Science fiction, as a rule, is relatively easy to create, yet nigh impossible to master. Crafting a cybernetic dystopian future rooted in elements of our own present requires a tight balance of narrative risks with a sense of humanity that keeps the story moving forward. William Gibson doesn’t quite succeed at accomplishing both in his latest novel The Peripheral, but it still sings as a sci-fi thriller with a bitter commentary on America’s dissonant present.
Depicting timelines on either side of a world-ending economic and ecological collapse known as “the jackpot”, gamer Flynne Fisher is covering a beta-testing security shift for her ex-Marine brother when she witnesses what she thinks is a gruesome murder—a gruesome form of nanotech chainsaws in a digital landscape. In a depopulated London decades post-jackpot, Wilf Netherton is caught unawares when his latest client‘s sister disappears. The resulting investigation kicks Gibson’s narrative into higher gear as Flynne, allowed across time lines by use of a “peripheral“, a kind of anthropomorphized drone, proves to be exactly the savvy, principled ally that enigmatic Detective Ainsley Lowbeer has been looking for. If the mechanics of time-travel are sometimes murky, the stakes are crystal clear when Flynne reaches out from Wilf’s past to alter her own future.
Details and description are scarce early on in the novel, but serves to the lively pace of the first 100 pages or so, acting as a prologue of sorts to the action that comes later. Gibson paints a portrait of a not-so-distant America where the government can’t take care of its poorest people, and just about everyone in America, outside of its top 1 percent, could be considered its poorest. It’s a devastatingly familiar scene: Disability checks struggle to cover health-care costs for vets, and jobs, especially legal ones, are hard to come by. The imagery in this section is inspired, but the frustratingly stuffy prose suffocates and poignant insights.
Still, at least these earlier portions carry some thematic weight and attempt to transplant current cultural anxieties around war and economics into a futuristic world. The time-travel details aren’t necessarily an issue—any time-travel fiction struggles to keep its science and narrative straight—but the unimaginative plot is. It wastes the momentum Gibson builds early on, especially as the narrative arrives at its emotionally safe conclusion that’s far removed from any of the challenging ideas presented at the novel’s beginning.
The novel’s saving grace, however, is that Flynne Fisher is a difficult, complex protagonist and one of the more engaging and vivid personalities Gibson has ever written. She brings energy and spontaneity to an otherwise rigid story. Not unlike the drones of the book’s title, there is something human within the pages of Gibson’s novel, but it ultimately takes a backseat to the mechanical heart of the story itself.