William Gibson, celebrated author of the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer and coiner of the term "cyberspace," seems surprised by the notion that his new novel, The Peripheral, marks a return to science fiction after a 15-year hiatus.
"I didn't think of it that way," he says. "I was never entirely convinced that the three previous books [2003's Pattern Recognition, 2006's Spook Country, and 2010's Zero History] weren't science fiction."
That trilogy about marketing, politics, and the War on Terror took place in the shadow of 9/11 and was set quite clearly in the first decade of this new century. But however you want to categorize that sequence, in his new book, Gibson unambiguously presents fresh visions of possible futures.
A longtime resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Gibson, 66, speaks openly and deliberately about his work, his voice still flavored with a drawl from his youth in Virginia.
Asked what it was like to turn his hand again to out-and-out futuristic science fiction, Gibson says, "The short answer is that it was surprisingly hard work. The invention of imaginary futures was something I had taken for granted from the start of my career. I wasn't conscious of it as an extra level of effort requiring any greater energy. Much to my surprise, in writing The Peripheral, I discovered that it did."
The Peripheral spotlights one of Gibson's most appealing protagonists, Flynne Fisher, a practical and capable young woman in a rundown Southern town with few options for legal employment. She agrees to sit in for Burton, her disabled Marine brother, when he needs a night away from his job, ostensibly as a videogame beta-tester. From her virtual vantage point, Flynne witnesses what looks like a murder, as a woman falls from a skyscaper balcony and seems to be consumed by nanoparticles on the way down. Before she knows what's happening, hired assassins are dispatched to wipe out her entire family.
Luckily for the extended Fisher clan, help is on the way from London, of all places. A motley and mysterious crew, consisting of the son of a Russian billionaire, an enigmatic detective inspector, and an alcoholic publicist named Wilf Netherton, are doing everything they can to protect Flynne, up to and including manipulating the global economy for her benefit. How exactly the trio connects to Flynne's predicament is held back for a good portion of the novel.
Gibson doesn't provide a lot of exposition in The Peripheral. Background information is conveyed largely in terse, sometimes elliptical dialogue, and the meanings of many events only become clear in hindsight. Gibson says he struggled with how best to dole out critical information.
"There's an extra degree of work there and an extra degree of taking care of the potential reader," he says. "Which I think is the difficult part, deciding how much one can allow the reader to have to infer about the world that's being presented. In The Peripheral, I think I tend to err more to the side of letting the reader figure it out."
Gibson's process of discovering plot, character, and theme is arduous in its own right. "I'm the least structural of writers," he says. "There's no outline, and I can't work at all if I have too clearly imagined the whole story arc of the book. It has to define itself in agonizing iterations."
Nevertheless, Gibson had a goal in mind when he started drafting this novel. "I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to dream up an imaginary future still in the 21st century, if I tried to extrapolate a future from what we've got today," he says. "And that was all I was after. I was open to whatever it might be."
The futuristic items he dreamed up for The Peripheral include resurrected Tasmanian wolves kept as pets, "funny" phones you answer with your tongue, and an event called "the jackpot" that nobody wants to talk about. There's also the title device, a human-like organic body that houses Flynne's consciousness when she visits London remotely.
Despite his efforts at extrapolation, Gibson insists that trying to predict the future is a chump's game, and that people from different eras can't even agree on what happened in the past.
"If I could have any one body of knowledge about the real future, I'd want to know what [people in the future] think our history was," he says. "The Victorians thought they were nothing like what we know the Victorians to be like. We've got their number, and the future has ours."
Except for The Difference Engine, written in collaboration with Bruce Sterling, Gibson's novels have all been part of trilogies, loosely connected as some of them might be. He insists, however, that he has no interest extending the narrative from The Peripheral into two further volumes.
"I've never written a book that I thought I would describe as less than entirely serious, even though some of them are funny. But this one strikes me as being a little more serious in some ways. I would really prefer to leave it at that and not risk having it look like the beginning of some sort of franchise," he says.
There's a possibility that he might write a novella that explains the backstory of Flynne's peripheral, but he described the device's provenance as "very tragic" and says he's not in the mood to write anything too grim after The Peripheral.
"To the extent that I'm trying to figure out what fiction I might like to write next, I'm looking for darkly comic material that would move along really quickly and keep me laughing," he says.
Given where the future looks like it could be heading, we could all use some more laughs from William Gibson.