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book review

As with so much of William Gibson’s writing, the glory is in the details.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

William Gibson is one of those speculative-fiction authors, like Jules Verne, whose work has been eerily prescient. Rather than having to wait a century to see his vision made manifest, however, Gibson, due to the recent dizzying pace of technological advancement, has seen parts of his imagined cyberpunk future get realized. Unfortunately for all of us, the grimmer the vision, the more vividly realized those moments of foresight have become, which bodes ill for the world if Gibson's latest work is imbued with similar prescience.

In The Peripheral, his 11th novel, Gibson is still looking into the future, but the bleakness of it, and the immediacy, seem even more sinister than usual. Perhaps that bleakness is a product of the times in which novel was written: the growing and unsettling presence of drones for reasons both martial and economic; big-box stores that actively worsen the lives of their employees and communities; the ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor; the rise of aggressive religious protest groups. The names may be different – Hefty Mart, or Luke 4:5 instead of the Westboro Baptist Church – but the evils are familiar, and though they are often a few degrees more extreme, it's the plausibility of Gibson's vision, the eerie accessibility of it, that provides The Peripheral with its darkest moments.

The Peripheral takes place in two distinct timelines which gradually converge. In the first, a not-too-distant future America ravaged by economic disparity, we meet Flynne Fisher, who earns part of a living playing video games; in the second, in a posh (yet oddly under-populated) London three-quarters of a century in the future, lives Wilf Netherton, who works in public relations. These two characters come together after Flynne, playing what she believes to be a video game that turns out to be a glimpse into the future, witnesses a murder (a spectacularly violent moment in which a woman is devoured from the inside by "nanotech chainsaws"). Flynne is contacted, from the future, by Netherton, who's interested in the victim and, more importantly, the man spotted standing next to the woman at the moment she was torn apart. Flynne eventually travels forward in time to help with the investigation thanks to the titular "peripherals," not-quite-humanoid beings into which she can upload her consciousness.

Flynne is an extraordinary character, complex and difficult, vibrant and angry, contradictory and frustrating. The way she acts and responds has a raw authenticity that grounds the novel when aspects of its narrative – or, more accurately, its narration – grows alienating. Her unpredictability and humanity butt up against the chilly prose, which becomes progressively more of a slog to get through as the novel goes on. The writing is often clumsy, ponderous and uncomfortable where Gibson is usually nimble, which is partially due to the complexity of the timelines. But it's more than temporal manipulation that slows the text; there is a mechanical weight to it, a wire-and-silicone heaviness that builds as The Peripheral progresses. As the plot becomes even messier and more convoluted, it starts to break down, like massive siege weapon that starts to shake apart when battle-tested.

Even as it begins to shamble and fall apart, however, The Peripheral is glorious. As with so much of Gibson's writing, the glory is in the details, the texture of the possible futures he invents and the horrors that lurk within them, the robots who suddenly bristle with spider-like eyes, mobile tattoos that crawl across the skin, grim android cosplay, the profound nausea and physical discomfort that comes from using new technologies. It's in the moments that are grotesque, unsettling, and beautiful. While reading The Peripheral is a sometimes-frustrating experience, it is worth struggling through for the ugly joy of digging your fingers deep into the tangle of flesh and wires.

Natalie Zina Walschots regularly writes about science fiction for the Globe.

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