Whenever I’m asked on fancy stages or across shadowed bars to name my favorite author, I always reply: William Gibson. I am forever interested in the near future, in the forward-leaning now, and no one writes it better. Gibson specializes in the rapid appropriation of the most provocative ideas, images and — especially — artifacts circulating in the overlapping worlds of art, advertising, espionage and the global underworld. He also possesses some favorable mutation that allows him to metabolize the strangeness and make it, through the techniques of fiction, highly bioavailable to other brains.
His bibliography is a catalog of futures. There are noir futures, near futures and even non-futures. Gibson’s most recent trilogy — Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History — unfolded in the recent past, a sort of smeared just-now. There were whispers among Gibson’s readers as that trilogy emerged: He’s on to something; the present got too weird; the future is over. But in truth, those books were about the future, too. It was the future locked inside a shipping container, the future unavailable for export, the just-not-evenly-distributed future.
And considering those books now, with the benefit of the hindsight, there is a sense of an athlete gathering himself for a great leap.
The Peripheral is that leap. Here, Gibson vaults us forward again, not into a single future but into two of them, one near and recognizable, the other more distant, separated from the first by years of cataclysm. It’s a bigger book than his previous three — measured by page count and the scope of its story. It is also Gibson’s most optimistic vision yet.
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Not that either of the two worlds of The Peripheral are happy places. The sense of optimism stems mainly from the cast of characters in his nearer future, a run-down Appalachia of the mid-21st century. The novel’s focus there is on a young woman named Flynne Fisher. The central facts of her life are her patchwork of futuristic gigs (3-D printing assistant, semi-pro gamer, remote drone pilot) and her mother’s medical bills. Her gamer tag is Easy Ice and she is a commanding, charismatic presence.
Flynne’s rural milieu is an America that hasn’t received much attention from science fiction writers, whose settings have tended towards the megalopolitan. The Peripheral, Gibson shows there are strange futures waiting in the trailer park, too. In particular, his rendering of a band of U.S. Marine Corps Haptic Recon veterans — their deep wounds, their scary competence — is one of the book’s great achievements.
This rich, tactile, Appalachia makes the book’s further future — an almost post-human London, awash with wish-fulfilling nanobots — look pale by comparison. That is as much Gibson’s observation as it is my own. Flynne’s counterpart in nanobot London, the excellently named Wilf Netherton, is most notable for his ennui. At one point, Flynne says to him (through strange time-hopping channels, the nature of which I will not reveal here), “You’re the one living in the future, with nanobots eating people, spare bodies, governments run by kings and gangsters. … You accept all that, right?”
“No,” Wilf replies. “I don’t. I hate it.”
Midway through the book, Flynne’s Appalachia and Wilf’s London have made contact, and Flynne’s talented friends are merrily fabricating far-future tech in the local 3-D printing shop. Forces large and malevolent are converging on their location. Even as makeshift bombs detonate and camouflaged assassins come creeping through the grass, there is a sweetness to the proceedings. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recognize the feeling: an irrepressible lightness and camaraderie in even the direst circumstances. Flynne’s Scooby Gang is bright, loyal and utterly winning.
Gibson’s futures tend to be tinted dark, and the twin worlds of The Peripheral are no exception. At the same time, this book offers a kind of scaled-down utopia, a we-should-be-so-lucky world. It’s not the far-flung future full of nanobots after all. It’s the nearer world populated by makers and friends.
Robin Sloan reviewed this book for The Washington Post.