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review 2016-05-29 23:30
"The Peripheral" by William Gibson
The Peripheral - William Gibson


In most science fiction, the future is a glamour (even when it's a gritty cyber-punk glamour) filled with almost-magical technologies that promise to make the world a different, usually better, place.


William Gibson is a master at casting these glamours, tempting us with not-quite-fantastic extensions of current cutting-edge technologies and dazzling us with intricate social forms that support technology-enabled life-styles that seem to be without constraint. 


I am fascinated by his work because, although the glamours are vivid and novel, he invites his readers to see beyond them and understand that the fundamentals of what people do and why they do them remain constant. Gibson's technologies and ecologies are plausible enough to be tempting speculations but his people, especially his women, are real enough to make you care what happens to them.


"The Peripheral", published in 2014, was Gibson's first science fiction novel this century. In it he offers us not one but two future times, connected by a mysterious technology that allows people in the two time streams to connect via a telepresence called Peripherals.


The first future is set in a poor town in West Virginia, in the not too distant future, where people are doing what they can to turn a buck, knowing that they're being screwed but powerless to change it. In this world, Flynne, one of the strongest and coolest female characters I've seen in a long time, covers for her brother on a job that's supposed to be testing a game but ends up witnessing a very real-seaming and vicious crime in somewhere far away.


The somewhere far away is a future London, seventy years ahead of Flynne's time. The people there are either rich and ruthless or rich and bored. In both cases they are rich and extremely dangerous. Flynne becomes a bridge between the two worlds and ends up in danger in both.


I won't go into the plot here. If you'd like a summary, here's a better one than I can provide. I want to talk about the impact the book has on me.


I found myself pondering the title. What, in this novel, is The Peripheral? Of course it refers to the tele-presence technology that allows people to be present when their bodies are somewhere else. I think it also refers to how the people in London, see the people in West Virginia, as peripheral to their own existence, on the boundary of the real. Extending that, it made me think that all futures and perhaps pasts, are peripheral. They pull the eye away from the now, which is where reality is happening. 


Then I asked myself what Flynne sees as being peripheral and the answer is almost everything that doesn't directly affect the welfare of her and her people. She understand how screwed they all are and how little power they have and she doesn't expect that to change. When wealth appears to arrive, she treats it with suspicion. When she meets the powerful, she is not seduced. She recognises them as predators and tries not to become prey.


In my day-to-day life, I'm paid to imaging the impact of technology on commerce: digitalisation, the Internet of Things, Social Media and so on, so I enjoyed watching William Gibson imagining the world where 3D printing is so commoditised that even a strip mall in Nowhere West Virgina has a local fabrication to order outlet, and the idea of weaponing haptic technology to direct soldiers in combat )making them another form of peripheral and so on. Yet what I enjoyed most was that none of this technology made anything better. The poor are still poor and the powerful will always screw them over.


What makes "The Peripheral"  grown-up science fiction isn't the pretty technology but the depth of the society using the technology. The folks in West Virginia have parents and siblings and social affiliations that mean things to them. They are people first and protagonists in an SF novel second.


I think the ending of "The Peripheral" may cause some people problems. It seems to me that Gibson's books have a tendency to stop rather than end. I think this reflects real life, where all endings are artificial to some extent but I understand that some readers may feel short-changed.


In this case, I rather like the inconclusiveness  of the ending. Did they all live happily ever after? Does anybody? Ever?


I think Flynne ended the book financially better off but knowing that her world was hurtling towards hurt that she can't avoid. This was no surprise to her. You take the money when it comes your way and you hope for the best but you know the worst is much more likely. No amount of technology is going to change that.


If you're interested in William Gibson's views on "The Peripheral", take a look a this interview with Flavorwire and this one with The Guardian.


If you'd like to hear an extract from "The Peripheral" click on the SoundCloud link below.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/193077522" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

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review 2016-04-21 06:01
The Peripheral: Or, Gibson's meditation on potential futures and string theory
The Peripheral - William Gibson

It's difficult for me to know how to go about reviewing a book like this. I've read Gibson before, and this has sort of cemented my feelings on his writing. Gibson, at least in my opinion, is an amazing idea guy. I have to admire his ability to visualize possible futures, the way he can think tech and social systems forward, and how he is able to deftly theorize about paradigm shifts, patterns, and structures. He's an extremely clever man. What he isn't, again - at least in my opinion, is a good storyteller.


To say this book dumps you in the deep end right from the start isn't necessarily a problem, but it's compounded by Gibson's writing style - the fact that he jumps back and forth between timelines, and POV characters, without indicators (or often even pronouns) means the book gets off to a choppy start. When you read dozens and dozens of pages and all you can say for certain is, "These are all good words, arranged together in some sort of fashion..." that's asking a lot of your readers. Some people will be a fan of this. I unfortunately was not.


Once the story started to take shape and a rhythm emerged, such as it is, the book still had problems for me. His characters can usually be summed up as people who do certain things or have certain skill sets, while their personalities and motivations languish on the sideline (if they are addressed at all). The plot in this book in particular is hung together so loosely that upon deeper scrutiny it fell apart entirely. Which is a problem as Gibson's work invites scrutiny. Having so many interesting ideas hanging on a conceit of having someone visually ID a murderer, in a world where people can change their appearances radically and routinely borrow bodies, is thinner than thin.


But the ideas, right? Such brilliant and interesting ideas. Such visions of the future, speculation about global trends, and leaps in technology. This is why Gibson made a name for himself, and why he remains relevant. I will likely never be a fan of his work, but I do respect it. Mostly I just wish his ability to think forward was accompanied by a stronger sense of storytelling and not just world building.

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review 2015-10-26 20:07
[Book Review] The Peripheral
The Peripheral - William Gibson

Rather late review for the September Speculative Fiction read.

The Peripheral could be considered a successor to Stephenson's Snow Crash, with it's blurring of lines between meat space and cyber space.  The country and economy as we know it isn't quite there, with business and money carving new territories, fabbing and building consuming the manufacturing infrastructure, and a blending of internet and virtual reality.  Instead of a hacker samauri and a skatergirl we have a veterans with PTSD and amputations, a younger sister with a knack for virtual reality, and money from the future playing its own game.

Discussion Fodder:

  • Did the characters make a Faustian bargain (regardless of the lottery involvement or not)?  Who's the devil in this story?
  • Who and what in the story is real?
  • Do the actions in Flynne's time and Netherton's time actually have no effect on each other's future/past?  By the nature of the forking into alternate continuas, do you think there are multiple Flynnes/Burtons/Conners etc?  What do you think happens when one alternate ends?  What about Griff/Lowbeer?  What would be the impetus to interact with continua?
  • What do you think of the peripherals?  The fact that "At the cellular level, as human as we are"?
  • Janice describes Flynne as a good person, regardless of what trouble she's gotten herself into, because "you are not doing this crazy shit, whatever it is, in order to make yourself rich," but to benefit others. 
  • What do you think constitutes an "evolved culture of mass surveillance"?
  • What do you think about Flynne bringing Conner in to a peripheral ahead of Burton?  Is access to a peripheral a kindness or a cruelty to Conner?
  • "The Jackpot" refers to a sort of rolling event or "climate" where things just get worse to the point of gradual collapse, then die-off, and a climbing out as discoveries and innovation provide the glue to hold society together.  How realistic or far-fetched does it sound to you?
  • When asked what he does, what people do in the future, Wilf responds with "Publicity."  Does that summarize what people seem to do in his time?  What about in our time?
  • Do you think that after everything they managed to "save" the continua stub that Flynne lives in?  Or do you think they're still headed to the Jackpot?
Source: libromancersapprentice.blogspot.com/2015/10/book-review-peripheral.html
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