The Peripheral by William Gibson [Library of Babel]

Spent the weekend in Florida getting together with some friends from college, which was a much-needed recharge for me at the end of a brutal term. It's probably fitting to ease back into routine with a return to my blogging roots, and talk a bit about a book. Specifically, the new William Gibson novel, The Peripheral.

I haven't actually read any reviews of this, because I don't really need to read reviews to know that I want to read a new Gibson-- he's that significant a writer. His work needs the proper context, though-- while I technically started this a week or two ago as bedtime reading, I really read most of it on airplanes and in airports during my trip. Because, as I said on Twitter, those are kind of the perfect atmosphere for reading Gibson. Bruce Sterling described Gibson's work as combining "high tech and low life," writing stories about people on the fringes of their society. Even beyond their marginal social status, they're kind of disconnected from the world in which they live-- his classic cyberpunk protagonists are mostly drug addicts and sociopaths, while his near-future stuff features washed-up musicians and a marketer with an allergy to brand names. They tend to move through their worlds in a sort of bubble, present, but not entirely there.

It's a pretty effective technique for the kinds of stories he tells-- which is probably why Gibson is so much more successful at what he does than most of his peers from the cyberpunk era. It does tend to require a certain kind of mood, though, and airplanes and especially airports are great for that. When I'm spending most of a day on air travel, I get that same kind of bubble feeling-- it's a grindingly mundane experience, but airports are their own kind of alternate reality set a step away from the regular world. I spent close to three hours in Maryland on this trip, but BWI airport doesn't really feel like Maryland, or indeed any particular place. Which makes it a perfect place to read Gibson.

(I had this realization about needing this weird dissociated feeling to truly get into his books while reading one of his previous books in a hotel restaurant in Japan (I think it was Spook Country-- it was 2007 at the Worldcon in Yokohama), which is probably the most perfectly disorienting place to set the mood for his books...)

Anyway, this book is being cited as something of a return to classic subjects for him, because it involves much higher technology than the last few books he's written. The book is split between two settings, a version of London a century or so in the future, where magical nanotechnology is common and alcoholic publicist Wilf Netherton gets caught up with deadly performance artists and Russian gangsters, and a closer-but-still-in-the-future rural America where Flynne Fisher lives somewhere non-specifically Southern, scraping together just enough to take care of her mother and her damaged combat veteran brother Burton. Both of them operate in bubbles of dislocation-- Wilf because he's a drunk, Flynne because she ought to be someplace better-- and both of them witness killing that send them spiraling off into strange and dramatic events.

If you haven't read anything else about this book, and that set-up sounds interesting, go read it. Preferably in a Japanese hotel or an airport, but a slightly seedy shopping mall would probably suffice. It's very good.

If you've read more, there will be SPOILERS below, after a bit of space


I don't have the mental energy to say anything incredibly profound about this, but here are three quick items that I wanted to talk a bit more about:

1) Sometime between the present day and Wilf's London, the concept of a police sketch artist has apparently been lost. The weakest point of the plot is probably that nobody notices that Lowbeer's plan is insanely dangerous and not strictly necessary. They should've been able to do a detailed reconstruction of the man Flynne saw, and get some idea of who he was from that without needing to infiltrate the party to ID him.

Now, of course, the real reason for the infiltration wasn't the ID specifically, but to provide a physical link that let Lowbeer get in and wipe out the villains. Flynne wasn't really an eyewitness, but bait. It's presented as a "we need an eyewitness to spot the man from the balcony," though, and nobody comments on that as the least bit odd.

2) I don't think it's ever made clear why Clovis from the original timeline was ever present in Flynne's home region. Was it? What we she doing there in the original past, to get the plate that ends up connecting Griff to Lowbeer for Flynne?

3) The thing I like best about this book might be the thing that it doesn't do, namely spend dozens of pages going on about philosophical questions about the reality of Flynne and her friends and family. That seemed like the obvious place for this to go when the relationship between timelines became clear, and would've been really tedious.

I like the fact that Lowbeer just instantly decides that Flynne's world is real enough to expend resources trying to ameliorate the worst of the jackpot in that continuum. That's as important a statement about her character as Flynne passing the "party time" test is for her. (There's also the implication that Lowbeer arranged for the death of Vespasian after getting the cube design that he got from worlds that he tortured, which again speaks well for her.) And even Wilf, who would seem the most likely to view the "polts" as things rather than people, accepts them with relatively little fuss, letting the plot move along much more smoothly.

I'm also grateful (maybe this is a "3a"...) that they didn't end up speculating that Wilf's London was just a continuum for some higher level of reality, which is the other crashingly obvious Keanu-whoa place for this set-up to go. That kind of "turtles all the way up" story kind of would've sucked, too.

Anyway, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It wasn't a Neuromancer-level mind-blowing experience, but it was a good read, involving most of the features that draw me back to Gibson's books. I also like that while it has some pretty grim stuff in the background, it also holds out hope for a kind of salvation and redemption in the future; that's another characteristically Gibsonian element that a lot of lesser imitators forget.

And now, time to get back to actual mundane reality, namely the final exam I'm giving my relativity students tomorrow...

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I'm not reading the review because it's a must read anyway , but thanks for alerting me to the book ,

By Mark Callaghan (not verified) on 25 Nov 2014 #permalink