This Friday, William Gibson is coming to town for an event at Motorco Music Hall, presented by The Regulator Bookshop, as Gibson tours internationally for his new book, The Peripheral, his first novel since 2010’s New York Times-bestselling Zero History. Gibson came to Durham on his tour for that book as well (photo, below/left) — it was a fantastic event and we’re expecting no less this time around. Below, Raleigh author Richard Butner reviews The Peripheral and interviews Gibson about the book. I hope you enjoy both. [Note: some information and events that occur later in the book are discussed in this review and interview.]
Review and interview by Richard Butner:
“The girl sat up in bed and said something in German. Her eyes were soft and unblinking. Automatic pilot. A neural cutout.” —Neuromancer
William Gibson dusts off this science fiction prop, the neural cutout, and deploys it again more centrally in The Peripheral. The novel is Gibson’s return to a far future, one that bears little resemblance to our present. Two futures, actually: in addition to one far downstream, another so close that you can smell it.
The binary stars of this book are subtler, rounder than some of the hardboiled badasses found in his earliest works. Less the romanticized idea of “the street” and more a gravel road in the country … if that gravel road has an equal chance of taking you to a setting of pastoral beauty, to the dollar store, or to a trailer where drugs are being cooked. Anchoring the near-future chapters is savvy (if sheltered) blue-collar Flynne, a.k.a. “Easy Ice”. Alternating chapters with Flynne is Wilf Netherton, a dissolute publicist seventy-some years further in the future.
If you’ve read Neuromancer (you haven’t?) you’ll see some resonances between the two books. This is a feature, not a bug.
In Neuromancer, there were neural cutouts and traumatized Special Forces vets. Even the trope of alternating chapters between the two eras in “The Peripheral” is reminiscent of Case flipping between cyberspace and Molly’s sensorium, and has the same effect of ratcheting up tension as the two worlds collide. Or rather, as they interpenetrate.
At first glance the far future of The Peripheral is not as seedy as the Sprawl, but it is much more disturbing under the surface. Of course, reading science fiction for rigorous predictions of the future is a dry and disappointing proposition. The reason to read this book (and to be clear, you should buy and read this book) is the Gibson sensibility, the stylish vigor with which he runs down the implications of haywire technologies fueling even crazier human behavior. Vicious cycles within vicious cycles.
The action starts innocently enough, with Flynne filling in for her brother who is testing a video game. Up in the future, Wilf Netherton is having trouble keeping his personal life separate from his business. This is science fiction, a tale of suspense, and a murder mystery, but it’s also very much a Southern novel. Flynne’s locale is never pinpointed, but the rural setting she inhabits is straight out of Winter’s Bone. Drive an hour down east from the Research Triangle, and a few years into the future, and you can find this place.
In science fiction, there is always a danger that the Big Ideas will overwhelm the characters. Here the thrill-ride plot provides the momentum, with the mass in the equation coming from the various catastrophes visited upon Wilf’s world, ones that might or might not happen in Flynne’s timeline. But lurking underneath all of that is a human-sized story about nostalgia. What if we could know the past in a more intimate way? The future? How will the lens of nostalgia distort the view of someone a century in our future, looking back at us? These questions are effectively invoked, especially in the sequences where Wilf uses a “clumsy toy” to explore a “strange world,” the past.
Would that we all had such clumsy toys to open up the strange worlds that lurk behind us.
Q: Neuromancer has references to The Velvet Underground and Steely Dan. Was there a soundtrack to this book, in a similar way?
Actually there wasn’t. The nearest thing to that would be that for Flynne’s character I felt sometimes like I was trying to channel Neko Case lyrics. Because I think she writes brilliantly, from what is in effect a female protagonist’s point of view. I love her lyrics. That’s not all I love about her music, but she’s a fantastic lyricist.
Q: Could you talk more about the genesis of Flynne?
She’s the result of what I suspect is a long arc in my work, or maybe just the result of having lived longer. When I wrote Neuromancer, I was really conscious of channeling my own adolescence. So I produced a book where there are no parents. Nobody in that book has any parents except 3Jane, and they’re monsters. In Neuromancer you wouldn’t have gotten a protagonist who is living with a parent who has some unidentified, apparently chronic, disease. There are no children in the early work, except for strange VR monsters shaped like children. I’m a guy in my sixties right now; I write this book and people have parents and they kind of have lives. This book isn’t constrained by the limits of the film noir universe. It’s operating on a different level.
Q: A few years ago there were some popular science articles about quantum retrocausality and time-traveling subatomic particles, did they have anything to do with the idea for the science fiction element in the book?
Just in a kind of mumbo-jumbo way. I remembered that little bubble of that stuff. I knew that there would be a remaining resonance there that would be operative with some of the audience. I just want you to believe it for the sake of reading the book. It’s very deliberately rendered as this completely hand-wavy fairy tale thing. A couple of times characters come really close to saying, “Thank God we don’t have to deal with any of that paradox and causality shit like in a regular time travel story.” I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to do that. What I really liked about it is having borrowed Lew [Shiner] and Bruce [Sterling]’s acausal transtemporal colonialism [from “Mozart in Mirrorshades”], I then rendered it all as a virtual experience. When I realized I could do that, I was really happy. I don’t really care about being original, but it’s such a rare thing in science fiction, that it kind of tickles me when I think I’ve come up with something that at least I’m not aware of. I’ve personally never run across it in science fiction before.
Q: In addition to science fiction, mystery, and thriller, I was reading a Southern novel here. Did you deliberately want to work with the materials of the Southern novel? Were you tapping into your roots here in any way?
It’s an accident, really. I think it’s really cool that you felt like it was a Southern novel. The state it’s in is never named. The town’s not named. The towns that are named in whatever wholly imaginary state it is, I just made those names up on the fly. What I was hoping was that I’d get something that was generic enough that readers in various states could think that maybe it was their state. I didn’t want to be too specific. But it was invariably colored by my only real deep experience of America, which was when I was a little kid. It was very much colored by where I grew up. I didn’t visualize it as being exactly like where I grew up. And in fact I didn’t visualize it very much. There’s less there in terms of general visual description than is customary in my work. It’s kind of sketched in. The detail is really childhood memory, like how the paint peels, and the trees and the general feel of it. My thumbnail note for it, to the extent that I had anything, was something like: Winter’s Bone with better smartphones.
Q: There are many resonances with Neuromancer. Are these the materials and situations that you return to or were you consciously responding to your younger self and his breakthrough novel?
No, I wasn’t even thinking about it. You know, except for Neuromancer, which I’ve had to read various times over the years with regard to possible film adaptations, I never re-read anything I’ve ever written. If my life depended on it I could not synopsize Count Zero. I could describe a couple of scenes. I can’t remember Mona Lisa Overdrive at all. So if I’m repeating myself it’s purely coming out of the core, the core unconscious. I was about to say there’s no element of auto hommage, and really I hope there isn’t. But I think sometimes I’ll remember something that people might think of as some kind of signature riff of mine and then I’ll try to invert it or not invert it as the situation demands. But it’s pretty far down in the texture of the thing and probably not that many people would notice it.
Q: Regarding future cataclysms, did you read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth or any similar books?
No, I actually haven’t read anything of any substance about any of that. I get it by osmosis. It’s kind of impossible not to get it by osmosis, although that’s probably just a function of my particular Twitter feed. The thing that makes it different is, both in our high culture and our pop culture, apocalypses have invariably been depicted as being unicausal. We got Triffids, the world’s ending! Or the US and the Soviet Union nuke themselves into mutual oblivion. It’s unicausal. The multicausal complex systemic apocalypse is way grown-up compared to any apocalypse in our mythology. And that seems to be the apocalypse that we’re threatened with. Not overnight or seven days or something, but forty years, seventy years. It’s outside, seemingly, of our current cultural frame of reference. I think that’s the difference and while I don’t like it I’m glad that I got to that recognition in the course of writing the book and was able to pose it as something to be aware of.
Q: Were you conscious of the science fictional idea of the Singularity while you were writing this book? Is this a Singularity book or an anti-Singularity book?
(Laughs.) I’ve always made coarse fun of the Singularity. I’ve done it before. I did it in All Tomorrow’s Parties. I’m making fun of the idea that it’s like, “everything will be totally groovy and all this shit that’s oppressed us will be totally gone.” Except it will all be happening in some way that we are currently incapable of even imagining. I always thought that that was patently ridiculous, because our world as human beings is fucked up. And it’s always been fucked up and it’s always been partial and half-assed. What I’m depicting in The Peripheral is a totally fucked-up half-assed Singularity. That has humanly mixed results.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER/INTERVIEWER
Richard Butner runs the Sycamore Hill Writers’ Conference. His chapbook Horses Blow Up Dog City & Other Stories was published by Small Beer Press in 2004.
His story “Ash City Stomp” appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror (Datlow, Link, and Grant, eds.) and was shortlisted for the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Fountain Award. More recently, his story “Holderhaven,” originally published in Crimewave 11: Ghosts, was a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award.
He performs with Bare Theatre, the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, and Urban Garden Performing Arts. Last year Urban Garden produced his play, “Vogue Men’s Fashions.”
ABOUT THE EVENT
Friday, November 7, 7:30 pm at Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave, Durham, NC. Tickets are $30.00 each. One ticket admits TWO people and is good for ONE copy of his new book,The Peripheral. Tickets are available online or in person at The Regulator Bookshop on 9th Street in Durham.