• 'The Peripheral'

    Thirty years ago I was exposed to the sub-genre-defining work of William Gibson, the writer who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ to define the then nascent digital realm in which information flows and – as he presciently saw it – societal change is effected. His multi-award-winning 1984 novel Neuromancer was the platform, bought in paperback from the original Forbidden Planet shop and read with astonishment. Its depiction of a mid-21st century America characterised by gritty street life seamlessly intertwined with glossy high technology was utterly winning, especially as this was allied to a lean yet rich writing style where every word counted and conveyed something of the milieu in which its protagonists moved. The pace was fast, the ideas fascinating and the world-building absorbing.

    Two further books – Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive – broadened and deepened these ideas and, along with the first, became known as the Sprawl trilogy. Two more trilogies followed, and I soon began to feel that as Gibson’s style matured his actual content became less and less innovative, not helped by his decision to set the third trilogy in the present day and to eliminate almost all of the technological strands that had made his work so distinctive. Abandoning the Blue Ant trilogy part way through, therefore, was disappointing but not difficult.

    This did, however, mean that I missed Gibson’s next book, 2013’s The Peripheral. Which – it turns out – was a mistake. Complex, densely-layered and detailed, it is a gripping page-turner that flips between two timelines and attempts to tell us a little about our recent past and possible future. Near-future America and further-forward London are both well realised, not least through one of Gibson’s other skills: the ability to write different characters in convincingly different voices. Coupled with an in media res opening this does require some dedication to initially, but once the reader’s eye (and brain) is in, the narrative skips along very briskly indeed though in fact this is Gibson’s longest book by far. And, uniquely for Gibson in my experience, it is a novel where the characters – and thus Gibson’s thoughts – are very explicitly political, in a context that immediately resonates.

    For long-term Gibson fans who yearn for his earlier works there are plenty of references to the that pioneering first novel. The description of Operation Northwind, a war-themed online game, more than echoes that of Screaming Fist, the failed mission that nevertheless kick-starts the world of Neuromancer; chameleon-like camouflage squidsuits have been encountered before as mimetic capes in that same book; the neurological weapon nicknamed Party Time parallels the similar Blue Nine, and opposing power blocs remember the two artificial intelligences who war around lead character Case. Elsewhere in The Peripheral there also ex-soldiers both regretting and missing their service, the atmospheric importance of softly-spoken foreign tongues and even an electric buggy at a crucial moment.

    Overarching all is the titular peripheral, an autonomous or inhabited humanoid complete with the telepresence and AI by which it gains motive power (and motivation) and sensory capacity. It is presented as a method of virtually experiencing space and time and events. This has concerned – even dominated – Gibson’s fiction for decades, from the Apparent Sensory Perception modules of his 1970s short stories to the SimStim of the Sprawl saga and the augmented reality of Virtual Light. Even media firm Blue Ant might be deemed another iteration, ‘agency’ having a double meaning in the context of those three books.

    With The Peripheral, however, the idea moves from McGuffin to central tenet. From the reader’s point of view it occasionally feels intrusive, more so than Freeside, the vast orbiting colony and the closest pure SF object equivalent in the Sprawl books, but even this is not the limit of Gibson’s imagination. Peripherals work in conjunction with the more audacious – some might say outrageous, for a Gibson story – era-bridging mechanism that connects both timelines and makes the entire book possible. Entirely unexplained beyond an absurd throwaway reference or two to “a Chinese server”, its presence at the heart of the narrative is though crucial as it permits a kind of retrospective benevolence whereby the inhabitants of what one reviewer called the novel’s second future (the one in London) are able to help those of the first (America) by transmitting technology and information back in (across?) time. Gibson’s far-future Londoners thus equate to the intervening aliens of Carl Sagan’s Contact or, perhaps more relevantly, Arthur C. Clarke’s bittersweet Childhood’s End.

    In truth this is handled so deftly that the lack of any actual explanation for how it’s done actually feels surprisingly unproblematic, and one anyway should remember Gibson’s well known opinion that he himself is something of a ‘techno innocent’. This may be disingenuous, but yet another far-out feature of the book – the absurdly powerful, nano-scaled ‘assemblers’ that can instantly dissolve or reform matter at scale – does give this view some weight.

    It is then refreshing to find The Peripheral confirming that the mid-level tech of the street is where Gibson seems the most comfortable, and here he makes a welcome return to the best aspects of those early forays. Brilliantly envisaged items, systems and products are scattered subtly yet convincingly through his text. By focusing on real-world advances, Gibson essays concepts ranging from the amusing to the terrifying, such as cardboard cars, chain store 3D printing, veritable swarms of drones and brutally effective orbital weapon systems. Invented consumer brands such as Hefty and Coffee Jones sit comfortably amongst actual names like eBay. The book was coloured by wider cultural happenings, of course.

    The cloaked cars that prowl future London must surely have been inspired by 2012’s Bond film Die Another Day, whilst the ranks of super-tall towers that puncture the skyline of the same city have their own contemporary inspiration (“they’re called shards” explains one character to another). Russian oligarchs (or ‘klepts’) living in the British capital tune in to another anxiety that remains live five years later, as does one such man’s massively extended townhouse and its seemingly endless basement garage where much of the action of the London-set chapters takes place. Here is to be found what is for me Gibson’s star invention at this more intimate level of tech: the Mercedes Gobiwagen (it is never clear whether this is its formal or nickname), a lorry-sized, ultra-luxurious “land yacht” built for comfortable cruising in the desert. With motorised furniture, a robot bar, bathroom and rooftop observation dome, this fabulous vehicle might seem futuristic but has an ancestor in the customised, leather-lined six-wheel-drive Range Rovers and the like that specialist British coachbuilder Tickford and other companies produced in the 1970s and 80s for Arab customers.

    Indeed it is Britain and especially London that appears to have particularly stimulated Gibson’s imagination this time around, generating plenty of neat extrapolations and perhaps predictions. Many are architectural or topographical twists on familiar places, including the central conceit of Oxford Street turned into a vast linear park, thickly wooded and grown out of the ruins of its current buildings. Perhaps inspired by the Blitz, and if so forming another link back to Mona Lisa Overdrive’s holographic commemoration of the Battle of Britain, this also suggests numerous post-apocalyptic domestic works. It also allows for Selfridges to become a domestic residence, a striking image. As with Mona Lisa Overdrive, though, characters inhabit a London seemingly altered as much by Gibson’s (mis)understanding of the real city as deliberate authorial decision. It therefore feels a little ‘off’ in places, with a meeting offered at one of the “guildhalls” (‘Livery Halls’ seems meant) and implied jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police over the City, this last particularly odd given the plot thread mentioned below. That oligarch’s house, though, sees Gibson returning to the Notting Hill that final Sprawl book and is thoroughly sound as a conception.

    There is little indication that Gibson has ever intended a satirical reading of his work, but it’s hard not to think that must be the case in certain passages of The Peripheral. In future London calls are taken on surgical implants – a send-up, surely, in and of itself, but also enabling a wonderful double meaning to the otherwise entirely organic line “he’s had to have his phone removed”. Having this London run by a menacing cabal comprising the police, the City of London’s Livery Companies and Big Business, headed by the sinister (and, again, real) Remembrancer, might also produce a wry smile from those familiar with the Square Mile’s peculiarly individualistic yet highly effective present-day power structure. And although almost all of this appears directed at the British end of the plot, the eponymous peripheral reducing or at least distancing social interaction to a virtual experience must be counted as social commentary, at the very least, on American society today.

    This is a terrific return to form from Gibson, even if the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending dissolves logic and tension as brutally as those assemblers attack walls. It would seem to confirm his fit with things to come, rather than things that are. And another trilogy appears to have begun.

    William Gibson’s new novel Agency, which continues to explore the world created in The Peripheral, is published later in 2018 by Berkley Books/Penguin

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour collage-style spread. Now available, 30-Second Paris is a must for any lover of the world's most visited city.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

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