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.