Long-winded Review: “The Peripheral,” by William Gibson

Few things worth accomplishing can be achieved without working for them. This sentiment is rarely applied to works of fiction that don’t aspire toward classic literature, and when it is, it’s often in a derogatory sense. That is perhaps even more so for works of science or speculative fiction. But it is applicable to William Gibson’s 2014 novel, “The Peripheral,” in a good way, despite my sense that Gibson makes a conscious choice to be inaccessible to many readers, and perhaps even some of his long-time fans.

It’s an interesting artistic decision, at odds with commercial success. If you enjoy reading his prose, always tight, imaginative, and multi-sensory, you feel as if you’ve been admitted into a fairly exclusive club — not everyone will be able to share the experiences he constructs. If you’ve tried Gibson and found him wanting, you probably consider his stylistic decisions lazy, his prose opaque. After all, a few sentences here, a couple explanations there, and the worlds Gibson crafts in exquisite, layered detail would be so much more conducive to early immersion.

Rather, Gibson writes characters who, having lived in an environment, treat it as commonplace. They never stop to explain the mundane any more than you would in your day-to-day. Oddities, environmental warts, power struggles, economic and technological realities draw no special consideration, however alien they might be to our own frame of reference. So books like “The Peripheral” require the reader to throw themselves into a swollen river, too deep for footing. Like an inexorable flood, the narrative cares not whether you drown before your flailing for purchase evolves into thrill at such an unpredictable ride.

I apparently inhabit the low end of Gibson’s expectation of spec-tech cognition, barely clawing my way into the Venn Diagram intersection between voracious readers and relaxed-minded imagineers from which Gibson pulls his fans and for whom he writes his stories. It took me two tries to get far enough into this book for the narrative to sweep me away.

In my first attempt, I made the mistake of starting “The Peripheral” while still reading another work of science fiction and studying my way through an unrelated work of non-fiction, one such book of which I’m usually trying to absorb at any given time. I was also involved in flexing creative muscle, writing one story, plotting another, while straining toward struggling into developing a sustained pace of publishing a personal blog post per week. My aged, distraction-addled brain wasn’t up to meeting Gibson’s thrown gauntlet. I got 10% of the way (a measurement by which Kindle readers identify each other) into “The Peripheral” and found myself realizing I had almost no idea who the main, let along the secondary, character were, what they were doing, from where conflict might enter, or where the plot might go. I was constantly lost in the common jargon of the times. I  found myself in that weird Gibson’esque experience of loving every isolated paragraph of beautifully sculpted prose while being completely frickin’ lost in the narrative woods. My understanding was as lacking as my metaphors were mixed.

Accomplishment always stems from navigation of decision points. Anyone who’s ever achieved anything of merit has faced innumerable decisions, chose courses of action based on facts, their perceptions, their predictions, the market — whatever — and stuck with it with the tenacity to wrest success from the myriad inevitable forces working against. At that 10% mark, I put the book down, contemplated the possibility that I might have finally come to the Gibson book I couldn’t love, let alone finish. A sad first, I thought. Neal Stephenson did that to me years ago; I hated to lose another favorite author. They’re hard to come by and it hurts when they decide they don’t care about you anymore, because you’ve bored them and they want something new!

I’m perfectly capable of quitting, of adjusting, if not abandoning, a course of action that’s begun to prove unsuccessful, when conditions or the reason for continuing have shown to be illusory, or the environment has changed to the point where sunk costs will not provide ROI. I’m less accepting of quitting when the lack of success might in any way be due to lack of dedication on my part. So I finished the other books I was reading and started “The Peripheral” again, from the beginning, with more allocated focus this time. At the 10% mark, I was still struggling, but found I was glimpsing the unifying threads that wove the story, that would tie the narrative together, allowing me to relax a begin enjoying the rushing current.

Once I crossed that event horizon, there was no going back. Having worked hard enough to sort the characters, understand the interaction between near-future and far-future (only 70 years, given cataclysm and technological pace of change), the story, the characters, the conflict, just rocked.

I loved this book. It proved worth working for. I mark it as one of those works of fiction that vaults over the high walls separating pulp and commercial dross (which I admit to enjoying, probably too much), landing firmly in the fortress reserved for remarkable literature.

If you’ve not read Gibson, start with some of his less demanding work. If you’ve acquired a taste for Gibson, give this book the focus it demands, and you’ll be paid back in spades. Five stars.

Do People Change Their Minds? (Yes, more than most realize!)

In a guest post on Scott Adam’s Blog, Diana Wales poses the question: “Have You Ever Changed Your Mind?” She writes: “Humans are stubborn creatures. For most people, once they pick a side, their decision making is over – forever. Any evidence that might indicate that maybe there is a better option is ignored or derided, unless they perceive obvious and significant personal benefits for making a change. And even then they might hold fast. I used to live in Chicago, and I knew some Cubs fans that were more likely to change their gender than their allegiance to the Cubbies, despite a century of disappointment.”

And we all know people like this, so it’s an easy premise to accept. I think her observation is flawed, but it’s still a great post because, like so many that Scott writes, it encourages introspection and suggests spending some brain cycles on thought experiment, which can so often result in productive connections elsewhere in one’s life.  So when Diana asks, “…have you had some other epiphany that caused you to change your stance on a fundamental choice, like your political affiliations, religion, right to bear arms, or choice of smart phone, and if so, what was it? What does it take to change a mind?” I was compelled to answer.

While it may not constitute true “change,” in his book “How to Fail…” Scott influenced me to re-evaluate my view of goals vs. systems and how I use both. Am I more change-minded than most? Probably, but still…

Yes, humans are stubborn, often irrationally so, but contrary to her premise I believe that change is more the norm than the exception — unless one constrains their observation to the short term or limits their definition of change to full diametric shifts.

Certainly by the mid-twenties (if not the late teens) peoples’ beliefs and behavioral parabolas have solidified, often requiring external pressure or catastrophe to shift. But major changes can come over time, driven by a steady drumbeat of media, evolving social mores, economic incentives, or accumulating frustrations. Or, some might argue, aging. Not as dramatic as an epiphany, granted, but still substantive change, right?