Posted by: markfender | November 5, 2014

The Peripheral

William Gibson’s new book came out last week. So I totally read it.

peripheralIn The Peripheral, Gibson returns to his sci-fi roots with a story of parallel universes interacting with each other. Both universes happen in a non-specified future with different tech levels. The chapters alternate between two characters, Flynne, a girl stuck in poverty in the older universe, and Wilf Netherton, a PR person in the more future universe. This is Gibson’s typical structure for novels (Is it odd that his best novels, namely Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, don’t follow this pattern?), but he plays with it a bit more than usual in this book because of the nature of peripherals – the ability for each universe to visit the other through telepresence. Because of this conceit, Flynne can be in Netherton’s universe and vice versa. So, even though the chapters alternate between these two characters, the settings often cross over more as we get consecutive chapters in one universe as one character visits the other.

This structure sort of hurt the overall story. I felt like there was way too much exposition in a lot of places. Often, a chapter would detail what that particular universe’s characters were up to while the main character was in the other universe. So, there was a whole lot of “behind the scenes” stuff that happened that was only told to the characters, as opposed to them interacting with it. Flynne’s universe, in particular, had a ton of behind-the-scenes changes. At the beginning of the story, Flynne is living in a trailer with her sick mom and brother, but by the end of the novel, she’s the CCO of one of the largest corporations in her world. All of those changes are relayed to her by other people. Yes, that plot was a lot about market forces and how economics impact everyday people, but it still didn’t make for exciting reading as Flynne’s world changes radically…with her powerless to even interact with it. Likewise, Netherton was a really passive character. While he had more agency in his universe than Flynne had in her own, he still very rarely did anything except watch other people do things around him.

That said, I don’t really read Gibson for the plot. I read him for the prose. He’s still got his Hemingway chops as simple sentences manage to convey a hidden depth of information. In particular, I liked how Flynne and Netherton’s personality was relayed through subtle hints. You can read the subtle changes in Flynne’s tone when she talks with Tommy, the boy she likes. Likewise, you can read Netherton’s struggle with alcoholism in his movements and his infatuation with Flynne through the way Gibson chooses to have him look at things. It’s subtly and powerfully done.

But I do have a complaint about the prose. Gibson overuses the word “literally.” Now, as a writer, he knows how to use it correctly. He’s even clever about it. Like this bit:

It’s a literally atrocious idea. Using it would constitute, morally and legally, an atrocity.

That’s a nice bit of root word English nerd writing right there. But that’s only one such usage and there’s sooo many uses of “literally.” My Kindle counted 15 uses of the word “literally,” which seems like overkill (It’s more than I used the word “subtle” earlier).

I’m not the right person to ask for a recommendation on whether to read this book. I can’t be objective about Gibson. Even when I can definitely say that he has other books that are better than this one, I can’t not recommend you read it. Because it’s more Gibson and that is never bad.


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