In William Gibson’s recent work, sinister forces from the future reach out to shape the past
Interview by Elizabeth Hand
Author William Gibson has long been considered something close to a prophet of the Information Age. In his landmark novel Neuromancer, he gave readers not just the central vocabulary but also a conceptual template for the coming era of digital communications—several years before the invention of the World Wide Web itself. In the opening chapter, Gibson’s protagonist Case “jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” If you first read those words back in 1984, when Neuromancer was published, you were reading science fiction. Today, much of your life probably takes place in that consensual hallucination. (Gibson had actually coined the term “cyberspace” two years earlier in his short story “Burning Chrome,” published in OMNI, July 1982.)
In his newest works, Gibson has turned to the classic narrative device of time travel as a means of exploring the deeply unsettled world we inhabit now. In The Peripheral (2014), the comic book series Archangel (2016) and the forthcoming Agency, Gibson still creates disturbingly prescient versions of our own near future, but there’s an unmistakable new element, the long arm of the future reaching back into the past (or our present)—a reversal of causality, the future shaping the present rather than the other way around.
Archangel is set in an alternate 2016, in a world more wracked and ruined than ours, but with some more advanced tech as well. From there the nefarious Vice President Junior Henderson travels back to the final days of World War II, via a “quantum transfer” device known as The Splitter. There he kills and impersonates his own grandfather (in a nod to the classic time paradox) so he can rewrite history, to the benefit of himself and his followers in their own ravaged future world.
The Peripheral on the other hand features two future timelines: one very close to our own, the other seventy years later, when 80% of the world’s population has died as a result of a decades-long, slow-burning fuse of an apocalypse known as the “jackpot” (the result of a perfect storm of climate change, global epidemics, and ecological collapse). Flynne, a young woman living in a depressed rural part of America a decade or so down the road, makes some of her living as a player-for-hire, competing in online multiplayer virtual-reality video games on behalf of wealthy patrons who need skilled team members to accomplish their in-game missions. The latest gig has her operating a type of drone in what she has been told is a beta version of a new game. But in fact, the computer she’s using has, in essence, been hacked by wealthy “continua enthusiasts” from the future, and she’s been flying an actual drone around a London skyscraper in that post-jackpot world down the line from her time. While matter can’t physically move between different timelines, information can, and thus Flynne can remote-operate a future machine the same way she runs an avatar in a VR game.
Time travel plots typically confront various paradoxes and problems: Change history, for instance, and the future you came from may cease to exist (and you along with it). But that is not how things work in The Peripheral. Contact from the future to the past only forces the timeline to split, creating a “stub,” an alternate timeline that no longer leads to the future which created it. A stub can therefore be accessed and manipulated by continua gamers without risk of changing the history of their own world.
These enthusiasts include members of the klept, a mafia-like clan of powerful families living in the nearly empty future London, and it’s Flynne’s bad luck to have gotten involved in one of their shadowy plots. Now she and her family and friends have been targeted by these future forces, while other mysterious operators—perhaps attempting to thwart Flynne’s persecutors—bring Flynne and her cohort deeper into the post-jackpot world by linking them up to “peripherals,” humanoid flesh-and-blood avatars with no consciousness of their own but superhuman strength and senses. From there on, The Peripheral spins out a thriller plot across thinly-connected timelines.
With its scrappy, marginalized gamers and war-damaged veterans living in a world dominated by Hefty Mart and meth labs, the near future of The Peripheral could be next year. Gibson’s vision of a depopulated 22nd century—the world post-jackpot—left me with an uneasy sense of the other meaning of peripheral: an apprehension that I’d glimpsed from the corner of my eye a world and a future adjacent to our own, one which might be increasingly intruding upon it. Agency doubles down on all this existential vertigo by featuring a stub timeline wherein Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election.
I reached out to Gibson via e-mail and asked him about his current fascination with time travel stories, the forthcoming Agency, and the relationship between the future, the present, and science fiction.
Why are you writing time travel stories at this particular moment? Or do you see these works more as alternate histories?
Actually, The Peripheral was both my first time travel fiction and my first alternate history fiction. I am a much bigger fan of alternate history than of time travel, usually. In part because I’ve always found the causation-paradoxes in many time travel stories unsatisfying. When I began The Peripheral, I was assuming that the future-y Other Place—after Flynne’s down-and-out very near future—was Miami or something, in the same time, but with the unevenly-distributed technology of wealthier Americans making the difference. When I first entertained the idea of it being in the 22nd century, I initially rejected it because of the paradox bumf. But then I remembered “Mozart in Mirrorshades”, the short story by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner [OMNI, September 1985], which posited a paradox-proof version of time travel, which works by creating alternate histories.
But that was really the first I’d ever had to do with either modality, aside from having daydreamed, early in my career, in the 1980s, of a story about a man living in the 1980s gradually coming to realize that the young woman who had been his girlfriend back 1967 must have been a time traveler from the 1980s. Although that would really have been a story about how very sexist the counterculture was in 1967!
Can you tell us a bit about Agency?
Agency is both a prequel and a sequel [to The Peripheral], though I’d love it if it could be thought of as the very Victorian “a pendant to …”. Because it feels to me that that’s what most accurately describes it. It’s partly set in the London of the klept [the group of gangsterish families who control the city], a few years after the events of The Peripheral. Someone has discovered that a continua-hobbyist there had discovered a way of reaching further back than was thought possible, and the result is a stub in which Clinton won the 2016 election. So the rest is set in this alternate 2017, where nobody really believes that Trump ever could have won, and, what with one thing and another, we’re on the brink of nuclear war in a situation involving Turkey, Syria, Russia, and NATO. As someone in the future London remarks, all of the worst change drivers remain in place, but the angle of attack is rather less extreme.
Not that it’s really about that. It’s about AI, race in America, and various theories of postmodern warfare.
I gather that Agency was originally set in what you anticipated would be our own world—one where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. You were as surprised as any of us when Donald Trump won! You’ve said you had to kind of recalibrate and reimagine the novel.
That’s right. It was never intended to be a near future. Agency’s narrative now is limited to the 22nd century’s rather imperfect view of its own past, which is our present, and to the 2017 of the stub, so nothing that happens now, or in our near future, necessarily affects either. Which is a good trick if I do say so!
You’ve always had a reputation as a writer who is supernaturally well-informed—weaving your fictional worlds from bits and pieces of pop culture, sociology, art, politics, tech—just about everything. And your Twitter feed backs that up.
Seeming preternaturally well-informed is a cheap trick, really. Once mastered, it’s essential to keep reminding yourself, as brutally as you possibly can, that you don’t actually know very much about anything in particular. What I do is just pattern recognition. I have absolutely no prescience beyond that. It’s about spotting bits of likely futures that have already arrived, while knowing that you’ll miss quite a few, because you aren’t prescient. (No cell phones in Neuromancer, etc.)
As odd as it evidently seems, I don’t think about the future much, as I go about my non-writing day. And I’m old now. I have an old person’s sense of the world I knew ending. They’ll tear down Denmark Street and build a bunch of … that new stuff. The London of The Peripheral is a snarky response to that, really. Hardly seems far-fetched, and all the more so now if Brexit goes through.
Fundamentally, I regard science fiction as one particular route to a naturalistic enquiry about the day in which it was written. It’s never really about the future. It can’t be. I’ve always, quite consciously, been writing about the present, and still am.