William Gibson and the Peripheral
In 1963, the Bronx Zoo had an exhibit titled "The Most Dangerous Animal in the World." It stood in the Great Apes section and consisted of a mirror behind bars.
Under the mirror was this caption:
You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.
This exhibit appeared soon after one of the Cold War's peaks: the Cuban Missile crisis. It lasted at least until 1989, although the zoo tweaked the message at least once.
It's a cynical and dark display, and something that comes to mind when I think of science fiction author William Gibson. An adaptation of Gibson's 2014 novel, The Peripheral, starting streaming on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago. It's excellent. But before I discuss the series, a little about Gibson.
I don't think it's possible to overstate William Gibson's contribution to not just science fiction, but to popular culture.
You can trace the roots of cyberpunk, sci-fi set in a bleak future dominated by dehumanizing technology, as far back as the 1940s. Those roots spread in the 60s and 70s, with authors like Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, and Harlan Ellison shifting away from a utopian view of the future toward a more cynical view colored by the Cold War, counterculture, and Watergate.
But it took Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, to solidify cyberpunk as a genre in 1984. He took Dick's noir-ish counterculture view of the future one step further by mixing in early 80s punk sensibilities and created a defining work. Neuromancer was the first novel to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award.
Neuromancer, the two sequels that followed it, and the short stories that came before (but lacked a wide audience until they were republished in 1986) influenced movies, comics, video games, and many many novels and series that came after it. For example, The Matrix got its name from Neuromancer. Johnny Mnemonic was based on one of the linked short stories.
Gibson went on to co-author The Difference Engine with Bruce Sterling, which became an important contribution in the steampunk genre.
While his name recognition has dropped since the 90s, Gibson has never gone away. He's written film scripts, more novels, TV shows, and collaborated with many other authors.
Gibson's Work and the Real World
I didn't read Neuromancer until the mid-90s. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Cold War was over and we believed in a place called Hope.
Then I saw Gibson's future. I learned to be afraid of dehumanizing technology, immoral corporations, soulless artificial intelligences, and omnipotent billionaires.
Of course, parts of Neuromancer and its sequels looked far-fetched. I may not have had dial-up Internet at home yet when I read it, and was working on market data systems that relied on private networks. But his vision of a ubiquitous Internet seemed possible. However, the way he described his internet and the way people "jacked in" to the "matrix" hasn’t come true yet.
His predictions of all-encompassing evil corporations and evil billionaires that control entire cities and countries seemed dark and cynical, even in the shadow of the Cold War military-industrial complex and big oil. Governments were all but irrelevant in the series—the massive conglomerates and the wealthy held all the power. None of this seemed as likely in the mid-90s as they do today. At least, not to me.
But less than a decade later, it was Gibson's mega-corps I thought of as Amazon, Facebook, and Google grew. Stories about Iraq’s Blackwater mercenaries brought Neuromancer’s villain Armitage, a ex-military operative, to mind.
And, well, how about those billionaires?
That brings us to the topic at hand.
Minor spoilers ahead. I haven't finished the novel, and the TV series isn't over yet, so I'll only be revealing a few plot points.
Gibson set The Peripheral and its sequel, Agency, in both near and far futures. (First spoiler.)
The near future looks a lot like today. There's some new tech, including implants for soldiers that are rather frightening and more ubiquitous 3D-printing, including technology like phones and medicine. But Flynne, the protagonist, and her brother work assorted jobs to pay for their mother's medication. Medicine can be 3d-printed but that hasn't made it any cheaper and, well, health insurance doesn’t look any better.
Flynne’s brother suffers from PTSD and side effects from his military implants but as Flynne says “VA aren’t doing s**t, to help him recover.” So, that hasn’t changed.
The future has some amazing technology that I won't go into it to minimize spoilers.
It also has the "klepts," short for kleptocrats that use their family wealth to play power games with real people as their chess pieces. Their power and depravity is so overwhelming that it extends into the past. (Second spoiler.)
“The jackpot” separates the near and far futures. Here's how the novel describes it:
No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.
Water shortage? Diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic? Honeybees gone? Have we already hit the jackpot?
I prefer the novel, but I'm a "prefer the novel" guy. The TV series is excellent; remarkably well done and the best thing I’ve seen on Amazon so far. It's run by the same people that ran HBO's Westworld, so we can expect at least two seasons before it gets lost staring into its own navel. Who knows, maybe with Gibson's material, they'll avoid that fate.
I heartily recommend both the novel and streaming versions of The Peripheral. The show deviates from the book enough that you can enjoy both and probably have fun comparing them.
See you Thursday!
P.S. “Great Dismal” is Gibson’s Twitter handle. He grew up near the swamp.