- The Futureless Future
G. P. Putnam's Sons
496 Pages; Print, $28.95
Apocalypse is in the air. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009), Vanessa Veslka’s Zazen (2011), Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012), Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam (2013), John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse (2013), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), Lydia Millet’s Pills and Starships (2014), Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (2015), Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011) and all those other beautifully alarming new zombie-apocalypse novels: fiction in the new millennium is locked in its seat, white-knuckled, bracing for the crash.
And now William Gibson, America’s national prognosticator of bleak and alarming destinies, has rejoined this futurist crowd. In the Blue Ant trilogy, Gibson did a brief stint in the here-and-now, working his way through the US trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath in Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010). In The Peripheral, Gibson goes back to the dystopian future. The complex but riveting plot of The Peripheral revolves around two interlocked future-times (seventy years apart from one another) that are the outcomes of a seamless meld between posthumanism and a globalized military-industrial-technological complex ruled solely by the logic of finance capitalism. For the first time, however, Gibson’s characteristic “sentimental endings” might be at home in the new apocalyptic landscape.
The farthest future in the novel, set in London, is one in which only the richest of the global elite have survived a planetary meltdown called “the Jackpot”–a perfect storm (commencing in the mid-twenty-first century) of unchecked climate disaster, worldwide financial collapse, rampant disease outbreaks, and ubiquitous social breakdown after the crackup of all nation-states. The dystopian society born from the crash is beautiful and has learned the lessons of ecological preservation: its rivers are clear, under glass because they generate clean energy; its floating sea islands of plastic are inhabited by a population of “neoprimitives” in a kind of counter-cultural community; and entire sections of London are designated cosplay areas for the remaining urban population. But the world is actually one of unrelenting surveillance and covert violence. All forms of social democracy are dead, and feuding, technologically enhanced oligarchs have seized the day. In this future, “the man” can literally get inside your head via implants, mind control, and digital necromancy, and all social institutions have been irretrievably corrupted in the oligarchs’ quest for power. The “other future” in the novel is set seventy years earlier, right before the Jackpot, in a rural America reminiscent of southern Mississippi or Alabama. Here we see the precariat that will be wiped out when the Jackpot is unleashed: an underclass living in trailers and shacks, dependent upon (and highly proficient using) advanced technology but under-educated and futureless, scraping a living by working in tech-industry sweatshops, low-end-merchandise superstores, and illegal black markets or selling themselves as cheap labor to the already emerging oligarchic class. The key characters in the two time dimensions are able to communicate through the “peripherals” of the title: android bodies in the post-Jackpot world that can be inhabited by the consciousness of people (uploaded as data) in the pre-Jackpot world through a mysterious time-travel program run by even more unfathomable AIs. Eventually this data exchange goes two ways.
The two futures enact different dystopian endpoints of a class divide that is increasingly characterizing First World nations in our time. The Anglo-American nexus of the two futures recalls Gibson’s use of London in previous novels as a foil to “The Sprawl.” But in the post-Jackpot future, the Anglo-American nexus has literally become the world, both provincial (in that only a small subset of humanity—already homogenized by the experience of wealth—remains alive) and globalized (through capital mutated even beyond money markets through technological capabilities so far beyond human cognition that they are overseen by AIs that seem supernatural, sublime). The colonialism that gave First-World nations their early-modern economic hegemony is now located not...