Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson

December 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

The Peripheral by William Gibson audiobook coverThe Peripheral
By William Gibson; Narrated by Lorelei King
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication Date: 28 October 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hours, 5 minutes

Themes: / future / time travel / drugs / veterans / crime /

Publisher summary:

Where Flynne and her brother, Burton, live, jobs outside the drug business are rare. Fortunately, Burton has his veteran’s benefits, for neural damage he suffered from implants during his time in the USMC’s elite Haptic Recon force. Then one night Burton has to go out, but there’s a job he’s supposed to do – a job Flynne didn’t know he had. Beta-testing part of a new game, he tells her. The job seems to be simple: work a perimeter around the image of a tower building. Little buglike things turn up. He’s supposed to get in their way, edge them back. That’s all there is to it. He’s offering Flynne a good price to take over for him. What she sees, though, isn’t what Burton told her to expect. It might be a game, but it might also be murder.

Reading a new William Gibson novel is both delightful and exciting. He delights with the cool, sardonic yet imaginative visions of the present and future. He excites with his uncanny glimpses of the future, grounded in canny selections from our time.

The Peripheral offers another pleasure, that of Gibson trying something new. His recent brace of novels looked at the very near future, each following a normal linear path. His classic cyberpunk or Sprawl trilogy envisioned a medium-term future, also tending to thriller linearity.

But in The Peripheral we see a very different conceit and narrative structure. This novel relies on two timelines, one in the near-to-medium term future, and one almost a century away. At first we follow these in parallel, trying to infer connections. Then we learn that the further-along future has discovered a form of time travel – well, information exchange with the past, to be precise. The far-future signals the closer-to-us future, and has a proposition. Or two. Then more, which aren’t propositions but assassinations.

This dual-track time-travel-ish idea owes much to Gregory Benford’s 1980 novel Timescape. Other parallels appear; see spoiler section at the bottom of this post.

The future-near-to-us characters are also the more sympathetic. They focus on a young, poor Southern woman, Flynn Fisher, and her family. They live in a postwar backwater, where the economy barely exists apart from illegal drug manufacture. Flynn helps her vet brother, Burton, with an online job and witnesses what seems to be a strange murder. In the future-farther-away we see a PR flack, Wilf Netherton, working with a Russian crime family and their staff. Wilf has made an unspecified bad move, and is trying to improve his situation.

The plot ratchets up slowly and steadily to climax in a party, where multiple schemes intersect. Some, not all, is revealed, and the Fishers end up alive, very rich, and with a powerful edge on their present. Wilf somehow survives, and ends up in a relationship. This is too brisk and cursory a summary, but will do for now.

One of the pleasures of reading William Gibson is tracking his experimental words and phrases. These are concentrated projections of a possible future. Let me list some that caught my eye: klepts, artisanal AIs, battle-ready solicitors, court-certified recall, the viz, hate Kegels, autonomic bleedover, continua enthusiasts, drop bears, period trains, neo-primitivist curators, quasi-biological megavolume carbon collectors, heritage diseases, directed swarm weapons, a synthetic bullshit implant, surprise funeral, mofo-ettes, and a neurologer’s shop. One near-future treat is the “freshly printed salty caramel cronut”.

Some of today’s words mutate in these two futures. For example, poor folks don’t cook, but build drugs with some form of 3d printers. “Homes” refers not to homies or residences, but to Homeland Security. A very bad crisis happened between now and 2025 or so. People afterwards refer to it as the Jackpot.

Some of the language is simply cute. One character has her name changed slightly, and refers to it as “amputating the last letter of her name.” Another speaks of “cleaning up the afterbirth of Christmas ornaments”. The Fisher family shops at a Hefty Mart.

In a sense The Peripheral is Gibson’s gloomiest novel. Like the recent film Interstellar (my notes), this story begins in a bad situation, then gets worse. The Fishers are poor and ill (the brother has seizures, the mother seriously ailing) in a society that clearly doesn’t care for them at all. Their story reads like something from a late 19th-century Southern backwater, or like today’s worst countryside. Characters have little help for the future. What we learn about the Jackpot not only makes things horrible, but sets up a future that’s inhumane. Across all of these times looms the specter of vast economic inequality, of a society caring only for the <1%.

There is a powerful sense that the far-future is a kind of 1% taken to an extreme: a lonely elite, casually breaking off temporal worlds as a hobby, easily committing murders. Our lack of information about the world around London’s far-future elite disturbs me, the more I think of it. Conversely, the far-future world is situated in such total surveillance that they see our/Flynn’s sense of surveillance as charmingly antique.

Overall, The Peripheral offers solid future thought in an engaging narrative. Recommended.

I didn’t read this one, but listened to it on audiobook. Lorelei King was the reader and did a fine job, with the whole file running a touch over 14 hours. King does different nationalities well, which matters in the kind of multinational world Gibson loves. She reads with the right level of cool, too – not a thriller’s burning pace, but with a kind of observation acuity that I always associate with Gibson.

SPOILER SECTION

Here I reveal mysteries of the novel.  Do not read any farther if you wish your brain to remain unsullied.

Ready?

Here they come:

First, more on the plot: one agency in the far-off future is manipulating the past for its own reasons, and hires the Fishers as proxies. Another far-off-future group hires others to kill the Fisher family. Ainsley Lowbeer, a London cop, or something like that, appears in the far-future, with unusual connections to the Fishers’ time. Flynn and Burton are able to interact with their far-future employers via telepresence robots, the titular peripherals. Wilf explains the Jackpot to Flynn, describing a series of interconnected, overlapping crises that killed the majority of humans:

droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves…

Flynn also learns that by intervening in her time, the far-future team has effectively broken off her world from the stream of time, creating a “stub” which can’t affect their future, and avoiding neatly some classic time travel problems.

Second, how does this gloomy novel end, then? Ah, it’s a happy ending, pretty much, although we don’t learn enough about what happens in the future. We – well, the Fisher stub – get to avoid the Jackpot. Whew!

But Gibson doesn’t want us to relax. Note his comments in a Tor interview:

there may be readers who get to the end and they go, “oh, well, that’s okay, everything worked out for them!”
… But these guys had an immensely powerful—if possibly dangerously crazy—fairy godmother who altered their continuum, who has for some reason decided that she’s going to rake all of their chestnuts out of the fire, so that the world can’t go the horrible it way it went in hers. And whatever else is going to happen, that’s not going to happen for us, you know? We’re going to have to find another way. We’re not going to luck into Lowbeer.

Worse, the Fishers seem like good folks. But what will keep them (or their inheritors) from becoming klepts, with their vast power and advantages?

So this book ends up as a cautionary tale, a huge warning, and a goad to get us hauling ourselves away from the Jackpot.

Third, I mentioned earlier that The Peripheral has links to Benford’s Timescape.  Benford’s future world is facing an existential crisis, due to events occurring in the past, so they reach out to communicate with the past to get them to change their ways. Gibson’s far-future has already experienced the Jackpot, but some of the survivors want to change the past to mitigate the experience. I dimly recall Benford’s future coming to an end, somehow, and the past branching off into a new, better world. This recalls Flynn’s world cutting its way into a different, hopefully non-Jackpotted world.

Posted by Bryan A.

Review of Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick

May 12, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Vulcan's HammerVulcan’s Hammer
By Philip K. Dick; Performed by Mel Foster
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
6 hours [UNABRIDGED]

Themes: / Humanity / Future / Artificial Intelligence

Publisher summary:

After the twentieth century’s devastating series of wars, the world’s governments banded together into one globe-spanning entity, committed to peace at all costs. Ensuring that peace is the Vulcan supercomputer, responsible for all major decisions. But some people don’t like being taken out of the equation. And others resent the idea that the Vulcan is taking the place of God. As the world grows ever closer to all-out war, one functionary frantically tries to prevent it. But the Vulcan computer has its own plans, plans that might not include humanity at all.

Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1960. The book’s origin however is an expansion of a novella that has been published previously and therefore places this story among some of the author’s very earliest science fiction works.  The book’s central theme of what makes us human versus that of a machine is one that continued into many of Philip K. Dick’s later and more popular novels.

The plot revolves around that of a supercomputer named Vulcan 3 which acts as the world’s leader. Most of the characters (including the main protagonist William Barris,) are Directors of an organization called Unity which represent various regions of the world on behalf of Vulcan. Another more mysterious group that call themselves the Healers appear to be trying to thwart the will of Vulcan 3. Another key character, Father Fields, is from this counter-group.

Narration is handled by Audie award winner Mel Foster whose many other audiobook titles also include Philip K. Dick’s The Zap Gun. I enjoyed his performance of the material here and plan to give his take on The Zap Gun a listen also. I recommend Vulcan’s Hammer as I found interesting the development of a theme which continued into many of the author’s later novels.

Posted by Dan VK

Review of We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick

February 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

We Can Build You by Philip K. DickWe Can Build You
By Philip K. Dick; Read by Dan John Miller
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
ISBN: 978-1-4558-1461-9
Published: August 14, 2012
[UNABRIDGED] – 7 discs; 8 hours

Themes: / androids / healthcare / future / bureaucracy /

Publisher summary:

In this lyrical and moving novel, Philip K. Dick intertwines the story of a toxic love affair with one about sentient robots, and unflinchingly views it all through the prism of mental illness — which spares neither human nor robot. The end result is one of Dick’s most quietly powerful works.

When Louis Rosen’s electronic-organ company builds a pitch-perfect robotic replica of Abraham Lincoln, the firm is pulled into the orbit of a shady businessman, who is looking to use Lincoln for his own profit. Meanwhile, Rosen seeks Lincoln’s advice as he woos a woman incapable of understanding human emotions — someone who may be even more robotic than Lincoln’s replica.

Published in 1972, Dick uses the premise of a “future” (the book takes place in Dick’s imagined 1982) where programming is advanced enough to allow programming the appearance of sentience into androids to provide a treatise on mental health and mental healthcare.

In short, Louie Rosen and his partner Maury run a business making and selling electronic organs. One day, however, Maury decides to make an android of Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. When he reveals it to Louie, he also reveals that his schizophrenic daughter, Priss, played a large role in developing the personality for it. The Stanton simulacrum is quite successful, and they make another, this time of Abraham Lincoln. They get the idea to pitch it to an investor, Barrows, to capitulate on Americans’ love for the Civil War (which at the time it was written, was nearing its centennial). Unfortunately, as Barrows and the crew spend more time with the Lincoln, they find that it is moody and seems manic. While this may be historically accurate, it could also be a projection of Priss’s beliefs about Lincoln into the programming. Where the Stanton android is personable, logical, and “normal,” the Lincoln is anything but. Eventually, Barrows decides to pass on the investment and instead make his own (which he will use as first settlers for a moon colony–an idea I would have preferred to read about). Priss ends up infatuated with Barrows and follows him back to Seattle. Louie, while talking to the Lincoln, seems to have also developed mental instability and runs to Seattle to bring Priss back. She shoots him down and he ends up committed. The story ends when Louie “gets over” his issues and is discharged to go about his normal life.

This was a book about ideas. Dick obviously had feelings about the state (and stigma) of mental health issues in the 60’s, both with regards to diagnosis and treatment. He almost seems to imply that we’re all mentally unstable/have our moments of instability…but he takes it to another level as to suggest that the state-run facilities do nothing to help people. Rather, the state-run facilities can actually make people worse.

In the end, this was a book of a lot of thoughts, not a lot of actions. There was a lot more dialogue an “thinking” than there was stuff actually happening; it was quite cerebral. This isn’t the kind of book I’m normally into…and in fact, as the book wore on, I found it hard to want to listen and hard to keep focused. I liked the idea of sentient androids, of “souls” built from research into real people…but it’s not for me. And probably not for everybody. But if you like “ideas” books, then it may be for you.

The narration itself was…interesting. Miller’s voice is somewhat flat, which can be good in an audiobook like this; he certainly didn’t try to project too much character into most of the voices. However, he did use different tones for female voices as compared to male voices. In that respect, it was somewhat grating; his female voice was almost pandering and was somewhat creepy. It made some “sexual” scenes between Priss and Louie extra-creepy. That said, it also helped to make me really believe that Priss was mentally ill…

It’s hard to believe, but this is the first PKD I’ve ever read. I’ve also never watched Bladerunner in its entirety. I don’t know if the rest of his stories are like this, so cerebral. If they are, I may skip them. I was lured in by the robots…and kind of turned off by everything else.

Review by terpkristin.

Review of Alien Voices: The Time Machine

September 11, 2006 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Science Fiction Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Alien Voices - H.G. Wells' The Time MachineH. G. Wells’ The Time Machine
By H. G. Wells, performed by a full cast
2 Cassettes, 2 CDs, Approx. 2 hours – [AUDIO DRAMA]
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: 1997
ISBN: 0671575538 (cassettes), 0671575546 (CDs)
Themes: / Science fiction / Time Travel / Evolution / Future /

When a time traveler seeks a better world 802,000 years in the future, his optimism is shaken when he discovers that the human race has turned upon itself in a primal display of horror.

For their first adaptation, Alien Voices choose one of the most important stories ever written in SF. And with Leonard Nimoy as the time traveler and John DeLancie as the narrating friend of the time traveler, we’re among the pantheon of SF deities.

This adaptation is very faithful to the original story. A gentleman of the late 19th century invents a time machine. Over a dinner conversation with colleagues he explains that time is the fourth dimension. At their next dinner engagement he comes in bedraggled and tells them the amazing tale of his journey in time. The story he tells is of the year 802,000. He meets a gentle race called the Eloi. A Garden of Eden of sorts, but the Eloi are as simple as small children, but without their curiosity or enthusiasm. Another threatening race live in subterranean tunnels. They are the Morlocks and feed upon the innocent Eloi. After befriending a female Eloi, named Weena, and losing her during a battle with the Morlocks, the time traveler returns home to tell his tale to his colleagues.

The dramatization is well produced. Nice original music and crackling sound effects. But one effect was totally distracting and detracting to the story. The Eloi all spoke with this strange chorusing effect to their vocals. It reminded one of an alien or telepath, certainly not the sound of a child-like being described in the story. It’s as if their voice boxes bifurcated into a strange mutated form. This destroys the illusion that they are simple child-like.

Much of the time is spent with the time traveler reciting his adventure in long monologues of his future adventure. And although this is faithful to the book and Leonard Nimoy’s voice is golden, it does not take advantage of a cast recording and is more reminiscent of a traditional audiobook for long stretches at a time.