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:
- Why is Lower Manhattan underwater due to climate change in the far future (p. 435), but London is apparently untroubled?
- 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.
- Is Aelita actually murdered? If so, why? What do the antagonists who are revealed at the end have to gain from it?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.