Since the Bridge Trilogy, the present has been catching up with William Gibson. Burning Chrome and then Neuromancer were a daring extrapolation into the future, while "Pattern Recognition" and its cousins were contemporary thrillers. The further Gibson ventured from his present day, the more interesting I found his books. In his 2014 novel The Peripheral, the bootloader of cyberpunk returns two crucial elements of his early work: a rather distant future, and the -punk bit, as he puts high tech back into the hands of the supposedly low life.
Promoted as a time travel story, the book alternates between the points of view of the two protagonists : Flynne Fisher in the 2030s' rural America and Wilf Netherton in the early 2100s' London.
Flynne, with her sick mother and former US Marine Corps brother, lives mostly off of unsteady jobs and her brother's veteran's benefits. When one day he is held up, she has to take over for him, supposedly beta-testing a VR game. In it however, she witnesses the very real murder of somebody important from Netherton's not-really-postapocalyptic time. Without giving too much away, there is a virtual connection between the two places in time, through which the future reaches out for Flynne to help them identify the killer. Changing the past doesn't change the future, as it creates a new branch of reality. However, other parties from the future want to prevent Flynne and Netherton from finding the murderer, turning a past that isn't theirs anymore into their third-worlded chessboard.
Like his best work, the most compelling part of Gibson's latest book isn't the story or the development the characters go through, but the pieces of modern society extrapolated twenty years forward that are strewn all over the story. Remote-Controlled and autonomous drones, the return of virtual reality, new extremes in body modifications, smartphones as mobile computers and most importantly the acceptance of all this into daily life take center stage. Gibson does very well in returning to lower hierarchies of society with the Fisher family and giving them tech that today would seem super-top-notch, making it part of their daily background noise.
On the other hand, Netherton's future seems much more sterile and posh, but only because he is employed by one of the few oligarch clans that essentially rule his day and age. However his greatest twist in terms of furnishing scenarios is Gibson's refrain from using a big cataclysmic event, but rather an unfortunate combination of many factors like climate change and antibiotic resistant bacteria.
A crucial part of scenario is how the future remembers the past, how once unquestionable constants in society are transformed or removed, how conceptions of what is and what isn't going to take off clash with the experiences with the future, and especially how self-evident and natural each period feels for its own exoticisms.
What needs pointing out is that while a few minor characters feel too much like the typical archetype they represent, Gibson does gloriously well in making Flynne a believable character. Her authenticity stems from the fact that you get a very clear idea of the kind of person Gibson conjures up, without giving her too many sharp edges. Other than Case in the beginning of Neuromancer, this might be Gibson's most relatable character yet.
William Gibson has always been difficult to read because of his phrasing. The Peripheral is no exception. The biggest hurdle are the half-finished, slang-like non-sentences he uses mostly from Flynne's perspective. At time the pace picks up, but mostly you have to slow done, both to take in all the details he has sewn into his usually fine fabric of describing the nuances of a scenario, and also to simply digest the meaning behind what you've just read in the last paragraph.
The Peripheral was a good book, not grandiose, but smart and interesting and worth reading if you're willing to trade in plot complexity for details in the world(s) it takes place in. I thought it was the best thing William Gibson has written since Idoru. Today it feels like a very reasonable extrapolation of the present, maybe in ten or twenty years we will consider it with the same bewildered amazement of hit and miss speculation that makes Neuromancer so fascinating now.
To quote the man himself: "I am trying to use science fiction to somewhat understand an unthinkable present."