Travelling the Culture of Gibson’s The Peripheral: There is no future that will save us from the present
This is not a review – just a few thoughts about The Peripheral that might interest others who have read it or Gibson’s other work. There’s an affiliate link at the bottom of the post — if you buy the book through that, I’ll get some cash.
I picked up a copy of The Peripheral at Little Bird Bookshop recently, apparently having forgotten that I couldn’t make much sense of Neuromancer. I wanted an entertaining and somewhat-illuminating sci-fi novel, which I didn’t get, perhaps because I haven’t been in the right mood for reading Gibson. It’s been hard work, getting into and enjoying The Peripheral.
I don’t mind hard work when it comes to literature, and even with literary-genre writing, but the sort of work that Gibson seems to expect of his readers is beyond my ken unless I’m really on my game. I can’t work out whether he’s difficult to read because he’s not a very good writer or because he’s just not the writer for me. I looked up some reviews of Neuromancer while I was reading this one, and they said essentially the same thing: he’s a difficult writer, but some readers might enjoy that. I imagine he would be a nuisance to edit, and there’s a funny imagined dialogue between publicist, publisher and editor that suggests the book was published not on the basis of its merits but because it was written by Gibson: “It will sell, because it’s Gibson.”
Maybe I thought there would have been some improvement between 1984 (Neuromancer) and 2014 (The Peripheral), like maybe he had become more articulate in the thirty years and ten or so books between his first and more-recent novel. But Neuromancer sold some six and a half million copies, so when you’re onto a winner, why change? I’m prepared to accept that Gibson is doing something that is simply beyond my ken, because this is both exciting and frustrating: he has all these books I could try to read, and maybe eventually I’ll crack the code, as after I’ve read a few Shakespeare plays in a row.
That’s actually not a bad analogy, because both Gibson and Shakespeare are writing about worlds that either no longer exist or don’t yet exist, and I’m willing to concede that the thing I’m (not quite) missing about the Gibsons I’ve read is that they are using world-specific language that is inherently difficult to follow because we are not (and cannot be) part of those worlds, anymore that we can visit Shakespearean London, except in the imagination. What I mean is that it may be a strength of Gibson’s that he uses such world-specific language without enough context for the reader to easily understand what is going on. It might be a strength because it lends itself to a kind of world-specific authenticity or verisimilitude that would be lost if he were more explicit about what he’s talking about. So in a way I’m wondering whether what Gibson is doing actually puts a lot of other scif-fi writers to shame.
Other sci-fi writers give explanations, of sorts, about what is going on. They use language that means something to us, to kind of bridge our understanding of world-specific stuff across to our world. The only word I can think of is they “port” the confusing world-specific phenomena across to our world using exposition specific to our world, so we can understand. Gibson doesn’t do that – he doesn’t use a lot of exposition. He just has his characters do stuff that would make sense to them, and he has characters discuss or reflect on these events using terminology that would make sense to them – and to us, if we were living in that world. But we are not. So we just get a report from that world, and we can either marvel about its necessary obscurity or we can be disgruntled that we didn’t have some kind of cultural ambassador along with us, or maybe the babel fish of Adams’ hitch-hiker universe.
If we had such an ambassador or interpreter, though, I think we would feel more disgruntled in a less overt way – we would feel that our experience of witnessing an alternate world had been somehow cheapened, by having someone along to explain everything. We would become tourists in a literary adventure where everyone prefers to be a traveller, able to navigate and interpret their experience of a foreign culture on their own.
I won’t try to summarise the plot because this is not a review. It’s enough to say here that the novel is set in two futures: pre-apocalypse America, and post-apocalypse London. Some of this comes from the blurb, though it does leak through in the text. Flynne gets recruited by her brother Burton to do some security-guard work in what they think is a virtual-reality game. While on duty, Flynne witnesses what seems to be a murder, and she soon learns the murder wasn’t just a game, but happened IRL in some version or iteration of the future. How Burton has been accessing this future/game was never made clear, so right from the premise the whole novel was just not plausible for me, but see above about why maybe this doesn’t matter for Gibson and some of his readers. There was some talk in the London future about how agents there had been the ones who accessed Burton’s reality (London’s sort-of past, but our future), but this was so vague, delivered in the characters’ arcane vernacular, that I never grasped the plausibility of this either. The London characters don’t even know how Burton’s “stub” was accessed, and the motivations for these characters piggy-backing this illicit “blackbox” access was also super vague. Something about Lev’s family (members of the old undefined “klept” or kleptocracy) having economic/investment interests. Mostly I’m thinking this is a plot-driven narrative, rather than a character-driven one: things happened because Gibson wanted them to happen, not because the characters would necessarily do these things. If they did have reasons for getting involved in this narrative, I either couldn’t figure out what they were, or wasn’t invested enough to care because their motivations were not clearly articulated. The storytelling was just not that great. Maybe Gibson is in company with the likes of H G Wells in that he is neither a great stylist nor a great storyteller, but he’s got some good ideas that warrant exploration. The trouble is, for me: what’s the point of exploring ideas through fiction if your readers can’t easily follow along? Maybe other readers can, and Gibson is just not my kind of writer.
Burton’s employers get wind of what was witnessed during Flynne’s shift and he has to admit to them that he wasn’t working at the time, so he arranges for Flynne to meet them. Someone tries to kill Flynne (because of what she witnessed), but Conner mysteriously intervenes, and the f(l)ight is on. The employers have Macon fab some headsets and Flynne starts visiting the future she will never know.
Hereafter there are too many (vague) plot points to consider, and I don’t remember some of them because they were not explicit enough for me to understand enough to remember (or care). All I know is that the employers (along with Lowbeer) start helping Flynne for reasons that are not clear, and Flynne’s cohort play along for equally unclear reasons: Lev and co.’s motivation seems to be no more than curiosity (again, there are some fleeting mentions of him scouting investment opportunities, but that’s it); and Flynne’s cohort seem to play along because they are bored and have little else to do (they are paid some money through ambiguous means, and it becomes vague that they need protection from the London characters, but this emerges only later, by which time I had lost any real interest and was only reading because I wanted to finish the book). I don’t really feel like untangling the plot points or the characters’ motivations, because if Gibson didn’t bother making it clear, then why should I decipher it? Maybe his books are worth deciphering, but I’ve just not been in the mood for that lately and I’m not sure I want to invest the time. There’s a review here that suggests it wasn’t just me:
[The plot] becomes progressively more of a slog to get through as the novel goes on. The writing is often clumsy, ponderous and uncomfortable where Gibson is usually nimble, which is partially due to the complexity of the timelines. […] As the plot becomes even messier and more convoluted, it starts to break down, like massive siege weapon that starts to shake apart when battle-tested.
There were some cool over-arching ideas that do warrant mentioning, such as the “jackpot” and Gibson’s take on “evil” being just an extension of ordinary human baseness, not some pathology that only a few people suffer from but a natural consequence of greed, which any human is susceptible to.
The jackpot is mentioned a few times and it becomes clear enough that this is the cataclysmic event that separates pre-apocalypse America from post-apocalypse London, but Netherton eventually spills to Flynne (for no good plausibile reason) that the jackpot was not some single event that caused the apocalypse, but the cumulative effect of numerous idiot-human mistakes over a period of many generations. This is when Gibson makes room to come in and allude to the idea that eras rarely seem like eras at the time, and are only categorised as such through the lense of history and its retrospective narratives – hindsight being 20-20. A Goodreadser who seems to have been taken by the book has extracted the following quote about this, which I admit was a good one:
“Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experienced them. We carve history from totalities beyond our grasp. Bolt labels on the result. Handles. Then speak of the handles as though they were things in themselves.”
Netherton explains that the jackpot was “caused” by an economic climate that lead to environmental climate change that eventually become unstoppable (cf. Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers). This is where Gibson drops in a few more ideas that might justify the blurb’s emphasis on a “story which gets right to the heart of the way we live now”, though the rest of the novel doesn’t really do this on a day-to-day basis (unless it does and I just wasn’t paying attention for the right signs), and dropping this ideas-nugget in as an implausible plot-point just doesn’t fly for me as a reader. There’s something important about making sure the story resonates, as well as the themes/ideas. Telling a second-class story and name-dropping some world-class ideas just doesn’t do the ideas justice, I reckon.
The way he depathologises “evil” is a great idea, though it also is just dropped in through Lowbeer at the end. She disabuses us of the notion that people who do evil are some other subhuman species, which shines a spotlight (however indirectly) on the idea that if evil is not a pathology, a deformation, or some kind of aberation, then every human (among even all our goodness) is somehow capable of the sort of “evil”/behaviour that would lead to something like the jackpot. In the context of Netherton helping Flynne understand that her world is in the depths of the beginning of the jackpot, which implies that our world as we know it is approaching something similar, this depathologising of evil makes us all complicit in the potential future that is half-depicted in the London world. (It is half-depicted, but depicted enough that we understand we don’t want to end up realising the kleptocracy that Netherton so despises.) So on this level I really appreciate what Gibson is doing, and for this reason I have more time for his books than I thought I would throughout the opening, middle and even the approach to the end of this one.
One of my favourite books of all time didn’t make any sense to me until right at the end, so perhaps I should be more forgiving of Gibson than I had been before I started writing this, which is prexactly why I write these long-winded and rambly posts. That said, from what I recall of The Obscene Bird of Night, the prevailing ambiguity/confusion of the novel (made clear at the end) was an intentional and artful stroke, whereas Gibson’s ambiguity was the result of not deigning to let the reader into the secrets of his imagination.
The only other thing I want to note is that I don’t like the idea of depicting our present being saved from itself by some implausible series of events from a future we can never access. I don’t like saved-by-the-future narratives, though I guess that’s what Terminator is. These stories tell a narrative that there is nothing we can do in the present to save us from ourselves. But the future is not going to rescue us.
I’ll be trying Gibson again one day if I find myself in a situation where I especially crave the challenge of sci-fi that might be as illuminating as it is hard to access, but I’ll need to be in the right mood to accept that it may not be worth the effort.
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And here’s that link if you’re interested in buying a copy of The Peripheral by William Gibson. If you do, it’ll tip me a bit for a coffee.