The SFFaudio Podcast #336 – Jesse, Paul Weimer, and Bryan Alexander talk about A Voyage To Arcturus by David Lindsay
Talked about on today’s show:
the original title Nightspore Of Tormance, colouring a reading, a really weird book, William Blake meets Gene Wolfe but Scottish, H.G. Wells in the 1960s taking acid, John Bunyan meets science fiction, The Pilgrim’s Progress, do they leave the Earth?, the first five chapters, multiple resonances, future echoes, quasi-science fiction philosophy, a time travel book, a time loop, a Buddhist reincarnation story, everyone at the party, Krag, Surtur, and Shaping, a gnostic novel, re-reading the ending, Crystalman, a terrifying demi-god, a breathtaking thing, later Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer is a happy version of this story, like the Epic Of Gilgamesh, profound and disturbing, the death-toll, The Odyssey, everyone who sails with Odysseus gets killed, Maskull is a killer, a freebooter, one half Conan, detailed set-up, energetic, furious, uncontrolled, coming to self-knowledge, the demi-urge we’ve been looking for, maybe the events are co-temperanous, the events on Arcturus vs. the events on Earth, time-travel, myth, mythic time is always happening, coming to awareness, pursuit of liberation, the point of process, the 1971 movie, black and white and low budget, hippie hair on Maskull, Mr. Hair, the medium, you are about to witness a materialization, isn’t that clever?, Lindsay injected so much resonance, dream-like, everything that Nightspore says and does shows his experience level, All You Zombies, By His Bootstraps, Predestination (an adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies), this book is about gender, female and male selves, the third gender, the Wombflash story, another version of Maskull, Joywind, a story about the human experience, Maskull = man-skull or mask-all, really profound!, like a religious text, explaining the conflicts with women, Oceaxe, Panawae, sacrificed for him, the Wikipedia chapter summaries, Starkness observatory, an observatory without telescopes!, The Crawling Chaos by H.P. Lovecraft, a house as a symbol for the body, climbing the observatory, he had three times the gravity, roll-up their sleeves, spitting on their wounds, this is a suicide story too, Joiwind, blood swap, blood brothers, quick sex, Crag spits on the blood, Steven Universe, naked wrestling, horseplay, matterplay, very 1960s, I Will Fear No Evil, Stranger In Strange Land, Mah-skuul, the voyage removes the masks, a total vision of the universe, explaining all of nature, Hindu reincarnation, a Promethean element, the fire of the gods, Fred Kiesche, the Ballantine publication, a sixties thing, the tower’s levels, climbing the Karmic ladder, what has need got to do with it?, each window is a life, Tormance = torment + romance or to romance, a quasi-scientific romance, Tralfamadore, Tormance as a platonic version of Earth, Eric S. Rabkin’s science fiction class, new senses, new organs, new colours, the sheer weirdness, a lake that is a musical instrument, like Ringworld, Carcosa, Jale and Ulfire (new colours), Mr. Jim Moon, The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, a lack of rockets doesn’t prevent travel to the stars, a torpedo, backlight, quasi-science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs, like John Carter’s journey to Mars, like Superman under the yellow sun, a 19 hour journey, the profound understanding of the size and age of the universe, The Shadow Out Of Time by H.P. Lovecraft, deep time, massive space, the limitation of physics and limitations of matter, Violet Apple website (about David Linday), Oceaxe from Sycorax (from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Harold Bloom’s A Flight To Lucifer, C.S. Lewis was the first and only fan of the book, a complaint about the theology?, The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, wanting to find meaning in a godless or evil-godded universe, the strict rules of realism, The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, a post-apocalypse novel, a game of all of human knowledge, Siddhartha, Jesse is anti-realism, after reading A Voyage To Arcturus Jesse feels uplifted, it is all wrapped up in an H.G. Wellian style explanation, the greatest joke ever, the guy attending the seance is the guy who is called forth at the seance, The Red Room, bridging the gap between the ghost story and the real science fiction philosophy quest for the purpose of existence, Cavorite, a way to get to the thing that you want, a chapter about colour theory, art theory, Eric would be interested in Joiwind’s eating habits, eating Gnallwater, philosophy of food, vegetarianism, raising animals for food, Hinterland Games’ The Long Dark, as a WWI novel, the traumatic waste, the bonding of an individual to the will of a country, the Vietnam War, go out and kill people?, explaining the seance, the U.S. Civil War, 1920s and 1930s fiction, Mrs. Dolloway by Virginia Woolf, unseated and violent, this is a guy who went to war and didn’t like what he saw, Robert Graves, Goodbye To All That, comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien’s textual texts, Lewis is more projective, Narnia, Lindsay and LEwis looking forward and Tolkien looking back, Middle Earth as the original history of Earth, Lewis looking forward, so much suicide, this book doesn’t shy away from anything, homoeroticism, Anne Leckie’s new exciting non gendered pronoun book, yeah well so does this 1920 novel, this book has everything, the third sex, gender swapping, how could this book ever make the mainstream?, Michael Bay production, Die Farbe (the German movie adaptation of The Colour Out Of Space), out on DVD-R, black and white and colour, colour changes, always travelling north, Maskull get on a train and go north to Scotland, back to Buchan, Olaf Stapledon, getting the cosmos, the universe becomes a character, The Last And First Men, Martian energy beings, Starmaker is like Edgar Rice Burroughs, massive issues of being, an ethical call to people, there’s nothing quite like it to day in fiction, Hypnos by H.P. Lovecraft, astral projection, we’ll go to the Moon, The Crystal Egg, working with the limited physics that is possible, Star Trek, Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, Star Wars, green corpuscles, the midichlorians, an airplane/submarine, Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey, an echo of Verne and Wells, mundane science fiction, this is bullshit!, their all jobless!, this is not planetary romance, more like H.P. Lovecraft’s dreamlands, dream rules apply, the experience of reading Gene Wolfe, mythic power with personal power, something is happening right around you.
Posted by Jesse Willis
Talked about on today’s show:
Time Pawn by Philip K. Dick, 1960, The Little Black Bag by C.M. Kornbluth, Science Fiction Hall Of Fame: Volume 1, The Marching Morons by C.M. Kornbluth, Idiocracy, if smart people don’t have babies…, a kind of Heinleinian authority, a little grey case, his bag is missing, grey vs. black, a doctor from the past visiting a future society, medicine as a crime, interfering with euthanasia, another weird interesting post nuclear war world, primitive or advanced?, we don’t talk about death, reflecting our world back at us, youth culture, worshiping youth, movie heroes used to be old men, Logan’s Run, Nolan’s world, what is the appeal of that world?, a culture will run things for you if you don’t think a lot, the Ancient Egyptian culture of death, you will live your life in your death, the soulcube, immortality through the species itself, The City And The Stars by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, nobody wants to see that, kids are stupid, the wisdom of the grandmothers, the Vietnam War, genetic stupidity, Language For Time Travelers by L. Sprague de Camp, Stargate, Astounding, an editorial note for Time Pawn, the right to live, ruthless euthanasia, time travel, Dr. Jim Parsons, the character is a time pawn, the second arrow, an inevitability, to ensure their own existence, deterministic, the standard classic scene, being careened, the auditorium at the first Beatles concert is only filled with time travelers, Dick’s take on time travel, familiar stars. not familiar? why aren’t they familiar, figuring out the future of the character as he’s writing it, “huh, that’s weird”, completely unpredictable vs. completely predictable, van Vogtian, Paul employs a railroad metaphor, Sir Francis Drake, line by line rewrites, from New York to San Fransisco, matter to mine, Time Pawn vs. Dr. Futurity, glittering vs. illuminated, darting like silver fish, no aircars?, nobody is going to be reading Time Pawn anytime soon, “the chamber was a blaze of light…dead gods waiting to return”, a rushed novel?, what’d you do with all that?, standard Dick tropes: a wife shuffled to the side, missing the wife less in Dr. Futurity, the description of the women is much lengthier, always heaving breasts, there’s no questioning of reality, no surveillance, less questioning, an uncharacteristically straightforward story, it feels like all the other Ace Doubles, in the mode of reading SF, all the tropes are assumed, Margaret Atwood, Michael Crichton, going through the evolution to understand the SF tropes: Wells -> Gernsback -> the 60s, three a week, that’s all we need to know, airbags everywhere, flame retardant spray, toxic chemicals vs. being on fire, we live in a screwed up culture, mercury poisoning, asbestos, guide beams, the google car, GPS, if there was a solar flare…, Aftermath, a Charles Sheffield novel, old infrastructure could save us, Cuba, Alpha Centauri goes supernova, the Three Hoarsemen podcast, steam-punk without the steam is just punk, Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card, a monster, the Columbian exchange, Dick has just read about Sir Francis Drake, Drake’s voyage, he’s famous for making Queen Elizabeth I a big pile of money, Expo 86, the Golden Hind, Drake’s landing point, Oregon, Vancouver Island, Nova Albion, Albion, British Columbia, albino, a weird figure to fixate on, Cortez, Pissaro, The Mask Of The Sun by Fred Saberhagen, caught in the machinations of time traveling empires, more bushwhacking, Daniel Abraham, the way they talk in this future society, it keeps not working, his presence eventually changes their society, starting that whole tribe, the scene with the arrow, a predestination paradox, those stone markers, “I’ll get around to it”, that whole planet is covered in markers, the way Dick ended it, leaving it loose, why Time Pawn is so much of a better title, he feels he is the chess master after a certain point, the extended spaceship to Mars scene, the robot computer with a rat brain, such a creepy scene, “I wonder what’s going to happen”, if the character doesn’t want to get on track, what’s that about?, what are those guns for?, Shupos?, always people confronting him, make remarks about the women, this is NOT a book written by committee, don’t read this as your first Dick, more fodder for your feed.
Posted by Jesse Willis
I think The Terminator may be the best Science Fiction film ever made. And I think that no one person, credited or uncredited, can take all the credit for it.
In the video below, edited from an episode of Prisoners Of Gravity, Harlan Ellison explains how he got his screen credit in The Terminator:
Soldier is the first episode of Season 2 of The Outer Limits (the original series). It’s plot features a futuristic time traveling soldier who, after a thunder crack, appears in a then modern urban alley. The soldier is nearly indestructible, and is incredibly strong. Later, he breaks into a gun shop. In the ultimate scene he confronts his (also) futuristic enemy and they are both destroyed. Those are the basic plot commonalities between Soldier and The Terminator. There are many, many differences. Visually though, there are some striking similarities. These are nicely documented here and here.
That all said, Soldier‘s story plays out very differently from The Terminator, you can see a lot more connections, if you squint really hard.
For example, the solider is scarred like Kyle Reese and is sometimes unintelligible like Schwarzenegger’s T-800 – but ultimately the two, the TV episode and the feature film, are radically different in both scale and scope.
Interestingly, Demon With A Glass Hand the fifth episode of the second season of the original The Outer Limits television series, also written by Ellison, has similarities to both The Terminator and another film.
Like Soldier and The Terminator, Demon With A Glass Hand features a protagonist sent from the future into the past. But in this case, unlike in the title character in Soldier, the time travel was done quite deliberately – and done by humans in order to save mankind – more like The Terminator right?
Also similar, our hero in Demon With A Glass Hand, is nearly indestructible, can survive being shot over and over, feels no need to sleep, is being hunted by enemies also sent from the future, and he is programmed! Those are the basic plot commonalities between Soldier and The Terminator. More on that other movie a little later.
In the Starlog article (December 1984) there is no mention of The Outer Limits or Ellison. But, in it James Cameron does say: “I read all the classics, all the old Ace paperback novels.”
I do not expect that Cameron read all of the following stories. In fact I don’t think it is even necessary to know, and it isn’t crucial to my argument. Indeed, only one of the following stories was actually published in an “old Ace paperback”, (Second Variety was published in The Variable Man and Other Stories, Ace D-261).
My argument is that the story ideas and story points, even more than visuals, from the The Terminator, came very much out of 1950s science fiction.
Now before we get to the meat of my argument I’ll do a little sidestep towards another film, just to make it all the more confusing… its actually laying the groundwork for something, trust me.
Look at these images:
As you can see Demon With A Glass Hand shares something in common with Blade Runner, as much Id say as Soldier does with The Terminator.
The baddies in Demon With A Glass Hand, seen above, have racoon style eye makeup, like Blade Runner‘s Pris. Our hero in Demon With A Glass Hand, as it turns out, is an android that didn’t know he was one, just like in Blade Runner (and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?). Blade Runner was also shot in the same stylish office building in Los Angeles (the Bradbury Building*). And, the final fight of both stories ends in the same way, out the window and onto the roof of the Bradbury!
The “cybernetic organism” of The Terminator is in essence an android, a robot that looks like a human being, specifically a male human being if you want to get all technical.
Now even more than Ellison, who does have an android in Trent, the hero of Demon In A Glass Hand it is Philip K. Dick who is best known for his androids. Though robots that look like, think they are, or can pass for human aren’t unique or original to Dick, they are something he kind of specialized in. Stories like Imposter and The Electric Ant have androids and of course there is Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.
Now practically everyone knows that Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was adapted into a 1982 film called Blade Runner.
But do these folks know that the title of the Blade Runner was licensed from a book by a different author and entirely unrelated to Dick’s?
Ridley Scott acquired the rights to the title of a script based on an unrelated 1974 Science Fiction novel entitled The Bladerunner.
Why did he do this?
He didn’t have to, nobody has the legal right to claim exclusivity on book and movie titles – but as a matter of smart practice, when millions and millions of dollars are at stake, they often do such crazy things.
Now back to Philip K. Dick. He could, had he been alive in 1984, argued that his stories could have inspired The Terminator or even Demon With A Glass Hand!
Ellisons 1958 script for Demon With A Glass Hand has a “time mirror” – a device related to time travel – and so does a Philip K. Dick story.
For example, Dick uses what he calls a “time scoop” and a “time mirror” in a story called Paycheck (Imagination, June 1953). A time “Dip” turns up in a story named Meddler and in his novel Dr. Futurity (itself an expansion of a novella, Time Pawn) has a time “dredge.”
Here’s a snippet from Paycheck:
“It’s developed a time scoop.”
“A time scoop. It’s been theoretically possible for several years. But it’s illegal to experiment with time scoops and mirrors. It’s a felony, and if you’re caught, all your equipment and data becomes the property of the Government.” Jennings smiled crookedly. “No wonder the Government’s interested. If they can catch Rethrick with the goods –”
“A time scoop. It’s hard to believe.”
But Dick didn’t invent the idea either, a story from Amazing Stories, December 1942, has the same tech, its actually in the title!
Another story that could have inspired The Terminator is The Skull. This 1952 story was published in If: Worlds Of Science Fiction. In it the protagonist is sent back in time in order to kill a man who can’t be allowed to live. He doesn’t know the man’s identity, but the clue lies within his own head, kind of like The Terminator.
Now to get out of time travel, let me ask you, where is Skynet, the evil A.I. in either of those Ellison stories? They are absent. But, he has evil computers, ones that want to destroy humanity even, for example there’s AM, the evil A.I. from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. But that story is from 1967, and is not Skynet, exactly…
Well, let me tell you about The Great C, first published in Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, September 1953. This story is set in a Fallout-style post apocalyptic wasteland. Straight away we learn that a band of humans have survived underground after a global nuclear war. The plot consists of following:
One of their number as he sets off with three questions to visit what the reader infers to be a great oracle. The oracle is the titular “Great C” with “C” being short for “Computer”. But unlike the Colossus supercomputer (from Colossus: The Forbin Project) that merely threatens nuclear war, this supercomputer pulled a full-Skynet and actually used the offensive nuclear capability on it’s creators, man.
Now Second Variety, first appeared in Space Science Fiction, May 1953. And it was later adapted to film as Screamers. It is set in a post-WWIII world where killer robots, known as “Claws”, are developing newer and newer models of killer robot for human infiltration.
Check out these two illustrations from the story:
So, why did Cameron’s The Terminator have to give credit to Harlan Ellison if Scott didn’t have to give it to Blade Runner?
I suspect it all happened pretty much as Ellison said it did. That in the unpublished interview notes for that Starlog interview Cameron actually said that he “ripped-off a couple of Outer Limits segments” and perhaps even “a couple of Harlan Ellison stories.”
But it doesn’t matter to me. Credits or dollars, the only thing I really care at all about the story, and I think that The Terminator builds on great SF stories by the likes of Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, and some Outer Limits TV episodes, and maybe some other movies too.
Humans do this and it is a good thing. I’m glad so many humans had a hand in making it.
By listening to stories, and by retelling them we continue the process of story refinement. The Terminator wasn’t a “rip-off” it was a tribute, it stands alone, and it stands tall and proud next to the great SF stories that came before it, in 1950s TV, 1950s books and 1950s magazines and probably to the decades before it too.
As for the James Cameron Harlan Ellison dispute, well, Cameron may have had a “huge ego”, as Harlan Ellison put it, or maybe he didn’t – who knows – Ellison had “never met the man” – it may just have been a self-deprecating statement. We can all use a little of that, and a lot more Philip K. Dick.
Posted by Jesse Willis
*The “Bradbury” in the Bradbury Building is no relation to Ray Bradbury … or is it?
Talked about on today’s show:
Philip K. Dick’s first published novel, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, the Psi-Corps, a solar empire, getting away with murder, raw power, a telpath’s guild is a logical consequence, a 1950s idea, Dune, the John Preston sub-plot, Prester John is middle age superhero fan fiction, Marco Polo, Robert Silverberg, “the cynicism of later Dick”, the quizmaster bodyguard plan, Dickian action sequences, the conclusion on Mars, Batavia, that’s the cover too, androids on the Moon, Ace Books, how do you explain the guy not in the space suit, the protagonist, Doctor Who, the culture, androids, surprisingly little info-dumping, minimax (game theory), there’s so much going on, loyalty oaths, corporate feudalism, cheap Chinese goods, fealty to corporations, Total Recall, Johnny Cab!, distinguishing between male and female, imagine how difficult it will be for robots to determine gender, an elegant solution, the world is amazing, The Golden Man, nuclear war, post nuclear war, Indonesia, Batavia, no mention of the USA at all, such an ambitious book, it gets better in the re-reads, everyone’s obsessed with good luck charms, a metaphor for the whole society, stifling progress, very The Man In The High Castle, The Price Is Right, sell more goods, increasing demand for supply, pacifying the population, what does the quizmaster actually do?, lingering through the subways, algae growing on the bathroom pipes, a literal channel, a metaphorical channel, Channel M, Ted Bentley, his favourite bedgirl agency, the McDonalds of prostitution, virgin’s milk and boiled owl spit, all of his psychological problems were solved for the day, bare breasted, quivering breasts, his interests coming to the fore, cheating may or may not be legal, cynicism, the public service, bio-chemical engineering, secretaries, a minimum quality of life for everyone, defeating corruption by subverting competition, power cards, p-cards, figuring out how the lottery actually works, The Library Of Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges, the lottery starts as something for the lower classes, an interplanetary society, it just so happens that this story is in the the public domain, the 1962 English publication of The Library Of Babylon, great minds think…, I’m not playing this game, defeating corruption, avoiding cynicism, a total inversion of meritocracy, how the assassin as an anti-corruption measure, corrupting the anti-corruption measure, crackpots in power, the cynicism of Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein, fatalism, am six year old wife, France, the premise of Glory Road, a sense of futility, SFF writers for and against the Vietnam War, International Science Fiction Magazine, a response to America 1950s, getting out of the system somehow, when do you not obey the law, so not full of philosophy, courtroom drama, Marissa needs to expand this book, “cluttered”, Dick’s later works are meditations, René Descartes, what the hell is the Flame Disc?, John Prester wrote four books, Prester is dead on Earth, Prester is dead in a bottle, what does 2 plus 2 equal?!, a buoy, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, unanticipatable, keep cooking that idea, looking for the 10th planet, bedgirls working in the mines on Mars, work-camps, random punishments, very Borgesian, neo-colonialism, Call Me Joe by Poul Anderson, Avatar, Desertion by Clifford D. Simak, just like in Avatar, him and his dog, escaping reality, A Princess OF Mars and Glory Road, let’s go live in this book, The Peripheral by William Gibson, time travel, computer simulations of historical characters, Socrates is a troll, Socrates trolls Francisco Pizarro, Keith Pellig has the bomb, another android with a bomb, Imposter by Philip K. Dick, Impostor, Astounding Science Fiction, it’s not terrible at all.
Posted by Jesse Willis
An Unwelcome Quest (Magic 2.0, Book 3)
By Scott Meyer; Narrated by: Luke Daniels
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 10 February 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours, 46 minutes
Themes: / hacker / time travel / fantasy / humor / wolves / wenches / wastelands /
Ever since Martin Banks and his fellow computer geeks discovered that reality is just a computer program to be happily hacked, they’ve been jaunting back and forth through time, posing as medieval wizards and having the epic adventures that other nerds can only dream of having. But even in their wildest fantasies, they never expected to end up at the mercy of the former apprentice whom they sent to prison for gross misuse of magic and all-around evil behavior.
Who knew that the vengeful Todd would escape, then conjure a computer game packed with wolves, wenches, wastelands, and assorted harrowing hazards – and trap his hapless former friends inside it? Stripped of their magic powers, the would-be wizards must brave terrifying dangers, technical glitches, and one another’s company if they want to see Medieval England – and their favorite sci-fi movies on VHS – ever again. Can our heroes survive this magical mystery torture? Or will it only lead them and their pointy hats into more peril?
Executive Summary: This series is a lot of fun, and this book might be the best yet. I really hope we’ll get a 4th book.
Audio book: What more can I say about Luke Daniels? I said he’d be good at reading the phone book, and he obliged me. I bet he’d even do a good job of the Begats. He brings this book to life. It may as well be a radio play. Do yourselves a favor and do this book in audio.
I sort of fell into this series by accident last year. It’s not going to be winning any awards or anything, but if you want a fun and light series, look no further.
I thought that while the second book addressed my complaints about the lack of women from the first book, the plot and the humor were weaker. This book seems the most polished yet. While probably not as funny as the first book, it’s definitely the best written. The characters are more developed, the plot is tighter, and in general I was always excited to to start listening again.
If you’ve ever played buggy video games, or written buggy code, I think you’ll especially find a lot to like here. I like how some of the supporting characters from Off to Be the Wizard that mostly took a backseat in Spell or High Water were not only more heavily featured, but really had a chance to shine. I especially enjoyed Tyler’s running commentary throughout the book.
That said, my favorite character continues to be Phillip. Especially when he’s talking to Jimmy. And Jimmy of course is as great as ever.
If you liked the first two books, definitely give this one a try. And if you haven’t given this series a try yet, you really should. It’s a lot of fun, and I really hope we’ll get more of them.
Review by Rob Zak.
Themes: / future / time travel / drugs / veterans / crime /
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.
Here I reveal mysteries of the novel. Do not read any farther if you wish your brain to remain unsullied.
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.