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Originally published Friday, October 24, 2014 at 6:16 AM

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Cyberpunk author William Gibson pens dazzling ‘Peripheral’

William Gibson’s latest novel, “The Peripheral,” merges past, present and future, in the rural South and quasi-contemporary London, in a dazzling tale of murder and alternate realities. Gibson appears Tuesday, Oct. 28, at Seattle’s University Book Store.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

William Gibson

The author of “The Peripheral” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28, at Seattle’s University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).

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Though William Gibson’s last three novels (the excellent “Pattern Recognition,” “Spook Country” and “Zero History”) had a science-fictional feel, they were set in contemporary times. Now, with a return to sensory-detail-drenched depictions of possible futures, Gibson’s latest book, “The Peripheral” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 496 pp., $27.95), again envelops readers in the particular flavor of strangeness that first hooked so many on his work.

Half of this book’s short, stylish chapters are familiar in yet another way: They’re set in a rural South similar to the author’s childhood homes. Stuck tending her invalid mother in an old house at the end of a back-of-beyond dirt road, Flynne Fisher thinks she’s agreeing to sub for her brother as a game tester, then winds up witnessing a murder in a world arguably more real than her own. From the interior of a trailer “the color of Vaseline” through the hugely tacky estate of a local meth kingpin to the boarded-up strip mall where Flynne and her comrades eventually build a fortified hospital and quasi-military operations base, this is a recognizable milieu not too many years down the time stream from today.

But the book’s other narrator, Wilf Netherton, an alcoholic British publicist between jobs, inhabits the supposed game environment Flynne and her brother were ostensibly hired to test. His is a wildly different reality, one filled with murderous androids and cat-eyed Goths covered in animated tattoos. Seeking Flynne’s help in pinning the murder on its perpetrator, Netherton provides her with the use of a “peripheral,” an artificial body-cum-telepresence receiver.

As she navigates the streets of a far too clean and empty London, Flynne learns that her world and Wilf’s were once each other’s respective past and future — until, with the slightest of interventions, their histories veered apart. This makes “The Peripheral” a clear-eyed, easily understood illustration of quantum mechanics’ many-worlds interpretation — the theory that destroys the paradoxes inherent in time-travel by supposing every instance of tampering with the past produces another of an infinite number of parallel universes. It’s geek-level educational material.

It’s also an enormously pleasurable read. Sentence by sentence, Gibson writes astonishingly beautiful descriptions, observations of settings, people and phenomena readers may never see but which will nonetheless strike them as accurate. All “The Peripheral’s” characters have depth and idiosyncratic nuance, including Burton, Flynne’s nerve-damaged activist ex-Marine brother and his more heavily maimed best friend, Conner; mostly honest Deputy Sherriff Tommy Constantine and his counterpart in Wilf’s world, the sprightly and gamine centenarian Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer; and Ash and Ossian, a pair of retainers genetically altered to speak their own private, ever-evolving language. Gibson weaves technological advances into these and other imagined lives, smooth close-ups of the consequences of change. Alluring, repulsive, harsh or whimsical, his 3-D printer boutiques and pocket hospitals seem at first disorientingly odd, then totally inevitable.

Unlike Gibson’s original cyberpunks, Flynne and the rest of her rural underclass come across as more marginalized than criminalized. Criminals are their neighborhood’s majority, its entrenched power. Less easily romanticized than thieves and thugs, her fellows — damaged vets and lovesick, struggling entrepreneurs — mesh well with the grieving addicts and stubborn eco-remediators in what would have been her future. It’s a future which could, perhaps, be ours, unless we leave the path we’re on, stumbling away from the horrors intermingled with delights this remarkable novel tells us are to come.

Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Seattle Times.



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