I’m pretty sure when William Gibson sits down to start a new novel, he says, out loud, “And now, for my next trick…” The Blue Ant trilogy must have been a tough act to follow, but Gibson follows it, all right, in style. In The Peripheral (2014), he maintains the evocative prose, street-smart characters, and futuristic gloss of his best work, but widens his scope and raises the stakes by integrating classic SFnal tropes like alternate worlds and time travel. He handles them like a master, and injects them with a new kind of life.
In the hardscrabble near future of the rural US, Flynne Fisher is a young woman just trying to get by and take care of her sick mother. The local economy is dominated by drug builders, but Flynne ekes out her living working for a shoestring 3D fabricating outfit, and operating game-world avatars for rich online benefactors. Her troubles begin as she’s operating a dronecopter in a strange virtual future she assumes is a game. There, she witnesses a disturbing murder, but soon comes to learn that not only was what she saw real, but it took place in London, seventy years in the future. In this future era the ability to send information through time has become commonplace, and “continua enthusiasts” build their own pocket universes by tweaking the past, which spawns new timelines. Flynne’s situation has been caused by the lovestruck fumbling of a publicist named Wilf Netherton. Inadvertantly, his actions led to Flynne witnessing the murder, a sighting that embroils her – and everyone she knows – in an intense power struggle between rivals in a ruthless future.
The Peripheral is a dazzling feat of alternating timelines, the story slinging the reader back and forth through time to two distinctly different futures separated by a dark, dystopic cataclysm called “the jackpot.” And the narrative legerdemain gets even more advanced when the protagonists start visiting each other via remote-operated “peripherals” that they control, virtually, across a seventy-year information channel. This is big concept SF sense of wonder, writ large, but Gibson grounds it all with his usual visionary grit and a cast of rough-and-tumble, angling characters, including the remarkable Ainsley Lowbeer – a brilliantly manipulative investigator from the future track who impacts boths protagonists’ lives. And she’s just one of many mysterious figures that lends this remarkable skiffy backdrop the complicated spy-fiction intrigue that characterizes Gibson’s later work.
The early pages of The Peripheral may be a smidge off-putting, as Gibson dunks us immediately into the unfamiliar nomenclature and complex worldbuilding of his dual-tracked story. But as the pages advance, the components slot into place and the machine starts humming. Occasionally the prose meanders to explore its worlds, but the plot-advancing beats come along at just the right times to propel everything toward the book’s exciting climax – and its even more satisfying denouement. The Peripheral pushed all my buttons, and it’s another triumph for Gibson.