(2014) Penguin Viking, £8.99, pbk, 486pp, ISBN 978-0-241-96100-1
Her brother, Burton Fisher, tests computer games but, having too much on, passes on some work to sister Flynne Fisher. Her job is to protect a character from flying, intrusive paperatsi drones. When she logs into the game via the internet, it depicts a weird, almost realistically detailed and puzzlingly almost empty, London. She spends some time successfully deflecting the intrusive drones. She then noticed a strange bot clambering up the building towards the character she was meant to protect from the drones. The character was with a man who, seeing Flynne's own drone, tried to cover his face. The next thing Flynne saw was the character being killed in a mass of blood. It was not the sort of thing she expected in this kind of computer game.
Shortly after, she talked about the game's surprise turn of events with her brother. But Burton has news of his own: apparently he had been informed that someone had taken out a hit contract to kill him! It seems that the game was not a game but real life and someone thought that Burton had witnessed an actual murder when in fact Flynne had. This meant that whoever was after Burton would now be gunning for Flynne.
Events become weirder and weirder. It transpires that the peculiar London was actually a real future London. Further, that Burton and Flynn lived in an alternate time-line past of this real future some 70 years ahead; their alternate time-line branched off of reality in 2023 in the alternate's not too distant past and their alternate time-line was a 'stub' of reality. Apparently, those in the future use stubs to game-play politics, economic experiments and even technological development. Physical travel between the future present and the alternate pasts is not possible, but electronic communication is. Further, the rate time passes (a second per second) is fixed in both reality and the alternative past: it is locked, from the moment the stub (alternate timeline) is created. It is therefore not possible for the people from the future to hop about the alternate time-line.
The authorities in the future want Flynn to identify the man who had been with the victim the moment she was murdered. This means that Flynn has to have a tele-presence in the future London and this is done using biological, humanoid replicants (peripherals) in the future to which Flynne is electronically, sense-around connected. (Hence the 'peripheral' title of the novel.)
In the real future London, an elderly, female secret service operative and former policewoman hires a public relations expert, Wilf Netherton, to calmly explain the totally unbelievable situation to Flynn in the alternate past while she mobilises forces in the stub timeline to protect Flynne and her brother. A PR agent is needed as not only is the whole situation is bizarre but, while the timelines are different, in reality there has been an apocalyptic event in the past which is also Flynne and Burton's likely future!
The story is told in chapters that strictly alternate between past Flynne's and future Netheron's perspectives. This works well and on occasion as these two principal protagonists are together all be it one of them present via telecommunication or in a humanoid peripheral, the plot sometimes progresses seamlessly across chapters.
This is an intriguing take on the time travel trope. In an acknowledgements afterword, William Gibson reveals that the notion of 'third-worlding' an alternate past comes from the story 'Mozart in Mirrorshades' by Bruce Sterling. But, of course, the idea of time travel to alternate pasts has been used by others – including fairly recently Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson – as it is an established, albeit unverified, hypotheses.
It should be noted that, as is often the case with Gibson's novels (though not his short stories) that you don't read them for the plot. In this case the whodunit core of the plot is a McGuffin. So don't expect clues as to who is the murderer out of a handful of likely suspects all of whom have motive, method and opportunity. Yes, there is a resolution but actually the story concerns Flynne and Burton evading the secret forces from the real future aided by the real Future agents for the authorities. What you read Gibson for is the world-building. Here, you get two worlds for the price of one: the alternate future past and the real further future. And along the way there is a mass of SFnal technology, a raft of character and a fair bit of action. Indeed, such is the plethora of technology and the number of characters that it might be an idea to jot a few notes as you read it, or alternatively have a re-read on completing the book.
This novel sees Gibson successfully push the sense-of-wonder (sensawunda), futuristic techno-thriller and adventure buttons and it will seriously appeal to a good number of seasoned SF readers (non-SF regulars are likely to be left behind). Those who love complex social and technological vision will simply lap it up.
This novel subsequently had a follow-up one Agency that again features Netherton and the elderly police woman among a few other characters. I read Agency (2020) first and so can testify that it is perfectly possible to read that as a standalone novel without reading this one from 2014. Having said that, reading them in order is best as there is some personal development with the characters that appear in both and the 'jackpot' apocalypse referred to in the alternate past's future (and real future's past) is better explained here: though, that too is a McGuffin. Agency has the same set-up as The Peripheral only there those in the real-future do not entirely have the upper hand over those in the alternate past as there is an AI involved in the alternate past whose origins are unknown to those from the ore advanced future. Neither novel manages to determine a way to avoid the apocalyptic 'jackpot' so maybe there is the potential for a third novel. However, given the six-year gap between these two, we might have to wait a while.
Other time travel stories, not cited in the above article, reviewed elsewhere on this site include:-
Kaleidoscope Century by Steve Barnes
Weaver: Time's Tapestry Book Four by Stephen Baxter
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Timeline by Michael Crichton
Time on my Hands by Peter Delacorte
The Tourist by Robert Dickinson
The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
Corrupting Dr. Nice by John Kessel
11.22.63 by Stephen King
Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley (principally travel to an alternate present)
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma
Here, There & Everywhere by Chris Roberson
A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
Blackout by Connie Willis
How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
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