A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Peripheral
by William Gibson

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 27, 2023

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I haven't read as much by William Gibson as I feel I should have. I could have done that the year he was named an SFWA Grand Master, as I have for several others. The Peripheral has been on my Kindle for almost two and a half years, purchased when it was on sale as a daily or monthly deal. Yet I didn't start reading until after watching a couple of episodes of the Amazon Prime series that premiered last October. I'm only five episodes into that, and decided I needed to rewatch those before finishing, the better to compare the two versions. One of the major book characters has not yet appeared through those five episodes. There is a sequel book, and many places across the 'net describe them as part of the Jackpot Trilogy, whereas ISFDb says the series is just "Peripheral." Wikipedia says the third book will be Jackpot, it's publication date unknown at this time. The second book, which I also have, is Agency, but I don't know if that might refer to a governmental or private agency, or if it might rather mean one of the alternate definitions of the word: a person taking agency over their own actions. Not sure when I might get to it, maybe later in the year.

As with Neuromancer and several of his other novels and stories, there are a lot of high-end tech devices, either implanted or worn, including multi-purpose wrist phone/computers, and VIZ, worn over the eye to access multiple information data bases. More pronounced in the show are the haptic implants of Burton Fisher and his comrades-in-arms from a previous war. The book was published in 2014, with the scenes with Burton and his sister Flynne beginning in the early 2030s. There is another timeline too, around 2100, and in a different location. It is never specified in the book, but Burton and Flynne live somewhere in the southern United States, the show filming in North Carolina. The future scenes are in London. I have to say at the outset that I liked the book, but was also confused about quite a few things, and of course since it is just the beginning of the story, and while there is somewhat of a conclusion, a few threads are left dangling. I'll have to get into spoiler territory to explain any of that.

Milagros Coldiron, a corporation supposedly headquartered in Columbia, contacts Burton to beta-test what he thinks is a new VR headset. After a couple of experiences with it, Burton hands the set over to Flynne, and she finds herself within a "sim" that seems to be one of surveillance of a tall skyscraper. The second time she goes into that "sim" she witnesses what she believes to be a murder, but the method of killing is something she doesn't understand. I've used quotes around the word sim because that is not what it is. Instead, Flynne's consciousness has been projected into the future, inhabiting a peripheral, a manufactured body. Peripherals can be undetectable from real humans, other than not having to eat or drink, or they can be more mechanical in nature. So, who are these people manipulating Flynne, and why? She later learns that they refer to her world as a "stub," meaning an alternate timeline. A stub was created when someone from the future interacted with the past, and that stub then moves along its own new timeline, no longer being the past timeline of that particular future.

That begs the question of why the future people care about the stub. What can they learn, or earn, from interacting with an alternate timeline that is not their real past? Why bother? Something not mentioned in the book, but that I kept thinking about, is if one interaction with the past created a stub, would not continued interaction create multiple stubs? And why are there two (at least) rival groups pouring money into an alternate past stub, and why would Flynne witnessing something in the future have any effect on that future, enough that one of those groups feels compelled to put out a contract to kill her and anyone around her? Why don't those future people use their energy and resources fixing their own problems, the "Jackpot" referring to the almost total collapse of civilization, with nearly 80% of the population dying. The monied interests, the oligarchs, the "klepts," are doing fine of course, and have obviously improved on technology quite a bit. What does fooling around in a past that is not their past, including trying to avert a political assassination, benefit them? Even if they are able to stop the Jackpot from occurring in Flynne's stub, why do they care? Those are some head-scratching notions that Gibson did not deal with in this novel. Whether or not they'll make more sense in the later books remains to be seen.

It was interesting and enjoyable enough to finish. Chapters are very short, and for the first half alternate between the stub and alternate future. Later consecutive chapters stay in that future more than in the stub, and since Flynne is in her peripheral a lot, whenever she returns to her "real" world, lots of changes have been made, so she is continually trying to catch up. Obviously there are things she isn't aware of, and there is no telling how long the manipulation from that future has been going on. She and Burton and their cohorts are not the only ones that have contact with the future, but they all get information about creating new tech in the stub. They had already grown used to 3D printers for a lot of things, in fact that was one of Flynne's part-time jobs, but now even more advanced printers, and more sophisticated fabrications are possible, including weapons and medications. One other thing about that multiple stub conjecture, even though this is just a couple of decades into our future, as of the time of publication, there is no mention of our major corporations; no Amazon, Walmart, or Home Depot. Instead, one of the major manufacturers/retailers, including for military contracts, is Hefty Mart. That leads me to believe that Flynne's stub is not only not the past of that future London, it is also not our world, although my opinion on that might change in about ten years if a Felicia Gonzalez is elected President.


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William Gibson

October 28, 2014

Finalist for:
Campbell Memorial

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