“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, 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:
- “The Jackpot”
- 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.)
(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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
 One might wonder whether Agency has a double meaning for Gibson, especially given the newly visible political power of the intelligence community.