Let down by Gibson’s The Peripheral


in Books and literature, Rants, Writing

The main storytelling device in William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral is after-the-fact exposition (ATFE), which gives it the feeling of a mystery more than conventional science fiction. Rather than tell you in advance how a world or a technology works, Gibson shows you the results without context and provides the explanation later. This does well for avoiding the tedium which is sometimes mocked in speculative fiction, where books or chapters open with the author describing the parameters of the fiction with a boring lack of tension or mystery. For me, at least, it falls down in the case of this book when the central mysteries are never resolved. In increasing order of importance:

  1. Why is Lower Manhattan underwater due to climate change in the far future (p. 435), but London is apparently untroubled?
  2. What was the point of the “party time” test of character (p. 382)? The woman tested never seems to face an important moral choice later.
  3. Is Aelita actually murdered? If so, why? What do the antagonists who are revealed at the end have to gain from it?
  4. What’s the story with the Chinese server that connects the mid-future with the far-future (p. 189)? What did the people who built it use it for?
  5. What’s the metaphysics of this book? It says that the middle-future in communication with the far-future (p. 185-6) has its timeline changed as a consequence (p. 422). Is this a case of infinitely branching universes where communication pathways can be established between any two? Every time someone far the far-future communicates with the past, do they create a new future timeline starting from there?
  6. Why do people in the far future care what happens in this particular mid-future? A major plot point is one character from the far-future trying to avoid a catastrophe in the mid-future (p. 320-1), but what’s the point if (from the far-future perspective) this is just one branch in a vast number of pasts? Why care so much about this one?
  7. Why is having people from the mid-future drive robots in the far-future useful? They never do anything that remote operators in the far-future couldn’t do without all this time travel communication.

I was also frustrated by how a large part of the book is devoted to people training to pilot these future robots (as well as acquiring specialized weapons), which only end up getting used in a rather disappointing way. In particular, a supposedly evil red cube from a custom universe focused on weapon development never ends up doing anything interesting.

Sometimes the ATFE approach is quite frustrating: especially the habit of opening chapters using only pronouns to describe the person involved, pointlessly leaving the reader unclear about what is being described. When people are murdered, the motive and immediate consequences are often unclear.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm

“So while it’s good that Lowbeer felt like saving this particular stub, what difference does it make in the scheme of things, when there are an infinite number of other stubs where people don’t get saved? I started thinking maybe there would be some other connection revealed, like somehow Flynne’s timeline was more directly connected to Lowbeer’s in a way that people didn’t previously think possible. However, that didn’t happen, so I was left wondering why Lowbeer happened to care so much about this stub.”


anon June 22, 2016 at 10:40 pm

Maybe `ATFE’ is Gibson’s way of helping out people who don’t care to think over the details for themselves…

Milan June 26, 2016 at 6:09 pm

Without them, the book would be incomprehensible to everyone. I agree, though, that there are hidden answers to questions not explicitly answered and, furthermore, unresolved ambiguity is a feature of the genre and of Gibson’s style.

. June 28, 2016 at 1:05 am

Snowden’s flesh is trapped in Russia, but his mind roams the world in a robot body

The Snowbot — a $14,000 Beampro telepresence robot that Edward Snowden pilots from Moscow — is becoming a fixture at conferences, meetings, and in the halls of power in the USA, where Snowden is a frequent invited guest.

anon October 8, 2016 at 2:24 am

A lot of people have commented on how there’s a period of seasickness or weirdness you have to get through in The Peripheral in order to enjoy it. Do you aim to create that feeling deliberately when you write?

William Gibson: It’s something that I’m interested in and have always been. Even before I started writing, I was interested in it as a reader. I was always looking to turn up the knob on the cognitive dissonance – or to turn it up and down. I think I developed a bunch of tools for inducing it in the course of learning to write what I write. My greatest pleasure in reading science fiction is to experience that [cognitive dissonance] and be lost, completely unsure about what’s going on in the narrative. But by hanging in and analyzing the information that the author is giving me it starts to click. For me the pleasure is when it starts to make sense.

The tension for me as a writer is doing it without exposition – totally upping the ante on cognitive dissonance – and simultaneously risking losing a fairly large part of the readership. Whether you lose them or not depends on something Samuel Delany talks about. [He says] reading rigorously written science fiction demands a secondary cultural construct atop the cultural construct that we all have if we’re able to read novels. Because if we enjoy novels, we’ve forgotten the process of learning to read them. Someone who doesn’t have that construct in place just can’t read a novel. They wouldn’t understand it at all. Delany says that if science fiction readers are good at it, they’ve developed a superstructure of culture on top of that that allows them to enjoy it.

I didn’t consciously try to write a book in which those very austere rules of non-exposition were going to dominate. Rather, the text as it continued, demanded it increasingly. It would just stop going forward if I broke down and resorted to writing a “well, Bob, you know” paragraph.

. September 24, 2017 at 10:08 pm

Mike and I (Michael St. John Smith, the actor, who’s also a screenwriter) started bouncing things around after I’d finished The Peripheral, which I assumed would be a one-off, but I found myself still in the grip of the “stub” alternative timeline thing, so Archangel wound up with a similar mechanism (rules of time travel invented, as far as I know, by Sterling and Shiner). Meanwhile, Agency was conceived as a book set in 2016 San Francisco/Silicon Valley, but treating contemporary reality there as if it were a near future (which of course it feels like to me, because I’m old). But I’m also slow, so Trump got elected before I’d finished, and suddenly I had about half of a manuscript that felt like it was set in a stub, a world that never happened. Extremely weird feeling! So I had this one extra thing to be pissed off with, about Trump! But then I wondered what would happen if I considered it as exactly that, a stub, but to do so I felt I needed to hook it up with the further future of The Peripheral, the London of the klept. Meanwhile, Archangel had been coming out from IDW, and when I went down to meet them at ComicCon, in 2016, the possibility of a Trump win naturally came up. So, through to November 8th, part me was looking at that, and the other part was No Fucking Way, and, well, you know.

But I’ve also observed a tendency, over my years as an sf reader, for sf writers of a certain age to give the After Us The Deluge speech, so I promised myself I’d try to be watchful of the onset of that, try to fend it off as best I could. I suspect that when people notice how much of the world they grew up has already ended, it’s quite natural to feel that the world is ending. Because the world one knew quite demonstrably is. But it always has been ending, that way. You can read the ancient Greeks, say, doing it at great length. When younger, though, this sounds like something one can simply choose to avoid, just as old people, to the young, appear to have made some sort of inexplicably terrible decision to become old.

CD: Last question: When I first interviewed you, 20 years ago (!!), we talked about why Japan was a wellspring of cool futurity and China was (in the cyberpunk pantheon, at least), an also-ran. Now, Chinese authors are winning Hugo awards and China is projecting more heavy zaibatsu-style force into more territories (including orbit) than Japan ever dreamed of. In The Peripheral, China is a mysterious, closed technocracy that may or may not be the source of interdimensional semi-time-semi-travel. Now that you’ve written two more books that circle The Peripheral’s future, are you homing in any more on what role China plays in this future you’re playing in?

WG: In The Peripheral, I thought of China as a much more sophisticated and advanced species of klept. So that “the” klept, as Netherton thinks of it, comes out of the jackpot controlling everything still habitable that isn’t China. Which has become some sort of super-advanced sphere of its own, with little need of dealing with outsiders. Which gave me this other, unknowable realm, a sci-fi Faerie, where impossible magic can conveniently happen without my having to invent an explanation for it. But that’s not any literal prediction for China. That’s me using China as a plot device.

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