William Gibson has become a reluctant prophet for cyberculture. Although his early work failed to imagine some technological particulars (like the smart phone), he foresaw that cyberspace—a term he coined—would soon colonize our imaginations and daily experiences. Despite his ambivalent representations of technological change, his work became something of a guiding vision not only for cyberpunk writers but also for those who built the foundations of our contemporary world of social media, digital gaming, and online commerce. It has become axiomatic to say that Gibson writes about the present as if it were the future: he excels at pinpointing where change is emerging and capturing this transformation in evocative prose. Gibson’s imagined futures of corporate control, ubiquitous computing, and the collapse of virtual and material realms into one another have increasingly become our daily experience in the 30 years since Neuromancer. And it is perhaps no coincidence that during this time Gibson has set his novels closer and closer to the present.
Gibson’s latest work, The Peripheral, on the other hand, has been hailed as his “return” to science fiction. It links characters from a near future, 10 or 15 years on, with others who exist another 70 years later. The two connect via a mysterious server—possibly Chinese, though its origin and purpose are never revealed—that allows both information and money to pass between the temporal realms. Those in the near future—the heroine Flynne Fisher; her brother Burton, a retired soldier on disability; and Connor, another injured veteran—experience this connection as immersion in a digital gaming environment. Those in the far future call this virtual environment a “stub” and treat it as a game as well, one among the many venues that afford escape into digital worlds. The plot gets going when Flynne agrees to beta test what she thinks is a drone simulation, only to become the sole witness to a real crime in the future.
As it turns out, the future is grim indeed. Between Flynne’s time and the distant future lies “the jackpot”—a prolonged series of economic, environmental, viral, and extinction catastrophes that kill 80 percent of Earth’s human population. Through the digital environment, Flynne and her compatriots dimly glimpse the impending transformations that will leave the world in the hands of powerful oligarchs. It is in this bleak future that we meet Wilf Netherton, a London publicist with ties to rich businessmen and to a black market economy that traffics in the digital past. Through the mysterious virtual game, Flynne soon gets embroiled with Wilf and others in the far future as she struggles to avoid government agents and to save her family in the present.
This is not time travel but something more like alternate realities. Gibson quickly dispenses with all the paradoxes of time travel by having his characters reassure one another that the very fact of contact has created a branch in the temporal continuum, so that this past (or future) is no longer the past (or future). Time travel, even if it’s only information that travels across time, is new territory for Gibson, and with this conceit he asks us to think about the futures we actively make. The branched stub means that there is nothing deterministic about the relationship between present and future—in Gibson’s world, the point is to consciously shape that future. The novel is about avoiding the ways technology has contributed to the jackpot and finding solutions that can ameliorate its effects.
Given the novel’s emphasis on virtuality, comparisons with Neuromancer are inevitable. Both are thrillers enhanced by narrative focus on the new technologies that drive them; both envision dystopian worlds of human vulnerability and rapacious economics; both are concerned with the social implications of human fusion with machines. The “jacking-in” of the cyberspace cowboys of Neuromancer, who fused their consciousness directly with virtual realities through neural implants, is reimagined in this book as the uploading of human consciousness into “peripherals” in the far future (peripherals being synthetic bodies made from human DNA). These peripherals are often enhanced and much more evolved than the near-future’s haptic technology, which has extended drone functions to control soldiers as well as vehicles (Flynne’s brother Burton was injured while working as a military drone).
Differences from Neuromancer are instructive too: the earlier novel’s hacker-heroes risked neurological damage but did their “runs” as outsiders gaming the system, rebels who viewed their cyberdecks as extensions of their agency. Burton and his friends, however, fuse with machines and become cannon fodder, their bodies as disposable as the lab-grown peripherals. Cyberspace cowboys were outsiders to a corporate system but their skills gave them status; Burton and Connor, on the other hand, must risk military service, since their only other economic option is to work in the illicit drug trade by 3D-printing new chemicals.
Gibson has long insisted that he is not a prescriptive writer. His role is to ask questions about the impact of technology on human lives, not to provide blueprints for the future. So what questions does The Peripheral ask? A clue, I think, lies in the title: the book is named not for Flynne but for the technological physical avatar that allows her to inhabit the future, described as genetically human, “for the most part,” and also “a very considerable piece of property” (emphasis added). Gibson is clear that dehumanization is caused by economic systems, not technological ones.
Those in the future control
the past not by changing key historical events but by controlling the flows of capital.
While Gibson’s fiction has always suggested that cyberspace is the realm of economic transactions—he first used the term in “Burning Chrome,” a story about virtual robbery—most of his work has focused on other implications of cyber-reality: the birth of artificial intelligence in the Sprawl trilogy; the emergence of a digital entity into material space in the Bridge trilogy; and the conflation of cyber and virtual space in the augmented reality of the Blue Ant trilogy. In the world of The Peripheral, however, the economic implications of cyber-technology are visible everywhere.
Although life is more comfortable for people in the far future, they refer to their government as “the klept,” for kleptocracy, a system based on openly corrupt rule (literally, “rule by thieves”). Among the reasons their lives are more comfortable is that there are fewer people after the massive die-off. It becomes clear that those most likely to survive the jackpot were those with the wealth and privilege to insulate themselves from the consequences of the breakdown of civil society, of the kind that we see in Flynne’s time and in our own. The fact that Flynne and her friends refer to agents of Homeland Security as “Homes”—with hints of gangster slang—is only one of the ways Gibson encourages us to see the current regime as a kleptocracy. So the question becomes, how can we nurture all the cool technology that will give us nanotech cities and restored-from-extinction thylacine pets without requiring that 80 percent of the world’s population die in the meantime?
Part of the answer, the novel suggests, is to look past technological development to the economic machine beneath. Flynne and her allies, after all, refer to their contacts from the far future as “adventure capitalists,” because they control events in the stub through the economy, “an invisible two party world war, but economic,” fought at the level of equity. That is, those in the future control the past not by changing key historical events, as in the familiar subgenre of alternative history, but rather by controlling the flows of capital. Two factions from the future compete via “two different anomalous proliferations of subsecond extreme events in the market,” accumulating through such trading the wealth they need to manipulate events on a macro scale. It is not that the “reality” (as we typically understand this term) of the past changes, but rather that, invisibly to most people, its economic foundation changes, at times favoring one faction and at times the other.
The genius of Gibson’s vision here is how it reminds us that we already live with a kind of economic time-travel—that algorithms and derivatives of our speculative economy are consuming future value in our present, a heady fusion of reality and science fiction. With its focus not on the self-aware Artificially Intelligent entities that dominated science fiction in the 1990s, but on the “predatory trading algorithms” of our economic present and future, Gibson again shows us where we are headed, but this time he asks us to consider another path. Neuromancer offered no predictions for what might happen once sentient technology escapes human control, telling us merely, “things are things.” A character in The Peripheral does note that “it is … what it is,” but she adds that when people say this, it’s to her “unending annoyance.” The Peripheral ably shows Gibson’s capacity to crystallize the present in the idiom of science fiction, and suggests that it is time for a different future.