When Flynne Fisher—the protagonist of William Gibson’s new novel “The Peripheral”—agrees to cover for her brother Burton at his new job, she is under the impression that she is simply beta-testing a new video game. The reality is much more complicated. The plot of “The Peripheral” is elaborate and the cast of important characters is extensive. Moreover, the representation of virtual spaces in literature can often end up feeling awkward and unwieldy; Gibson, however, does not seem fazed by such challenges. In “The Peripheral,” he manages to deliver a riveting tale and a powerful message about the dangers of modernity and the value of human connection in an age of technology.
The game in question is actually something of a window into an alternate, future universe that diverged at some point from Flynne’s own. So when Flynne becomes the only witness to a brutal murder in the video game, her knowledge has tangible value to people in the future reality as well as dangerous repercussions in her own life. The future and past characters must work together by means of peripherals—humanoid devices that can be controlled remotely using a special headset—to solve the murder, to protect Flynne and her family from the bounty hunters who have been sent to kill them, and above all, to redirect the course of human history.
In many ways, the experience of reading “The Peripheral” resembles that of playing a video game. The brief chapters—most no more than four or five pages long—break the somewhat lengthy novel into shorter chunks, much like the checkpoints in a video game, and thus create many easy opportunities where the reader can “pause” the narrative and come back to it later. But when Gibson combines the brevity of the chapters with the alternation of viewpoints between the chapters, he creates many cliffhangers and a sense of growing urgency, driving the narrative to its inevitable conclusion and the reader to the novel’s eventual end. Readers might find themselves marathoning the novel as they might a new video game: simply power through until you’ve beaten it.
Gibson connects this experience of reading the novel with the experience of the characters within the novel itself. Flynne, Burton, and their friends—all gamers themselves—exhibit a similar sort of perseverance and relentlessness, only exiting the alternate reality to eat and take bathroom breaks. The characters in the future reality also make a hobby of “gaming” the various alternate past realities—of which Flynne’s reality is only one—by attempting to place trackable individual into positions of power and thereby gain control over that reality’s future. These “stubs” are essentially Sims games using what are arguably actual people, a situation that addresses one of the novel’s central questions: where do we draw the line between what’s real and what’s virtual?
The technological advances in the novel extend beyond the realm of gaming, and Gibson offers a nuanced presentation of them as both helpful and dangerous. The novel’s future reality is more technologically advanced than Flynne’s reality, but even her world is more advanced than our own. 3D-printing of complex objects is ubiquitous, and the people eat lab-grown meat “nubbins,” even as their government and economy is falling to pieces around them. Having grown up in an impoverished America that subsists primarily on drug money, Flynne and her crew find the pristine cities and lavish and laid-back lifestyles of those in the future reality ideal, but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that the alternate reality is as fraught with inequality and corruption as their own, if not more so. Flynne ultimately concludes that “evil wasn’t glamorous, but just the result of ordinary half-assed badness, high school badness, given enough room, however that might happen, to become its bigger self. Bigger, with more horrible results, but never more than the cumulative weight of ordinary human baseness.” For Flynne—and by extension for Gibson himself—technology may have the power to amplify or disguise one’s evil intentions and actions, but it is not in itself a source of evil.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Gibson’s portrayal of gamer culture in the novel is his decision to feature a female protagonist without laying any special importance on her gender. The gaming community has become infamous for its sexism and misogyny and its hostility towards women gamers and game developers. In “Peripheral,” Flynne is portrayed as a talented and experienced gamer. Her gender is never called into question by the narrator or the other characters in the novel, and she even adapts more readily and smoothly to her peripheral than do her brother and his friends. “The Peripheral” thus presents a rather progressive and optimistic portrayal of gamer culture.
All of this is not to say, of course, that “The Peripheral” is a novel without flaws, but the flaws it does have are few and largely insignificant. The initial chapters before the alternating narratives connect with each other, for example, are rather confusing, as the reader struggles to sort out the meaning of all the technological jargon as well as the relationship between the stories. The lack of explanation and contextualization in these early chapters might be intended to disorient the audience, but some of Gibson’s other stylistic choices feel similarly forced and uncomfortable at times. Flynne’s chapters are often narrated in a colloquial, pro-drop register (“He closed his mouth. Frowned slightly. Pursed his lips. Relaxed them”). On the whole, Gibson does this masterfully. Flynne’s chapters sound more casual and less refined than the future ones, but in certain contexts—particularly in conversations—Gibson chooses to omit words that leave the responses sounding unnatural. Nobody with a good command of English would say, “Where it gets complicated,” to mean “That’s where it gets complicated,” at least not without a hint of an s before where.
In general, however, “The Peripheral” is an extremely strong novel even at its weakest points, one that asks important questions about the evolving roles of technology and of human relationships in the modern world. Most importantly, Gibson manages to discuss these questions without ever coming across as heavy-handed or clichéd, a skill that many writers in the genre fail to master.