Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Peripheral by William Gibson (Review)

I’ve come to the party late. 30 years late. I first read William Gibson’s groundbreaking and highly influential debut novel, Neuromancer, a few months ago. And I honestly read it out of shame. Since I work in IT and write science fiction, how could I not have read the book that essentially started the cyberpunk movement?

If you have not read anything by Gibson before, should you start with Neuromancer, his first novel, or The Peripheral, his latest (released today, Oct. 28, 2014)? Having just done the opposite, I say start with Peripheral. (And io9.com’s Annalee Newitz agrees with me). 

The Peripheral touches on some of the same themes as the earlier work, and is completely in tune with the current state of the “conversation” in Science Fiction. And for those who have been frustrated with Gibson’s work since the Neuromancer series, this can be seen as his “Return to Science Fiction,” although some will argue he never left.

As in his first novel, Gibson’s latest novel combines high technology (and how it fits into our lives and gets used in unexpected ways) with noir themes, and weaves a distinct linguistic tapestry of a dark future. The vernacular of the characters can be a little baffling at first. Gibson drops you into this new world with minimal explanation. But meanings will become clear from context and with a little reasoning, and the use of language makes you feel like an insider once you grasp it, which really isn’t hard to do.

The tech ideas blew me away in the first few pages. Imagine tattoos, one of the most ubiquitous forms of human modification today, being turned into haptic devices for combat troops, vibrating to tell a soldier when they are under threat, where to run, and where to shoot. Now imagine getting hypovibrochondria (phantom phone vibration) from that tattoo.

We still don’t have the kind of immersive virtual reality he describes, although Oculus Rift VR goggles are expected to finally become available next year (2015), and the company was purchased by Facebook – even Sony has decided to develop VR goggles for gaming, and the Samsung Note is being adapted for Oculus VR as well.

As for the noir aspects of the novel, we soon meet Netherton, a “misanthropic male” for hire (his services are PR instead of PI). When he gets involved with and tries to impress his femme fatale client, he inadvertently gets himself and others dragged into a perplexing conspiracy perpetrated by mysterious forces. Figuring out who those forces are, what they are plotting, and how to stop them is the central intrigue that spans the novel. But Netherton is not the main character of the story, which is probably a good thing because his pessimistic attitude would get overwhelming. However, the information we get from his point-of-view is crucial.

Flynne Fisher, in contrast with Netherton, is extremely sympathetic. Unlike her big brother, Burton (with the glitch haptic tattoo), she sacrificed her chance at a career in the military in order to stay in their home town and care for their ailing mother. Despite the tremendous obstacles in life, she’s undaunted, and struggles to gain her own agency and eke out a (mostly) honest living in a community that has done its best to shelter her from the shadier elements of a world dominated by corrupt politicians, illicit drug manufacturers, and greedy corporations.

When Flynne fills in for her brother, who has been working under the table as a video game beta tester despite his VA disability, she witnesses what seems to be a murder. At first, the game itself seems like it might be a First Person Shooter (like Call of Duty), possibly with a LARPing component. But as the reader, we are still trying to figure out how this world works and what it all means. That journey of discovery is the other major intrigue of the book. Gibson artfully doles out hints and passing comments that help the reader piece the world together.

There are many new themes not seen in Gibson’s debut novel. The notion of an in-game crime reminded me of Charles Stross’s Halting State, but this crime turns out to be far different in nature. I enjoyed Gibson’s take on imperialism, riffing on Cory Doctorow’s concept of Gold Farming (see his new book, In Real Life, or For The Win). The story is permeated by a looming economic dread, with only a thread of hope for the 99% whose livelihoods are often at the whim of the 1%.

There are a few themes that I wish Gibson had dug into more deeply. Flynne and her cohorts live in a rural Southern community that reminds me of my own roots in Eastern Kentucky. As in many rural communities there is a strong gun culture. This is important for the plot to play out, and Gibson represents gun culture respectfully, which I appreciate. However, he totally ignores concerns about gun violence. Less than a week ago there was yet another tragic shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in, WA, where a cousin of mine is a student. Perhaps it would be difficult to address the issue in depth given the needs of the story, but there are so many other aspects of societal change that Gibson addresses skillfully and concisely. The issue deserves some recognition, I think.

Also, I wish Gibson did a better job with race and ethnicity issues. His representation of Asian cultures is particularly stereotypical. Sadly, this is a theme I wish he had not carried over from Neuromancer. As in his first novel, the Chinese are painted as this mysterious entity, an enigmatic source of black-box technology. There is also a terrorist from the Middle East, a cliché character who is paper-thin.

However, the cast of characters is diverse. The primary protagonist is a young woman (Flynne). Most of the important characters in Flynne’s cohort either have a disability, are people of color, or are gay or lesbian. There is even a transgender character. Gibson treats all these characters with respect, as he does with rural people/culture. 

The pace of the novel slows down for a bit in the last third of book to develop the characters and explore the worldbuilding. At the same time the threat of a powerful enemy looms over them, ever closer and more dangerous. Some readers might think the pace slows down too much here, but I enjoyed getting a slight breather before launching us into the climax, which takes conflicts from two settings and deftly resolves them from a single setting. 

Despite the bleakness, I would put this book in the Optimistic SF camp, along with Project Hieroglyph, Neal Stephenson’s latest project. Humanity does abuse and break the world, partially due to technology. However, technology also holds the key to fixing the world, if people will just take that goal seriously. 


From the moment I picked up The Peripheral, I found it as much fun to think about as it was to read. It’s top-notch science fiction for readers who are interested in technology. There is a diverse collection of compelling characters and an engaging plot. It echoes some themes from Gibson’s hugely influential first novel, Neuromancer, but this is a very current novel that moves the conversation forward.

LA fans, Gibson will be reading/signing at Skylight books on Saturday Nov. 1 at 5:00 pm (buy book online from them to get ticket to the event). He has other tour appearances in other cities.

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