William Gibson’s work has never been easy. While his narratives are completely accessible, their concepts often reach into territory that is not widely understood. As popular as he is among the sci fi community, his stories are decidedly not mainstream. He works in subcultures, his main characters frequently marginalized people with very specific skills. The Peripheral is no different in this regard. In his return to speculative fiction he tells a story that spans two timelines, a murder taking place in one but being witnessed in another. He uses devices that include everything from 3D printing to haptic control of a cybernetic body. These elements are ever present as they constitute the daily lives of the characters. Their applications and use are never explicitly explained, but chapter after chapter they become increasingly clear. To those unfamiliar with these tropes it may take some time to work out what is going on. But trust me, it’s worth the time.
The Peripheral is a murder mystery, make no mistake. But it’s like no murder mystery you’ve ever read. The primary protagonist, Flynn (who, it should be noted, is an excellently written female lead), has been offered to sub in on a surveillance job for her brother Barton, an expert in military recon. He’s got something else to do but the money is too good to just not show up. They believe the job is part of a beta-test for a new video game. But while she’s in the “game” she witnesses a murder. Turns out it’s not a game at all. She was virtually controlling a drone in a future timeline and witnessed an actual murder.
The murder is being investigated in the future, a time that is very different than the time Flynn lives in. Wilf Netherton, our protagonist in the future timeline, is in a little over his head but is inadvertently linked to everyone involved. Through a computer server that may or may not exist somewhere in China, this future is able to contact Flynn in her time and bring her into their present by way of the Peripheral – a cybernetic body that is virtually controlled by Flynn in the past. And it just gets more interesting from there.
Gibson’s way of handling his story’s technology, much of which is in its nascent stages even in our day, is elegant and imaginative. It may take several chapters to puzzle out exactly what is happening, but the story is all the more rewarding for it. Add to that the way Gibson brings his themes of class and elitism, loyalty, unintended consequences, temporal paradoxes, and a little forewarning of the potential results of global warming on our social structures, and you have a novel rich in story, character and commentary.
Flynn may have a few aspects of Cayce Pollard (of the Blue Ant series), but her presence is bigger, and the relationships she has with other characters feel more real. Wilf is our everyman that shows us a future from the perspective of someone who really doesn’t like what it’s become and cannot find his true place in it. He’s the most relatable character I’ve ever seen from Gibson.
The Peripheral is everything Gibson fans have come to love him for, but with characters more diverse and fleshed out than in almost any of his other work. This novel could only have been fully realized after his work on the Blue Ant series, which had some of the most interesting characters of any other titles in the Gibson canon. It’s a must read for the already initiated, and an entertaining challenge for those who’ve never given him a try, but want to.
William Gibson speaks about and signs copies of The Peripheral here at BookPeople this Sunday, November 2 at 5pm. The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public. Tickets are required for the signing and only available with the purchase of a copy of The Peripheral from BookPeople.