One-Fifth of “The Peripheral” by William Gibson

Although I was disappointed by William Gibson’s 2004 novel, Pattern Recognition, I began reading The Peripheral, his 2014 science fiction mystery novel, anyway. It was interesting but challenging.

I quote from a blogger, Patrick D. Joyce, who wrote about The Peripheral in 2015:

My own pleasure as a reader of that type of fiction is being left in the dark, confused, gradually putting it together — William Gibson

That’s exactly the kind of reader you have to be to enjoy William Gibson’s new novel.

Peripheral drops you into two separate futures, one near, one distant, without so much as a guide in either, much less some kind of portable universal translator. Nope, you’re on your own. And it gets bewildering at times.

Some way into The Peripheral, I looked at the book’s Wikipedia page to see if I understood the plot so far. I kind of did, but that’s when I discovered I was reading about two separate futures. A few chapters later, I wanted to remind myself who a particular character was. A search for “The Peripheral characters” turned up Mr. Joyce’s post, which includes helpful lists of “Characters in the Near Future” and “Characters in the Distant Future”, as well as a list of words Gibson made up.

That helped me get through the first 100 pages or so, which one reviewer called “uncharacteristically dense”. At that point, a police detective shows up in the distant timeline and asks a few of the characters to explain who they are and what’s been happening (which made Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer — possessed of court-certified perfect recall — my favorite character after just one chapter).

The same reviewer said that after the “uncharacteristically dense first one hundred pages”, the book is “a super enjoyable read”. I’ll never know. I was intending to keep reading, but 400 more pages suddenly felt like a bridge — to the future — too far.

When it comes to fiction, I’m fine with mystery. Intriguing, in general, is better than obvious. (The same applies to non-documentary movies.) When it comes to life, however, clarity is, in general, better than obscurity. A work of fiction, therefore, is subject to a rough aesthetic calculation (actually, so is a work of non-fiction). How do the interesting intrigue, the boring obviousness, the helpful clarity and the confusing obscurity add up? 

In the case of The Peripheral, there is quite a bit of interesting intrigue and just about zero boring obviousness. There is some helpful clarity — for instance, a view of what the future might be like — but way, way too much confusing obscurity. For me, in the first 100 pages, the pleasurable intrigue and clarity outweighed the painful obscurity. But I decided that, having now had some pleasurable exposure to Gibson’s version of the future, another 400 pages wasn’t going to add much more to the experience. The painful obscurity (all these hard-to-follow conversations and descriptions) would outweigh any more pleasurable intrigue and clarity.

I should add that, to my mind, fiction always starts with a problem. Does whatever pleasure I get out of reading this outweigh the fact that the events described didn’t happen? Just as with a work of non-fiction, I always ask myself why I’m spending time on this. Fairy tales can be fun, but I’m prejudiced in favor of reliable information. So, for example, a description of the weather in a novel might be very well-written, but it will make me wonder if I really care about a breeze that never blew or rain that never fell.

There was one thing about The Peripheral that I especially liked though. The Chinese, who are apparently far ahead of what’s left of the human race, have invented a kind of time travel. It’s not the kind that allows people to travel back and forth in time. Nor is it the paradoxical kind in which you can bump into yourself or kill your own grandfather. This kind of time travel is a two-way information connection (so it’s sounds and images that are traveling). 

Gibson’s idea is that it’s possible to establish a communication channel with the past. There’s a computer server in the future that allows this. It wasn’t clear (from the first 100 pages) how the people in the past were able to communicate with the future, considering that they didn’t have the Chinese technology back then, but maybe the 2115 Chinese were clever enough to somehow identify past technology they could connect to, like somebody’s old 2015 computer. 

Anyway, the best part is that when you open a link to the past, it creates what’s called a “stub”. This is a new timeline that branches off. The communication you have with the past is with this new, separate timeline, not your own timeline. That means you can’t interfere with what happened in your past. Your own past stays the way it was, meaning your present stays the same too (your future will be different, of course, because you just did something really cool with the Chinese server.

Except that now you’ve created a different world that will eventually lead to god knows what future for the people over there. Basically, you’re playing at being God, inventing a new universe every time you connect with the past. It’s a nice way to get around the weirdness of time travel, if you don’t mind creating a world in which there might be untold suffering. But who knows? Maybe that new world will be one in which William Gibson’s counterpart chooses clarity over obscurity.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

I used to update another blog every time I finished a book. I’d summarize the book and offer an opinion or two. An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought is still out there, but I’m going to discuss the books here now.

Watchmen is a 1980s comic book/graphic novel that deals with a bunch of caped crusaders, similar to Batman, in an alternate timeline in which America won the war in Viet Nam and President Nixon never resigned. There is one character with actual superpowers, the result of a horrendous accident. Watchmen has a terrific reputation:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”—Time Magazine

“WATCHMEN is peerless.”—Rolling Stone

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of WATCHMEN have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

“Groundbreaking.”—USA Today

It was adapted for a movie in 2009 and an HBO series last year. I saw the movie and some of the TV series and was interested enough to get a copy of 2013’s deluxe, hardcover edition. I would finally see what all the excitement has been about.

I’m sure Watchmen would have been more interesting if I’d read the original twelve comic books when they came out in the 80s. Its “costumed adventurers” or “masked vigilantes” and their violent exploits would have been more novel back then.

Reading it in 2020, I was disappointed. It was good enough to keep reading, but overall it was repetitious and sometimes boring. There are two interesting characters (the dangerous, extremely intense Rorschach and the naked blue superhero with godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan) but too much of it has the feeling of a soap opera. The artwork is decent but the only reason I finished it (aside from a bit of Puritan work ethic) was that I wanted to see what one of the characters — said to be the smartest man in the world — eventually does to New York City. Recurring characters who hang out at a newsstand, an extended parallel story involving 17th century pirates and a troubled mother-daughter relationship were especially tedious.

So, that’s Watchmen, an entry in Time‘s list of the 100 best novels written since 1923 and, according to someone at the BBC, “the moment comic books grew up”. I guess you had to be there.

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Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is a remarkable science fiction novel. It’s quite a story, quite a work of imagination.

What happens is that human beings have been screwing up the Earth to the point that it’s becoming uninhabitable. One response has been to try to create Earth-like conditions on planets in distant solar systems. It’s hoped that these planets will eventually become new homes for humanity.

The terraforming work on one such planet is sabotaged at the last moment. This leads to an enormous unintended consequence: some of the planet’s spiders rapidly evolve, becoming bigger, smarter and much more sociable than the spiders back on Earth.

Before the Earth becomes uninhabitable, giant spaceships are launched with thousands of people aboard. Most of the passengers are stored away as “cargo”, hibernating in an unconscious state, waiting to be resuscitated when their ships finally reach inhabitable worlds, many years in the future.

Throughout the book, the author switches back and forth between what’s happening to the spiders on their planet and what’s happening to the people in one of the spaceships. I felt closer to the people, but the author does a wonderful job explaining things from the perspective of the spiders. As you’d expect, the two species eventually meet.

Somebody is supposedly trying to turn Children of Time into a movie. It really deserves a TV series, possibly with multiple seasons. The author has also published a sequel, Children of Ruin. It’s probably remarkable too.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu

When I was a teenager, I read lots and lots of science fiction. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club early on and bought the magazines (Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) as often as I could. But the only science fiction I can remember reading in the past forty years is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. So I’m surprised that I started reading The Three-Body Problem. The back cover’s extremely complimentary blurbs from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and even Barack Obama helped get me started. The story was interesting enough and suspenseful enough to keep me going through 400 pages.

It all begins with China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Scientists and other intellectuals are being persecuted, even murdered. A young woman watches three Red Guards beat her father, a professor of physics, to death. The young woman, a physicist herself,  eventually joins a secret government project that’s looking into the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This project way out in China’s middle of nowhere leads to humanity’s first contact with aliens (unfortunately, it’s the aliens’ first contact with aliens too).

I kind of regret finishing the book. There are interesting parts, mostly the ones that delve into fundamental physics. A chapter involving the relationship between subatomic particles and multiple dimensions is terrific. There is a bizarre assault on a ship passing through the Panama Canal. It’s intriguing how the characters, both human and alien, react to the possibility of first contact. There are plenty of other parts that are tedious, however. Some of the characters are tiresome. Their motivations are hard to believe. Lengthy excursions into a complex computer game made me start skimming.

It was the suspense that kept me going. What will happen when first contact finally occurs? I thought I’d find out in the book’s concluding 25 pages. I didn’t realize the last 25 pages of this paperback edition are devoted to postscripts about writing and translating the book and a preview of the author’s forthcoming novel. The abrupt ending was disappointing.

Aristotle said you cannot properly judge a work of art by considering its parts in isolation. You have to judge it as a whole. If it’s a story, you have to finish it. On that basis, I don’t think The Three-Body Problem, although intriguing, lived up to its blurbs.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I suppose this is science fiction, although any science involved is way beyond human understanding. There is a mysterious region somewhere in the U.S. called “Area X”. The people who go inside either never come back or come back as someone else. The latest group of volunteers to try their luck include a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, a linguist and a biologist. The biologist tells their story. As you might expect, the expedition doesn’t go very well. They encounter a lot of weirdness, along with mounting paranoia.

Annihilation is the first novel in the author’s Southern Reach Trilogy. I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to start reading the second novel, Authority. That one is followed by Acceptance (which could refer to either a positive or negative outcome). I can’t say reading Annihilation was a totally enjoyable experience, because the characters aren’t sympathetic. Area X is clearly affecting their minds. But there was enough suspense to keep me reading. What is going on in Area X? You won’t really find out in Annihilation. Nor will you find out by watching the 2018 “science fiction horror” movie. It’s based on the book, but a lot of it is different.