading it bringing an intense sense of relief. Ultimately, I found the darkness of the novella to be gripping rather than off-puttting, despite how graphic some sections were, and found it’s contemplations on life, death and happiness to be fresh and thought-provoking rather than trite.

The most obvious candidate for the central image of the novella is the titular Night Train. However, of far more significance is the image of “clear blue sky” out of which Jennifer “falls burning”: “A white sky giving way to pixels of blue, and containing both sun and moon, which she knew all about.” This contrasts with Mike’s smoky world of obsessive suspicion: “I am turning the interrogation room into a gas chamber… That’s sometimes all you’re left with in here: The full ashtray.” Jennifer’s career as an astrophysicist relies on the clarity of the sky in order to obtain a ‘seeing’ of the heavens. In contrast, the ‘seeing’ of Mike’s career, after which the third section of the work is titled, precisely involves seeing through the smoke and obfuscation which surround a murder or suicide. The message is ultimately a pessimistic one. Life in Jennifer’s world of clarity, is only setting oneself up for a fall. This does not mean that life in Mike’s world leads to any kinder fate.

Jennifer is an angelic figure, bringing clarity and order to those around her, to such an extent that that she is more a symbol than a character. Amis returns time and again to the scene of her watching over Mike as she recovers from her alcoholism. Ultimately, however, this makes her the greatest source of despair in the work: “She hurt the living, and that’s another reason to hate her.” After her death, Jennifer’s long-term boyfriend Trader takes up his smoking habit again, falling back into the dark world which Mike inhabits. The orderliness of their shared flat begins to disintegrate also. Her fall has a far more profound effect on Mike herself.

It is Mike’s story which truly makes the work feel worthwhile. The true purpose of Jennifer as a symbol is to help to reveal Mike as a character. One of her most interesting characteristics is her constant, almost obsessive, suspicion. Her investigation takes her on a tour of all of Jennifer’s acquaintances, and there is hardly a man amongst them who is not suspected of sleeping with Jennifer. These momentary flashes of suspicion have an almost Tourettes-like quality to them, as if Mike cannot help but think the worst of each person she meets.

Perhaps disappointingly, Mike is the only character of real note in the novella. However, it is a work packed with eye-catching language and imagery, the dark tone is consistent and gripping without being overpowering, and Mike’s character is well worth the read.