The Peripheral

Taking place not in one, but in two thoroughly bleak futures, The Peripheral is a welcome return to sci-fi field for William Gibson, the writer who has been called the ‘noir prophet’ of the cyberpunk subgenre.

The storyline of The Peripheral repeatedly toggles between two intertwined timelines: The first timeline, set in near-future, follows Flynne Fisher, a young woman living in a small town in rural America working in a local 3D printing shop, who is beta testing “some kind of creepy-ass video game” on behalf of her older brother Burton, an ex-marine and a war veteran who is on disability benefits, yet still takes side jobs and at the moment moonlights as a game tester for a (supposedly) Colombian company Milagros Coldiron.

The testing of the video game involves flying a quadcopter working a perimeter around three floors of a high-rise tower, driving away paparazzi drones from the windows of an unknown woman’s luxurious apartment. The first night of testing is monotonous and routine, even boring at times and passes without any significant events. On the second night however, Flynne witnesses a mysterious man luring the woman out on her balcony where she is devoured by a swarm of nanobots in a gruesome fashion and a clear case of assassination. Even though this should be just a video game, Flynne cannot help but feel an odd sense of eeriness staying with her long after she watched the young woman’s dreadful death.

Flynne Fisher witnesses a gruesome murder while testing “some kind of creepy-ass video game”

The second timeline concerns Wilf Netherton, a publicist living in London several decades after an apocalyptic event known as the ‘Jackpot’, which was not a single incident, but rather a slow extinction event and gradual decline of civilisation that began sometime in the middle of the 21st century and was caused by combined effects of a wide range of intertwined factors, with most contributing being drastic climate change, followed by a series of droughts, famines, pandemics, political unrests, and anarchy in which perished roughly 80% of the global human population. Those who survived – mostly the super-rich who could afford it – created sophisticated nano-machines called Assemblers that began to build a new, highly-futuristic world on the ruins of the old one. As a result, Wilf's future enjoys very efficient and eco-friendly technology that is serving the drastically reduced population of the few privileged.

Unaware to Burton or his sister Flynne, what they observe as a video game environment is actually a fully-immersive virtual reality interface that enables them to interact with other timeline – that of their employers, who call Burton and Flynne’s timeline ‘Stub’ and its inhabitants ‘Polts’ (presumably short from Poltergeists). Far from testing a video game, Burton was in fact hired by people from Wilf’s timeline to serve as an unconventional bodyguard to Aelita West (the woman on the balcony) – the job at which he, and Flynne, needless to say, failed miserably.

Wilf Netherton works with his ex-girlfriend, and sister of murdered Aelita, American artist Daedra West, on establishing relations with a group of ‘Patchers’ – native ‘primitive’ humans, living on a garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. However, the contact doesn’t go very well, Wilf is fired and heads over to London, where he stays at his friend Lev Zubov's house. Lev, a son of a powerful and wealthy family of Russian oligarchs that moved to Britain several generations ago, is a ‘continua enthusiast’, i.e. his hobby involves an interest in an emergent field of research in alternative timelines. When Lev learns that Daedra’s sister has gone missing, he realises that the only person who could give any insight into Aelita’s disappearance is the man from one of these continua who was hired to provide security for her – Burton Fisher.

Milagros Coldiron, which is only a front organisation in Flynne’s timeline, learns from Burton that it was in fact his sister who was substituting for him that night. Wilf video-calls with Flynne and she describes Aelita’s murder by a nanobot swarm assisted by the mysterious man.

Things get now more complicated, as whoever was behind the murder puts a hit contract on Burton and Flynne’s heads to silence them. In turn, Burton asks for help his former military colleagues, who set up a perimeter around their house. The seriousness of the situation becomes soon apparent when shortly after, Burton’s friend Conner Penske, an ex-marine and a quadruple amputee confined to a motorised wheelchair, kills four armed hitmen in a car heading towards their house – using a mind-controlled gun rig.

William Gibson’s novel takes you on a ride full of suspense and surprises where nothing is quite as it seems

In the meanwhile in the other timeline, Wilf, Lev, and their friends are visited by Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, who investigates Aelita’s disappearance. Lowbeer informs Flynne, that however shockingly it may sound, arranging her, and her brother’s deaths would in no way constitute a crime in Wilf’s timeline, as inhabitants of Flynne’s timeline, or ‘Stub’, are not considered to be real persons according to the current legal status.

Lowbeer insists that Flynne be brought to their timeline so that she can identify the man who murdered Aelita and help solve the case. Since the transfer of physical matter between the individual timelines is not possible (but nothing stops two-way transfer of information) Wilf, Lev and their associates come up with a rather cunning plan: they acquire a cybernetic ‘Peripheral’ (an advanced humanoid android which was, coincidentally, formerly serving as a pleasure-bot in a local brothel) as a vessel for Flynne’s consciousness. As this technology is yet to be invented in Flynne’s timeline, Lev and his assistants Ash and Ossian send over 3D printing blueprints for a peripheral’s head-mounted human interface, which Flynne's techno-savvy friends Macon and Edward use to create a connectivity headband for her. Flynne puts on the headband, interfaces with the peripheral and seconds later opens her eyes in Lev’s house, where Wilf explains to her that the futuristic version of London that she sees is really a reality, albeit not one possible for her and her friends anymore now, after their timeline has been altered by the contact from Wilf's continuum.

But this is just the beginning. Android servants, genetically modified humans, 3D printers churning out anything from the latest smartphones to brain-computer interfaces, drug cartels ‘assembling’ new, ever-more potent drugs, nanobots serving both as healers and killers, extinct species, such as Thylacine, brought back to life as pets, the whole districts of London turned into huge theme parks where cosplaying visitors mingle with period-clad androids in top hats, luxurious land-yachts large enough to contain whole apartments, and not the least, ‘peripherals’ – android-like avatars almost undistinguishable from humans that can temporarily accept one’s consciousness, enabling one to be physically present in a different place, or even, as it is case with the protagonists of this novel, in a different timeline entirely – William Gibson’s novel takes you on a ride full of suspense and surprises where nothing is quite as it seems…

William Gibson’s distinct, rough writing style takes no prisoners and is hard to grasp at first, which makes it more difficult to immerse yourself fully in his world, but once you do, you wouldn’t want to leave.