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‘Peripheral’ an intriguing piece of ‘cli-fi’

The Peripheral

By William Gibson

Putnam

485 pages,$28.95

By Ed Taylor

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Flynne is sucking on the future’s version of a Big Gulp in her ex-Marine brother Burton’s trailer in rural God-knows-where. She’s considering doing a favor for him – he’s got a contract job involving duties inside an online virtual environment, and he’s asked Flynne to sit in for him one night. She says OK, for $10. Then he gives her some printed instructions, and a confidential code to scan. She reads the paper:

“ ‘Medellin?’ ‘Security firm.’ ‘You said it’s a game.’ ‘That’s ten thousand dollars in your pocket.’ ‘How long you been doing this?’ ‘Two weeks now. Sundays off.’ ‘How much you get?’ ‘Twenty-five thousand per.’ ‘Make it twenty, then.’ He gave her another two fives.”

Matter-of-factly beatific Flynne is then off and running into what is most definitely not a game, and William Gibson is off on his latest novelistic version of the wild side, “The Peripheral.” Cyberpunk avatar Gibson, after some detours through the present day in recent books, is back in the dystopic future, here adding to the growing genre coming to be called “cli-fi”: climate fiction.

Here the “climate” being explored is both the post-environmental-collapse physical world and the oligarchic, Hobbesian-piratical climate created by globalization and concomitant economic inequality.

In alternating two- to three-page chapters, the novel toggles between Flynne in her hardscrabble small-town America, and Netherton, an urbane Brit doing a job 80 years in the future in an unrecognizable London that is, in essence, mining the past as a kind of sweatshop: via people such as Burton and Flynne.

In her night of subbing for Burton, Flynne witnesses what appears to be a murder, of a particularly gruesome kind. She then becomes the object of intense attention and tectonic power struggles between two poles of future power: two private global entities that wield money and violence at levels that mean even governments and countries are just tools for them to manipulate in their scorched-earth battle for supremacy.

The bridge between the past and future is the “peripheral” – biological humanoid creations that are inhabited by Flynne and others as things unfold across time.

As with any genre fiction that goes beyond genre convention, what makes this world work is careful creation of characters who live and breathe and feel real.

Gibson does this very effectively, handling the two worlds-apart protagonists’ points of view with admirable craft. The novel moves briskly across a richly rendered, sobering future landscape rooted tellingly in contemporary reality.

While the end of things here is arguably a little too pat or happy, the worlds rendered and the creatures populating them are intriguing and the subtle predictions about our own world provocative, and the result is a hip, satisfying and cautionary entertainment.

And Flynne ends up getting paid pretty well for her night of work.

Ed Taylor is an English professor, a freelance critic and the author of “Theo.”