The Future Is Here

Tara Walton/Toronto Star/Getty Images
William Gibson at the Royal York Hotel, Toronto, January 2012

William Gibson has spent his career in the shadow of his first novel, Neuromancer, which was published in 1984 and greeted as at once a punk revolt against traditional science fiction and a crystallization of the anxieties of the age. The book depicted a future in which identity was dictated by technology, the natural world had been subsumed by cities, and the geographic distinction of borders had given way to a frenetically visual monoculture dominated by the neon ads of multinational corporations.

Critics found resonances with Guy Debord’s attack on “mechanical civilizations” and Jean Baudrillard’s recently promulgated concept of the hyperreal, particularly in Gibson’s forecasting of the Internet—which at the time of his writing was still inchoate, text-based, and the insular preserve of programmers—as a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions,” with “lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding,” and a user experience akin to mysticism, drug use, and sexual release. (It hasn’t exactly turned out that way, but Gibson’s coinage of the term “cyberspace” lives on.)

Neuromancer still has a shimmer, three decades later, but those who celebrate it today, as a cultural landmark or divination, likely don’t remember the more eccentric specifics of the plot—the interconnection of voodoo gods and artificial intelligence, for example—which got only more improbable in the book’s two sequels. In the 1990s, Gibson began to create characters and skylines less distanced from our own time, occupying an exaggerated, sped-up present. With the turn of the century, he recalibrated again: his most recent books, published after, and directly confronting, September 11, were anchored in a recognizable now. This shift prompted some critics to argue that he had become a realist writer and was accordingly of greater literary interest, as if abandoning science fiction were a sign of evolution.

His new novel, The Peripheral, could be read as a rebuff to that notion. On the surface, it is a return to science fiction, taking the form of one of the most traditional of science-fiction narratives, an anthropological account of first contact between cultures. In this case, the encounter is not interplanetary but between two different periods of time. (Gibson has rarely strayed from Earth and its immediate orbit, or entertained the notion of off-world life forms.) The book unfolds in two distinct futures, one approximately a decade or two from ours, the other a century out. In the former, the point of focus is Flynne Fisher, the latest in a line of alliteratively named Gibson heroines dating back to the “street samurai” (i.e., assassin) Molly Millions, first seen in the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981).

Flynne’s existence is more constrained than her freewheeling predecessors’ and could well be described as peripheral: she’s trapped in a dead-end Appalachian town loomed…

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