If you want to boil The Peripheral down to its bare essentials of plot, it is, simply put, a murder mystery. A woman named Flynne Fisher witnesses another woman’s murder while she is playing bodyguard in a simulation that she thinks is a video game. The woman in question turns out to be the sister of publicist Wilf Netherton’s former client and lover Daedra West. Together, and with the help of some friends, they have to work to ID the murderer before he manages to kill Flynne and silence her testimony.
Of course nothing of Gibson’s can be so simply summarized. For instance, to call Neuromancer a heist novel would completely miss the point. Much of what made Neuromancer so great was the writing (and the genius of bringing stylized noir writing into a sci-fi work) and the brilliant vision of the setting, and The Peripheral is similar in this regard.
The story takes place in two timelines, one in the far future at around 2100, and one in the near future of the 2030s. Flynne lives in the near future at the time when the world is starting to fall apart. She lives in rural Virginia, an area that makes most of its income from “building” or the drug trade, which, along with everything else, appears to be largely assisted by 3D printing. Work is scarce, and she makes her money playing on virtual reality video games for wealthy people who are willing to hire good players as well as “fabbing” (or printing) products. She also mentions that she was going to join the army, which her brother and all of his friends who lived in the area did, only that her mother got sick and she didn’t feel she could leave. This seems like one of the few ways people can escape from the county, at least for awhile.
Wilf lives in the far future at a time when the people who are alive are mostly oligarchs or their descendants. Some are agents who are very well connected and have been alive for an incredibly long time. Nano technology has helped to clean up the environment, extend lifespans, and alter humanity or what is left of it. Any manual job is automated, and people seem to spend their time cultivating various hobbies or working in fields that require a human touch, like the arts, diplomacy, or publicity.
The people of Wilf’s time have also developed a new hobby of developing “stubs”, timelines that are spun off from reality, that they can manipulate. The book doesn’t ever describe the process of creating these stubs, only that they are run out of some mysterious server in China. My guess would be that they are highly detailed recreations of the world generated from a point when everything became wired and could be surveyed (the book mentions stubs can only be pushed back to 2028, which is my guess as to when the world is totally wired in this setting). Flynne’s world in the book is actually along one of these “stubs”, not the primary timeline of reality.
The characters are able to communicate with each other on the net across the timelines. They can also plug into artificial bodies to inhabit the other world. In Flynne’s (comparatively) low-tech world, this means that Wilf can ride around in something called a Wheelie Boy, basically a screen with some tires. Flynne visits Wilf’s world by taking over a fully functional artificial body known as a peripheral.
The two times chosen fence a series of events known as “the jackpot” that end of killing off roughly 80% of humanity by Wilf’s time. As Wilf describes it, the jackpot isn’t any singular event but is tied into a series of things largely related to global warming and scarcity of resources. The split allows Gibson to delve into how humanity has fared both in the near future and in the far. And in neither instance do things look particularly great.
Outside of the technological differences, Gibson separates the two characters through the writing and the distinct voice that each has. Not only does the voice and dialogue of the prose change between characters, but so too do the “omniscient” parts of their perspectives. Unlike the highly stylized highly stylized prose of Neuromancer, the writing in this book is often very sparse. Still, that captures the character’s mindsets, especially Flynne’s, very well.
Though not complex or stylish, I found the writing drew me in to the story and the setting. Much of its power is also derived by what isn’t said, what can be read between the lines (or what’s left hanging with the clipped dialogue), and melancholy tone this produces.
And this brings us to the ending of the story, which I have to provide some light spoilers about in the next three paragraphs to get across the point I want to make. So, if you want to go into this book totally blind, skip to the part after “Conclusion”.
I think there are people who will come to the ending and be disappointed thinking that it is too happy. I know of read at least one review that felt as much. The characters pair off romantically and things seem to be going well for them following the events of the murder mystery. However, I think viewing the book this way is really only looking at its surface and doesn’t take in the broader implications of what is going on.
While Flynne is probably the more interesting and dynamic character in the book, Wilf provides an incredibly important perspective. And that’s because in many ways Flynne isn’t real. Her timeline is a spin-off from a server in China, and no matter what happens there, it can’t change the world in Wilf’s timeline. Her world is also at the mercy of the people in Wilf’s timeline, almost as if it is a game. At one point another “stub” owner is described as someone who lets his stubs fight wars to see what weapons will be generated in them, and then he replicates the results. Flynne is largely just lucky that Wilf and his friends are more benevolent.
I think the story is, in many ways, a story of yearning from Wilf’s point of view. He yearns for a past he’s never experienced because he’s bored with his future, and he can see that past in Flynne’s timeline, something that he feels is more authentic. He yearns for Flynne, a woman who is so different from the people in his world but whom he can never be with. And, as I said, both Flynne and her world are things that don’t even really exist, more like fantasies that he can only sort of experience. So while I can say the story isn’t overtly tragic, I also have a hard time seeing it as happy, considering these aspects of it.
I think this is another great futurist book from Gibson. I’ve read a great many articles on some of the technologies that are being developed today. It’s impossible to say what will and won’t take off or what the future will look like, but Gibson’s depictions of the technology seem in line with what I’ve read about. On top of that he is really able to bring the setting around those features to life and show what the world for humanity might look like, not once, but twice, in the near future and the far.
Gibson’s return to the sci-fi genre is as good as I expected it to be (and since Neuromancer is one of my favorite novels I expected a lot). If you’re a fan of his work, you won’t be disappointed. If you like near future sci-fi, then I’d definitely recommend this. Honestly if you like sci-fi at all, I’d say it’s worth the read.
This is a podcast from The Guardian in which Gibson discusses Neuromancer. Check it out.