William Gibson’s The Peripheral

The new Gibson novel seems to me to be about three things: space, time and class.

In classic Gibsonesque style, it threads together stories that begin in two different places. One is the kind of landscape I recognize from spending time in upstate New York. A rural, mostly working class, mostly white landscape, with very few jobs, and not much money going around.

In Gibson’s version, this landscape is saturated in ‘builders’, the near-future equivalent of crystal-meth makers and dealers. And it is populated by war veterans with their psychological damage, or worse. But this is a people portrayed sympathetically here. Doing the best with a fucked-up situation.

The other space is London, but one inhabited exclusively by the one-percent and their minions. The ones we meet are what Gibson rather perfectly calls ‘klept.’ It is a very spooky London, with rather few people in it.

This is not the first time Gibson has written about London, which really could be the emblematic space of the near future. Partly its geographic. London sits on a small island, one which seems on the way to being the first gentrified country, rather than merely city. Its hinterland is shrinking into service zones for London klept, or left over junkspace.

The Peripheral is about space as class, then. But it is also about time, and time as history. This brings us to the – spoiler alert! – narrative device of the book. The two places do not occupy the same time. Time is out of joint. London is in a future, the rural America is in a past, but not necessarily the past to that future.

There is a ‘server’, probably somewhere in China, or under Chinese control, that allows some klept hobbyists to directly connect to a past just a few decades ago. (The word ‘server’ working here a bit like the way ‘router’ does in Charlie Stross). Nothing they do there changes their own future. The pasts they can connect to are ‘stubs’, which branch off into different futures as soon as they meddle with them.

These ‘continua enthusiasts’ play in the past for various reasons. The plot here involves a crime caper, something witnessed in the future by someone in a past. This gets future klept rather involved in a stub of a past, and vice-versa.

That need not concern us. What is interesting in this novel to me is the way Gibson thinks class. There is a complete disconnect between the one-percenter klept class and anyone other than their servants. They inhabit a world in which nobody else exists.

What separates the time of the klept in London from the time of the rural American folk is the moment of the ‘jackpot’, which is perhaps the most striking name anyone has offered for the Anthropocene figured as crisis.

In this version, it is the London one-percenter klept who survive – and nobody else. And their relation to historical time is a dilettante one. They play with the relation between past and present events, either for fun, or to sell real estate.

Thus Gibson figures the global class divide not just as a geopolitics but as a temporal rupture. The rich are different to you and I, they not only have more money, they occupy a different and incompatible time.

McKenzie Wark

  • Jason Newton

    I’m enjoying the novel but I wish the idea of how the technology in regards to the mythical Chinese server actually worked. Obviously it’s a work of fiction but it needs some kind of verisimilitude to make it seem as if it could be possible. Just saying that people can interact with the past without any kind of explanation is sort of lame. Just writing about Wilf Netherton and Flynne video-conferencing across decades without any explanation of the technology involved is frustrating.

    When I used to enjoy Michael Crichton’s novels, the science was obviously far-fetched but it was always sprinkled with grains of truth. Everyone knows cloning dinosaurs is impossible but it was explained in a way that made you think it could be possible.

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