The Peripheral by William Gibson: Unlocking the Jack in the Box

The first chapter in William Gibson’s latest book, The Peripheral, is titled “The Haptics,” so clearly job number one before undertaking a review is to know what haptics are.

The first chapter in William Gibson’s latest book, The Peripheral, is titled “The Haptics,” so clearly job number one before undertaking a review is to know what haptics are.

Wow. Now that I do know, Gibson’s description works even better than it did before. But I confess that on first reading, I did not want to be thrown out of the novel in the very first paragraph by pausing to look it up. Besides, I trusted that if I carried on reading, I would learn, either through context or exposition, what haptics are.

And I came close! I learned that “haptic glitches” can be compared to phantom limbs and that scars from removal of the haptics can leave one’s sides “dusted with something dead-fish silver” — exactly the sort of description that made me a diehard Gibson fan from the first page of Neuromancer, when it came out as an Ace Special in the 80s. When it’s working, Gibson’s style is so vivid and immersive, it’s almost tactile.

But most of his novels over the past few years are based on ideas not much bigger than “I want a coat just like that one.” When he’s filling out a thin plot, he has the time and latitude to be magnanimous in the sharing of information. I don’t remember ever feeling lost or out of my depth while reading Pattern Recognition or Zero History.

But in a plot as complex, layered, nuanced and densely populated as The Peripheral, there is no time for such niceties. One moment I’m in a modified Airstream trailer in backwoods USA. Next page takes me 70 years into the future — in England, in bed with a publicist named Wilf Netherton, who is having trouble with a client. Then I’m somewhere else — no idea where, because Gibson refers to the central character in the chapter as “she” and never mentions her by name. Ah, but look there! He mentions her brother, Burton, which I was reading carefully enough to pick up on from chapter one — so I felt at least momentarily tethered in place.

Yes, I’m disorientated, but still reading the book out of fascination and awe and the hope that at some point the story grabs me and pulls me in. Suddenly, I’m watching a media figure named Daedra documenting “the patchers” — very alien-like nano-creatures created for the sole purpose of transforming the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into what Gibson describes as “incremental sculpture.” The chapter is filled with simultaneously intellectual and hyper-sensory vintage Gibson noir anime imagery — but turns out to be a complete red herring that — given how disorienting it is — should probably never have made it into the book.

If I looked up all the fascinating cultural touchpoints and reread every description of a new technology or application of that technology that Gibson drops casually into the text, it would take me all day to get through a page — so I inevitably find myself skimming over descriptions of “bullpups” and “medicis” only to run into them repeatedly later on — resulting in a sort of cumulative ignorance that prevented me from engaging fully with the book. On top of that, there are dozens of characters who may be introduced in chapter eight and not show up again until chapter forty-eight, so I found myself constantly asking, “Who was that again?”

In time, I discern the plot buried within the maze:

In the fairly near future, Flynne Fisher lives with her mother and war vet brother in rural USA. Most of their friends are also war vets in various states of disrepair and combat readiness. The economy sucks and is more directly controlled by corrupt private interests than it is today. Flynne’s brother, Burton, gets a job beta-testing a game for a mysterious employer. Flynne fills in and witnesses a murder. She thinks the murder is part of the game — unaware that she has become the only witness of an actual murder that will happen 70 years in the future.

In this book, there are two timelines that are connected and move at the same relative rate — so by witnessing the murder, Flynne lost the ability to prevent it. But it turns out she can help solve it, with the help of a British police inspector named Lowbeer from the future timeline — who is sort of what you would imagine Dame Judi Dench’s “M” might become if she got hold of the controls of the universe.

While physical bodies can’t be transported through time, some kinds of information and communications technology can — enabling the future murderers hire some assassins in Flynne’s timeline. Then Lowbeer takes control of the investigation with the help of a Russian Mafia scion/breakfast enthusiast named Lev and their team, led by Wilf Netherton, brings Flynne into the future as a witness for the prosecution — housing her in the body of an android — the peripheral of the title.

Top that off with an Ian Fleming climax and American Graffiti ending and you come up with the strange pop confection called The Peripheral; comic bookish on one level, dense and complex and literary on another, and more jam-packed with ideas that any ten TED talks.

Gibson has spoken before about the “Google aura” surrounding novels in the hyperlinked age. His descriptions are as sharply observed as ever and his ability to depict technologies in their cultural context remains second to none. On some level, The Peripheral is an evolution of the novel pitched directly at those who love nothing more than to sift through the info-archaeological layers on which the book’s world is built. For the rest of us, though, it would be nice to be able to simply go along for the ride without having a search engine close at hand.

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