The Peripheral by William Gibson
Published: Oct 28, 2014
Posted: Goodreads (Jan 15, 2015)
(5 / 5)
The Peripheral is a novel that combines a lot of elements of other works of science fiction and manages to create something new and interesting. The tone is Gibson at his finest, complete with a dystopian glimpse of the future and terrific characters.
The novel’s world is described in split timelines: one is a world inhabited by former special ops, ex-Marine, Burton Fisher and his sister, Flynne Fisher. Burton Fisher – a former high-tech recon Special Forces soldier – suffers from haptic feedback issues, his nervous system severely altered by the military’s advanced technology. He lives in a 1970s trailer with his sister Flynne. She, like Cayce Pollard of Pattern Recognition, has a strong sense of self. Yet, although she’s in her twenties, she also possesses a unique, punk flair similar to Y.T. in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
The Peripheral is primarily about Flynne Fisher and her jarring experience in what she thinks is a virtual reality game. But there’s more to the story than what meets the eye.
With excellent pacing, it quickly becomes clear that – while the Fishers’ timeline is a slightly divergent one, heavily dystopian but extremely familiar – the second timeline is in our distant future by 70-someodd years. We also learn that this secondary timeline features characters that can send information back to the other timeline but not physically travel there. Playing off the concept of the anti-Hawking/Bernstein Information Paradox, the communication between the two timelines is the driving force of the novel. When the post-singular and near-present collide, the resulting story is really powerful.
The premier character of the second timeline is an alcoholic ex-publicist named Wilf Netherton.
Two realities clash, at its heart, a mysterious virtual murder. Wilf’s client, an actress named Daedra West, is caught in the middle of a movie shoot which rapidly turns into a military op. Her sister, Aelita West, is murdered in what appears to be a completely separate incident. Flynne, stepping in for her brother Burton during one of his VR game beta tests, is caught neck-deep in a world of futuristic intrigue.
Flynne alone is witness to Aelita’s murder.
What connection do both timelines have to each other?
How is the Fishers’ virtual world connected to Netherton’s future timeline?
Satisfying answers wait in The Peripheral. Suffice it to say that you’re in for a wild ride!
Unfortunately the first few chapters are written in an ambigous way. While Gibson is known for his trademark hip-noir style of writing, he doesn’t tell you what’s important early on. While it makes for a good mystery, I found myself having to go back and re-read chapters after I knew the answers to those mysteries. While some degree of ambigouity is common in hard sci-fi, chances are you won’t be able to appreciate the big picture until you look back on the story retrospectively.
In past Gibson novels, the author handles the initial pacing better. In Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard’s entire personality, in events prior to the novel’s start, can be summed up in the first few chapters of that novel. Her thoughts and feelings are expressed clearly. The Sprawl and Bridge Trilogies also present understandable characters from the get-go (you probably won’t know who Turner is in Count Zero initially, but within a few chapters you’ll get the drift of things). But once things get going, The Peripheral‘s pacing improves and the novel becomes a fast page turner!
The storytelling is the novel’s primary strength.
The Peripheral’s characters are better than those in previous works like Sprawl and Bridge. They’re more realistic and have personalities that are extremely real. The novel thrusts you into the action and establishes itself fairly early on. If you’re new to Gibson’s writings, you should stay the course and trust that it’ll all make sense. It’s worth it.
Without giving away too much of the story, the novel’s use of technology was reminiscent of the film Thirteenth Floor. The Peripheral has many of the same concepts and themes as that film and yet manages to be more original, better thought out. The technology in The Peripheral is great: 3d printing, the use of drones, global economics made understandable, the future of medical care, the whole concept of peripherals, are all realistic in this dark future tale.
Yet what I enjoyed the most was The Peripheral’s excellent characters.
Burton’s friends are dangerous, endearing, and funny in sarcastic ways. The author goes a long way to describe their states of mind and solidify them as living and breathing entities. An extended family for the Fishers, integral to the plot. They are self-sacrificing and strong-willed. Through its characters, The Peripheral contains the right mix of humor, action, mystery, and cool technology. Some of the characters are downtrodden and even psychotic, but they all fit the novel. They fight for each other and live as rebels on the fringes of a society gone wrong.
Flynne Fischer is an incredibly strong willed character. The younger child in a single parent household, she is the stake that keeps both her family and her town together. But she’s also heavily burdoned by her role in the story and yearns to be free. But for all her strength, Flynne fails to see her own strength and it makes The Peripheral all the more powerful.
My biggest complaint with the novel is its ending.
While The Peripheral has an understandable conclusion, it comes across as extremely rushed. Without giving too much away, the ending of The Peripheral is is too all-encompassing, omitting the sense of realism the rest of the novel bestowed upon the reader. While it isn’t terrible and doesn’t kill the story, it just wasn’t as strong as it should have been.
Another issue I had was with Burton Fisher. For such a terrific character, he was never properly developed and extremely underused. While he wasn’t the main character, it would have beeen interesting to learn more about him. He was positively a missed opportunity.
In the final analysis, The Peripheral is a terrific novel with excellent characters and a fast paced plot that hooks you early on. While it does suffer from some early pacing problems and a strange conclusion, I found the journey to be well worth it. It is without hesitation that I count this as one of my favorite Gibson novels to date.