The Peripheral

by Henry Farrell on January 22, 2015

Attention conservation notice: A blogpost on the William Gibson book of the same name, with copious spoilers. At the very best, it presents a crudely simplified reading of one skein of the book, without any of the ambiguity and negative capability stuff that makes the novel fun. At worst, it’s both boring and completely wrong.

I just finished reading William Gibson’s The Peripheral (Powells, Amazon) yesterday. It’s his best for some time; maybe, depending on your druthers, the best novel that he’s ever written. It doesn’t have the shock value of Neuromancer (which blew my mind when I read it at the age of fifteen, in a small provincial town in Ireland). However, it’s a much better novel. The Sprawl books are all opaque and dazzling mirrorshades – the surfaces of high-gloss people reflecting the surfaces of high-gloss objects that reflect the surfaces of high-gloss people. The not-quite-science-fiction novels he was writing for a while take the givens of the Sprawl books as a problem, engaging in a kind of archeology of objects and brand names, and how they reflect both the vast systems around us and our individual desires. I like them (they combine the intelligence of Don DeLillo with much of the warmth of Philip K. Dick), but I like his short book of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor even better (it’s a book full of insights, which, like Borges’ version of Kafka, generates its own predecessors). The Peripheral returns to science fiction – but a science fiction that very clearly reflects present day concerns.

Gibson presents two timelines – one sort-of-nearish future, one several decades out again. They’re connected in some science fictional way that is never explained. The people in the further future are somehow able to access the past timeline (maybe the past timeline is a simulation so good that it’s effectively real; maybe it’s a parallel universe; nobody knows or seems to care, particularly).[^fnote] Physical contact between the two universes is impossible, but quite sophisticated forms of information can go back and forth, allowing people from the further future timeline to intervene in what used to be their past (as soon as they start intervening, the past starts to develop along a different path than the one that they know, becoming partly unpredictable).

What’s interesting is not the technology (which isn’t even a macguffin), but the uses that it’s put to. Gibson acknowledges the influence of Bruce SterlingBruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s short story, “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” which depicts a future that colonizes past timelines as a resource. I would guess that Paul McAuley’s criminally under-appreciated Cowboy Angels (in which an America on one timeline effectively colonizes and exploits other versions of itself in other timelines; our timeline is called the “Nixon sheaf”) is another significant influence (McAuley is thanked as an advance reader in Gibson’s acknowledgments). But Gibson doesn’t want to pursue the general questions of cultural appropriation that Sterling and Shiner’s story talks about, or the Cold War politics of McAuley’s book. He wants, I think, to talk about the relationship between the 99% and the 1%, using science fiction to turn the social relationships that Piketty and Saez talk about into a kind of ontology.

The farther future is one in which the 1% has won and become a global ruling class. A set of events called the “Jackpot” (a combination of environmental, technological and social failures) has led to most of humanity dying off. The results of the jackpot were rigged by the usual structural inequalities; those who were already rich and well connected were likely to survive; while those who weren’t so privileged mostly disappeared. This future is dominated by “klepts” (kleptocratic clans), the guilds of the City of London and the like, with the remnants of the state serving not as a restraint on the powerful but as an artifice for balancing between them (the politics is out of Engels via Poulantzas, with perhaps a touch of Wallerstein embedded in the pun in the book’s title). There may be ordinary people in this future, but we don’t see much of them; all that we do see are the powerful and their higher servants (who have privileges, but only on the sufferance of those greater than they).

The nearer future timeline is set in a rural America where the real economy has collapsed, leaving people to survive making illicit drugs and working dead end jobs for homeland security (America’s comparative advantage turns out to be in meth, not music, coding and pizza-delivery). In this timeline, we don’t see the 1%, although they’re there in the background. Instead we see the kind of people who are about to be left behind and perish in the Jackpot.

Hence, the science fictional trick of The Peripheral, which is to turn the separation between the 1% and the 99% into a metaphor of physics (or, perhaps, information). The two literally live in different universes. They can perceive each other; they can act on each other to some degree (through proxies enabled by the exchange of information); they cannot physically touch each other. The rural America timeline is a curiosity owned by a minor member of a kleptocratic clan. A few people in it become significant by accident – one of them is operating a remote security drone in the further future timeline, and witnesses an important murder. A group of people who were peripheral, who were, indeed, toys, become important for a short period of time.

The result is a dark comedy, played with a very straight face. Two different factions start manipulating the entire world economy of the past timeline in order either to kill or to protect a tiny group of individuals in a small and depressed corner of rural America. One of these factions certainly seems nicer than the other (although that’s in doubt at some points in the narrative), but it’s not at all clear that its interventions will work out well in the longer run. At best, it’s acting like a Western aid organization in Somalia, trying to improve things a little, profoundly disrupting local economic and power relations simply by virtue of being there, and hoping that the goodies it brings will be used for socially beneficial purposes and not to enable ‘technicals’.

The novel finishes with something that plausibly resembles a happy ending for the individuals involved – complete disaster is averted, friendships are maintained across the barriers between the twin universes, and a few sympathetic poor people become rich and powerful. There are relationships, and one pregnancy. But the bigger story is one in which nothing really changes. Perhaps the Jackpot (which is a lovely metaphor for the arbitrary-but-not-random rigged game through which people become or don’t become members of the elite) won’t be quite as painful, thanks to the intervention of benign overlords from the future. Even so, the one universe is still a toy of someone in the other. With less benign owners, things would be very different. The world depicted in The Peripheral is one where the best we can hope for is that our masters will be motivated by paternalism or benign neglect. That’s not an especially hopeful vision.

[^fnote]: Although you could read bits of the novel as hinting that the further future timeline is itself some class of a simulation. One of the characters in the further future thread is an Irishman with the ostentatiously bogus name of Ossian, who quotes Flann O’Brien’s metafictional At Swim-Two-Birds.

[Minor edits made to tidy up grammar, eliminate solecisms etc]



TheSophist 01.22.15 at 6:30 pm

I’ll agree with Henry’s fulsome praise for the book, which I enjoyed thoroughly. High, high marks for both fun and thoughtprovokingness. One question for the discussion to ensue – how spoilery do those of us who’ve read it get to be (there’s a couple of things I really want to say but am not sure that I should)?

With regard to the time “travel” – my working assumption throughout (which i’m more than ready to have corrected by those wiser) was that neither reality was a simulation, but that only information could travel between the two – matter could not. (Yes, I realize that, at core, it’s probably true that information is matter, but that’s the distinction I am going with.)

Oh, and really looking forward to the discussion…


speranza 01.22.15 at 6:37 pm

This is a peripheral (sorry!) point, not meant to distract from the societal relationships sketched above, which I also took to be the book’s central concern. But since you mention metafiction… I couldn’t help noticing that in the mechanism of projecting one’s consciousness into a peripheral (the local name in the book for the proxies you mention, a sort of android avatar) Gibson had hit on a particularly vivid way of illustrating or mirroring the relationship between the reader and the fictional character into whose point of view we project ourselves in the act of reading.


Henry 01.22.15 at 6:38 pm

Given that there’s a spoiler warning above the fold, and plenty of spoilers within the post, I think that anything’s fair game. Besides, the book’s been out for a bit, and it’s clearly a very good book to think with.


Lasker 01.22.15 at 6:46 pm

Brilliant review, can’t wait until my friends finish reading so I can share it with them.

Though I have only read about half of Gibson’s novels, I too thought that this was his best since Neuromancer. The prose was not as striking as Neuromancer(though perhaps I have just become accustomed to it) and the pleasures of his futurism are a little bit more abstract and intellectual here compared to the spell cast by the Sprawl series. But that is a matter of kind, not of degree. If it is less intoxicating, it is on some levels more satisfying. He as said he does not intend to write another trilogy and will not be returning to this world, but there are so many interesting possibilities and avenues left largely unexplored that it certainly seems like he could. His usual weaknesses of plot and to lesser extent, characterization are apparent in The Peripheral as well but in the face of a vision of the future as entertaining and thought provoking as this it seems ungrateful to complain.

The very tidy “Everybody gets married” ending struck me as strange, but perhaps that was just Gibson’s way of ironically highlighting the artificiality of events in the earlier timeline given all of the meddling from the future.


bob mcmanus 01.22.15 at 6:47 pm

“Year of the Jackpot” is an old Heinlein story which appears relevant.


Richard B. 01.22.15 at 7:13 pm

“Mozart in Mirrorshades” was written by Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling. Not just by Bruce Sterling.


Rich Puchalsky 01.22.15 at 8:10 pm

I haven’t read this book yet, but I’ve written a good deal about related subjects:

Cyberpunk’s core failure: having to take government seriously

Ontological relationships between the 99% and 1% (a piece about Adam Roberts’ book Polystom


Dave Seidel 01.22.15 at 8:43 pm

My speculative interpretation of the mysterious MacGuffin-server that allows the post-Jackpot world to interact with the pre-Jackpot world: the post-Jackpot world is also a stub, and the MacGuffin-server was handed down to them for some reason by actors further downstream. After all, there’s nothing to say that we can’t have stubs nested within stubs (if that’s the correct metaphor).


Jeff B. 01.22.15 at 8:47 pm

Great review. One thing that struck me was the wonderful double entendre of the title. The Peripheral is the construct that allows communication, it is in essence an empty shell that is under the command of another. The “peripheral” characters, the rural american ones, serve the save purpose to the future characters. Read in that way, the story becomes much darker and a much more acute attack on socioeconomic class separation. It also puts a much more condescending spin on the seemingly “happy” finale, painting it in an almost “let the lesser folk have their quaint moments of happiness, it keeps them placated” light. I also agree, it could very well be his best book.


speranza 01.22.15 at 8:58 pm

The ending, to me, feels like it contains a bit of a wink at Gibson’s reputation for being a bit of a softy in his final chapters — this one definitely reads to me like a micro happy ending against a macro backdrop of only slightly mitigated horror, which viewed from even farther out is just one local variation in a landscape of who knows how many very bad endings indeed.


WHM 01.22.15 at 9:06 pm

I think strange is the right word to use in relation to the ending. My reaction to it was this:

What’s fascinating about The Peripheral in relation to our (my) expectations of Gibson’s fiction is that he lets go of some of the cool-ness we had come to expect from him. There’s a strange tenderness to how he seems to feel about the characters (or at least how the implied author feels). I’m not sure if I completely buy it. I’m not sure if Gibson has changed those things that drive his authorial persona. Or to put it more grandiose: is he really that optimistic? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t trust that ending. But it has changed how I view the author quite a bit.

To expand on that:

I think the happy ending is very much part of the devastating (as in: devastation happens during the course of the novel & has happened in the worlds Gibson creates and it’s almost easy to see how it projects straight out from our now) critique of the 99%/1% that Gibson is portraying. But because it’s not the surface, the cool, the fashionable of his other works, it seems warmer. And that’s confusing. Like, I couldn’t quite shake off a small sense of hope and of fuzziness, especially towards the (peripheral) relationship Wilf and Flynne develop and was all awww! with how it still exists in the end.

And then I’m thinking about the everybody gets married. Lasker notes that it could be because Gibson being ironic. I think so. But there’s also just a very blunt point that could be made that given resources and opportunity these young people who have been wasting away in a desolate America not only show mettle and initiative but also suddenly have space and desire to form unions. So an ironic happy ending, a comedy, but also the notion that resources are meaningful and can create better meaning for people.


Adam Hammond 01.22.15 at 9:29 pm

So glad you brought it up! I really enjoyed this book.

I was particularly struck by the revelation that klepts in the further future – the *really* bad ones – had been instigating wars in their toy universes and feeding them technology to innovate with in order to create new weapons. What a spectacular expression of exploitation!


K. J. Hargan 01.22.15 at 9:47 pm

Just finished it and have a couple of thoughts. Great article, by the way.

It’s only vaguely hinted at, but it’s clear to me that the Jackpot is the future communicating with the past and giving it technology it is not ready for. Much the same way the Indigenous Natives of America got so suddenly efficient at killing when given repeating rifles, only to decimate their own population. Seems like a great thing to have these shiny new toys, but then you suddenly realize there is no cultural construct to constrain them.

Secondly, the ending is rather interesting. Most of Gibson’s stories have a central hero surviving, after paying with a portion of their souls. Milgram gets off drugs so that he can be as invisible as he wants to be. Case is as free as he can be in his ultra-restrictive society. Holly becomes essentially Bigend’s minion.

I think that many readers are missing the ending. It’s not that Flynne and her bunch are in a fairy tale ending, it’s that Lev’s little test tube experiment has succeeded. The happy microbes are happy on their happy microscope slide. Even the last sentence has a kind of ironic distance that implies that Wilf is happy for the people that he knows are not real.

I might be being too cynical, but… there you go.

Great novel.


nvalvo 01.22.15 at 11:25 pm

I’m with KJH @13 on the ending: it’s as if the cost of the happy ending is the consistency of reality itself.


qole 01.23.15 at 3:09 am

One of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Everyone’s sad and/or hopeless; the rich and poor alike. Even the faintly happy ending is soaked in sadness; Wilf, I think, wishes he could be in the stub, rather than his empty future.


K. J. Hargan 01.23.15 at 5:00 am

Qole @15 brings up an interesting point. What if Mr. Gibson is making an allusion to the reality-escapism of the average novel reader with this book? Think about how involved and concerned one becomes about a literary construct.

It’s pretty similar to Wilf becoming extremely concerned about what is essentially an artificial (fictitious) person in a stub.

I don’t believe Mr. Gibson is that contemptuous of his readership, but the structure of the novel does bring up some sticky questions about author/reader relationships.


K. J. Hargan 01.23.15 at 5:17 am

After a furious debate with my wife after I had her read these comments, she insisted that I add that the emersion of a consumer in fiction can have a society-changing positive effect. For example, the movie I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang exposed that cruel practice and virtually ended that particular prison abuse overnight.

I guess the million dollar question is whether Mr. Gibson intended this novel to be that meta.


Plucky Underdog 01.23.15 at 10:48 am

Thanks, Henry. I leafed through Peripheral in the bookshop, and put it somewhere way down the queue, but your review just got it promoted. I wonder if you’ve read Greg Benford’s Timescape? An overlooked masterpiece IM-uneducated-O, and you could see it as being in the same relation to the Cold War/Apollo/Ballard/Silent Spring -era as Peripheral is to the Great Recession. Oh and yes, talking of Ballard, there’s the master’s Voices of Time to analogize with, as well. Goody goody, I’m looking forward to this.


TheSophist 01.23.15 at 4:49 pm

Was it Chris Rock who said recently that if poor folk knew how rich folk live, then there would be a revolution? One of the things that Gibson’s time travel conceit does is make a world that’s functionally equivalent to one in which the top .01% (the post-jackpot folks) are literally inaccessible to the masses (when Flynne’s there at the beginning she truly believes that she’s in a simulation – maybe the ultimate in alienated labor.) The very wealthy are separated not just spatially (and of course by means of their security) but also temporally.

Like others, I was struck by the overtness of the happy ending, and how this contrasts with his earlier work. While Case may end up wiser and wealthier, it’s also true that “he never saw Molly again”. But maybe that is a happy ending for him, whereas for Flynne and her compatriots happiness (and success) is largely measured by marriage. If so, I’m not quite sure what (if anything) Gibson is trying to say, but not quite sure that I like it in that marriage appears normative.

Also, I’m a wee bit surprised that nobody has mentioned that Gibson “started out as (a boy) of the mountains and valleys; the hills and the hollers, as folks still say, down here.” (from the Jack Womack essay in the 20th anniversary issue of Neuromancer) – that Flynne and her people are, in a very important way, Gibson’s people too.


Cephalus Max 01.24.15 at 2:04 am

Regarding the “happy” ending, here is a comment from Gibson in an interview at io9:

Another said that I had committed the most flagrant ever ridiculous happy ending. And I think there will be people who read it that way. I think it’s the two final chapters – I didn’t intend this, but they wind up being this fantastically accurate litmus test of a reader’s socio-political sophistication. If you think it’s all well and good for either of those characters when you get to the end – then give it 20 years of life experience and look at it again.

Here is the full interview:

I’m with the io9 blogger… I thought this was Gibson’s most depressing book.


Adam Roberts 01.24.15 at 1:10 pm

I feel myself to be increasingly out of step on this novel. So many people, whose opinions I genuinely respect, seem to rate it so very highly. Have to say I didn’t.


WHM 01.24.15 at 5:16 pm

I enjoyed* Gibson playing around with internet speak (see especially the chapter titles). It heightened the effect of it seeming near future, and was interesting to see it rub up against his normal cool prose. I suppose that and the characterization and the ending could all be seen as 100% ironic, but (and this, of course, may reflect my sociopolitical desires) at the same time I saw it all as pushing back/around/within the dominant .01percenter mode. As in: once information can be exchanged, there’s no long only a one-way street even if the flow from one direction is much more powerful.

*It only really works because it’s amidst his normal style and so grates in a way that I found interesting. On its own, it just grates.


Jim Vandewalker 01.24.15 at 7:26 pm

With regard to the happy ending question, the Heinlein story to which “the Jackpot” refers ends with the destruction of the Earth in a solar eruption. Most things have sort of begun to return to normal when Potiphar, the statistician/viewpoint character, reads a journal article describing the conditions for the sun to “go nova”, and notices in that day’s sunset the begining of the eruption. Potiphar and Meade, the young woman who went survivalist with him, go through a brief marriage ceremony as the wave front is bearing down on Earth. So maybe “they all got married” is Not Quite That Optimistic.


DaveL 01.25.15 at 7:16 pm

At some point one of the future types, during an infodump, mentions that all the advanced technology they have (fabs, scrubbers, etc.) that makes their world survivable was developed during the Jackpot*, but “too late.” So the introduction of such technology to the pre-Jackpot stub might change the outcome much for the better.

That doesn’t mean that everything is going to work out all right, of course. The stub folks might just end up being the ancestors of a few more klepts, and a few more proles might survive. Still, it’s a somewhat hopeful ending. (The klept future seems unrelentingly dark and even doomed though.) I’m reminded (forgive me) of the ending of Heinlein’s “Farnham’s Freehold,” where the “hero” gets back to the past and hopes a little bit of frontier libertarianism is going to prevent the future he escaped from.

* To KJH@13, it seems clear to me that the Jackpot is just the stuff we have going on now (climate change, population, war, inequality, and so on) extrapolated to a tipping point. The tech the klepts give the stub people is all under development now. No timelords are required.


Greg Koos 01.26.15 at 12:00 am

Based on your review – I’ve started the book – not terribly far into it. So far I’m struck with the rural American folk being digital coolies – a role typically assigned to folks from South Asia. Also these American folks seem to be tied to programmatics which are based upon violent digital games. Seems to be opaque on the uncertainty of game vs reality. Maybe my cloudy reading. In any case … more to come … from this darkness.


Maria 01.26.15 at 10:48 am

I’m about half way through it, with a bull-clip on the last 40 pages to stop me reading the end, so I’ve skimmed through this piece to semi-avoid spoilers. All I have to add is that I’m getting a bit irritated by how OBSESSED everyone in the book is about their clothes and how they appear. Not sure a woman writer would get away with this, however cloaked (ha!) in Bourdieuvian instrumentality it all is.


David Duffy 01.28.15 at 9:05 am

A couple of points: how effective the “hicks” are, given just a little opportunity – they already have the skills and access to technologies (via military service, the only legal outlet for the ambitious); the telescoping of progress around the Singularity – I was reminded of Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, except rather than aeons to reach HPLD, it’s 40 years; and maybe the model of the cosy catastrophe.

Comments on this entry are closed.