“The (Cyber) Center Cannot Hold”: Futures, Bodies and Minds in William Gibson’s The Peripheral
In The Peripheral (2014), William Gibson goes back to the space of the über-modern city, in what has been considered a recent move “from a predictive style of science fiction to contemporary fiction” (Griffith, 44). Gibson emphasizes the connection between the present and imagined futures, stating that “[w]ithout a sense of how weird the present is—how potentially weird the present is—it became impossible for me to judge how much weirder I should try to make an imagined future” (Dayal).
This move seems to contradict Gibson’s adscription to cyberpunk, a genre which carries with it a “bleak perception of the possibility of agency” (Wilson, 91). I would like to argue, however, that Gibson is still writing within the genre, and that the potential for connection between privileged and under-privileged individuals through technology is at the core of Gibson’s novel. While Gibson does use his already typical “sentimental ending” (Elias), The Peripheralalso makes a political gesture by allowing agency to the disfranchised so they can change their own destinies.
The novel is set in two different future times, the first of which is the second’s past. In the later one, early 22nd century London is an extreme late-capitalist society. In the second future, we find “a more fully corrupt, third-worlded version of [rural] contemporary America” in the 2030s (“William Gibson”). Bodies are a burden, with impoverished veterans suffering constant neural pain from malfunctioning haptic implants. A singularity allows both timelines to interact, though not reciprocally: the 2100s future can talk to, but not physically manipulate, the past; while inhabitants of the 2030s, projecting their minds into peripherals, can physically interact with the future. This exchange of bodies and minds promises to be of benefit to both: the future can gather information and skills from the past, while peripherals allow veterans the exhilarating opportunity of escaping their bodies.
Gibson has analyzed the Cartesian divide between body and mind in many of his texts. The ambivalence of cyberpunk as a genre towards the body, and Gibson’s rejection of the body as “dead meat” in Neuromancer, seems to unambiguously celebrate the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace” (12). In The Peripheral, the bodies of veterans have become a burden due the failed use of technology: maimed by war, the government still “owns” their bodies by having left invasive technology in them. The relationship people in the future have with their bodies is radically different: bodies are used as “art,” modified through accumulations and excess of technology. Artificial bodies are also commodified instruments for protection: peripherals can be operated remotely, providing total safety to those who can afford to own or rent them.
The use of bodies in The Peripheral, however, ultimately serves each character’s original communities. The disabled characters in The Peripheral whose minds are projected into other bodies experience thrilling liberation from their constricting “meat” into limitless athletic shells. In exchange, people in the future can use minds from the past. The disadvantaged people from the past enter this pact knowingly and expecting something in return: the initial reward is money, but in the end they are also given agency.
Even if the “peripheral” in the title makes reference to the cyborg avatars, events in the novel suggests that the 22nd century future could be analyzed as the center holding power and agency, with the 21st century future as the margin, the periphery. The periphery is given access to technology insofar it serves the center’s interests, and, as Gibson has noted, in The Peripheral the past is “third-worlded” for the profit of First-World cities (“William Gibson”). Amy J. Elias signals that this relationship could be seen as a replication of “the Colonialism that gave First-World Nations their early-modern economic hegemony . . . now located not only in space but in time” (Elias). However, while the “outsourcing” of technology to the peripheries is a reality in our world, there are ways in which the relationship between center and margins is portrayed as positive in The Peripheral.
In the novel the “other” subjects pose no physical risk, i.e. there is no danger of their uprising against the “center,” since they can only interact with the future if the future allows use of the technology. Most importantly, the relationship of center and periphery is one not of exploitation, but of collaboration, as the periphery is given notable agency and a reward, in opposition to traditional constructions of center/periphery relations. In The Peripheral, giving power to people in the past is also a selfless act, since, due to time-travelling paradoxes based on forking paths, changes in the past will not affect the future in the book.
Gibson understands that technology itself is neutral, and it is use that makes it destructive or “a universal tool for countering hegemonic power structures” (Moorwood 178). Gibson has expressed his “alarm at the ending . . . [where] a situation is set up such that the fate of the world literally rests on the goodwill of a very few people who can easily be corrupted by the power they yield” (Elias). Since both futures are “caught on singularities,” Elias sides with Gibson as potential for improvement seems not to depend on “collective action or democratic representation,” pointing out the tension between Gibson’s “rather old-fashioned humanist ethics—for which the success of social structures depends upon private, ethical decisions by self-determining individuals—and his cyberpunk vision, which implicitly asserts that human ethics is irrelevant in a world of capital” (Elias).
I however would like to emphasize the positivity of the novel’s ending, focusing not on the lack of systemic changes, but on how change may start with individuals with agency to implement incremental changes. The book emphasizes a deep empathic connection of both humanities motivating the mutual understanding of both futures, following the idea of kinship as not merely biological, but constituted by “a sense of relatedness, mutual responsibility, and collaborative creativity, all growing out of a presumption of shared origins” (Gutiérrez-Jones, 72). Gutiérrez-Jones recovers ideas by Haraway, Hayles, and Butler to talk about the performativity of kinship, which Butler identifies as a “shared responsibility . . . [a] coalition, and shared performance, which generates significant creative potential” (73). In The Peripheral, “giving” the past a better future is as a reflection of this re-imagined notion of kinship in the time (dis)continuum, and thus the ending can be analyzed as a powerful deconstruction of traditional center/periphery configurations.
By questioning early models of the periphery as “used” by the center, and by providing said periphery with technology holding the promise for a better future, Gibson moves in The Peripheral towards utopian optimism. I find this to be in line with Jameson’s assertion that literature “can serve as a registering apparatus for historical transformations we cannot otherwise empirically intuit” (Jameson, 312). In The Peripheral, those on the margins find their bodily suffering paradoxically reduced through technologies of virtual labor, while having the possibility of a better future by being given agency by the center. This is a testament to how non-realistic literature, such as the cyberpunk mode Gibson uses, can be political, allowing us to imagine new configurations of kinship as the first step in systemic changes beyond traditional models of center v. periphery.
- Dayal, Geeta. “William Gibson on Why Sci-Fi Writers Are (Thankfully) Almost Always Wrong.” Wired, 12 Sept. 2018, www.wired.com/2012/09/interview-with-william-gibson/.
- Elias, Amy J. “The Futureless Future.” American Book Review, vol. 36, no. 5, 2015, p. 12–13.
- Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Harper Collins, 1984.
- Gibson, William. The Peripheral. Berkley, 2014.
- Griffith, Michael. Visualizing Virtual Space in Modern and Postmodern Literature. 2014. Tulane University, PhD Dissertation. https://digitallibrary.tulane.edu/islandora/object/tulane%3A27842
- Gutiérrez-Jones, Carl. “Stealing Kinship: Neuromancer and Artificial Intelligence.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2014, p. 69–92.
- Jameson, Fredric. A Global Neuromancer. Verso Books, 2015, p. 221–237.
- Moorwood, Nicholas. Sovereignty, the State of Exception and Counter-Culture: Toward a Transnational Critique of State Power in 20th and 21st Century Anglophone Fiction. 2013. University of Toronto, PhD Dissertation. https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/42539
- “William Gibson: the Complete io9 Interview.” io9, 27 Sept. 2012, https://io9.gizmodo.com/william-gibson-the-complete-io9-interview-5946779
- Wilson, Robert Glen. You Can’t Get There from Here. 2014. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, PhD Dissertation. https://www.mobt3ath.com/uplode/book/book-78571.pdf
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.