The Peripheral: William Gibson’s Reactionary Fable

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” –Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

I have enjoyed and still enjoy reading and re-reading science fiction author William Gibson’s work very much, but the news that the premise of his next book, Agency, will be that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, gave me pause, and I decided to look at his latest novel, The Peripheral from a more political perspective than I would normally do. Summarizing, Gibson is famous for the epigram:

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

Of The Peripheral, we might adapt that epigram:

The past is still here – it’s just not evenly depicted.

As we shall see in a moment. And now I need to apologize because this piece is going to be very prolix: basically great slabs of especially illuminating portions of Gibson’s prose with a smidgeon of commentary appended. I do plead that’s a necessity, given the excellence of Gibson’s work at the phrase level:

One of the pleasures of reading William Gibson is tracking his experimental words and phrases. These are concentrated projections of a possible future. Let me list some that caught my eye: klepts, artisanal AIs, battle-ready solicitors, court-certified recall, the viz, hate Kegels, autonomic bleedover, continua enthusiasts, drop bears, period trains, neo-primitivist curators, quasi-biological megavolume carbon collectors, heritage diseases, directed swarm weapons, a synthetic bullsh*t implant, surprise funeral, mofo-ettes, and a neurologer’s shop. One near-future treat is the “freshly printed salty caramel cronut”

It’s this language, I think, that makes Gibson’s futures so “chewy” and “tactile.” All this makes Gibson hard to paraphrase, and in any case paraphrase is no fun to read. I’m also going to be even more prolix, in that I have to quote plot summaries, so let’s get them out of the way first. First, the plot of Gibson’s next novel, Agency, at least as of now:

Science fiction writer William Gibson is to use the dream of a Hillary Clinton win in last year’s US presidential election as the launch point for his next novel. [Gibson] will reimagine the world under a Clinton presidency in his next novel Agency, as well as London in the distant future.

Due out in January 2018, the novel will travel between two periods: one in present-day San Francisco, where Clinton’s White House ambitions are realised; and the other in a post-apocalyptic London, 200 years into the future after 80% of the world population has been killed.

In the present-day strand of Gibson’s story, a shadowy military organisation develops and tests artificial intelligence on a young woman named Verity. The parts set in the distant future show that time travel has been discovered and used to create a “stub”, a way of interfering to create an alternative future, starting in 2017.

Gibson has a real gift for creating incorruptibly spunky, candid, and honorable working class and coolly perceptive professional women as rounded characters (lethal mercenary and working girl Molly in Neuromancer, bicycle messenger Chevette Washington in All Tomorrow’s Parties, former rock-and-roll musician and journalist Hollis Henry in Spook Country[1], and consultant Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recogntion). “Verity,” then, verges dangerously on self-parody.

Bringing us to a plot summary of The Peripheral whose heroine, Flynn Fisher, is another such woman:

[T]he Peripheral] relies on two timelines, one in the near-to-medium term future, and one almost a century away. At first we follow these in parallel, trying to infer connections. Then we learn that the further-along future has discovered a form of time travel – well, information exchange with the past, to be precise. The far-future signals the closer-to-us future, and has a proposition. Or two. Then more, which aren’t propositions but assassinations.

The future-near-to-us characters are the more sympathetic. They focus on a young, poor [working class/precariat] Southern woman, Flynn Fisher, and her family. They live in a postwar backwater, where the economy barely exists apart from illegal drug manufacture[“building,” see below]. Flynn helps her vet brother, Burton, with an online job and witnesses what seems to be a strange murder. In the future-farther-away we see a PR flack, Wilf Netherton, working with a Russian crime family [“the klept”] and their staff. Wilf has made an unspecified bad move, and is trying to improve his situation.

[O]ne agency in the far-off future is manipulating the past for its own reasons, and hires the Fishers as proxies. Another far-off-future group hires others to kill the Fisher family. Ainsley Lowbeer, a London cop, or something like that, appears in the far-future, with unusual connections to the Fishers’ time. Flynn and Burton are able to interact with their far-future employers via telepresence robots, the titular peripherals. Wilf explains the Jackpot [see below] to Flynn, describing a series of interconnected, overlapping crises that killed the majority of humans.

The plot ratchets up slowly and steadily to climax in a party, where multiple schemes intersect. Some, not all, is revealed, and the Fishers end up alive, very rich, and with a powerful edge on their present [see below]. Wilf somehow survives, and ends up in a relationship.

So. In this review, I want to introduce a third track, besides present and the future: the past (Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”). I’ve often deprecated reviewers who wish that the author had written a different book, and so I hope to avoid that error here; but I do hope to show how Gibson’s past is “unevenly depicted” as a way of informing a reading of Agency when it comes out, particularly if the “dream,” as the Guardian puts it, of Clinton’s victory is a form of wishful thinking on Gibson’s part. I’ll look at the past as depicted by Gibson in three areas, mentioned above:

  1. “The Jackpot”
  2. “Builders”
  3. The Virtuous 1%

In each section, I’ll quote a passage from The Peripheral, followed by a critique of the past as depicted by Gibson: Depicted unevenly, or erased, or airbrushed away.

And again, please forgive the great slabs of prose. I can only plead that Gibson is really fun to read, so enjoy. (The plot summaries above should have introduced the characters, and the relevant terms.)

“The Jackpot”

(We’ve previously quoted this very evocative passage at NC; it occurs on page 320 in my copy. Here Wilf (from the future) speaks with Flynn (from the past):

[The Jackpot] was androgenic, [Wilf] said, and [Flynn] knew from Ciencia Loca and National Geographic that meant because of people. Not that they’d known what they were doing, had meant to make problems, but they’d caused it anyway. And in fact the actual climate, the weather, caused by there being too much carbon, had been the driver for a lot of other things. How that got worse and never better, and was just expected to, ongoing. Because people in the past, clueless as to how that worked, had fucked it all up, then not been able to get it together to do anything about it, even after they knew, and now it was too late.

So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad sh*t, like she sort of already knew, figured everybody did, except for people who still said it wasn’t happening, and those people were mostly expecting the Second Coming anyway. She’d looked across the silver lawn, that Leon had cut with the push-mower whose cast-iron frame was held together with actual baling wire, to where moon shadows lay, past stunted boxwoods and the stump of a concrete birdbath they’d pretened was a dragon’s castle, while Wilf told her [the Jackpot] killed 80 percent of every last person alive, over about forty years. ….

No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there. ….

But science, he said, had been the wild card, the twist. With everything stumbling deeper into a ditch of sh*t, history itself become a slaughterhouse, science had started popping. Not all at once, no one big heroic thing, but there were cleaner, cheaper energy sources, more effective ways to get carbon out of the air, new drugs that did what antibiotics had done before…. Ways to print food that required much less in the way of actual food to begin with. So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new, by things that made people blink and sit up, but then the rest of it would just go on, deeper into the ditch. A progress accompanied by constant violence, he said, by sufferings unimaginable. ….

None of that, he said, had necessarily been as bad for very rich people. The richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was. Constant crisis bad provided constant opportunity. That was where his world had come from, he said. At the deepest point of everything going to sh*t, population radically reduced, the survivors saw less carbon being dumped into the system, with what was still being produced being eaten by those towers they’d built… And seeing that, for them, the survivors, was like seeing the bullet dodged..

“The bullet was the eighty percent, who died?”

And now for the (un)depicted past: When I read “killed 80 percent of every last person alive,” I look for a contemporary analogue, a precursor to the super-genocide that the Jackpot was or will be, and it’s not hard to find: Falling life expectancy as shown by the Case-Deaton study (excellent discussion of methodology with Anne Case here). Yves wrote in 2015:

One of the long standing patterns in economies showing economic growth is longer life spans, and falls are see the result of severe distress and dislocation, as took place in the period right after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the expectancies of adult men fell by over seven years.

The US has just become the first country to approach this appalling record. A stark warning about the level of distress in America comes from an important study by Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel prize winner in economics, and his wife Anne Case. … The authors found that from 1999 to 2013, the death rate among non-Hispanic whites aged 45 to 54 with a high school education or less rose, while it fell in other age and ethnic groups. This is an HIV-level silent epidemic: AIDS killed an estimated 650,000 from the mid-1980s to present, while an estimated close to half-million died in half that time period who would have lived had their mortality rates fallen in line with the rest of the population. It is hard to overstate the significance of these findings.

As Scrooge says: “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” And when one looks at the — at best — utter silence of elected officials and major party candidates on the policy implications Case-Deaton study — presumably when the Democrats recover from Putin Derangement, they’ll get around to it — it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the political class is dominated by Scrooges. Gizmodo writes:

For people familiar with Gibson’s work, what’s striking about this novel is the overwhelming sadness that seems to fill up all the empty spaces around each clipped chapter and bitten-off sentence. Perhaps this is because Gibson is evoking the region where he grew up, somewhere in the environs of western Virginia. The hopeless poverty of the characters there, their lives distorted by war, feels dishearteningly real. And the glimpses they get of the future reveal a hollowed-out place, its citizens shadowed by losses so huge we can barely conceive of them.

Sadness in The Peripheral is a matter of tone; and half-a-million excess deaths will indeed lead to “overwhelming sadness.” (And but does “warfare” include class warfare?) However, in The Peripheral the conditions that gave rise to the Case-Deaton are depicted, but the causes are not. The notion of, er, agency is carefully airbrushed away (“Not that they’d known what they were doing”). I don’t wish Gibson had written a different book, but in a different book it would have been helpf to go beyond tone, and to have included some detail on President Gonzales’ policies with regard to what, in retrospect, looks like the opening round of the jackpot, in addition to the Inside Baseball stuff about White House infighting and assassination plots. What happened to was done to Flynn’s county, and why? We don’t know. Not part of the back-story.

“Builders”

From page 233, Flynn and Sherriff Tommy discuss the local economy. Corbell Pickett is the Big Man in the county:

“Tommy”– [Flynn] said, and stopped.

“Yes?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Are you and Burton building some kind of drugs out here?”

“Have you been working for Pickett, all this time?”

He tilted his hat forward a little, to let a couple of little pools of rain roll off the plastic-covered brim. “Haven’t met the man. Haven’t had anything directly to do with him before. He gets [Mayor] Jackman elected, so Jackman has ways of making it clear to me what’s Corbell’s business and what isn’t, and I do my best, around that, to enforce the law in this country. Because somebody’s got to. And if we all woke up one day and Corbell and that building economy had been taken up to heaven, after a few weeks most people around here wouldn’t have any money for food. So that’s complicated too, and sad, if you ask me, but there it is. How about you?”

“We aren’t builders.”

“The basic flow of cash in the county’s changed, Flynne, and I mean overnight. Your brother’s paying Corbell to f*ck with elected officials at the statehouse. There hasn’t really been much of any other kind of cash around here, not for quite awhile. So pardon my jumping to conclusions.”

(The cash is flowing because the Future has the technology to front-run the markets in the present, and the cash is buying protection for Flynn’s families and associates from the people from the future who want to kill them.)

And again the (un)depicted past: Surely the opioid and meth epidemics are “building,” unevenly distributed? The “sadness,” therefore, is despair, and the deaths are Case-Deaton’s “deaths from despair”:

Case and Deaton document an accumulation of pain, distress and social dysfunction in the lives of working class whites that took hold as the blue-collar economic heyday of the early 1970s ended, and continued through the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery. Each successive birth cohort of men leaving school with less than a B.A. does worse than the previous cohort, at the beginning of their careers, and worsening further as they age. They are less likely to be in the labor force at any given age, while those who work face lower real wages and lower returns to experience. Men and women in successive cohorts are less likely to be married at any given age, perhaps as a consequence of poor labor market opportunities. Each successive cohort reports more pain, more mental distress, heavier drinking, as well as lack of social connection. Each is observed to have higher mortality rates from drugs, alcohol and suicide than the preceding cohort.

The Case-Deaton analysis is pessimistic about the future, concluding that those who are currently suffering in midlife are likely to be much less healthy in old age than are the current elderly.

(WaPo recently found that this “level of distress” has become general.) Surely when “the blue-collar economic heyday of the early 1970s ended” that wasn’t a random, natural event? Surely the deindustrialization of the heartland had something to with, say, trade deals? (Hat tip to Bill Clinton for getting NAFTA passed.) As Anne Case says:

[CASE:] [I]t’s not as if there’s some natural force at work that causes people as they get older to kill themselves or to take drugs until they overdose, so it’s not as if there’s a kind of force of nature underneath that…

Personally it’s hard for me when I’m drawing figures and I’m looking at people with less than a bachelor’s degree, and especially the people I now consider the youngsters, the people who were born, say, in 1980. And you see their mortality rates from drug overdose and suicides just going up and up.

It’s tough, it actually is very hard. I come from a hard-scrabble part of New York State so I think of this as also being something I watch happen when I go back to my home town.

You have family and friends that are suffering from some of these trends?

[CASE]: Not suffering from the trends, suffering from the economic part of it for sure, not as much the deaths of despair part but understanding the kind of struggle that takes place in what used to be a thriving manufacturing centre, original home of IBM where a lot of the jobs moved out. And trying to keep body and soul together gets harder and harder. So I feel I understand part of this from the fact that I’ve watched upstate New York depopulate and watched the manufacturing jobs disappear.

Again, I don’t wish that Gibson had written a different book. But if he had, there might be some additional material. First, a character who experienced death from despair directly or at one remove; the present-day protagonists of The Peripheral aren’t even survivors; they were never assaulted. (Injuries from military service are a separate case.) Second, the functional past, as opposed to the dysfunctional present, of Flynn’s County might have been sketched. The jobs left. But what were they? (It’s possible that Gibson’s pointillism is so deft that a depection of such a past could be teased out from hints in the prose. But certainly the structural causes of “deaths from despair” are not explicit at a thematic level.)

The Virtuous 1%

Many of Gibson’s books include a coda, where loose ends get tied up, themes get recapitulated, and good things happen to the good. From The Peripheral’s coda, from page 481:

Now it was time to go down and have lunch with them. Her mother, Lithonia, Flora, and Leon, who was living in her old room now. Lithonia, it had turned out, was an amazing [see, e.g., Louis CK], so now Madison was sandblasting the the inside of the old Farmer’s Bank, for a restaurant Lithonia and her cousin would start there, nothing to fancy but a break from Sushi Barn and Jimmy’s. Jimmy’s wasn’t likely to be a chain any time soon, and if it did, Leon said, it would be a sign that the jackpot was coming anyway, in spite of everything they were doing.

Her mother, now that all her medications were being made by ColdIron, and custom-made at that, no longer needed the oxygen. In the meantime, if anyone else needed anything, they’d bought Pharma John, whose profit margin, on Flynn’s suggestion, they’d slashed by half, instantly making it the single most beloved chain in the country, if not the world.

(One of the minor pleasures of The Peripheral is the names of chains: Hefty Mart, Sushi Barn, Pharma John…)

But again the (un)depicted past: Note from “now that all her medications were being made by ColdIron,” that the back story of Gibson’s fictional present very definitely does not not include Medicare for All, unremarkable perhaps for a Clinton supporter (“never, ever”), but odd for a Canadian who is eligible for the universal direct material benefit of single payer. Note also that the the material benefits in the coda are delivered by a corporation, at the behest of its good owner (Flynn). Odd for a liberal, but not a neoliberal. In a different book, which I am not asking Gibson to write, there might at least be a mention of how Clinton’s “never, ever” came to be.

Conclusion

Though the past depicted in The Peripheral is uneven, and even pre- or apolitical — to the extent that omisssion of the causes of pre-Jackpot excess deaths in Flynn’s working class, the omission of the causes of the destruction of the labor market in Flynn’s county, and the assumption that a future without single payer is part of the natural order can be either of those things — the imagined future of Flynn’s “stub,” where the Jackpot will have been prevented, as about as political as it gets. From page 481, still in the coda:

[Flynn had] told Ainsley [Lowbeer], earlier, walking on the Establishment, how she sometimes worried that they weren’t really more than just building their own version of the klept. Which Ainsley had said was not just a good thing, but an essential thing, for all of them to keep in mind. Because people who couldn’t imagine themselves capable of evil were at a major disadvantage in dealing with people who didn’t need to imagine, because they already were. She’d said it was always a mistake, to believe those people were different, special, infected with something that was inhuman, subhuman, fundamentally other.

Gibson himself comments:

Even though [Flynn’s family have] got their nice house and she’s gonna have a baby and everything, it’s like—what if they—they must have assassinated the vice president! It’s all kind of like one of those neo-fascist fantasies where the lovable good hero winds up ruling the world. It’s a little too close to that for comfort, but consciously so, and I’m sure a lot of people will get that.

I do get it. But it isn’t “like.” It is (and I see this mentality all the time in the second world: The problem with bad government is bad people, and if only good people — for example, ourselves — are put in power, government would be good). This is the reactionary mind as described by Corey Robin:

[T]he conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated [by movements against public and private hierarchies of power] will be ugly, brutish, base, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. When [Edmund] Burke adds…that the ‘great Object’ of the Revolution is ‘to root out that thing called an Aristocrat or Nobleman and Gentleman,’ he is not simply referring to the power of the nobility; he is also referring to the distinction that power brings to the world. If the power goes, the distinction goes with it. Conservatism is a moral vision in which excellence depends upon hierarchy. Inequality is the means, not the end—that is a belief, I show, shared by everyone from Burke to Ayn Rand, the slaveholders to Ludwig von Mises.

Gibson’s coda, then, very explicitly includes “the better man person commanding the worse” (“better” because consciously aware of the possiblity of doing evil, which Lowbeer explicitly tests Flynn for, in an episode not covered here). Madison had a very different, not reactionary view:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Once more, I’m not asking that Gibson write a different book. But it would have been nice if he could have come up with a future political structure that wasn’t more reactionary than James Madison’s (who doesn’t make good “motives” the basis of his polity, as Gibson does).

All of which is to say that I look forward with great interest to Gibson’s views on — rehabilitation of? — Hillary Clinton, who shares — Flynn is clearly a “deplorable,” who don’t deserve to rule, and perhaps do not even deserve to live — the reactionary views expressed by Gibson in his depicted future.

NOTE

[1] One might wonder whether Agency has a double meaning for Gibson, especially given the newly visible political power of the intelligence community.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

101 comments

  1. Will Shetterly

    Whenever you notice a science fiction writer being politically conventional, it helps to remember this:

    “You have to remember, the SF writing community is mostly a lot of very nice people who have led very sheltered lives. They’re very easily shocked. It’s always amazed me that so many of these people who write all this stuff about strange worlds and fantastic adventures are such conventional, boring types in person. As Ajay Budrys once said to me, ‘They are a cautious and conservative lot, these probers on Man’s ultimate frontier. A trail of sheep shit marks their passing.’” —William Sanders, in an interview in Chronicle

    A. J. Budrys was one of the field’s smartest writers and editors.

    Reply
    1. tony

      Back when I was an atheist materialist, I was into fantasy and escapism. I suspect people are attracted to the sort of fiction that fills a hole in their lives.

      Reply
    2. Petter

      Cautious and conservative might be the right approach when approaching frontiers of the ultimate.
      Beware the wolf.

      Reply
    1. WobblyTelomeres

      The one thing I really liked about Seveneves was the use of one time pads (they’re quantum-safe, don’t cha know).

      Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Please elaborate on your negative reaction to the politics in Seven Eyes. I’ve listened to it twice+ as an audiobook but cannot recall the politics in it.

      Reply
      1. SoCal Rhino

        It struck me as an expression of the same views that call for Silicon Valley to succeed from California. The deserving intellectual cream set to repopulate the world cleansed of the masses, brute labor performed by robots.

        Reply
        1. PKMKII

          I got the opposite from it (ye be warned, spoilers follow). He sets up this world, the space station, with this technocratic ruling class doing the “smart” things, while ignoring what’s going on with the masses (the youth and the handful of experts aligned with them). They dismiss it as politics, and they nearly get their entire mini-civilization killed because of it. The whole book hinges on the line from the sociologist, “Nerds tends to dismiss as politics the intricacies of human organization.” Their failure to heed that warning is Stephenson saying technocracy doesn’t work, you can’t dismiss the social element (which is, if anything, a turn against some of his writing in the 90’s). The robots were necessity, not ideology.

          I will agree though, that it’s odd he assumes the future world would have a political and economic structure mostly similar to our current one.

          Reply
  2. Plenue

    So is that really what the plot boils down to? Rich people (or at least a global system in which the driving force is the desire to be rich) destroy the world (he makes clear that it isn’t something natural like a giant rock hitting the planet. The ‘Jackpot’ doesn’t just happen). but everything’s okay in the end because a good person rises up and becomes rich? Is Gibson really that oblivious to the dynamics of class? She may be the most awesome, noble person ever, and her kid probably wouldn’t turn out to bad if she raised it. But what about two generations down the line? Or three? Or ten? And this coming from the guy who basically created cyberpunk, which is defined by, well, punks, rebelling against dominating megacorps.

    I also notice the worship of science, how it gets ‘popping’ as the old world dies. Because that’s the solution to the problems caused by science (the Jackpot is caused by the industrial revolution): just do more science.

    Reply
    1. Mark P.

      The Jackpot wouldn’t be just rich people. Climate change scenarios that are particularly scary include melting of the ice in the Himalayas and disruption of rivers and water supplies, upon which two-thirds of the global human population depend, consequently setting up potential nuclear war between states like China and India.

      The Chinese in particular are unlikely to hold back on the geoengineering once climate change really hits. They’re already into weather modification.

      As for your complaint about worship of science, you and most Nakeds have very little idea about what’s about to hit –what’s already starting to hit — in terms of synthetic bio and AI, let alone how weird things could get if they can make QC work. Gibson is only being realistic there.

      Reply
      1. Plenue

        It may well be an accurate prediction about the future of scientific development. So what? We’ve been brought to the brink of disaster by scientific ‘progress’, and more ‘progress’ alone isn’t going to change how we run our societies, or distribute wealth, or interact with the environment.

        Reply
      2. Jeremy Grimm

        Please elaborate what’s “about to hit — what’s already starting to hit” wrt. synthetic bio and AI and the weird things that make QC [quality control?????] work. I’m old but I have kept up as best I could with the science for synthetic bio and AI and wonder at what you refer to. I really have no idea what-so-ever what you are referring to with making QC work. [Be kindly to the aged and dulled — like me — in the NC crowd.]

        I do make note of your suggestion the Chinese will actively pursue geoengineering once the shit hits the fan. That is a plausible and extremely scary idea. I’m old — so I tend toward caution in attempting to manipulate what I don’t, and what I believe science does not understand.

        Reply
        1. burlesque

          Maybe the references are to GMOs (genetically modified organisms), self-driving or self-flying whatevers, and Quantum computers. But the reference to “what is about to hit”, maybe Mark P. can elaborate.

          Reply
          1. Grebo

            Imagine an AI, with the power of a quantum computer, designing synthetic lifeforms.
            An expensive piece of kit which will be expected to pay for itself by making profits for its corporate owner.

            Science doesn’t make problems. People make problems. But maybe we can delegate that to AIs in the future.

            Reply
            1. Jeremy Grimm

              I guess ordinary scientists have done a decent job of designing — not synthetic but “modified” lifeforms for GMO. I recently posted links to the Klebsiella planticola bacterium.

              What else is out there?

              Reply
              1. Grebo

                I am personally optimistic about the many wonderful possibilities; disease cures, green industrial processes, converting waste into carbon neutral fuels, animal-free meat…

                But you will be happy to hear that some catastrophic possibilities also exist: corporations creating new chronic diseases so they can sell the treatment, fatal diseases targeting particular genetic groups, accidental indiscriminate plagues on people, animals or plants, artificial organisms taking over ecosystems, pest control organisms finding unintended targets…

                Reply
                1. sierra7

                  I believe the “catastrophic possibilities” will occur before the benevolent ones. Corporations are well on the way in “…..creating new chronic diseases by the environmental destruction that is left in so many of their wakes….example the nuclear industry…..the outright bio-genetic engineering experiments; the necessity of maximizing profits over the needs of humans….etc., etc.
                  History shows us that the dangerous happens before the cures if any. QC, AI, outright automation software; the abilities are being generated for just those three to propagate themselves without human interference bodes ill for humanity in the long run.

                  Reply
                  1. Jim

                    Corporations and profit motives are not necessary to perform evil acts. The USSR managed to do a lot of chemical weapons research without a profit motive. Romania did “Handmaden’s Tale lite” without corporations.

                    Reply
            2. reslez

              More hype. A common mistake among the futurist crowd, something Lambert has pointed out before, which is to say as much as the Creative Class might wish it so, the symbol is not the reality. The computer != the world. Life is not a simulation.

              As the venerable geek saying goes: “A computer’s attention span is only as long as its power cord.” AI is only as good as its UPS and the means we give it to manipulate its environment. Intelligence necessarily generates heat which requires dissipation which requires reliable energy which means functional distribution and industry. Besides, all new technology is first implemented as a weapon…

              Reply
          2. Mark P.

            I can elaborate but I’m on a train with only a phone. So no links.

            But use the search terms ‘synthetic man George Church’ on regular Google and ‘synthetic biology’ on Google news.

            Reply
      3. skippy

        I always find it difficult when some mix and match science with engineering applications possibly do to world views thingy…. especially when say put in context by books like Science Mart.

        “Neoliberalism is an anti-human economic prescription for life. It is an ideology which denies the existence of community, society and even humanity, reducing life on earth into decimal points on a balance sheet. It is a series of ones and zeros in a computerised market system in which we exist only to serve the financial ends of multinational corporations. Any benefit, financial or otherwise that we derive from work is purely coincidental. Paraphrasing economist Bill Fink, Neoliberalism believes that markets are more efficient than humans can ever be. It believes corporations can do no wrong, and celebrates inequality, claiming it encourages productivity because people envy the rich and try to emulate them.

        Neoliberalism is a form of economic nihilism, an ideology designed to rationalise our humanity. An anti democratic system that thrives on our confusion, despair and desperation. All that is left now is the pursuit of profit.”

        https://renegadeinc.com/wtf-happening-history/

        Disheveled…. never knew neoliberalism was a scientific endeavor… seems to me that unencumbered science pretty much refutes neoliberalism and all its attendant horrors… tho some would nix even that….

        Reply
    2. JerseyJeffersonian

      Cornucopianism, as some such as James Kunstler might characterize it; the belief that the problems largely caused by runaway technologies and their informing sciences will be solved by more scientific and technological overlays. It is a form of magical thinking, understandable on an emotional level; escape from terrifying problems is achieved, but merely by clutching yet more compulsively onto the same ideological framework that precipitated us into the situation in the first place. While this avoids the “inconvenience” of formulating and implementing an alternative paradigm, it is unlikely to actually work.

      No, as Lambert has pointed the way through drawing James Madison’s thoughts into the discussion, the toys may change and as science and technology become more “powerful”, but correspondingly become more dangerous to all and sundry, unless the historically cognizable facts of human nature are taken into account, we are headed over the precipice.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I grow troubled by the idea that a belief in science may not provide relief from the concerns of Global Warming. I believe science can recommend and create remedies — not “solutions” and it is very wrong and unwise to discount such remedies as may prove themselves. I believe there is nothing magical about seeking remedies in science. Believing in a panacea — scientific or otherwise — is what is magical and not to be trusted.

        Reply
        1. Blennylips

          It just may take magic! Predicaments do not have solutions.

          As we clean up emissions, more sunlight reaches the surface and can induce a rapid temperature rise.

          Air travel shut down over the US for several days after 9/11. Scientists long eager to calibrate models were ready to start measuring. Three days later they were seeing a one degree rise in the historical daily hi/low temperature difference!

          The story is well told in a 2005 BBC Horizon episode on Global Dimming.

          Reply
        2. JerseyJeffersonian

          Jeremy,

          Global warming is only one of a large, and seemingly evergrowing set of problems where science/technology play a central – but only enabling – role. The thrust of my comment was more directed toward lack of interest in recognizing the true centrality of human nature in all of its inglorious manifestations throughout the history of civilization as the primum mobile in many of the most catastrophic collapses of cultures.

          In many of these instances, our predilection toward magical thinking is seen at the root. Drought? Sacrifice more children. Nowadays, since our gods are to be found in science and technology, most especially amongst our upper classes who have experienced wildly disproportionate personal rewards worshipping at that altar, those most in the position to do something about these burgeoning problems are instead invested in making sure that NOTHING IS DONE ABOUT THEM. There is that human nature again. And there is the problem. Science and its handmaiden, technology, have made these people wealthy and powerful. And as Lambert periodically notes, although not perhaps in the exact way, the aphorism from Dune, “Those who have the power to destroy a thing control it”. Invert this. These people are not using their control to directly destroy it, i.e., civilization, but rather to manipulate it to perpetuate their wealth and power, but in effect they are too blazingly stupid to see that by continuing on this path they are functionally destroying it. Sociopaths blinded by their narcissism, shoving everyone else, and this precious planet over the cliff.

          Some of the most evil among them are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect, and strategizing how to survive the cataclysm that they knowingly are precipitating.

          Terraforming Mars? Prolongation of life to infinity? Uploading your mind to some Super Cloud?

          As Nietzsche once said, “Menschlich, allzu menschlich”. That is, human all too human. And even when they are scheming toward some sort of “survival” in a fashion alienated in every way from what being human actually is, they are revealing their human nature, twisted though it might be.

          Enough. It’s late and I am tired. Fare forward, voyager.

          Reply
    3. fajensen

      I also notice the worship of science, how it gets ‘popping’ as the old world dies. Because that’s the solution to the problems caused by science (the Jackpot is caused by the industrial revolution): just do more science.

      Sure it does, because, if one has a choice of solving a hard problem right now or die soon, the resources will suddenly be available to solve that problem.

      Whereas right now we get to spread the bennies mostly on vanity items like spending trillions on the worlds best military which is only really useful for destroying the life of 3’rd world people, at a rate of several millions per life destroyed.

      It’s not like one can suddenly stop the industrial revolution either. If, for example, one take the fossil fuels out of food production, then 60-80% of the calories produced goes away. Then the people needing those calories will go away too. One can do a lot better than we currently do with better soil management, more energy -> protein efficient crops and so on, but, the way the dice is currently loaded “Big-Ag” and “Big-Money” is running the “production machinery” into the ground, like was done before with all factories where short term results are the only thing that matters to “shareholders” (as they say, while it is actually management looting and pillaging that matters the most).

      PS:

      In my opinion, having read the book and being somewhat unsatisfied with the characters motivation, “The Jackpot” never actually happened, “reality” in the story somewhere in the run-up to “The Jackpot”. “The Jackpot” is predicted to happen in a specific way by artificial people living inside a simulated future reality that was perhaps intended to work as a game or a prediction machine. This “worlds” residents somehow managed to contact the physical world and influence it – perhaps to bring about convergence between simulation and reality, that is: Bringing on The Jackpot in order to match the performance parameters set for the simulation, including the fixing of who the winners are (The usual cronies, or New people).

      If the “future people” are real people, I think the story does not really make sense for me because there is no gain for them in helping the past realities since the past becomes isolated on a different timeline once it is contacted.

      The “future people” are not exactly altruistic persons, they are more like full-on Randians.

      Reply
  3. JerryDenim

    “…if the “dream,” as the Guardian puts it, of Clinton’s victory is a form of wishful thinking on Gibson’s part.”

    Being a Gibson fan myself I doubt it. I think he’s far too pessimistic and cynical to see Hillary Clinton as anything other than a politician that typifies the class of person responsible for bringing about the near-future dystopian world occupied by Flynn and her family in “The Peripheral.” I thought they were supposed to exist in a place approximating Conway South Carolina around the year 2025 or something along those lines. I know Gibson lived there as a boy and I lived there for one year around the year 2000 so maybe that was just my imagination, but I thought there were a few references in the book that painted a picture of the South Carolina coastal plains in my mind.

    I’m guessing Hillary Clinton is the President in Gibson’s new book because he wanted to write something more like contemporary historical fiction and less like science fiction and he guessed the wrong winner of the election like almost everyone else. After the Trump victory he was too far into his new book to go back and change it, and let’s face it; An apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction book with Trump as President sounds horrible. I’m guessing that is going to be a cliche book genre in just a few years. It already sounds like a bad partisan parody and I haven’t even sketched any plot details. I don’t think Gibson could be his serious, dark, intellectual self in a Trump Presidency Sci-Fi. Every line would evoke giggles and read like black comedy.

    Perhaps Gibson isn’t as cynical as I think and he is pining for the lost Clinton Presidency that could have been, but I really doubt it. I imagine he humanizes her in his new book, but also depicts Clinton as an agent of greed, ambition, corruption and a prime enabler of the looming “Jackpot”.

    Guess we’ll both find out soon?

    Reply
    1. lambert strether

      > I think he’s far too pessimistic and cynical to see Hillary Clinton as anything other than a politician

      I dunno. I was following Gibson on twitter for awhile, and I saw disappointingly few signs of cynicism.

      Reply
      1. Mark P.

        What Shetterly says above applies. But also Gibson’s in the bubble.

        In the bubble even the smart people have no idea.

        I was at an MIT conference on AI at the San Francisco Sheraton a couple of months back — the same Sheraton you had a photo of one excessively Rococo room from around that time. I got into conversation with one guy who ran computer systems at Ernst and Young. Seemed like a nice enough guy. But at one point we got to discussing Trump. I suggested that Trump could be thought of as a big two-by-four that the American people have picked up to wack elites over the head. The Ernst and Young dismissed this out of hand as giving the American people too much credit.

        I don’t think he was even a bad guy. It’s just that standing there on a roof garden of the Sheraton at a reception during a rich technologists’ conference you’re in the bubble and you have no idea. Its seductive. I felt the same thing in myself — guys like Chris Arnade are very much the exception.

        Reply
          1. Brian M

            His whole career has been one big scam. He persuaded people his target was the elites. But of course, he is really interested only in accelerating the looting-just a little more targeted to benefit his family and interests more explicitly and lucratively.

            Reply
      2. JerryDenim

        I’ve only read one interview with Gibson and the rest of my opinion is informed by his books. If I really like the work of an artist I usually try to not find out too much about them as a person as I am afraid to find out information that contradicts my fanboy imagined version of that person. I think it’s better to imagine artists you admire are every bit as cool, interesting and insightful as you think they are. Perhaps you and Mr. Shetterly are correct about Gibson. It won’t be the first time I have been horribly disappointed by one of my pop-culture heros. Hopefully not though. I certainly wouldn’t be able to slog through a Gibson novel where Hillary Clinton is elevated to some cliched Presidential hero like Sorkin meets Rand. Gag!!!

        Reply
        1. Mark P.

          Oh, Gibson is lots cooler than me and possibly even you, don’t worry.

          It’s just that when you’re an interesting person being treated as that by other more or less interesting persons, and hanging out in interesting places, it’s hard to understand how bad most folks’ lives have gotten.

          To his credit Gibson has always featured working class mopes and hustlers in his science fiction futures. He’s probably very much of the mindset that there but for the grace of God etc, given his Virginia roots.

          That being said, he’s still in the bubble and he went there without having to do work like being a journalist, say, which would have exposed him to the reality that as bad as one may think our rulers are in reality they’re worse. The only thing different about Trump is that he’s lived till seventy without learning to put on the act that Gingrich or Hillary or Joe Lieberman or the others learned to put on.

          Reply
          1. ambrit

            Even though it’s tangential, the works of Philip K Dick show a mystical futurist future informed by suffering.

            Reply
        2. Will Shetterly

          My apologies. I didn’t mean to suggest Gibson isn’t cool. I haven’t spent any time with him, but I’m sure he is. I hear good things about him from people who know him, and while I’ve only read his first three books, they have many cool things in them.

          But that doesn’t mean his politics are necessarily cool.

          We don’t really have enough description to be sure what his book will be like, so I’m withholding judgment. Maybe he’ll be every bit as scathing about neoliberalism as I could hope.

          Reply
    2. Jeremy Grimm

      My first thoughts on hearing of Gibson making Hillery President was of PK Dick’s “Man in the High Tower”. I haven’t read the book or watched any of the tv series but wonder whether Gibson might be channeling some part of PK Dick. [Admittedly a completely random and unsubstantiated notion.]

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Sorry. I hadn’t read your post when I mentioned Phil Dick just above. I’ll withhold judgement until I read the upcoming book. I sense that Gibson is enmeshed with Science, while Dick was entangled in human suffering. YMMV (That’s the signifier of a good writer; everyone has divergent views on him or her.)

        Reply
  4. craazyboy

    I can’t see Gibson ever writing a happy book complete with happy ending. In the case of the Peripheral, I’ll just say, superficially, that 80% of the Earth’s population dying off is not a happy book. For most of us.

    However, as I read it when it first came out, all along I kept thinking, “Yup”, “Sure”, “Of course”, and “That’s what I’ve been thinking for about 10 years now.”

    And in thinking about it since, I see no impediments to it not happening. Just divide and conquer, smaller and smaller, and trickle down some spoils of war and more gunz, swords and axes to the “winners”. In the end, there may be Highlander style Warlord battles to the be “The One”. But that’s the end.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith

      I read The Peripheral and it did have a happy ending. Everyone gets married, just as in a Shakespearean comedy. And the cost of losing 80% of humans and most species was really minimized. You see a future London with too few people in it and indicators that a lot of class-driven violence. That’s about it.

      Reply
      1. craazyboy

        Yeah, I remember that, but it was a happy ending for about a dozen characters. Which, is how I see things playing out in the real world.

        The population gets systematically shrunk to meet resources. I always remember Jay Gould’s quote, “I can hire half the country to kill the other half.” Controlling the downsizing is a challenge, but basically, thats how.

        Then some have to be kept alive to run the unpleasant parts of the economy. Anthropologists always point out there needs to be a critical mass of killed population to provide for an advanced economy. I’ve read about 200 sci-fi and fantasy novels over the last decade, and no one with that sizable mass of mental chops offers up solutions much different. Scary, really.

        Tech will yield new “boutique” solutions to solve energy, transport, ag, med and other needs of the rich, because the economics changes to suit.

        I have no idea what Gibson has in mind for the sequel, but if he thinks he can turn a Hillary election victory into a turnaround story for the human race, then I think he’s been hitting the Kool-Aid really, really hard!

        Reply
        1. craazyboy

          oopsie. Too negative. “mass of killed population” s/b “skilled”.

          Necromancer on the brain is my excuse.

          Reply
        2. lyman alpha blob

          I hope it’s more along the lines of SevenEves. The female politician in that one (whose character name escapes me) was clearly modeled on Clinton and her egotism was the cause of many of the problems that occurred in the first part of the book.

          Reply
  5. Marbles

    You should read Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140 New York. Same underlying dynamics. Rich people sending the world to oblivion. Global warming turns New York City into Venice. Lots of neologisms that will tickle your fancy, even Picketty gets a name drop.

    There is discussion of alternative economics and differing political arrangements.

    I found Kim’s book as good as Gibson’s, but I didn’t much like Gibson’s book.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I haven’t read either book but I have read enough of both authors to expect little from Robinson’s use of language and to expect an interesting set of new words and corresponding concepts from Gibson — as borne out by Lambert’s discussion of Peripheral.

      Reply
    2. Brian M

      I’ve read all his other novels, but for some reason I have been unable to get very far into The Peripheral. It just hasn’t grabbed me.

      Robinson sounds intriguing.

      Reply
  6. cripes

    Yeah, this all seems a little, regressive, I guess.
    Nice little corporate names, a la Idiocracy.
    Most salient part is the depiction of a world where 80% of the population is gone, leaving a lot of fallow ground for the survivors to pick up, like the plague in 14 century France. Nice for them, and pretty much what I expect to happen.

    Reply
    1. clarky90

      If there are 7,500.000,000 people on the planet today, AND 80% of us must die (or be exterminated), that will be 6,000,000,000 dead human beings. (My children? My darling grandchildren?) The immanent death of six billion seems to be accepted as an unavoidable fact. Posters on NC mention it often, and casually. There is even an “unpleasant” but “scientific” rationale for the inevitable die-off. PhDs are furiously ironing out the details of an Alibi (Climate Change!) for the Survivors. “It was a horrible necessity. But it really could not be helped. Oh, and the smell, indescribable”;- shrugs shoulders wistfully, with sad, sad, empathetic look on his/her face. “Let us (The fortunate 1.5 billion) forget the past and look forward to a bright future.”

      Academics have often been complicit in engineering mass murder. The Wannsee Conference (1941) was held to plan and justify (The Prestigious Scientific Discipline of Eugenics) the murder of >30,000,000 Eastern European “Hillbillies”, (Jews, Slavs, Roma). Of the 15 who attended the Demonic, Wannsee Conference, 8 held academic doctorates.

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        The sad truth is that one can always find members of the credentialled class to build and support a rationale for any policy. Humans are remarkably uniform in their foibles and quirks. Officially sanctioned “intelligence” is of, at best, er, peripheral importance to policy.

        Reply
      2. clinical wasteman

        +7,500 million to that sentiment, Clarky!
        The habit of casually mentioning “overpopulation” as the “unmentionable” problem underlying all others* unites a certain sort of eco-liberals with a subset of “right-wing mavericks”, in that both types assume without a second thought — and for class/caste reasons, whether they realize it or not — that they and all those they care about belong to the 20% (or however many/few) who will “merit” survival when the rest of us are “sadly” deleted. They’ll have plenty of time — and Lebensraum! — to examine their melancholy conscience later. Apologies for a ‘Spiked’ link from later than about 2002, but this one [http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/13302#.WT8tKIX8USs] at least shows that Parson David Attenborough — who is not so much admired as worshipped in Britain and is on record I forget where else disapproving of all social structures larger than a village — is a worthy successor of Parson Malthus in this respect.
        Neo-Malthusians often insist that it’s all just harsh mathematical reality, nothing to do with despising one sort of person more than another; I’ve never quite been able to tell whether they’re just pretending or they actually haven’t grasped that ruthless class selection, justified on grounds of the respective classes’ “innate” habits, is not remotely a bug but rather THE essential feature of the Parson’s system.
        Nor is it always clear whether the subParsons really have no clue that birthrates drop where a few generations are fed and housed and don’t watch most of their children die, or whether they’re against that sort of thing on principle for the “80%” because they think we’re undeserving.

        *Yes, those “casual” allusions do occasionally show up in comments here, but in comparison with most other media my impression is: hardly at all.

        Reply
        1. Octopii

          At this point I wouldn’t protest too much at walking the plank, if it would solve the problem — you know, STPKY. But it would not.

          Reply
    2. different clue

      It is the OverClass Dream come to fiction. ” They killed 80% of the world’s population and they made it look like an accident.”

      Reply
  7. sleepy

    I’ve never read Gibson, but my interest is piqued.

    Is anyone willing to advise me about which novel(s) I should start with?

    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Mark P.

      The first novels in any of Gibson’s trilogies are usually the best, when he’s found a new vein to mine.

      So —
      Neuromancer
      Pattern Recognition
      Virtual Light

      Defying my own prescription I also think Gibson’s second novel Count Zero is some of his best writing because back then he had to prove the first book wasn’t a fluke.

      Finally, in the SF community he first made his name with his short stories and some are on the level of the classics of the genre like Kornbluth’s ‘The Marching Morons.’ They’re collected in a book called Burning Chrome.

      Reply
      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I especially like the short story “Hinterlands” in “Burning Chrome”. If I had the $$$, skill and “chops” to do it I would make this into a feature movie. If would lend itself to a low cost approach and avoid too much of the special effects that add cost to Sci-Fi movies while minimizing character and plot exploration.

        Reply
    2. Yves Smith

      Even though Neoromancer is probably his most widely read novel, FWIW I really did not like it. It’s conceptually important and introduced cyberpunk. Pattern Recognition is about the present, which was unlike him (up to then) and very very well crafted.

      Reply
      1. cocomaan

        Thanks Yves, I just read Neuromancer for this first time this year and while it was really well written and obviously influenced our entire culture, I can’t say I enjoyed it. More of a work to get through than something enjoyed.

        I’ll try Pattern Recognition.

        Reply
        1. craazyboy

          Conversely, Neuromancer turned me off to Gibson. I thought the ideas were great and original ground breaking stuff, but his writing turned me off. I was quite happy when Stephenson picked up the ball with Snow Crash and I’m still waiting on the sequel. Then the was The Matrix….

          Back then, IIRC, he was into writing pages and pages of this dystopian pidgin. However, I though Lambert ‘s excerpts of his newer words and phrases to be pure genius. But Peripheral had lots of the pidgin nonsense too , which I just skipped those few chapters.

          So those were the only novels I read to date. But from the comments here, looks like I should delve back into it. Always looking for more good novels.

          Reply
      2. Joel

        I loved Pattern Recognition, especially the idea of someone being allergic to branding and the fact that it became dated within a few years with the explosion of social networks and then youtube.

        Not so thrilled with the two sequels, especially the role of Big Ant/Bigend. Gibson is definitely overly enamored of the traditional advertising industry, especially for “cool” consumer products like designer jeans which only make up a tiny % of global GDP anyway.

        I think Gibson needs to get out there into the grit of how marketing, advertising and business actually work and he’ll see he’s been taken in by the Hollywood visions of these industries while missing the really exciting stuff.

        Reply
    3. lambert strether

      My two favorites are Spook Country and Zero History because I’m a fan of Milgrim the junkie, and I enjoy the plotting.

      Reply
      1. burlesque

        Pattern Recognition was my first Gibson book and I have re-read it many times. Always get a new insight or two.

        I have to agree with you on Milgrim, love that guy. Kind of liked Garreth the daredevil sniper guy too.

        Reply
      2. Ulysses

        Milgrim is fascinating! If you like that sort of character you might also enjoy reading about Milo Weaver– in the Tourist trilogy by Olen Steinhauer.

        Reply
      3. Skip Intro

        Thank you! Those are my favorites as well. The writing seems vastly superior to , say, Neuromancer, and the stories and characters are so well grounded and contemporary that it barely fits in the genre of SciFi or ‘speculative fiction’. Some of my top themes are the tastes of Cuban Santeria, the augmented reality concept of ‘locative art’ which is probably just around the corner, having been soundly presaged by the Pokemon Go phenomenon, and the riff on the connection between military uniform design and fashion trends.

        Reply
  8. Temporarily Sane

    I’m a big fan of Gibson’s work and this was a great read. I was disappointed when he jumped on the “OMG Trump, Hillary was robbed!” bandwagon on Twitter. The Clinton book sounds rather….well, I’ll wait until I’ve read it before passing judgement.

    Reply
    1. lambert strether

      Me too, on all counts.

      In the unlikely event that this post reaches Gibson, I hope it works more successfully than “No! Kids! Don’t go in the haunted house!” usually does

      Reply
  9. ewmayer

    Well, in our actual present – or is it all just a simulation? [cue Twilight Zone theme] – the Clinton crime familia are the real klepts. Let’s see how many other Gibsonian neologisms can be applied to them: Hillary and her DNC pals, that clique of neolib/neocon continua enthusiasts, used an artisanal AI to model voter behavior, which alas for her was being directed by an insular cabal of neo-primitivist IT curators and thus lacked the mandatory synthetic bullsh*t implant and thus failed to reconcile its predictions with events on the ground. Now that the unheard-of election outcome has occurred, the autonomic bleedover of Her Imperial Rage, like a furious barrage of directed swarm weapons, has the few DNC insiders who dare question the freshly printed salty caramel cronut of an official DNC narrative for Why She Lost – or better, How She Wuz Rawbed By The Putin – experiencing surprise funerals [*cough* Seth Rich]. Within the DC and MSM media bubbles Hillary, her sympathetic mofo-ettes in the press and her legions of battle-ready solicitors are channeling their hate Kegels via the official propaganda media in an all-out effort to effect a court-certified recall of the quasi-biological megavolume carbon collector known as TrumpOTUS. Will Hillabeast and her Legion of Doom manage to reprogram an android-AI assassin to travel to mid-2016, offer a shocked Hillary a flesh-over-metal hand and say, in a thick Austrian accent, “come with me if you want to rule”? Stay tuned!

    Reply
    1. different clue

      The Clinton Crime Family is much smaller and newer than the Bush Crime Family. Hillzebub and Billzebub are just getting their Crime Dynasty started. Perhaps we could call them kleptettes.

      Reply
  10. Jeremy Grimm

    Might not our Lambert generate a Sci-Fiction of his own to counter — or elaborate — or surpass Gibson? I would buy a copy of the hard cover.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Hmm. It would have to work on the scale I work on; short snippets. I don’t think I have a novel in me. Precedents? (Besides Naked Lunch and Burroughsian cut-ups?)

      Reply
      1. craazyboy

        Roger Zelazny wrote the best epic fantasy evah, “The Chronicles of Amber”, originally as 10 short stories. But writing is still a bitch.

        Also, if you are looking for a long epic read, which equals Zelazny, try Brian Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy ( and still expanding).

        Kinda like the First Testament, but better! (and only one author)

        Another is “The Name Of The Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss. 3rd book on the way. It’s probably the best written book you’ll ever read, with a storyteller telling a great story. Much nuanced magic and many complex plot lines. Spellbinding read.

        Reply
          1. craazyboy

            Patrick told us the story wasn’t finished, and the ending is on the way. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been too much evidence.

            He did publish book 2.5, which was really a sidetrack character study of the somewhat interesting recluse girl at the magic school that the young hero attended. The magic school was really the interesting part. What a bunch of looney wizards and despicable noble kids!

            Reply
        1. ambrit

          I just had the thought that the concept of an epistolary novel now has to include electronic media, so, a book based on tweets? Also, a story structured around comments on a blog, with the initiating post obscured. Post modernism as hypertext.

          Reply
            1. clinical wasteman

              Slightly tangential, but between epistolary novels, tweet fiction* and precursors (sort of ) of Gibson, I can’t resist recommending (but don’t let that put you off) JR by William Gaddis (Knopf 1975, more recently republished by Penguin, then Atlantic), a brick-sized furnace (maybe flamethrower?) of a novel made up largely of telephone conversations. It’s also the best novel specifically “about” finance capital I ever saw — junk bonds, penny stocks, the crisis of c.1973 (and posthumously for Gaddis, that of c.2006-ongoing) — and is funnier than any other book in the world not written either by Flann O’Brien/Myles Na gCopaleen or by Samuel Beckett (as bilious young novelist, not hermetic old playwright). It’s also about law, spoken and written language, class, death, sex, the postal service, school administration, the ordeal of childhood (the eponymous “JR” is a barely literate 12-year-old who more or less becomes a one-boy hedge fund, whether or not hedge funds actually existed then) and the Player Piano, among other things. I haven’t read enough of Gibson to be sure it’s an influence, but it definitely takes the communication and financial technology of its time seriously enough to build them into its form instead of just describing them, and because he takes the trouble to do that, Gaddis really does write about the future (our present) and the past at the same time.

              *Twitter fiction: done not long ago, I think, as a book-length exchange between two writer/characters, but I saw either an excerpt or a piece of self-promotion in either Vice or the Guardian, and it looked disappointing enough that I’m sorry to say I forget the authors’ name/s.

              Reply
              1. clinical wasteman

                Anyway, “influence” on Gibson wasn’t supposed to be the point: before I was distracted by the hopeless attempt to describe JR, I meant that it (and some other things by Gaddis: ‘A Frolic of his Own’ and the short texts collected as ‘The Rush for Second Place’) are a precedent for snippet-based literature. Specifically in the way the reader has to (and is easily able to) infer the story from the snippets of conversation, phone calls, letter, legal documents etc.
                Lambert, this isn’t the first time it has occurred to me that a book-length volume of your existing snippets, separated from whatever they introduced/answered and altered/ordered exactly as you damn well please, would work well this way, i.e. as comic-poetic “fiction” and at the same time as history of the past and future. Although I say so from deep down in the market researcher’s Margin for Error, I for one would buy and read that without fail, and I’m pretty sure I can say the same for at least half a dozen friends with exceptional taste.

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            1. clinical wasteman

              Thanks Lambert, I’ll try to find that, although searching for the title will no doubt be a Duckduckgo nightmare.
              Reminded me in passing of this:
              http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/fill-your-life-win
              by my Mute editorial collective Genonsse Hari Kunzru: his last few novels head into other territory, but in this micro-story he pretty much nails the language of “Web 2.0” (remember that?) circa 2009, i.e. the sort of thing the likes of Charlie “Black Mirror” Brooker are still going after with their club-footed satire now.
              One more even more peripheral reference, with another personal-bias disclaimer (Wealth of Negations): the next best finance-capital novel after “JR” is John Barker’s “Futures” [http://www.theharrier.net/fiction/], about the City of London “Big Bang” of 1986 in general and the class repercussions of a cocaine futures scheme in particular. Structured in long snippets or quasi-snippets: very short chapters from alternating characters’ perspectives, the same method sometimes used by Dos Passos, James Ellroy, Wu Ming, Marlon James and others. First draft written mid-’80s in prison; revised 25+ years later (after publication in bad French and good German translations in the meantime) and finally appeared through PM Press in 2014.

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            2. clinical wasteman

              forehead slapped so hard you probably heard it in Maine: yes, I now see that the title “e” was a hyperlink.

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  11. witters

    One of the reasons I now ignore Crooked Timber is its Sci Fi obsession. Seems to me a lot of self-congratulatory ‘how clever we are’ backslaps based on uncritically buying into essentiallly bourgeois fantasies as in some mysterious way deep and weighty political insights. Anyway, back to the Culture novels!

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  12. Scylla

    I enjoy Gibson’s writing too. The outcome of the book was pretty notable, as you said here, for its embrace of “good” or “benevolent” authoritarianism. It was still a good book regardless of that.

    I enjoy the twitter and I will say that I tried following Gibson for a while. It did not take. The fact that you enjoy an artist’s work does not imply that you will enjoy that artist’s opinions of the real world, that is for sure.

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    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The fact that you enjoy an artist’s work does not imply that you will enjoy that artist’s opinions of the real world

      Very true. But I’m not the one who chose to make Hillary the theme of a supposedly fictional work.

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      1. ambrit

        HRM HRC is doing very well in creating her own proprietary alternate reality. She needs no help from the likes of us, (and she gives none either.)

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  13. Indrid Cold

    I follow Gibson on Twitter and he’s 10000% on board with the Russophobia and a fervent Clintonoid.

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  14. Scott

    I never have been able to read Gibson. I stopped reading science fiction when reality outpaced it.
    Men in different uniforms trying to get in the space station, you could make this stuff up.
    Gene Roddenberry was one of the very most powerful science fiction writers & television producers of all time. Certainly as a pilot for Pan Am in the ’30s and from whatever all else during the war he was not much coddled, only in the forefront of what technology meant.
    More ships, different ships, different ports, more ports.
    Brawn not needed for hardly anything when there was the autopilot.
    Western Virginia as in Roanoke had an economy based around freight trains. Train portage, Train yards and now the hospital is a jewel with as well coders.
    Little brawn required. Here is the future.
    Ports that are no longer but for people are delicate. New York becomes more vulnerable and richer every day.
    Religion has been government and is for much of the world. Science stopped Christianity from being as brutal as it used to be. God is easier to predict when there is science to build miracles from.
    Never could read Gibson.
    About Clinton Unit II I noted she was Methodist. So is Warren. Science Fiction that makes science into the religion is kid stuff.

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  15. Patricia

    Need to remember that artists (of whatever medium) follow the truth of the world that they are creating, and not so much the truth of ‘what is’. There is an overlap but our here/now reality will always be sacrificed for their own, when/if one comes down to it. At least for the good ones.

    As I mentioned a long while ago regarding Molly Crabapple, what artists will say about the world “as it is” is nearly always a blend of bs and actual. cf also Harry Potter vs JK Rowling.

    It’s a very rare artist that will know/understand both well. Maybe TS Eliot. We’ll see if Gibson stays true to his story—he has in the past….

    So to those who love the tales/pictures/songs, keep to the art.

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  16. lyman alpha blob

    Gibson’s writing a novel which favorably portrays a future with HRC in charge – say it ain’t so! I’ll have to wait for your review before picking it up then, because if that’s the case then The Peripheral may have to be the last Gibson novel I read.

    WRT to the lack of agency in The Peripheral, having read quite a few dystopian post-apocalypse scifi novels, that trope is fairly common. In McCarthy’s The Road for example, he is even more taciturn that Gibson regarding the cause of the disaster and doesn’t say a word about it IIRC. IMO that makes it even more powerful – that was a truly chilling book.

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  17. John

    I have read all of Gibson’s books. His cyberpunk ones impressed me most by their predicitve power of where computers and the web were going. The basic story line is about as American as apple pie. Anti hero cowboys out on the range and having to deal with all the hostile critters that inhabit the range. An ode to the hyper-individualist surviving against all odds.
    He never writes of the successful communitarian effort. The great seething mass is generally undifferentiated…always ready to riot…never particularly smart or successful.
    As you note, the terms he comes up with are wonderful, amazing and quite predictive. That enchanted me with Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. When recommending it, I always had to make the admonition to overlook the adolescent male fanboy fantasy…even when women are presented with strength.
    Which leads me to a comment on his background: the town is Wytheville, Virginia and he didn’t live there a long time.. That is not coal country and does not have the poison resource extraction brings. It is a gentle and rolling and moderately wealthy farm country inhabited by the Scotch Irish. It was country only lightly corrupted with the enslaved. It was literate in order to read and understand the Bible better. It is bisected by the Great Warrior path…today’s Interstate 81…It’s an interesting little part of America.
    As to the Jackpot itself…and the 80% dieoff. James Hanson, in his wonderful website on this subject: http://dieoff.org/ , speaks to the psychological trauma of dealing with that many corpses.
    Gibson is quite optimistic. He doesn’t portray a human extinction event. He says that we are smarter than yeast in a bottle of wine. Time will tell.

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    1. craazyboy

      I dunno. Maybe Gibson should read Crichton, or Plague history.

      Managing weaponized bio-engineered plagues is a sure problem. Also, our real world brain trusts have stored 5000 years of deadly old world viruses, germs and deadly afflictions to save these from extinction. (I’d have picked whales)

      Then, we learned long ago that 7 billion dead bodies make poor compost, and need burning or burying. Otherwise various germ stains begin to spread.

      These little critters are very democratic – and will need very active managing, but by whom?

      The human population can easily go to zero, if this scenario spins outta control.

      ‘Course this has been covered well in novels and movies.

      Reply

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