After three loosely linked books set in the mostly recognizable sort-of-present—a series of books sometimes referred to as the Blue Ant or Bigend trilogy, for the mysterious billionaire character who sets them in
motion—William Gibson is going back to the future.
Gibson, who was born and raised in the American South, and still has some of that Carolina syrup in his voice, is not at all uncomfortable imagining the world just over the horizon. After serving time at a boys school in Arizona and falling under the spell of Burroughs and the rest of the Beats, Gibson moved north, ultimately to Canada to avoid the Vietnam war—something he has been very open and direct about—and he has lived there ever since, for a time working as a furniture picker and then, after his blockbuster fiction debut, Neuromancer, in 1984, as our prophet laureate. One of Time magazine’s top 100 books published in English in the last 90 years, Neuromancer, written 30 years ago now, takes place in a near future when we all live deep within a virtual world behind our computer screens. Gibson called this terrain cyberspace—introducing both the word and state of mind we know all too well today.
In nearly a dozen books (novels including Mona Lisa Overdrive and All Tomorrow’s Parties, the short story collection Burning Chrome, whence the source material for the Keanu Reeves-starring & Robert Longo-directed movie Johnny Mnemonic, and the essay collection Distrust that Particular Flavor) Gibson has been staggeringly good at predicting the things and way of being we have since grown into-things like Google Glass, 3d printing and a kind of reverse cyborging of ourself in which we outsource bits of our human identity, like our memory, say, to the digital world, i.e. the cloud).
Gibson’s new book, Peripheral (out today from Putnam), his 14th by my count, is actually set in two futures—one, not so long from now, but after a kind of cataclysmic decay has winnowed away the world’s population and destroyed much of the infrastructure we now rely on; and another thread, 70 years on, in which the rich have gotten even more rich, obscenely so, and the world is renewing itself, regenerating, somewhat, while the people themselves may in fact be degenerating still further.
As in many of his books, Gibson’s plot begins with a money man engaging a pluckish young woman for a weird adventure. In this case that woman is the sort of survivalist gamer-genius Flynne Fisher, a resident of a non descript southern town, dominated by a big box store in the near future timeline, and Flynne is hired to replace her brother beta-testing out a video game. Time-hopping, body-swapping murder mystery hijinks ensue—propelled by Gibson’s talent for observation and imaginative forecasting.
A few weeks ago Gibson called up from Vancouver to talk about The Peripheral, about his former career in antiques, about Franz Kafka the coffee snob, and Dick Cheney as a style barometer.