Nostalgia for the Future: William Gibson on ‘The Peripheral’ and His Legacy

For an author who is arguably our greatest speculist of techno-culture, William Gibson hasn’t been spending much time in the future. His last novel to be set in the future, in fact, was 1999’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s a rather extraordinary and rare event, then, that Gibson has set his new novel, The Peripheral, in not one but two futures.

The Peripheral’s first future, which occurs a few decades from now in the rural American South, features mega-versions of Walmart, 3D-printed meth, and new, pernicious forms of post-traumatic illness that stem from ever more technologically advanced military combat. The second future, set in London more than 100 years from now, is far stranger and more alienating. After an accumulation of mid-level martial, epidemic, and climate-based catastrophes — referred to as The Jackpot — the population has dwindled, and the world’s considerable technological resources are in the hands of a corrupt oligarchy. (Sound familiar?) The unfolding relationship between these two futures, which is built around a technological vision that is genuinely, strikingly new, acts as a kind of immersion therapy for the reader: she is slowly assimilated into the life-world, language, and political reality of these dueling futures.

The Peripheral is an incredible feat of speculative imagination and one of the best books of the year. I recently spoke to William Gibson about the book, his ideas about science fiction and genre, and more. In the early stages of his book tour, he was remarkably candid and reflective, not only about The Peripheral, but also about his literary legacy.

Flavorwire: The Peripheral is your first novel set in the future since the late 1990s. Actually, it’s set in two futures. One future takes place a few decades from now in the rural American South, not far from where you were raised near Appalachian Virginia. The other future is more than a hundred years from now in London. Both settings are wholly convincing, both seem rooted in material reality. Did you visit London or the American South to do research for the book?

William Gibson: London, at least since the beginning of my publishing career, has always been my other place. It’s the other place in the world where I have a call to go most frequently. Or at least the other place that’s not in North America. I’ve been watching it change since I first went there in 1971. So I have a long history with it. So when you get to know a place like that, you see the changes, maybe more clearly than if you lived there.

Rural Virginia, because I’ve got Winter’s Bone and Justified just like everyone else, is a short-range extrapolation, a pure pleasure because it doesn’t require the grunt work of building 22nd-century London.

You’re often cited as our premier speculative writer, as a prognosticator who can predict the future. And The Peripheral is a return to the future, in a way. But to me it seems that you’re just as concerned with what doesn’t change. In fact, The Peripheral appears to be about precisely this: what doesn’t change in oligarchic, techno-capitalist culture.

My critique of genre has mainly been one of a failure of naturalism. Much of the science fiction I grew up with was a kind of literature that never understood naturalism. But naturalism has been around so long we no longer use the word anymore. We don’t think about it! We take it absolutely for granted. And when we do recognize it, we see it in its freaky pop descendants, in noir and the hardboiled detective or The Wire. People have written science fiction and fantasy with considerable naturalistic chops, and that’s always been my favorite stuff to read. So I’ve always had that as part of my program, and I think it becomes a little stronger as I go along.

If I think about Neuromancer now, it doesn’t puzzle me that there are no cell phones, but I do think, “Well, there are no parents in this book! There are no children! It’s a world without parents or children!” It’s a very young man’s world. I was working with what I had, and the characterization is very high-gloss cardboard, but it’s pretty cardboard-y, and the only emotions you can feel are extremely drug-driven… or like raging erotic loss. I could hit those chords, those three-chord emotions. But some young woman worrying about her mother’s chronic illness? You couldn’t have forced me to write about that at gunpoint.

I also felt this was a novel about labor and exploitation in a lot of ways. Flynne is subcontracted to play a video game, under false pretenses, that has a very real impact in the future. Did you set out to write a novel about work and exploitation in the future?

Not really… I was impressed as an undergraduate the first time I read E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. One of the few things I took away from it immediately, if you’re in control of what your characters are doing, you’re not really doing the work. The other thing is that didacticism gets in the way of what the novel is doing. I had a favorite sort of Marxian prof as an undergraduate who taught a class that was called something like: “Can a fascist write a good novel?” His answer was no. He used Forster to prove that. [Laughs.] Because a fascist has this program that he wants to put forward, and he has to be didactic, and he can’t let the characters out of his control. I think of the economic aspects of The Peripheral as being a function of naturalism. It’s about my own quasi-anthropological observation about how things go together. There’s also the idea that if you want to see how something really works, you can have a better look at it when it’s broken.

One thing I admire about The Peripheral is its lack of hand-holding when it comes to language. The book is a treasure trove of neologisms and unfamiliar language, and you immerse the reader and trust her intelligence. When you started the book, did you build the novel around an idea about the language, or was it process driven?

It’s process driven, or at least process derived. I’m delighted that you hung in, because the rules of exposition that I saddle myself with cause me a great deal of anxiety. I knew that some readers would be unwilling to put up with it. Well, it’s not so much that I saddled myself with it, but the emerging text saddled me with it. It wouldn’t go forward if I did what science fiction writers call the “Well, Bob, you know that…” exposition, where someone explains how the whole universe works. My own pleasure as a reader of that type of fiction is being left in the dark, confused, gradually putting it together. I knew that a certain kind of reader, one with a second cultural level of acquired skills, would be right at home.

We forget that we have to be taught to read novels; they’re really complex cultural artifacts. To be at home with it, sophisticated science fiction actually requires a superstructure of acquired reading culture. But I think the people who don’t totally have that, people who aren’t its optimal readers, I like to think they’d be rewarded by going back and reading The Peripheral again. I think they’ll notice things they didn’t before. The book’s fractal exposition will reveal Easter eggs embedded in the book.

For someone like me, who is more familiar with “literary” fiction, I admittedly always just thought of you as a literary writer. I felt confirmed in this when I recently read the British novelist Ned Beauman’s writing about your influence on him. Of course your impact on culture and narrative is immeasurable, but I find it especially great that you’re being cited by young writers like Ned, whose fiction is itself hard to categorize. Is your influence on these young writers something that interests you?

Well, yes, and you are the target audience in that regard. It took really a long time to find very many of you. I’m a huge fan of Ned Beauman’s work, and I met him for the first time recently. It was pleasurable indeed, but I became a huge fan of his work before I even knew that he thought of me — and it even embarrasses me to say this, and I don’t actually believe it — as an influence.

I’ve come to see the writers I would have cited as an influence — and I’m not saying that Ned or anyone else is doing this, but it’s just the way my pathetic personality works — the writers I would have cited as influences early in my career were actually writers I wanted you to think I was somewhat like. [Laughs.] There were other writers that I had read when I was quite young that probably had way more influence on what I actually did. I’m starting to suspect that Len Deighton’s early classic spy novels, the Harry Palmer books, influenced me in all kinds of ways. But when I was just starting to write, I wouldn’t have said “Yeah! Len Deighton!” I’d waive Pynchon and Burroughs and Ballard. Although they were all influences.

Do you think there is a growing obsession with rewriting the future or the past? Is it an extension of some feeling that we’re irrevocably fucked?

When I finished, I didn’t know what to think of it! The process of gearing up for the book tour, getting ready for the interviews: it allows me to build a narrative about the book. This is my story and I’m sticking with it! Although it does tend to change somewhat.

The two final chapters, as I was writing them: in a weird, possibly pathological way, I had no idea from page to page what that would be. It was a terrifying book to finish. While those two chapters were emerging, both of them creeped me out completely. And I thought: “This is the creepiest stuff I’ve ever written.” And I finished it thinking, “Oh my god, people are going to think this is a happy ending.” I’ve often been accused of gratuitously happy endings. Some people will think that this is a happy ending.

What I think now is that the two final chapters comprise a litmus test for sociopolitical sophistication. If you think those characters have got it figured out, you haven’t looked at life deeply at all.