"The Peripheral": The Past, Present, and Future Diverge

The future is inside us, it’s not somewhere else. — Radiohead, “The Numbers”

In The Peripheral (2014), William Gibson turns his prescient imagination to time travel, one of science fiction’s most shopworn tropes. The result is a heady, fast-paced, sometimes disorienting leap into not one but two possible futures. 

The first timeline, where we meet Flynne Fisher and her brother, Burton, is like now, just a little different. Imagine small-town America as it might be in 30 years: still working hard to make ends meet, but more rundown by a persistent lack of economic opportunity, the wealth gap more pronounced, the quality of life for everyday people going backwards even as technology races ahead. Surely the American dream is still alive somewhere in this future, but it has long since expired for the working class. All that’s left is an economy based on multinational big-box stores and fast-food chains, a 3D-printing industry that uses its spare capacity to make illegal drugs and black-market knock-offs of mainstream goods, and, for the few with exceptional gaming skills, like Flynne and Burton, occasional opportunities to make money as a player-for-hire in online combat games. In other words: things could be better.

The second timeline unfolds seventy-some years after Flynne and Burton’s ... sort of. In this future, let’s call it the early twenty-second century for simplicity, technology has progressed into the vicinity of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. Among the many advances is a mysterious computer server capable of communicating with the past. This server is the time machine of Gibson’s novel. When the server makes contact with the past, it creates an alternate timeline branch, or continuum, separate from the actual past of the twenty-second-century timeline. The timelines are linked by the two-way flow of information through the server, but they are causally separate from the point of contact onward, each proceeding into its own future. Events in the new continuum don’t change the twenty-second-century timeline, because the twenty-second century is no longer the future of the new continuum. In this paradigm, physical time travel is impossible, because everything in a particular continuum, including its human inhabitants, is the continuum; what we think of as time is in us, not the other way around, so a person can never be separated from her present. Information, however, is time-agnostic, and it is through information exchange between different continua that a form of time travel becomes possible. 

It’s a complicated premise, and for the first one hundred pages Gibson lets the plot unfold in the parallel timelines with minimal exposition. In the 21st century, Flynne subs for her brother at a job flying security drones in what she thinks is a hyper-realistic online game. While on duty in the game, she witnesses a gruesome death, so brutal and calculated it can only be described as murder, virtual or otherwise. She tells herself it’s only a game, but she can’t shake the feeling that somehow, impossibly, it was real. Meanwhile in the twenty-second century, Wilf Netherton, a London-based public-relations expert for exotic celebrities, watches helplessly as a very high-profile client’s live-streaming publicity stunt goes very, very wrong. 

At first the two events seem unrelated, but it is soon revealed that Flynne and Burton’s timeline is an alternate continuum created by Netherton’s friend, Lev Zubov, who happens to be heir to a fortune from the heyday of the old (presumably our present) Russian kleptocracy. (The twenty-second century being what it is, the technology is accessible only by a handful of ultra-wealthy enthusiasts, who reach back in time to create new continua for their amusement, effectively “third-worlding” the past, as one of the characters who helped to create the continuum for Lev describes it.) The murder Flynne witnessed was real—but it happened in Netherton’s timeline, not her own. Her virtual presence becomes a very real complication for the killer and his accomplices.

What follows is a conventional mystery-thriller, albeit complicated (in a good way) by Gibson’s unconventional take on information-based time travel. Flynne’s timeline becomes an experimental battleground in a contest between the authorities in Netherton’s timeline, represented by the “hyperfunctionally ancient” Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, and the killer, who turns out to be backed by powerful interests. The more influence each side exerts in Flynne’s timeline, the more it diverges from its historical trajectory to become something entirely new, to the point where Lowbeer seems as intent on shaping the future of the timeline as she is in bringing the murderer to justice. The Detective Inspector’s past reaches all the way back to the point where the two timeline’s diverged, which puts Lowbeer in the unique position of possibly being able to avert a global catastrophe known as the jackpot. The jackpot, immutable in Lowbeer’s own timeline, hasn’t yet happened in Flynne’s future, and therefore can still be prevented, at least in theory.

With so many moving parts to work with, Gibson deftly piles up conflicts, complications, and plot twists for Flynne and Netherton as fast as the reader can turn the pages. Like the reader, both characters are always a step behind, but always in good hands.

William Gibson. Photo by  Frédéric Poirot , 2007,  CC BY-SA 2.0 .

William Gibson. Photo by Frédéric Poirot, 2007, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Woven into the backdrop of the novel’s two futures is an astonishing tapestry of advanced technology, all of it recognizable as having descended from contemporary precursors. Gibson has a well-deserved reputation for identifying those places in modern life where the future has already arrived, and then extrapolating social and cultural consequences. The Peripheral bears a strong resemblance to his first novel, Neuromancer, in this respect. As in Neuromancer, technological advancement doesn’t bring about a better, more just, more equitable world; it just brings more change, faster. Political systems are still corrupt. Individuals are still all but powerless, unless they are wealthy. The rich get richer; everyone else dies or just goes along to get along, but with smarter smartphones and higher-resolution televisions to distract from the emptiness of their consumption-focused lives. It’s the oldest story of the modern age, and we seem doomed to keep reliving it.

But The Peripheral also offers hope. The future of a timeline isn’t fated; it’s a vector, the product of direction, inertia, and momentum, metaphorically speaking. Gibson shows how information and action can change that vector. It’s easier than we think: to change the future, we only need to change the present. And we don’t need to wait for some new technology to make change possible; it’s something we can do ourselves, today. So let’s get started.

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