Dystopia, but not as we know it
William Gibson’s new novel “The Peripheral” paints future worlds that are built of present fears writ large. Trading algorithms not only roil financial markets, they hunt in packs and travel in time. Nanotech eats people. Money corrupts and spies surveil even more than now. Human decency, though, has at least a fighting chance.
As in much of Gibson’s work, the mega-rich and their cohorts vie for power and ordinary folk pay the price. In “The Peripheral,” a twin-track story is set partly in a hollowed-out America a few decades into the future and partly in a ghostly, high-tech London 70 years after that, after most of the human race has died out in a mass extinction known as the “jackpot.”
Hopping between these two future worlds, at first unwittingly, is a resourceful young woman called Flynne. She is from a hard-scrabble rural U.S. county where the economy consists mostly of illegal drug manufacture and 3-D printing, not all of that legal either. She’s honest, though, as are her war-damaged brother and his ex-Marine buddy Connor, who has lost most of his limbs in an unspecified conflict.
Flynne signs up to beta-test what she’s told is a new online computer game. While in it, she witnesses a murder. And it turns out not to be a game. What she has seen is, in fact, an incident in a giant real-estate scam in the future, and soon people from there want to kill her. Fortunately, other future forces want to protect her.
In “The Peripheral,” information is the most powerful actor. Though people cannot pass from one time period to another, data can – in both directions – via a mysterious server in China about which Gibson wisely gives little information. So the financial markets of the past can be meddled with, using those semi-sentient algorithms, to raise bribe money to protect Flynne, while rival algorithms fund future-based shell companies that hire assassins to kill her. Via a form of neural telepresence, meanwhile, Flynne and her damaged ex-Marine bodyguards are able to inhabit enhanced physical bodies in the future.
For all his reputation as a dystopian sci-fi writer, Gibson is actually quite neutral about technology. While nano-scale “assemblers” chew up human beings in “The Peripheral,” they also transform swirling garbage in the North Pacific Gyre into an immense floating city made of recovered polymers. His future London sparkles with ancient rivers newly exposed, yet killer robots can do terrible things in a rebuilt version of the city’s once-dreaded Newgate prison. The point is that human nature never changes, and the selfish and greedy will abuse whatever technology is at hand, heedless of the consequences, to get and retain power.
The novelist Anthony Burgess wrote that George Orwell’s nightmarish “Nineteen Eighty-Four” could be usefully understood as “1948,” a jeremiad in which he held up a distorting mirror to gray, ration-bound Britain and the totalitarian dangers it faced at the onset of the Cold War. Spanish writer Ramon del Valle-Inclan did something similar in the early 20th century with his aesthetic of the “esperpento” or grotesque, showing society to itself in twisted, fun-house reflections.
So does Gibson, magnifying and distorting elements of the present in such a way as to afford an unexpected perspective, not on the dystopian future that might be, but on aspects of the present that might lead to it. Whether it be computers flash-crashing the markets, the rising power of securocrats, the failing power of antibiotics, the pollution of the seas or the polarization of politics and wealth, the author sees in the present the seeds of future doom.
Gibson describes the “jackpot” that wipes out much of humanity in “The Peripheral” as not a single huge catastrophe but several smaller ones at once, in slow motion, involving diseases, the environment, wars and economics. It’s unstoppable and impersonal. But Flynne’s fate, and that of her world, ultimately hinges on clear moral choices she herself must make about a dreadful weapon the future has made available to her, and the vast, potentially corrupting wealth pumped into her life by her protectors. The past of “The Peripheral” is now. Gibson’s message from the future is that perhaps it can be changed. Or perhaps not.