We’ve probably all known someone, a friend or a colleague, who talks about some aspect of their life as if you know it as intimately as they do. They might say something like, ‘Mark and Susie won’t be going back to see John and Liz anymore.’ Or, ‘The shipment of colnicates didn’t arrive so we’re going to have problems with our dernidrites.’ Who are Mark and Susie? you might ask. Should I know John and Liz? What’s a colnicate? And what do they have to do with dernidrites?
That’s what William Gibson’s The Peripheral is like. He talks about characters and a world you know nothing about. That’s not unusual in science fiction, and neither is the fact that Gibson drops us into two worlds we know nothing about. What is unusual is that there is no set up, no explanation of either world, or any kind of background on the rules of what’s normal here and what isn’t. I’m all for keeping exposition to a minimum if it cannot be avoided completely, but with no context, I’m unsure what to make of a description such as:
‘Perhaps a little over two meters tall, with disproportionately long arms, the boss had arrived atop a transparent penny farthing, the large wheel’s hollow spokes patterned after the bones of an albatross. He wore a ragged tutu of UV-frayed sheet-plastic flotsam, through whose crumbling frills could be glimpsed what Rainey called his double dickage.’
The action – and there is plenty of that – occurs in two future versions of Earth; one is a nearer future and the other is 70 years after that. People from the further future can manipulate the past. When our heroine, Flynne, from the nearer future, witnesses a murder in the further future while she thought she was playing a video game, people from the further future set out to keep her quiet. Or something.
Flynne seems nice enough. She appears to be the underdog, coming from a world where most of her friends can only earn money by playing videos games. Meanwhile, in the further future, it’s only the rich and privileged who have survived, and yet they’re still toying with the poor by manipulating time. On the other hand, Flynne’s brother, Burton, is the most elite of elite marines, and all his friends are almost as elite as he is, so Flynne’s got plenty of back up. These guys might be traumatised by what they were put through, a few even have bionic-type artificial limbs, but they can still handle themselves, so it’s fairly clear from early on that Flynne will be fine in the end.
There were just too many unanswered questions along the way for me. And, just when I thought I was getting the hang of one world, the perspective would shift to the other. That also made it difficult to get involved with any of the characters. Like that friend’s story about colnicates, dernidrites, Mark, Susie, John or Liz, it’s difficult to become engaged with the broader narrative if so many details are unfamiliar.
Any Cop?: This is William Gibson’s eleventh novel. The man knows what he’s doing. I just wasn’t always sure what his characters were doing, and the lack of details and context made them too remote for me to really care.