If any writer defined our collective nerd future and made computing cool it was William Gibson. As accessible as Raymond Carver and imaginatively dark as Philip Pullman, Gibson made it easy to dip into a continuum that every future IT department drone could understand. Rather than giving us flying cars and robo-dragons, Gibson pulled all of our current technologies out like candy, expanding amazing devices like Space Shuttles, the ISS, and the Atari 800XL into a dark and cool future. And, most importantly, he made hackers cool.
Now he’s back with a doozy of a taffy-pull, The Peripheral. I’ll say this to fans: if you missed or sat out Gibson in his latest Blue Ant trilogy, this is the Gibson of the Bridge Trilogy and, to some degree, the Sprawl Trilogy. Gibson has all brought it all back home.
First, a bit of plot. The heroine here is Flynne Fisher, a girl living in rust bucket south that I suspect is an analog for the writer’s ancestral home of South Carolina, a place that will be familiar to those who read “Dogfight” in Burning Chrome. She takes over for her PTSD-damaged brother during what appears to be a pro gaming raid and witnesses what she assumes is a virtual murder. Thinking she is beta testing a game set in a Future London, she interacts with her “boss,” one Wilf Netherton hiding behind a fake TV screen lit by a single blue LED.
In reality Fisher lives in a “stub,” a break in the time-space continuum that allows Netherton and his rich friends in the real Future London to colonize the past. They hire humans, called polts, in these breaks to do odd jobs – namely run security for big name performance artists and dignitaries. You see, Wilf and his friends survived the jackpot, a species-changing event that turned us humans from monkeys skittering in the dust into enlightened, symbiotic beings. But Fisher saw a real murder while she was playing the game and Wilf needs to figure out whodunit.
The story runs far and fast from there. A murder mystery that spans centuries is hard to pull off but Gibson can do it, even if you can faintly recognize some of his pet tropes from previous books. If this is your first Gibson book don’t get put off by the first few pages. Gibson immerses you in a new patois and jargon in every book and once you’re past the initial shock (“Who is this Homes?” you’ll ask. It’s Homeland Security.) you’ll do fine.
William Gibson is writing our history and pointing towards our future. More than any sci-fi writer, it’s clear that Gibson goes to Maker Faires and talks to fans who, in turn, share what they expect the next five minutes to look like. By crimping that future at a set point – giving Fisher’s brother an army of ex-Marine friends who use drones as perimeter management tools and giving the power in her small town to “builders,” folks who 3D print drugs – we are firmly rooted in the potential present. Then, by flinging us into Future London, we see a world that baffles and enlightens Gibson and so should baffle and enlighten us. Thankfully he’s an excellent storyteller and The Peripheral is some of his best work.