William Gibson novel The Peripheral

The following contains light spoilers for William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral.

I just finished The Peripheral, William Gibson’s latest novel, published in 2014. Generally, the work documents two different futures: a time not too far off from now (maybe 15 years or so?) and then around 70 years after that. Overall, it’s extremely Gibsonian in its plot and narrative arc (my wife asked, “what’s that about?” as I started it and I could only reply, “I’ll tell you after page 50”), and for that I really loved it. His visions of the future are informed by so much more than the utopian technolust or dystopian apocalypse of Hollywood or most pop speculative fiction. Instead, they are filled with nuanced socio-political prescience, the kind that just seems to make sense as logical progressions from our current trajectory.

In many of his works, Gibson conjures technological prostheses on and in his heroes. Take, for example, all of Molly’s bodily modifications in the groundbreaking Neuromancer (1984), or Bobby Chombo’s locative AR tech in Spook Country (2007). But for The Peripheral, Gibson takes the liberty of replacing entire bodies altogether with telekinetically controlled stand-ins, the figures for which the novel is titled. In my attempt to avoid too many spoilers (and, let’s be honest, trying to summarize a Gibsonian plot is often relatively futile), I will explain only this: one character, who was maimed in battle and lives in the “closer to now” without his legs, one arm, and some of his fingers, is given the opportunity to control one of these peripherals—in the “far off from now”—who has every extremity still intact. And this is where things get a bit itchy for me. 

Conner, our paraplegic veteran, is critical to the climactic operation in the story because of his military and security knowledge. Today, those qualities would almost certainly be accompanied by physical prowess. In the “closer to now,” he has a motorized device that allows him some mobility, but nothing like the peripheral he controls in the “far off”. The first time he embodies this distant figure, he runs around, performs flips, even sprains a finger. He eventually becomes addicted: “‘Fingers, legs ’n’ shit, that’s all I want,’” he proclaims at one point, explaining he’ll go back into the peripheral at any time.

What’s unsettling about the whole thing is that there are no real injuries in the “far off”—one is either alive and fully intact, thanks in most part to an advanced portable medical technology, or they are dead, having gone beyond the point of repair. Consider here, that the history of prosthetics really begins in the mid 1800’s when what Aimi Hamraie calls “a rehabilitation regime” emerged in response to an increase in survival rates for individuals injured on the battlefield, in the factory, or in the fields. That is, prior to certain 19th century advances in safety and medical tech, those who had been maimed or mutilated were simply not likely to return home. Those being rehabilitated, then, needed adaptive and assistive technologies that helped them navigate a world not built for the disabled body.

But Gibson’s future, for all of its intricate details imagined to describe the ramifications of climate change and extreme income inequality, doesn’t include mutilated or maimed bodies. They are either dead or alive, complete or non-existant. Alternatively, disabled people do exist and they, willingly or not, utilize peripherals for their own mobility. With this technology, their bodies can be stationary anywhere in the world (or, apparently, the space-time continuum) as their consciousness roams freely, without struggle or pain. It’s the ultimate Cartesian dualistic fantasy.

At one point, Conner throws his peripheral off the 55th floor of a building in an attempt to kill the bad guy—a kamikaze without the fatality. It’s hard to say if Gibson is warning us against a future in which our bodies will be devalued over our consciousness or promising us one. And even though the author has a history of providing rather normative, albeit outcast-y, characters, I do believe that he doesn’t wish upon us a world where the disabled could not survive out in the open. If what I noted in my introduction is true, that Gibson’s work is important because of how “real” it seems, then maybe this is another reality—the kind that I warned about a few months ago, wherein the rush to protect the privileged from the consequences of anthropocentric near-extinction leaves out, once again, the misfits.

Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate at UC San Diego. He is convinced that Hubertus Bigend is an actual person.