Monday, 25 May 2015

William Gibson's new time travel novel is his best since NEUROMANCER


2030 America is one large trailer park in which the poor are paid  to be mercenaries in online games.  The money economy is based on 'builders' who create designer narcotics, tolerated by 'Homes' a corrupt security apparatus which has evolved from Homeland Security. A girl, Flynn, takes over one odd merc game job from her brother (one of many actual war vets recruited by gamers after their service). This merc game is a new one, a security/surveillance game in a strange environment - in which she inconveniently witnesses a murder.
We, and Flynn, then find that it is not a game, and the interface she is using is actually rich elites from 70 years in the future, hiring cheap disposable labour from the past to control their drones, and their living, breathing 2100s equivalent, called 'Peripherals'.

2100 London is mostly a Victorian theme park, re-greened after a world wide catastrophic event called 'The Jackpot'. Dotted with "Shards" which have an environmental as well as accommodation function, and cosplay zones, in which tourists can interact with Victorian recreations from the past. It is inhabited by the surviving super rich and their families, most of the activity is artful reconstruction of the past for tourism and education purposes. London's lost rivers have recovered as 90% of the human population has died off. Politically the city is run in a feudal fashion by Guilds from the City of London.

After a decade or so writing contemporary (if wierd) spy ficition  William Gibson returns to science fiction with a time travel novel, and it is probably as good as anything  he's written since his hugely influential first novel Neuromancer,  which actually coined the modern use of the word 'cyber' in 1984.

Gibson's version time travel seems to work like this - the super rich in the 2100s can create a 'stub' back to a version of the 2030s which allows them to communicate but not travel. Once established the stub runs concurrent time at both ends of the link (you can't jump forward or backward within it) and creates a separate time stream which does not create paradoxes. They do seriously affect the later development of history within that reality but the 'Klepts' - the descendants of Russian mafia that seem to run London 2100 just don't care. Some in fact run the stubs like live strategy games, purely sadistically, for fun.

This is a great and topical idea and quite a believable extension of current economics - perhaps a logical extension of outsourcing. Why should 'job creators' even have to pay subsistence wages in their own timeline when they can pay resource from another era to do it? Plenty of businesses right now would run call centers using switchboard operators from the  1930s if they had the means to to so.

In the reading this book just flashes by and I found myself slowing down and pacing myself just to enjoy it. Previously "unputdownable" isn't a phrase you would normally apply to William Gibson. His novels are not written as thrillers, Gibson's attention to detail is more Bret Easton Ellis than Tom Clancy.
Often they are (Spook Country) much better on second reading.

I've started and given up on reading about four or five novels in a row  (starting with a Thomas Pynchon last year) but I burned through this,  to the extent that it wormed it's way into lunch and things to do in the evening.Very short chapters helps, and he's a great writer.

Gibson's grasp of characters gets better and better - the slightly cardboard cartoons of his first beloved novels are now fully fleshed rounded and quite tragic characters. The defunct rock band of Pattern Recognition and Zero History is replaced by a trailerpark full of young crippled veterans and their families in mid 21st century, balanced against the quirks of an even more distant future London society post Jackpot.

Like the recent Bigend trilogy, he spends time building entertaining characters and once he gets to play with them the results are often very funny. When American girl from trailer park 2030 operates a living Peripheral in 2100 to identify the murder suspect she has to be fitted with a module that spouts the pretentious society bullshit of the 2100s to fit in.

Aside from the scifi, and the general pleasure of reading Gibson in top form this is the most sympathetic portrayal of an unclass environment world I've come across for some time. There is no sneering at Flynn's trailer park world, and the pity reserved for the war vets is mixed with respect. The forced bonds which develop into friendship between the underclass of 2030 and the high class semi magical world of 2100 are perhaps the highlight of a great read.

When the explanation for the Jackpot arrives this it is a horribly believable idea;  that the mass die-off at the end of the century is not from one cause but an accumulation of environmental, social and economic horrors that have been building for some time until eventually human civilisation 'hits the jackpot' of mass unmanageable disaster. Flynn asks when it started and is told it has been in progress long before her own time of the 2030s.

As usual with Gibson the fantastic is convincing particularly with regard to the future tech and its relationships with society. Gibson admits in an afterword that creating a world of 2100 we can relate to in any way , and even a language to describe it,  was the most difficult part of the writing. The 2100 world of 'assemblers' is very hard to grasp early on, and yet  I have just spent weeks visiting London's Hampstead of the 2015 and the London of 2100, with its greenery full of Russians and underground car parks full of giant German luxury trucks really seems only fantastic in the detail.

This is further examples of how Gibson, - a native of Vancouver - gets the wider world in general and London in particular. The Big Smoke features heavily in the Bigend books, obviously in The Difference Engine, and even the last of the initial scifi Sprawl trilogy, Mona Lisna Overdrive. This Pacific Northwester's thing for London is something I regret I never got to ask him at his recent BFI visit.

A warning, The Perpheral has a steep learning curve and is tough to start. Readers are dumped right in at the deep end of both future environments and there is minimum background and explanatory detail, the Jackpot for example is not explained until the final 100 pages. Very short micro-chapters chapters help. Just let the detail flow over and allow comprehension to slowly sink in.

In an Afterword, Wilf Netherton and the Facebook of Dreams, Gibson talks about the tension between writing a narrative and making an environment comprehensible, alluding to Arthur C. Clarke's quote that
"any sufficiently advanced organisation with be indistinguishable from magic"
In his 2100 people tweet in their dreams (and have their dreams tapped by the security forces). The stubs which allow contact with previous eras are enabled by a mysterious Chinese server which is presumed beyond the understanding of anyone outside China.

"There is a working tension, in this sort of fiction between naturalistic narrative and technical exploitation. My own tendency is towards narrative, both as reader and writer. I'm content with Clarke's magic, and The Peripheral, with it's unknown, Chinese 'server' enabling the entire narrative is no doubt an extreme example of this"

Pyongyang is my favourite track on Blur's new album MAGIC WHIP, which has made a good soundtrack to the reading of this novel.

Pics are from my Sunday morning walk to Canary Wharf along the Regents Canal. About two hours listening to a typically fantastic Tom Ravenscroft 6 music show (Lapulax)

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