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.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

William Gibson’s best-known novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984. I read it back then and thought it was excellent. I don’t remember much about it, but if I close my eyes, what comes to me is an image of cyberspace as a set of large, colored boxes, some labeled with their corporate names (like IBM or Exxon). The young man or woman at the center of the story travels through this bizarre virtual reality, but I can’t remember why. It’s fair to say the novel was ahead of its time.

I’ve been tempted to read something else by Gibson through the years but never bothered. I guess I doubted he had more to say. Then recently I saw a positive reference to his 2014 novel, The Peripheral. I wanted some lighter reading so made a trip to the library (which now asks us to visit for no more than 20 minutes and doesn’t allow access to the restrooms). On the shelf next to The Peripheral was Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition. A blurb on the back cover said it was his best novel since Neuromancer

Pattern Recognition wasn’t as futuristic as I expected. It’s a story about a woman, Cayce Pollard, who is extremely sensitive to contemporary culture (circa 2003). She makes her living by telling her corporate clients what’s “cool”. Is the new logo they’re considering acceptable or not? She’s paid to give a “yes” or “no” answer, no explanation required. It’s not her usual kind of job, but she accepts an assignment to investigate a series of mysterious little videos that have been popping up on the internet (the people who obsess about it online call these videos “The Footage”). Complications ensue.

What also ensues are many, many references to the clothes Cayce wears and the restaurants she visits. One minute she’s in London, then she’s flying to Tokyo, then it’s Paris, and then New York, followed by Moscow, and back to London. Cayce uses her client’s VISA card to really get around. I got tired of reading about her jet lag and the cool neighborhoods she visits. (Did William Gibson visit the major cities of the world as his career developed? Is that how he acquired so many details about city life here and there?)

Pattern Recognition might have been a better book if the author gave more attention to The Footage, which is rarely described, and less to Cayce’s favorite jacket and the decor in her hotel rooms. Maybe The Peripheral will be better than Pattern Recognition. I hope it’s Gibson’s best since Neuromancer.