The Peripheral is the first William Gibson novel I’ve read. This is despite Gibson’s reputation and his established importance to Science Fiction and cyberpunk after his first novel, Neuromancer. I came to The Peripheral rather indirectly. I started Neuromancer years ago and found I didn’t have the patience, at that time, to immerse myself in Gibson’s world. Gibson has a reputation for throwing readers in at the deep end. That can be wonderful if you’re ready for it; if you’re expecting to have to focus just a little harder for your guilty pleasure. But Gibson’s writing is fast paced, with little exposition, and with many names and terms which you need to learn from clues spread throughout the plot. Some terms are just Gibson’s winking joke: social media in Flynne’s near future is called ‘Badger’, for instance. But Gibson often leaves things vague. His term, ‘homes’, from context, seems to refer to America’s Homeland Security, but it’s not until the final quarter of the novel that this is actually confirmed. There are a lot of terms the reader has to absorb – the klept, stubs, the jackpot, not to mention the idea of the peripheral, are only a few – as well as concepts associated with a different and unfamiliar world. In short, you will probably be left wondering what the hell is going on for a little while, and that takes patience and commitment.
Having said that, it would be a misrepresentation of Gibson’s novel to leave it there. While Gibson’s nomenclature may be a little unfamiliar, the details of his world, his characters and their situations, are broadly identifiable, and there is a plot in to which the reader is quickly immersed, even if larger questions remain for the time being. Flynne, Burton and Leon are siblings. We quickly learn that in their world – only a few years away from our own present – gamers can be paid, much like gladiators, for their entertainment. Burton, Flynne’s brother, has been offered money to beta test a new game. He’s an ex-marine on disability pension, but this night he wants Flynne to substitute for him while he is away. She agrees to do it and finds herself in what appears to be a ‘game’, performing what is essentially surveillance work, flying a quadcopter. She witnesses a gruesome murder committed from the balcony of a building, except that this is not a game, she begins to suspect. It turns out that Burton has been hired by someone in the future as part of a security detail, and Flynne is the only witness to the crime. This is only the opening of the novel, but it serves to demonstrate that Gibson is engaging in old-fashion story telling here. And those familiar with storytelling don’t need a map to guess the broad outlines of where this situation takes us as a traditional plot, even if the details are more complex. Flynne’s life and her family’s will come under threat. She will have to step up to the challenge and acquire new skills in order to stay alive and identify the killer. In broad terms, it really is as simple as that. It’s a Hero’s Journey structure.
But there’s more to the novel than that. There is a playfulness in the narrative, as Gibson leads us along, leaving clues to the identity of characters, drawing his reader through the story as he reveals more and more about key organisations, people and events in his world. The Jackpot, for instance, referred to many times by characters like Wilf Netherton, who exists about seventy years in Flynne’s future, may sound promising, but we soon suspect that it’s an ironic tag for a devastating event. Even so, when Flynne eventually presses Wilf for the truth, we learn the Jackpot is, sadly, as is the case in much good Science Fiction, not a single event but an extension of our own present circumstances: the consequences of global warming, the destabilisation of governments, the rise of kleptocracies and a disproportionate power now wielded by drug manufacturers, known as ‘Builders’. In Wilf’s world, around eighty percent of the population has died, while there has been a concurrent innovative burst of technological breakthroughs that has helped stabilise the downward spiral. Wilf’s future world hasn’t invented time travel, but a server in the future, perhaps run by the Chinese, they don’t know, is allowing them to access the past through computers and even phone lines. As a result, an elite hobbyist community, ‘continua enthusiasts’ like Leb Zubov, a rich Russian klept, has been spawned. Continua enthusiasts make contact with people in the past and revere their past simplicities. Cosplay zones exist in their own cities to romanticise the past. When Wilf is able to observe Flynne’s family home from his position in the future, he is fascinated by its authenticity:
…this strange world, in which worn things weren’t meticulously distressed, but actually worn, abraded by their passage through time.
This is where Gibson’s novel becomes interesting beyond the entertainment value of his Hero’s Journey plot. Cyberpunk explores the border region of what defines humanity, identity and authenticity. In Gibson’s imagined future, continua enthusiasts seek authenticity in their past –
gloriously pre-posthuman – much as people in our own present might look to a simpler world before the internet, or take comfort in period drama. But in accessing their past, continua enthusiasts inevitably influence and change it, turning it into a ‘stub’, an offshoot of their own history, bound for a different future. Paradoxically, long-lived people might see their own past selves altered, bound to different destinies or a new sense of self:
There had been a Flynne Fisher in the world’s actual past. If she were alive now, she’s be much older. Though given the jackpot, and whatever odds of survival, that seemed unlikely. But months earlier, this Flynne would still be very like the real Flyne, the now old or dead Flynne, who’d been this young woman before the jackpot, then lived into it, or died in it as so many had. She wouldn’t yet have changed by Lev’s intervention and whatever that would bring.
And for those who access their future or past through ‘peripherals’, the question of identity and self becomes complex. A Peripheral – a manufactured human existing on a limited Artificial Intelligence – can be hired or owned, produced to look exactly like someone or manufactured to more generic specifications. A person’s consciousness can inhabit the Peripheral and take control of it, allowing agency from afar. Used erotically, socially or for crime, Peripherals have the potential to change the interpersonal dynamic. Peripherals allow Flynne, Burton and their friend, Conner Penske, a disabled war veteran, to have a physical presence in the future, while Wilf Netherton is limited to a Wheelie boy, like a screen on wheels that allows him a low-resolution involvement in his past – our near future. Gibson plays with the possibilities of a personal simulacra that both represents but also alters the self, as well as exploring the complexities of attraction and the notion of the connection between identity and someone’s physical representation.
Needless to say, Gibson is also interested in exploring the trajectory of many issues that affect our current world. Not only is he interested in the impact of climate change, but also considers the possible impact corporations have on the economy, and in turn, the development of humanity in general. It was this interest in exploring current issues that brought me to this book in such a roundabout way. I’d begun to read Gibson’s sequel, Agency out of an interest in its premise of an alternative history in which Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and is president, and Brexit never happened. About a hundred pages in I felt that there were aspects of the plot, as well as minor characters who were being introduced who seemed about to take an important role in the story without any clear establishment, that I began to wonder if I’d missed the fact that I was reading a sequel. I had. So, I turned to this book. I’m glad I did. While the story of Agency is clear in the first hundred pages, reading this book first has now shown me there was a lot of assumed knowledge. So, I’d recommend starting with The Peripheral if you’re interested.
Gibson portrays a future disaster in this book. Near-future America is failing, already rife with corruption and on the verge of environmental and economic disaster which defines the future London seventy years later. Yet, while Gibson may seem to foresee a bleak future, his assumption about the advancements of technologies suggests he is also hopeful. The very idea of a stub – an alternative reality branching from our present – is enough to suggest that we have alternatives and the capacity to avoid disaster. That’s not what the plot is about – the Hero’s Journey of Flynne and her family and friends – but it is essentially what the story is about. Recommended.
Agency is a sequel novel in what will presumably be another William Gibson trilogy. As my review for The Peripheral explains, I started reading Agency first and then turned to The Peripheral when I realised I had come to the story in the middle. Agency continues the premise of The Peripheral, that ‘continua enthusiasts’ in the future – people interested in dabbling with the outcomes of the past by means of a mysterious computer server, not fully understood by those who use it – have created the conditions for different branches of reality – ‘stubs’ – to exist.
Gibson’s previous novel dealt with a stub in our near future, in contact with future continua enthusiasts at the turn of next century. This second novel deals with a more current stub. Verity Jane lives roughly in our time period, except that through the interference of a continua enthusiast, Vespasian, a man with a reputation for making the lives of those who live in his stubs unbearable, a disaster of apocalyptic proportions is now looming in 2017, after he has created, ironically, what is initially perceived to be a positive change: Hilary Clinton has won the presidential election and Brexit has failed to happen. Even so, a conflict has broken out in Qamishli, Syria, which threatens to escalate into nuclear conflict. President Clinton will try to manage it, yet our future protagonists, Lowbeer, Netherton, Ash and Lev, will also try to move this stub towards a peaceful outcome. But in creating this stub Vespasian has managed to go back further in time than they previously thought possible. They’ve now managed to make contact with it, but to effectively manage the situation, they will need an autonomous agent working on their behalf from within the timeline. To this end, they have located an advanced AI from our period that they will nudge towards full autonomy.
In the 2017 stub, Verity Jane is employed to assess this new AI which calls itself Eunice. Eunice adopts the avatar of an African American woman. She interacts with Verity via a set of smart glasses, through computers and through the use of drones. Eunice quickly demonstrates that she can manipulate markets, move money, employ agents to work on Verity’s behalf, and in turn draws Verity into a plot beyond the control of Verity’s employers, Tulpagenics. Eunice’s status as a sentient intelligence seems to be beyond doubt. There are quirks in her personality and the way she speaks. Verity is able to bond with Eunice when she is shown her favourite movie, Inception. Eunice even jokes to Verity about the difficulty she must be having understanding what is happening:
My money’s on head trauma. Concussion, Focal retrograde amnesia.
The plot of Agency, like The Peripheral, is straight forward enough, although not as tight. The future protagonists from 2136 may need Eunice to help address the threat of nuclear war posed by Qamishli, but the majority of the plot involves Verity attempting to escape the threat of Cursion, Tulpagenics’s parent company which has acquired Eunice’s tech from the military and naturally wants to monetise it. Added to that is a subplot which dominates the latter stages of the novel, in which moves are made to remove Lowbeer from her position. Nominally, she is a cop, but in reality, she is a check on the excesses of the Klept, the hereditary authoritarian government of the future with its roots in organised crime. This adds a level of intrigue to the story, but detracts from the promised apocalyptic outcome. Whereas The Peripheral was tightly focussed on the endgame – of getting Flynne to identify a killer – the work of stopping the apocalypse happens offstage. Just as Eunice confesses that she does not understand how her various laminae – her
subselves that direct much of her agenda without her knowing how – the resolution of the main driver in the story is ultimately unseen.
But this is also indicative of much of the world Gibson has created. Protagonists act from afar, usually via technology. Conner and Wilf, from The Peripheral, both inhabit an anthropomorphic drone in our time line, while each exists in eras separate to each other. Wilf is likely to be juggling the needs of his infant son and wife while also engaging in action in our own time period. Conner is as likely to be splitting his time between his Secret Service duties for President Leon in his period, as he is to be acting as a combat specialist in ours. Eunice acts through a series of agents who carry out her plans on her behalf. Yet Verity, the most present and vulnerable character in the main timeline of the story has the least agency. Agency – power – is not conferred by physical presence, but technology, knowledge and money. Eunice’s first action when put into the hands of Verity is to have delivered a large sum of cash in order that she might have agency.
This issue of agency has been present since the first novel. Now, it suggests a level of autonomy and self-determination that, at the extreme, undermines the basis for a fairer society. Rainey, Wilf’s wife, explains to Verity that in her time period it is within the means of the wealthy to extend their lives well beyond a normal lifespan. For Lowbeer, longevity has been conferred upon her by rich patrons because she is deemed important enough to warrant the expense. Living longer has allowed her a network of contacts and a greater means to information and power. The perspective of those living in 2136 similarly confers a psychological mindset that justifies a higher degree of agency than assumed for the stubs they manipulate. It is suggested to Wilf that continua enthusiasts are a new kind of coloniser, because they assume a legitimacy for their own timeline while viewing stubs as their responsibility. Wilf rejects the notion that his own timeline is no more real than the stubs they seek to manipulate; that stubs are essentially equal. His confidence in his own timeline’s historicity and his rejection of the notion that they are traditional colonisers – there is no resource transaction or financial gain he argues – suggests that though likeable, Wilf cannot accept the disproportionate power his society assumes. But the reality of Vespasian’s manipulation of stubs for
shits and giggles speaks to the unequal power relationship; a lack of agency for the stubs. Ultimately, it also speaks to the problem of Wilf’s world, in which the Klept rule. In a world in which all seek power and complete agency, the danger of powerful oligarchical crime families ruling society is a real.
The realisation of Gibson’s world is just as convincing as his previous novel. However, it is hard to escape the feeling that this is a lesser novel. There is little new to reveal to the reader. Some of the language may have changed between stubs – ‘funny’, a word peculiar to Flynne’s time, is no longer used to denote corruption, for instance – and Eunice is a different device (although Flynne’s Peripheral is still used in the story). Essentially, however, Gibson has already established his world. Added to this, he seems to have little to say about the historical nexus which is the centrepiece of his story: the 2016 election and Brexit. It’s clear his characters see Trump and Brexit as disasters to be avoided, but Vespasian’s manipulation of history is essentially unimportant to the plot – Qamishli is a fictitious crisis, after all (the Battle for Qamishli took place in 2016, not 2017, and was not as significant) – leaving the book little to say to readers about the politics of the last few years. This may not bother other readers so much, but given that it was what interested me in the book to begin with, I felt it. The first quarter of the novel is perhaps the strongest, since Verity’s discovery of Eunice’s capacities is surprising and somewhat entertaining, and the developing situation in Qamishli seems realistic and well-integrated. The subsequent introduction of Conner into the story, with references back to the ‘county’ and Flynne, will likely confuse some readers who haven’t first read The Peripheral. This is what sent me back to the first book, since I understood that Hilary Clinton was now the first female president, yet President Gonzalez was also mentioned as the first female president. It’s easy not to have established in your mind the different timelines and Gibson’s world to understand why this is so, given Gibson’s concise style, if you start with Agency. Ultimately, I felt there wasn’t enough happening here – much of the plot can be boiled down to a chase sequence – while the complication of the threat to Lowbeer seems messy. The conclusion, likewise, seems rushed. Maybe that’s because this is meant to be a middle book in a trilogy and some of the loose threads of the plot will be addressed in a third book: how is Qamishli resolved?; what is the source of the secret server that allows access to stubs? In the meantime, Agency is an entertaining extension of Gibson’s world, but it falls short of The Peripheral.