The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral

– By Jacob Foxx –

William Gibson, author of the first cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, offers up a sophisticated, twisted tale of murder, time travel, humanoid robot interface, nanno-swarms, assemblers, invisible cars, and deadly drones. The Peripheral is surprisingly original with a fascinating twist on time travel fiction. The story is long and a little convoluted, but worth it in the end.

Flynne Fisher is the younger sister of a veteran scarred from his years as a “Haptic” in the Marines Corps, a highly specialized electronic warfare unit. She substitutes for him on an odd job beta-testing a new online game. In the game, she witnesses a bizarre murder but thinks nothing of it. The problem is it is not a game. She witnessed a real murder not in her own time but seventy years in the future in a parallel timeline. To silence her, forces from the future are coming to her rundown, rural town to kill her.

There is a massive number of futuristic innovations that will fascinate readers. Wilf Netherton, a publicist from the future, is able to communicate with Flynne in the past in real-time thanks to a mysterious server connection, in other words, time travel via the internet. Both points experience time the same way, a minute here is a minute there. The two also inhabit parallel timelines, hence Wilf doesn’t know what will happen to Flynne once he has intervened in her timeline and caused it to diverge with its own set of events. The cyberpunk twist on time travel was definitely a new one for me.

Another important innovation is the titular peripheral. A peripheral is an incredibly realistic artificial body that one can inhabit remotely. The future sends the necessary technical information back allowing Flynne to link with a peripheral in the future and walk around 22nd century London. She explains what she saw, becoming the prime witness in a high profile murder mystery.

There are genetic modifications allowing for split eye pupils, night vision, neurally integrated email and Skype, and engineered pets. Security technology advances allow cars to move about with a cloaking device like Predator. Guns don’t fire bullets but swarms of nannobots that consume the target then deactivate. 3D Printers allow Flynne and her friends to fabricate all the parts and equipment necessary to communicate and move about with their future allies, all while avoiding their enemies trying to kill them in both times.

I read plenty of science fiction but many of the technologies in The Peripheral were new to me. This alone, made it worth picking up.

Readers be warned: The Peripheral is not an easy read. At 500 pages the book is long and has plenty of tedious detail into what life may be like in the near future (Flynne’s time) and the far future (Wilf’s time). The beginning is a difficult march through neologisms, unusual sentence structures, and a narration that assumes you already know what’s going on. The book also has numerous digressions, which stretch the novel out well past what was needed for the story.

Gibson’s commitment to world-building and technical supremacy is admirable but I felt at times he short-changed the basic building blocks of a story, namely plot and character development. While the main characters Flynne, her brother, and Wilf, are very well-developed, the rest seem to be nothing more than role-players with very little to offer. Their emotional detachment and simple dialogue made them one-dimensional, despite their interesting physical traits.

Flynne is a true tomboy. She is foul-mouthed, completely unrefined, and largely treated as “one of the guys.” Her appearance is never clearly described but I got the impression she was cute but preferred wearing jeans and men’s shirts. In fact, Gibson stayed true to the character and kept any romantic intrigue in its proper place. There is no cliché love triangle or even the hint of one.

Wilf is unconvincing as the tortured soul with a drinking problem. The inner turmoil stems from his horror at the new world, one that narrowly survived an apocalyptic fall due to climate change and several deadly pandemics. Wilf never articulates why he is miserable other than to say “the world sucks.” Not exactly the most moving insight.

The technology of The Peripheral is worth the read and has a very direct impact on the characters. The book is a little long but manageable for devoted readers. For fans of cyberpunk, it is a great read. For other sci-fi fans there is plenty to like but there are also areas you will very much want to skip over.