Paradoxes of a primitive 2030

THE PERIPHERAL by William Gibson (Penguin Viking)

Everybody knows William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer – even the people who haven’t read it. Neuromancer won the American/Canadian writer fame because it invented the subgenre of cyberpunk.

More accurately, Gibson wove together political, scientific and cultural ideas that had been around for a while (punk music, biker slang, the rapidly advancing globalisation of big companies, the matrix of linked computers and their data space, and more) into a vivid, coherent context for science fiction tales.

In the same year, Steve Jobs marketed the first Apple Mac.

Gibson pounded out Neuromancer on an ancient portable typewriter. That’s emblematic of the paradox in Gibson’s work. He isn’t obsessed with technology, or fanatical about basing his fictions on meticulous extrapolations from accurate hard science.

His world-building is loose, and his McGuffins sometimes as flimsy as origami butterflies. His gift is to spot what matters about where we are now, and to be simultaneously rational and wildly imaginative about where it could lead.

His 11th novel, The Peripheral, is set in a near-future rural American small town called Clanton, eroded by economic decline and peopled by an underclass, many of them damaged veterans of pointless foreign wars.

Their “one percent” are the local small capitalists: drug manufacturers and bagmen for mega-companies and homeland security who, despite the continued existence of Washington and presidents, really run the country.

Yet further into the future, a London depopulated by the cumulative effects of climate change and environmental decline is ruled by the one percent: descendants of Russian kleptocrats, City aristocrats and their minions. In London, a server of mysterious origin brings the two worlds together, permitting tourism (“continua enthusiasm”) into the primitive past of 2030.

Peripherals are the bodies time travellers must inhabit; but this is a world of multiple, branching time lines. As soon as the future makes contact, that version of the past becomes a “stub” with no future. In theory, this precludes market manipulation and other interferences with history. In practice, the rules may be permeable, and so unravelling past –or future – cause and present consequence is a complex affair.

Seedy but successful publicist Wilf Netherton (in London) and online gamer and copy shop employee Flynne Fisher (in Clanton) are brought together when Flynne –believing she is merely road-testing a game for money – witnesses a real murder in Wilf’s London. Identifying the killer, the motive and the underlying conspiracy takes him into the past and her into the future.

Gibson has never done info-dumps, preferring a technique of “nonexposition”. Thus the reader learns about both worlds by travelling with the protagonists. In a nice bit of postmodernist layering, they are our peripherals for entering both futures. At first, this makes for a slow read, with many moments of “But wait a bit – what’s Hab-Mart? How did the Embankment get rewilded?” The read is not frustrating, however, because the people are so engaging.

Gibson’s powers of characterisation have grown enormously since Neuromancer. While many readers of that book remember cyberspace, it is likely far fewer could instantly identify the book’s protagonist, Henry Dorset Case. Ideas, in that early Sprawl Trilogy, were Gibson’s forte; characters were not. By the start of the Blue Ant Trilogy with Pattern Recognition in 2003, however, he was building complex, ­compelling people.

As another tough, smart woman, Flynne is recognisably from the same stable as eccentric-cool hunter Cayce Pollard of the Blue Ant books. Cayce prided herself on monochromatic style and loner status; by contrast, Flynne operates very much as a part of her community, seeing its ties as vital defences against the barbarity at the gates.

One of the big surprises for Wilf and his cohorts from their viciously individualistic era is how effective a defence it turns out to be.

To say more about the plot would be to spoil the read. The Peripheral has strong elements of thriller, with kidnapping, gun battles, explosions and chases along the way; it would make a great movie, and is a gripping read even when some details remain blurry. And as both futures come into sharper focus, they underline something Gibson said back in 1997: “Earth is the alien planet now.”

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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