It’s been an odd fall. I haven’t bought or read new big fiction really in years, let alone three hardcovers within weeks of their appearance on the shelves, and yet here I am, going for the trifecta. A birthday gift card from my sister turned, after several trips of extreme length and angst to Barnes & Noble, especially with a daughter trying to cadge me into using it for Tennant Dr Who paraphernalia, into William Gibson’s THE PERIPHERAL. And as I sat down with it on the train, I realized a ghostly Gibson had been haunting this new column since its inception, even before his newest book ended up in my hands. Riding the rails with me day after day.
Ghosts are a good metaphor for THE PERIPHERAL. This is by far the most spare, and the most elliptical, that Gibson has been. There are still traces, mostly in the dialogue, of the hardboiled cyberpunk voice that permeated NEUROMANCER and COUNT ZERO, the expressed bravado of certain characters, but Gibson has really distilled his voice into something more … cool … in the emotional sense. Like ghosts, the voice here whispers in the corners, as fragmented as the story he tells. A whisper, and then it’s gone. In that sense, THE PERIPHERAL is deceptively complex. The short chapters punctuated with techno jargon are mediated by strong characters, Flynne and Netherton, conjoined, and yet so separated. It is a measure of the skein he weaves that it’s only 70-80 pages in that the time travel/parallel worlds motif of the plot really begins to clarify around the more central scope of identity. The peripherals of the title are artificial bodies, grown or manufactured, in a post-cultural world devoid of anything tangible, and used for all manner of distraction. It is here that the deft science fiction writing mind of Gibson weaves its magic, as he designs worlds within worlds in his future London and United States. He has always managed to walk that line between hard science fiction and its joy in the machine and soft science fiction with its focus on societal implications. It’s what makes him so compulsively readable. More than ever, the social, the humanity, has become the focus. For all the description of peripherals and wheelies and the jackpot, the focus centers on Flynne, her brother, on Netherton and his Russian financier, on Lowbeer and her investigations. Whereas before the technology seemed an equal character, the balance has swung definitely towards the characters. Technology is the muse from which the people sing
Gibson’s primary color for THE PERIPHERAL is a grey melancholy. Significantly, both worlds are suffused in it. Not just the rotting future, but that near future past that may lead to that world is as well. The acceleration of technology here only hearkens to an acceleration of the ghosts, of melancholy. Flynne is only 27, and yet she is weighed down by the past, by the future, by nostalgia and melancholy. In Netherton’s time, it’s only exacerbated, accelerated, with rampant neo-primitivism and its attendant faux Luddite doctrines. Netherton’s world is constantly painted as to what it is not, not what it is. Battleship reenactments. Neighborhoods built to mimic old London. A rebuilt Tower of London. Nothing is real. And this isn’t William S Burroughs, that doesn’t mean everything is permitted. Rather, nothing is authentic. Netherton, a public relations man by trade, is the ostensible model of that, used for his ability to falsify, and yet, becomes the only person that is honest in his world, as all the worlds come unglued.
The characters that are active, Flynn’s brother and his comrades, the Russian and his bodyguards, are, in a real sense, peripheral to the book itself. Up until the denouement, action largely takes place off page, or twice removed, viewed through drones and flashbacks. There is a lethargy to the action. Instead, it is those that are worn down, tied down, Flynne and Netherton, who are the focus. Even as they cannot interact in a “real” sense, only through the use of peripherals across the time/parallel universe dimension, their stories drive the action. Gibson toys with this literally, by essentially making Netheron an iPad on wheels in his sojourns into the past. In his hands, it’s dehumanizing and liberating at the same time. Perhaps we all need to be a little debased to be freed.
As much as I love NEUROMANCER, I think this may be my favorite Gibson novel now. This novel of exhaustion, of melancholy, is fascinating … and gripping. I actually parsed it out to prolong the inevitable end of the book, something I rarely do. Ultimately, what Gibson hits at is – the ghosts aren’t in the machine. They never were. The ghosts made the machine. The ghosts are us.