William Gibson, The Peripheral


Like other books by William Gibson, this one creates a universe more through allusion than through explanation, often leaving the reader puzzled and wondering what this world looks and feels like to its inhabitants. The initial confusion this creates soon makes way, at least for me, to a total immersion into the paranoid speculations of the author. I have seen this book labelled as a “science fiction” novel but I would rather use the term, as does Margaret Atwood, of “speculative fiction”. What if, what happens if we change some of the parameters of our world and try to imagine the consequences, as insane as that might be? In fact, the more insane the better… shock my imagination into further speculation, let me create my own crazy images, my own variation of the transformed world… who know if what I see in my head when I read is anything like William Gibson had in mind? Therein lies the fun!

The basic plot in this book is about finding out who killed a woman. There was only one witness and this witness is not sure of what she saw and how to interpret it. What complicates the situation is this witness was only virtually present, not physically, and thought she was in the midst of a computer game in a virtual reality, not in an alternate reality in an alternate time stream… These alternate time streams are called “stubs” and intervening within the stub changes that reality, but not necessarily history for all time… The devices through which people enter such alternate times are called “peripherals” and could be androids or take on some other shapes. The person who will enter this alternate time stream must wear some kind of headset and will appear asleep and nonresponsive in their place of origin. Others must keep them safe. The headsets are made through 3D printing. Or that is what I have understood.

In the “now” time of the book (some kind if near future time), a man called Burton who is a Marines veteran is making extra money testing computer games, although he is officially on disability. One day, he is busy and he asks his sister Flynn to fill in for him. This is when she witnesses a puzzling event. In what she thinks is a game, she is flying a quadcopter with cameras and she is watching a man and woman on the balcony of a high floor of a strange building… she is watching another device to see what it will do (it is referred to as “it” or “the thing” below).

Below her, they were at the railing, the woman’s hands on the rod along the top, the man behind her, close, maybe holding her waist.

It opened, narrowly, along that vertical line, paler edges curling slightly back, and something small arced out, vanishing. Something scored the forward-cam then, a fuzzy gray comma. Again. Like  a gnat with a microscopic chainsaw, or a diamond scribe. Three, four more scratches, insect-quick, flicking like a scorpion’s tail. Trying to blind her.

She pulled herself back, fast, then up, whatever it was still slashing at her forward-cam. Found the pull-down and dead-dropped, tumbling three floors before she let the gyros catch and cup her.

It seemed to be gone. Cam damaged but still functional.

Fast, left.

Up, fast. Passing fifty-six, with the cam on her right she saw him take the woman’s hands, place them over her eyes. From fifty-seven, she saw him kiss her ear, say something. Surprise, she imagined him saying, as she saw him step back, turn.

“No,” she said, as the thing split open. A blur, around the slit. More of them. He glanced up, found it there. Expecting it. Never paused, never looked back. He was about to step back inside.

She went for his head.

She was half up out of the chair, as he saw the copter, ducked, catching himself on his hands.

He must have made a sound then, the woman turning, lowering her hands, opening her mouth. Something flew into her mouth. She froze. Like seeing Burton glitched by the haptics.

He came up off his hands, a track star off the blocks through the opening, the door in the window, which simply vanished as soon as he was inside, became a smooth sheet of glass, then polarized.

The woman never moved, as something tiny punched out through her cheek, leaving a bead of blood, her mouth still open, more of them darting in, almost invisible, streaming over the pale-edged slit. Her forehead caved in, like stop-motion of Leon’s pumpkin of the president, on top of the compost in her mother’s bin, over days, weeks. As the brushed-steel railing lowered, behind her, on the soap-bubble stuff that was no longer glass. Without it to stop her, the woman toppled backward, limbs at angles that made no sense. Flynne went after her.

She was never able to remember any more blood, just the tumbling form in its black t-shirt and striped pants, less a body every inch it fell, so that by the time they passed the thirty-seventh, where she’s first noticed the thing, there were only two fluttering rags, one striped, one black.

She pulled up before the twentieth, remembering the voices. Hung there in the gyros’ slack, full of sorrow and disgust

“Just a game,” she said, in the trailer’s hot dark her cheeks slick with tears.

This incident happens about one tenth into the book, the early part starting to set up some of the main characters in both time streams although I am not sure I had realized that is what was happening.

As the plot unfolds, the mystery thickens as “bad guys” from the future use local drug dealers to interfere with Flynne and her brother in their alliance with people in the future that are investigating the “disappearance” of the woman that Flynne witnessed being eaten from the inside out.

The world that Burton and Flynne live in is a bleak one, which I pictured to be somewhat like an impoverished part of the US after a major economic collapse. The “future world” in the alternate time stream seems to have come through a greater upheaval which the characters refer to as “the jackpot”. The population has shrunk a lot, leaving London to appear as an empty city. This is never explained, or if it was, it stayed fuzzy in my mind.

Burton, Flynne and one of their friends collaborate with their contacts from the future to find out what happened to the falling woman, and Flynn is instrumental in catching the man who was involved.

As with other Gibson’s book, I found this one challenging to get into and rather difficult to understand. Some words are never defined and I had to infer quite a bit from context, like trying to figure out unknown signs in a new culture. But I do like that I find things out through action rather than being explained what is going on by an omniscient narrator. There is also no clearcut different between the good guys and the bad guys, and if there is a conspiracy, it does not seem to be clearly led by one person with a defined goal, or rather, the alliances that are necessary to put things into motion enable the emergence of quite unexpected consequences (for the characters, and maybe also for the writer as he is developing his story!). I would be curious to find out to what extent William Gibson outlines his novels and follows a well-laid out plan versus letting new ideas emerge and unexpected connections develop as he is writing…

I wish he would write a sequel to this one… I feel like I am not done with this universe, quite besides reading the book over again.


Gibson, William. The Peripheral. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2014.

The first four chapters: http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/books/the_peripheral_excerpt.asp

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