Review: ‘The Peripheral’ by William Gibson

By Jenora Vaswani

Warning: Contains spoilers

The Peripheral - PutnamThe Peripheral by William Gibson, slots into the genre of hard science fiction. The plot branches off into two, merging later on, a feature typical of detective stories. However, that is not to say it does not make for a captivating novel.

Gibson’s writing style is short and choppy with lots of fragmented sentences, imitating the way a camera pans through a scene, as well as cutting character perspectives. It makes for an engaging, fast-paced delivery.

On the sci-fi side of things, the introduction of new terms such as ‘haptics’, military implants for soldiers, and ‘fab’, to print three-dimensionally, are initially tricky to follow — an unfortunate characteristic of most science fiction novels creating a new world. However, they add enjoyably to the novel’s complexity once the reader has settled into the story. Sensory input involving the smell of ‘freshly printed electronics’ and the use of synaesthesia where Gibson describes ‘That color like Burton’s haptic scar, but she could taste it inside her teeth’ increase how vividly the reader experiences this new world.

Gibson’s use of a protagonist being introduced to a new world, her future, also eases the reader’s transition into an unfamiliar technological setting.

The Peripheral deals inherently with the question of what it means to be human. Its entire concept of having ‘peripherals’, or remotely controlled humanoid bodies, transfers a human consciousness into an artificially created prosthetic body, blurring the line between humans and machines. Furthermore, although Flynne inhabits her peripheral initially, her brother replaces her briefly, inhabiting the same peripheral, and Gibson describes how the peripheral’s manner changes radically. Rather like Luna Lovegood’s ability to identify Harry despite his feigned identity achieved with Polyjuice Potion, Gibson develops the means by which individuality can be recognised in a person’s movements and micro-expressions that exist outside our physical shell.

The complexity of Gibson’s world building is quite something to behold

Admittedly, an aspect of the novel I’m not quite comfortable with is Gibson’s use of the descriptor, Chinese. Through the first half of the novel, China is never quite explained, merely mentioned in passing in relation to technologically advanced electronics and the manufacture thereof. The reference to China in itself is not problematic. Yet Gibson’s inclusion of China as a superior, yet different, presence does create a sense of the other that puts me on edge. In particular, Gibson’s commentary on the global adoption of China’s political system in replacement of democracy following a serious of apocalyptic events termed the ‘Jackpot’ is troubling. Little context is given. However, the implicit sweeping assertion links Chinese politics to the complete breakdown of the world, unquestioningly providing a very one-sided perspective that might unconsciously be subsumed into the reader’s mind.

In contrast, Flynne’s Americanisms are lightly mocked by her British connections, yet both realms are unquestioningly accepted. Perhaps a closer comparison would be the mention of German and Italian workmanship. Both are used in ways that denote quality and longevity. Yet there isn’t the same separation between the protagonist’s world and German and Italian goods, nor the same criticism.

Gibson makes multiple references to various literary or philosophical concepts, such as his use of ‘panopticon’ as a descriptor, or a casual mention of a Faustian bargain in passing conversation. As such, the novel comes across as fairly sophisticated, catering to readers on multiple levels while still accommodating a wide audience and age group. Yet, oddly, Gibson also chooses to include explanations of terms that might seem obsolete: at one point, he has Macon, a supporting character, explain to Flynn, the protagonist, what collateral damage means. The Peripheral subsequently comes across as uncomfortably inconsistent in terms of its target audience.

Highly convincing characters are most definitely a highlight of The Peripheral. Gibson touches upon trauma in military forces, underlining the significance of the mental impact thereof even over the physical in both Conner and Burton. His descriptions of a perverse calm merges horror and empathy beautifully without breaking the narrative flow: ‘Because right now he seemed all smoothed out, could even pass for happy, and she guessed it was because he’d just killed four total strangers.’

The complexity of Gibson’s world building is quite something to behold, yet there’s a constant, lingering sense that there could be so many brilliant backstories that have yet to be told. The resolution of the plot feels a little shaky. The bearded man symbolised Flynn’s drive to learn more about this future world, yet he dies abruptly without providing the reader with much backstory. Considering the whole book has been about discovering the circumstances surrounding this mysterious man, a little more detail would have been appreciated.

Nonetheless, The Peripheral is a wholly enjoyable book with strong characters, excellent world building and a touching, if not wholly original, plot that I would happily recommend to science fiction fans.

Images: Jon Callow, G.P Putnam

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