Writing about Reading: Why William Gibson’s brilliant novel The Peripheral is dangerous for writers

December 22, 2014 § 2 Comments

peripheralBy the end of the first page of William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, I knew I was in trouble.

It’s not a bad book. That’s not the problem at all. It’s that it is such a damn good book, such a truly fantastic book, that my novel-in-progress looks pathetic by comparison.

Gibson is a genius for imagining the future. It’s not just the technological portrait he paints, but the way the characters talk, how they think, how they view the world around them. He doesn’t pander, doesn’t offer explanations. You’re in the deep end on page one, and brother, you’d better learn to swim fast.

Any attempt to summarize the plot will give away a key detail discovered fairly early on, and it was a big part of the delight of this book, discovering it. So I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot. I’m not even going to hint at what the titles means, because that was a cool moment of discovery for me, too.

The characters, though—those I’ll talk about. The heroine of the book is Flynne, one of the two point-of-view characters. She’s a skilled gamer (hyper-realistic video games), and so cool her nickname is “Easy Ice.” Unlike most badass heroes and heroines, Flynne isn’t a one-dimensional, diamond-skinned android. Shit gets to her. She’s cool in the moment, a nervous wreck later. She worries about her friends, her mother. She has flaws. She’s real.

She’s everything I want my heroine to be, which just magnifies my own failings as a writer.

Wilf Netherington is the other POV character. I hesitate to label him the hero, simply because there is so little about him that’s heroic. He’s an alcoholic. He does very little for himself. He reacts, but he doesn’t much act. Whereas Flynne has flaws, Wilf seems to be all flaws. And yet, somehow, I found myself liking him and rooting for him, wanting him to become a stronger person.

Wilf also magnifies my failings to bring my own flawed hero to life.

And there’s Connor and Burton and Ash and a host of other supporting players, each of whom is fascinating and cool in their own way. But the coolest, most mysterious, most badass of them all is future cop Ainsley Lowbeer. If there is any justice in this world, The Peripheral will be the first in a trilogy, and Ainsley Lowbeer will have a significant recurring role in the sequels.

I love everything about Lowbeer. I love that her name is Lowbeer. I love her casual, brutal, icy demeanor. I love that she holds enormous fucking power and I love what she does with it. I love her history, and the twist in it. From the moment she is introduced, I couldn’t picture anyone but Tilda Swinton playing Lowbeer, should Hollywood ever make The Peripheral into a movie. (I both want, and am horrified by the idea of, a movie.)

More than any other character in The Peripheral (and they all do this to some degree), Ainsley Lowbeer made all the characters in my book seem thin, anemic, and ugly by comparison.

So if you’re in the middle of writing your own novel—and especially if it’s science fiction in any flavor—reading The Peripheral is a terrible idea, and you should rush right out and pick up a copy anyway. Because as much as Gibson made me feel like my own book needs an enormous amount of work to even approach the orbit of this novel, it’s a fantastic book which I will be re-reading in the very near future.

And therein lies possibly the greatest danger The Peripheral poses; you will not be able to put it down. My friend and fellow writer Jim Hopkins and I were discussing the book over lunch when we were both in the middle of reading it, and he told me it was eating into his writing time.

“Jim,” I replied, “it’s eating all my writing time.”

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