It’s hard to imagine we’ve made it five years without tackling the incredible oeuvre of William Gibson, the author we are so eager to claim as Canadian that we have forgiven his American birth. Gibson burst onto the scene in 1984 with Neuromancer, the novel that launched a thousand terrible imitations (and a half dozen or so very good ones). Since then, he’s given us ten more novels, a wealth of short fiction, and a string of radically political non-fiction. So where to start?
I’m going to start at the end. Last year saw the publication of The Peripheral, Gibson’s latest novel. It was an incredible breath of fresh air, reminding us why we love Gibson in the first place: He is an absolute master of taking a spark of scientific what-if and building a world around it that feels entirely lived in, populated by people that feel like perfect noir archetypes while simultaneously being three (or more!) dimensional enough that we actually care about them. And he is a poet, to boot.
In The Peripheral, the germ of the idea is that in a distant future, technology has provided the ability to spin off parallel universes at will, branching off from any point in the past, with the catch that only information, not matter, can pass back and forth between worlds. In Gibson’s hands this becomes a brilliantly realized murder mystery spanning two separate dystopian futures and it fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.
What makes The Peripheral so welcome, however, is a little bittersweet. It comes on the heels of a decade and a half with no new Gibsonian science fiction. Gibson’s three previous books, collectively known as the Blue Ant trilogy, were contemporary high-tech thrillers. Some critics have described them as science fiction set in the present (and, indeed, they are often shelved with the SF), but I can’t help but wonder how much of that is simply an indicator of how genre-defining Gibson’s earlier work had been. Because, in truth, the thing that most makes the Blue Ant books feel like science fiction is the way they remind you of Neuromancer.
I remember being excited when the first Blue Ant book, Pattern Recognition, came out in 2003. Despite being the editor of a science fiction magazine, my literary tastes extend well outside of the genre and I was eager to see what Gibson could do in this new arena. Unfortunately, the book just wasn’t very good and, even in retrospect, it’s sort of hard to put a finger on why. Somehow, Gibson’s picture of the present was harder to believe in than his fanciful futures. And the characters in the book, bizarrely, felt more like caricatures in their MA-1 Bomber Jackets and Levi’s than Neuromancer’s Molly Millions did in her mirrored eye socket implants and retractable claws.
The latter two books in the trilogy — Spook Country and Zero History — are quite a bit better than Pattern Recognition, but they still end up just feeling, well, competent. And Gibson is so much more than simply competent. Let us swing back around to the beginning and consider, seven years prior to Neuromancer, Gibson’s first published short story: Fragments of a Hologram Rose. In two thousand words, this story paints a world with such perfectly efficient strokes that the city and the desperation appear from the page with the effortless magic of happy little trees in a Bob Ross Painting.
“The audio input is white sound – the no-sound of the first dark sea.”
This is the bold and uncompromising future poetry we came to William Gibson for in the eighties when he gave us the Sprawl trilogy. It’s what we came back for in the nineties when he gave us the Bridge trilogy. And I’m once again looking forward to returning to that well for more now that The Peripheral has proven it to be still clear and deep.