The Peripheral

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Gibson, William. The Peripheral. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014 (1st edition 28 Oct. 2014). Available on Kindle and an unabridged Penguin audiobook.

Peripheral is described by Zach Baron as "basically a noirish murder mystery wearing a cyberpunk leather jacket," and this is correct.[1] The interest of the novel, and its significance here, is its setting in two technodystopic futures: one set in rural America not too long after 2014 in the 21st century, the other a bit over "seventy years later, in the early 22nd century, […] in London several decades after an apocalyptic event known as the Jackpot."[2] By a process that might as well be magical — but is said top be mediated by a quantum computer server — "continua" enthusiasts of the more distant future can transmit data to and receive data from their past, the audience's closer future, and manipulate it. Since the contact with the past in the further future had not happened, the nearer future breaks off into a "stub," and nothing that happens in the new past can affect the further future with which it is in contact. (You needn't understand any of that to enjoy the novel or understand this annotation.)

The near future dystopia includes 3-D printing on a large scale and central to the economy; the further future includes "Assemblers" that can be expressed in incredibly productive construction machines or become deadly nanobots; and there are, of course, in both worlds, avatars, plus drones and biological agents and other nifty weapons and surveillance devices. Central to the story are "peripherals" and the ability to set up precursors to "peripherals" in the stub. The further-future people produce a primitive precursor to a "peripheral" when one of the far future characters takes over — as an IT person nowadays might commandeer your computer to fix a problem — takes over a "Wheelie-Boy": a kind of miniature Segway[3] with a tablet on it like the next-generation iPad. We see more advanced peripherals in the future, with a very elegant, male-gendered sparring-partner run by a major male character and a female-gendered android robot — an all-organic robot — taken over by the female hero.

By the end of this long novel, we see peripherals that are child-like (the Wheelie-Boy), macho (with mediation via a "homunculus"), feminine, neuter (what seems to be a very large red cube) — and human-driven and AI-driven. Note well the cybernetically-accomplished human "occupation" of these devices, making them "peripherals" in the sense of extensions of human bodies; and note well human interaction with these entities: interfacing intellectually and emotionally. Gibson is too humanistic in Peripheral to give us "and they married and lived happily ever after" for a human/Wheelie-Boy relationship across time, but in the world of this novel such a relationship is thinkable.


Toward the beginning of the novel note a main female character (Flynne Fisher) in the rural world in telepresence in futuristic London operating a drone with the mission — she thinks in a game — to chase off paparazzi in flying swarms of tiny drones that are shaped like dragonflies; except insofar as dragonflies are admirable little predators, this image usefully literalizes insults of paparazzi as swarming insects. Instances of nanobots in swarms occur earlier and later, establishing a motif of mechanism/insect in the traditions of The Ovion/Cylon Alliance and the Swarm. (Other impressive insectoid mechanisms include a translator/encryption device compared to a jeweled spider; and female-gendered, Japanese-ethnized security robots are associated with spiders.)
A major male character (Conner Penske) is a maimed veteran with sufficient cybernetic "haptics"[4] and prostheses of electro-mechanical, cybernetic, and IT varieties that it may be legitimate to see him as a cyborg, advancing a theme in such works as "Masks," "No Woman Born," Man Plus, Limbo, Futurama's "The Six Million Dollar Mon", and Snow Crash.
About 1/6 into the book, in the rural setting on a time-line like ours in our near-future, there is a character sitting in the background of a scene, working a device we may think of as a telepresence waldo. Cf. and contrast similar devices for manipulation at a greater or lesser distance in such fiction and cinematic works as "Waldo (short story)", The Female Man, THX 1138, READY PLAYER ONE (film).
Note that Conner's high-tech "trike" runs on something like refined chicken fat, and smells that way. Cf. and contrast the pig shit/methane (energy, political power) combination in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME.

Discussed by Carmen M. Méndez-García in “The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, from Symposium: The CyberPunk Culture Conference, conveniently posted in SFRA Review 50.4 (Fall 2020).[5][6] Méndez-García stresses the nuance(s) and development in Gibson's ideas on the body and the limitations of his endorsement of a kind of mind in the Cartesian mind/body duality.

In his texts, technology can enhance and liberate the mind, but it can also destroy the body [...]. Technology can also, however, fix bodies [...], even if that body-repairing technology is connected to its origins in military operations.

The use of different bodies and avatars in The Peripheral seems to eventually be mostly positive, as they ultimately serve each character’s original timelines and their communities, i.e. their reality. The poor and disabled characters in The Peripheral whose minds are being projected into other bodies are able to access abilities they no longer have, and environments they could never walk in. But they do know, no matter how exhilarating the experience may be, that this is temporary and serving a specific purpose [...].

People in the future in The Peripheral use these cyborg bodies as tools, but they are also willing to use the minds from the past (and their skills and knowledge) as a commodity. The people from the past enter this pact, this disembodied rental of their selves, knowingly and expecting to get something in return. What they are initially hoping for is money, something they are in dire need of, but towards the end of the book they get more than they bargained for, in the form of agency [...].

Sequel (and in a sense prequel): Agency (2020).

RDE, 17Mar15, 26Mar20 f.