Monday, December 22, 2014

The Peripheral: A Review

William Gibson's The Peripheral is an pre-apocalyptic novel (likely somewhere in Missouri) set in the dystopian near future (~2025 AD) U.S. Midwest, and simultaneously a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel set in the mid-distant (~2100 AD) future London.

William Gibson is famous as the author of the cyberpunk novel Necromancer.  One of the most influential science fictions of all time.  Although the cyber- part of the punk has faded in and out, varying forms of gritty, dystopian, near futures, or even speculative pasts often borrow the moniker: nano-punk, steam-punk, et al.  Lately Gibson's novels have taken place in a tech-driven, dystopian present.
The plotting is somewhat beside the point.  It is a small story, a dangerous intrigue if you will, that is of major importance to the actors, but not generally of a global scope.  You have a current near term slow-collapse, soon to reach more complete collapse rural United States.  I noted Missouri above because the topography is slightly hilly and broken and yet they are close enough to hurricane ally to note public shelters, and the main protagonist is a young lady named Flynn.  Which given the tone of the dystopia, is very likely a nod toward Gillian Flynn and her dark Midwestern novels such as Gone Girls and more in particular here, Dark Places.  It is collapsed rural landscape that features damaged U.S. special forces folks, illegal but economically important designer drug designer/manufacturers, and a variety of normal folks trying to survive in a location where all the jobs have dried up.  In the case of Flynn, she would leave for someplace else, but she is taking care of her ailing mother.
The second plot of the story involves a dystopian London.  It is a world that has recovered from a multi-locus (peak-everything, global warming, localized pandemics, et cetera) collapse.  But the here and now is not overly friendly with an oligarchy of "business folk" much like the business folk that turned up after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  That they are referred to as the Klept, short for Kleptocracy, pretty much tells you how much fun they are.  Fortunately, technology is of a level that they don't need slave camps, and too many worker drones, but they tend to keep a tight reign on any activities of importance, and to gain their attention can be a lethal issue.
Essentially the folks of the future have figured out how to communicate with the folks of their alternative pasts.  Alternative is key because once the future contacts the past, the past goes off on a separate track, and its eventual (70 years later) present, will differ.  Of course whether you call that an alternative past, or future, is all a matter of perspective.  In any case, it is only communications (information) that can pass back and forth, not physical reality.
So the people of the future go back into the past, and hire some of the ex-veterans to "inhabit" drones of their future, to act as security guards of a sort.  The future is a little short on people, and it is easy to get hold of money when you can game the stock market at will with advanced AI-algorithms.  In any case, Flynn filling in for her brother, witnesses a murder, a murder committed by someone associated with Klept-level politics, and it turns into a murder mystery with people of both time-frames using proxy devices of the other's world to make appearances and generally create mayhem.
I will say it is an interesting read, and I did enjoy it.  Parts of it reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson's REAMDE, other parts of Corry Doctorov's Maker's, and as I noted above Flynn's Dark Places updated from the 1980s.  Oddly enough, it shares some of the failings of all of these novels.  It has a really interesting tech-heavy futuristic, speculative plot that is very hard to sustain, mixed in with elements of the here and now, that can be hard to keep exciting.  Getting your mom her meds. is realistic, but not exciting. 
So it is a fun enough read if you think you might like a somewhat futuristic mystery, with a little bit of low tech assassination action thrown in for the fun of it.  But Gibson, like Stephenson and Doctorov are, and Flynn should be, are considered thoughtful authors, so it brings into play the "worthiness" of the thoughts.
The depiction of the Missouri slow collapse is well done.  The author is extrapolating based on known trends.  Their tech is a little ahead of ours, but not by much.  It shows, realistically, the worst near future outcome for the continuing globalized, techno-future.  If Doctorov has his folks making useful gadgets that quickly get copied so that profit margins only survive a few months, we have that here:  only the useful things are drugs. We have Stephenson's mercenaries of the online roleplaying game: except they are not Chinese youth, but unemployed young U.S. vets.  The author does not assign one cause for the coming collapse, but notes a number of causal agents.
The future dystopian is obviously more speculative.  It argues, as Gibson would be inclined, for technical solutions to our current problems.  The technology is a gearing up of current AI possibilities with nano technology.  Either of which have been used all by themselves in apocalyptic scenarios. It is not completely clear just who is in charge, but neither the "algorithms" nor the Klept, can be guaranteed to have the best interests of the common folks at heart.
To the extent that there is an actionable message, it would probably center around the idea that nimble folks with resources, and allies, are more likely to come out ahead.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is a bit split.  Obviously 100 years in the future, or even 25 years, is going to throw in some distortions.  I would also say that some of the story line (the financial speculation, and the ending story line) seem to involve a little hand waving to make the story work as a story.  But within those constraints it does a pretty could job of facing off with folks who have access to more resources than you, and the problematic nature of survival in a world with a distorted legal system.  It's a 5.
Readability is mixed.  It has elements of a page turner in places, but the author's style, its detailed descriptions, make it difficult to flip-fast and still follow the action.  There are a fair number of characters to keep up with. Some don't seem to do much except add color to the proceedings. In addition there is an a lot of setup, and a lot of background/world building going on.  They are very well thought out world building exercises, but it does slow up the pacing. At 485 pages, it is a semi-doorstopper.   It is a 3, an interesting 3, but a 3 none-the-less.


No comments: