This post spoils plot elements of this novel — which, I shall note here, I enjoyed very much.
The entire Observer today reads like a prequel to @GreatDismal's "Jackpot".— BenTye (@BenTye) November 29, 2015
The last William Gibson book I managed to finish, I think, was either the beat-up Count Zero paperback that appeared in my possession from an unknown source, or the copy of Spook Country he autographed for me after a reading at the Brattle Theatre. Both of these I read while living on Linden Avenue, so around the middle of the previous decade. Gibson novels had a strange effect on me, I decided: I remembered their mood and voice well, but not so much their events or plot. I recall their characters as tinted impressions.
I had to give myself an extra push to re-enter a Gibson novel after such a long break, but I feel better equipped now to notice and appreciate the particular economy of this author’s style. He writes, I think, with the language of cinema: when the narrative attaches itself to a character, it does not proceed to climb right inside their head, but rather pulls in tight, so we see learn their inner state through descriptions not just of their actions but their pose, facial tics, and subvocalizations. The point of view remains externally locused, observing its target characters with intimate closeness and familiarity but still leaving a gap for the the reader to close. I suspect that, back as a younger reader, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with this, and the characters just ended up feeling ill-defined.
I may have had an easier time with the The Peripheral than with other recent Gibson work due to its pacing, which, unusually, moves from the cinematic into the positively telegenic. It flipbooks through nearly 150 very short chapters — three or four pages long, on average — that jump-cut between the two protagonists, living in their very different worlds. (This pattern continues, rewardingly, even when they are together.) There is the young Flynne, whose role in my mental playhouse belongs to Jennifer Lawrence as she appears in Winter’s Bone, and in the same setting. Her counterpart, Netherton, didn’t necessarily find such an actor. He reminded me of what I could recall from Count Zero’s protagonist, and also the primary characters of Philip K. Dick novels: someone whose world regarded them as much more talented than they saw themselves, and whose screw-ups, fueled by self-doubt, help set the plot in motion. (At one point in the story, Netherton allows himself to get blackout drunk in a bar called “Impostor Syndrome”.)
The century-on London that Netherton inhabits proves just as gloomy as his own inner life. In a masterfully long head-fake that straddles the first two thirds of the story, Netherton’s future-world at first appears to coincide with the anarchic, post-singularity land of plenty depicted by Cory Doctorow in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the apparent beneficiary of something its people call “the jackpot”. Nano-assemblers work miracles, everywhere. The post-human citizenry enjoys internet connectivity at the cellular level, and portable auto-docs have made bodily injury and disease obsolete. Leisure and pursuit of personal passions remain the sole human occupations; Netherton, when he meet him, works as a publicist for a violently mercurial performance artist.
Only after Flynne and her near-future exploited-America family visit this world, via the story’s titular, science-fictional mechanism, do observations appear that something seems deeply wrong with this paradise. People, they find, seem startlingly rare, especially for a major metropolis. Those they do encounter often share a sort of baseline mournfulness. Netherton and his friends don’t want to talk about it with Flynne, but of course, gradually, it comes out anyway: “the jackpot” was not an overnight apocalypse, but an avalanche of misery that wracked all life on earth for decades. The side-effects of human ambition during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could stack no higher and came crashing down, with the fifth horseman of runaway global warming leading the other four to trample the whole world. Humanity fought through it, emerging with miraculous science to cauterize the disaster, but only after an eighty-percent dieback of the global population, as well as whole biomes vanishing and untold numbers of animal extinctions.
I get the impression that this describes the author’s hopeful vision for our own world’s future. I did read most of Distrust That Particular Flavor, his collection of non-fiction articles and essays from a few years back. The title refers to his admonition for younger readers to beware older folks exhibiting an après moi le déluge attitude, which he viewed as a frustratingly common mental state among his own generation. After that, Gibson personally seemed to let himself sink into a state of deep hopelessness, which he aired on his Twitter account. He shared his feelings of resignation to the idea that our species, lousy with willful climate-change deniers, seemed unlikely to survive the next century. I found that a sufficiently disappointing irony, given Particular Flavor’s title theme, that I dropped him from my Twitter timeline for a couple of years, even though I found his taste in shared links and retweets very strong.
As such, it felt oddly refreshing, even reassuring, to find in The Peripheral this viewpoint wrought into fiction, depicting a course that leads through indescribable disaster, but also continuity and even hope — albeit hope filtered down through a very overcast sky. (It also gives Flynne’s world the chance to dodge the bullet entirely — but only through the direct intercession of overt time-travelers, leading to a Harry Potter-style happy ending with everyone safe and wealthy and naming their kids after each other. It felt just a little too oversaturated, and perhaps this was inentional.)
I can resist the temptation to think that this novel describes the future accurately, let alone as a best-case scenario. But its concept of “the jackpot”, the long and painful anti-apocalypse, sticks. I have started following @GreatDismal again, and among his wide-ranging retweets lie those times someone shudders in public that some current event gives them a chilling premonition of the jackpot, in so many words. I do feel a certainty that most people alive today will live to see things get bad enough that recollectin of past climate-change denialism will fill us with collective shame. It remains to be seen wither, as in Netherton’s London, this is doomed to wither and then bloom, terribly, into species-level survivor’s guilt.