The Peripheral

William Gibson

Gibson’s dark narrative of an encounter between the worlds of two different time periods is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Reading it I moved between fascination with the worlds that Gibson created and a deep discomfort with how totally plausible many of the book’s darker scenes were. It was the perfect book to start the summer with.

The book tells the story of Flynne Fisher, a woman who lives in a not-too-distant-as-to-be-unrecognizable future, at a time when drugs builders rule the economy, class distinctions are extreme, corruption dominates local policing and governance, and 3D printers produce an array of things–from food to time travel enabling headgear (Despite their dramatic function, the role of these printers in Flynne’s world is remarkably banal). Hers is a time of veterans of distant wars trying to reconcile their economic struggles with their physical wounds and PTSD. The environment is largely reduced to its function as a supplier of resources, as if capitalism had perfected systems of extraction and eliminated any shred of symbolic value from the landscape. We learn later that this is a time period (or stub) that marks the start of what Gibson refers to as the jackpot.

The other time period that we move forward to or back from with the start of nearly every short chapter, is that of a 22nd century PR guy named Wilf Netherton. Here, the 3D printers have been replaced by assemblers, builders have given way to the extraordinary wealth of klepts who use their computing power and free time to go in search of histories to rewrite. The post-Jackpot world is nearly devoid of humans (after all 80% die off in the jackpot), and here the environment is cleaned by carbon collectors. Netherton, in seeing the landscape of loss, actually begins to care for the people of the past, and instead of playing games with their lives, as the others in his time were doing, he tries to save them.

The book is animated largely by the relationships not between places (as it would have been if this were a story about imperial extraction), but between these two times and the people that inhabit them. While bodies never move between time periods, both worlds are able to see outside of themselves, to engage with the limits of their social and political systems, and to think new spaces of possibility. One wonders what would happen if we were granted the same station point, the god trick of being able to see and experience forward in time to some point beyond our impending catastrophe and back in time to see the world as it struggles to understand and come to terms with its own collapse.

I could have done without the And That’s How Everything Works Out In the End For Harry Potter chapters at the book’s conclusion, but it was a great book that will likely yield another read in the (a?…my?) not-too-distant-as-to-be-unrecognizable future.

See also: A blog post about Gibson’s Jackpot and the age of man.