by Alex King
When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.” – Neuromancer
To most, William Gibson is the father of cyberpunk. He may not be the first author out of the gate with a story, but it was his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, which set the sci-fi world on fire and ushered in the age of the hacker as hero.
Three trilogies, and two decades later, Gibson offers his latest work, The Peripheral. Ostensibly a time-travel story, Gibson’s return to science fiction is as much a sharp and pointed commentary on the world today as any of his previous works.
Science fiction has long been a source of commentary about the present, from War of the Worlds, and its commentary of the ravages of European colonialism, to Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s commentary on the nature of organized religion and society. When Gibson writes of the future, though, he doesn’t wear the mantle of a seer. Rather, he uses his spare prose and fanciful descriptions to create a story that invites the reader to imagine as their own.
“One thing I wanted particularly to look at,” says Gibson in a recent interview on The Verge, “was how we culturally view the past and the people in the past and how we culturally view the future and the people in the future.”
Gibson’s writing is not meant for the lazy reader, as The Peripheral begins without a lot of exposition. Indeed, the core mystery of the story, that of the relationship between Flynne Fisher and Wilf Netherton, the protagonists, unfolds so slowly and carefully that the fact that they exist in two completely different points in time goes unrevealed until several chapters into the book.
Gibson falls back on many of his original stand byes for much of this story: a plucky female protagonist, a male lead who’s consistently in over his head, fanciful concepts and gadgetry, and sharp, snappy dialogue riffs. But Gibson falls short of his own original standards here. Flynne, the female protagonist, is no Molly, Cayce, or Chevette. Where they were smart, sassy, and strong, she stumbles through each situation seemingly unaware of what’s going on around her. Indeed, entire chapters are spent filling her in on what just happened while she wasn’t watching.
Wilf, a drunken, washed-up PR specialist, in future where an edgy artist needs to flay herself alive for attention, could possible serve as a brilliant comic foil, were there any comedy. He seems to mainly serve as the whipping boy for Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, a police detective who fills the roll of Hubertus Bigend in Gibson’s future London. Both characters are larger than life, and operate with questionable motives and morals. But, where Lowbeer fails to fill Bigend’s impeccably cobbled shoes, her only interesting feature an unexpected fondness for scented candles.
Die hard Gibson fans, such as this writer, will read The Peripheral simply because of Gibson, but will be left wanting. In a year that’s seen so many powerful new entries to the sci-fi writing genre, The Peripheral is, at best, a tepid, frustrating return to the future by a former genre master.