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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On the periphery of Pink SF

I have been a fan of William Gibson ever since reading how Johnny was a very technical boy. Even as his novels have gotten more literary, and less coherent, I've always enjoyed reading them. So, I was quite pleased when The Peripheral came out recently; a new William Gibson novel is always something to be celebrated in my book.

And it's good. The novel well-written, the plot is intricate, the sensibilities are cool (if perhaps indicative of being influenced by Hollywood's new fascination with the rural American South), and, as always, Gibson presents a vision of the future that is somehow more plausible than the average science fiction writer's. His skill, I think, is to present something between dystopia and the present; perhaps one might describe his perspective as dystrendic. Or in this case, dystrendic to catastrophically dystrendic, as the book spans a small spectrum of futures for reasons I would find difficult to describe even if it wasn't a spoiler of sorts.

Gibson's style, never florid, has become increasingly sparse as his disinclination to provide detailed description has now stripped down his dialogue. While this has the effect of making the conversations flow more realistically, the combination of the two frequently leaves the reader slightly confused as to what is going on. It's very important to pay attention to even small details, because that's all you're going to get; he's not going to go back and explain things for you. And while I rather like this approach, it's perhaps not optimal for a book with a plot that would already be challenging to follow.

The story is about a young woman who witnesses a real murder while in a virtual environment. The story expands considerably from there, and since there is no way to reasonably do it justice in less than two or three pages, I won't even try. As is often his wont, Gibson bring in elements of technology, art, and shadowy corporations in a sophisticated manner.

However, after a year of confronting the growing divide between Pink SF and Blue SF, it is readily apparent that Gibson is of the Pink school, and to his detriment. He is among the best of the Pink school, to be sure, but The Peripheral wind up being shortchanged by Gibson's resort to several Pink SF conventions.

Chief among them is a mostly non-portrayal of religion that is retarded to the point of being embarrassing. We are supposed to believe that the complete collection of rural Southerners, including a number of military veterans, are as completely and utterly irreligious as wealthy elite Brits on the future arts scene. Moreover, there isn't a single mention of football... in the American South of the 2030s. The only nominally religious individuals are the fictional version of the Westboro Baptist Church, although to Gibson's credit, he recognizes their lawyerly activism for the financial scam it is.

However, even their nominal Christianity leads to an unfortunate demonstration of Gibson's moral vacuity, as he literally equates silent, public, and entirely legal protest that takes a judgmental position with gassing a large group of people with lethal psychotropic drugs. Because doing the latter would make them "assholes" like the former. This was, to put it mildly, an astonishing ethical metric.

The worst aspect of the book, however, is the phoned-in characters. He gets the military aspects more or less correct, but completely fails on the Southern ones. And the female protagonist doesn't even rise to the usual level of a man with breasts, she is little more than the book's Macguffin, a character sans agency to whom things happen, and things more incredible than Cinderella. She is often praised for possessing attributes that she doesn't show in any way; it's almost Mary-Sueish at times. Throw in the fact that all the bad guys die instantly whenever shot at by the female superagent, who eventually shows up to absolutely no reader's surprise and outperforms even the Marine veterans, and the reader occasionally finds himself dismissively rolling his eyes.

I also have to note that happy ending is so prodigiously stupid with regards to the characters that it boggles the mind. It gives absolutely nothing of interest away to note that the entire mixed-sex group, none of whom have shown ANY sexual interest in each other throughout the entire book, abruptly pair up and live happily ever after. Ye cats.

It is a pity that Gibson appears to be unable to turn his keen eye for observation towards the points where his ideological assumptions depart from reality, as it would have made for an objectively better book. if he had been able to do so The Peripheral isn't a bad science fiction read, but it will be quickly forgotten, and William Gibson could be, and should be, better than that.

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27 Comments:

Anonymous Bah December 23, 2014 7:45 AM  

"William Ford Gibson was born in the coastal city of Conway, South Carolina, and spent most of his childhood in Wytheville, Virginia, a small town in the Appalachians where his parents had been born and raised."

And yet he can't portray Southerners. The mind boggles. Wytheville is not "irreligious" to say the least.

Anonymous Bah December 23, 2014 7:50 AM  

Personally I find everything of his after Neuromancer to be unreadably bad.

On the plus side, I guess, Neuromancer survives re-reading pretty well. The only part that amused me was that the protagonist, in the far future, was selling thirty megabytes of RAM on the black market. That must have sounded like a lot in 1984...

Blogger Shimshon December 23, 2014 7:51 AM  

You should make book version of your proposed "SJW Review of Games."

Just from your review, it looks like there is at least:

+1 protagonist or sidekick are kickass waifu
+1 takes shots at Christianity or traditional Western morality

Anonymous Trimegistus December 23, 2014 7:58 AM  

Maybe the man's just playing to his market. He knows SF fans and NY literati both despise Christians, so . . .

Anonymous Parts Guy December 23, 2014 8:47 AM  

The only part that amused me was that the protagonist, in the far future, was selling thirty megabytes of RAM on the black market. That must have sounded like a lot in 1984...
As a parts guy who spent months calling around trying to find tubes of RAM chips to meet orders for a Z80 CP/M machine, 30 MB was a HUGE amount of memory!

Anonymous Khyron December 23, 2014 8:54 AM  

"Gibson's style, never florid, has become increasingly sparse as his disinclination to provide detailed description..."

Can't find the quote, but Gibson said roughly "Google frees me up from having to explain things as an author it lets him no have to explain things, if people want to know they can google it.

Anonymous Khyron December 23, 2014 9:04 AM  

Oof, swype + autocorrect.

Found the quote:

EXPOSITION IN THE AGE OF GOOGLE
posted 11:37 AM
Via my wonderful editor, Susan Allison, from a New York Magazine piece on David Simon:

"Fuck the exposition," he says gleefully, as we go back into the bar. "Just *be*. The exposition can come later." He describes a theory of television narrative. "If I can make you curious enough, there's this thing called Google. If you're curious about the New Orleans Indians, or 'second-line' musicians--you can look it up." The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the charaqcters from within

Anonymous Daniel December 23, 2014 9:10 AM  

Maybe the man's just playing to his market. He knows SF fans and NY literati both despise Christians, so . .

Bad market read. NY literati don't buy books and SF fans have made Ender's Game the #1 selling original SF book for the last 30 years for a reason (i.e. secular may sell, but pagan Pink in pure form ultimately is anti-science.)

The SF author who hates the Christian market is still wise to accept its dollars and at least to modestly cater to it. (Old Man's War does this better than Redshirts, back when McRapey was still attempting to conceal his contempt. Guess which one has sold better over the long run?)

Blogger Nate December 23, 2014 9:17 AM  

Wait... the south without football? He reAly did remove all religion..

Blogger JG December 23, 2014 9:46 AM  

...none of whom have shown ANY sexual interest in each other throughout the entire book, abruptly pair up and live happily ever after. Ye cats.

Reminds me of the end of season 3 of Person of Interest, where a romance between two main characters with absolutely no chemistry whatsoever was shoehorned in right at the end, a few minutes before one of said main characters dies off. The result being that the other main character can awkwardly lament about it every now and again -- the actor always looks like he's trying very hard not to roll his eyes when delivering those lines.

Anonymous p-dawg December 23, 2014 9:56 AM  

As if there were any 501(c)3 corporation that ISN'T a financial scam. Please.

Usually I can tolerate the pink in Gibson's work. Him and Stephenson, and not always Stephenson. I will have to check this new one out, just because it's Gibson and it's new.

OpenID ymarsakar December 23, 2014 10:08 AM  

Can't really (stand to) read those novels listed in the main here. MLA from Japan's Age company, that was good science fiction with romance however.

Blogger Sam Hall December 23, 2014 10:13 AM  

I started The Peripheral, but put it down. It certainly isn't as good as Neuromancer.

Blogger JartStar December 23, 2014 10:27 AM  

"The two most attractive people have to have a romance" and "everyone has to pair off at the end" are problems which plague TV shows and movies. There's no excuse for it in a book as the medium allows for thorough explanations and other endings.

Anonymous CD December 23, 2014 10:35 AM  

And yet he can't portray Southerners. The mind boggles.

Ive not read it, but remember, you have a Minnasotan who lives in Italy telling you Gibson can't portray Southerners. Grain of salt and all that.

Blogger Baelzar December 23, 2014 10:40 AM  

Let's be honest - it's been all downhill since Neuromancer. He hasn't even come close.

Anonymous Don December 23, 2014 11:20 AM  

When you're too big too fast your editor doesn't say 'no' often enough. Nobody says, 'that's not right' much less, 'that stinks buddy'.

Blogger Cataline Sergius December 23, 2014 11:58 AM  

I remember all the fuss over Neuromancer when it first came out. Actually I was late to that party, it came out during a rather overloaded semester at college. However finals were over. Finals parties were over, it was time for a good book so I looked around and this Neuromancer thing was all the rage.

A while after I read it I ran into John M. Ford at a convention and we briefly discussed it.

Cataline: Didn't you already write this?

John M. Ford: Yes, I did.

Not quite fair of either of us but Gibson has always been heavily influenced by the work of others.

When Neuromancer came out, the New Wave had died and it's fans were unhappy about this. Hard science fiction was making a bit of a come back though with no new blood to speak of.

Along came Neuromancer with it's junky hero and pixy-ninja-cyborg girlfriend in a future that was bastard child of Niven-Pournelle and Ridley Scott. Cyberpunk delighted the progressives. Here was a dingy, dirty future with emotionally disturbed people. Just the antidote for Reagan's optimism. It was the start of something bad.

Eventually liberals gave up on science fiction and buried themselves in fantasy.

Neuromancer while quite well written, was to my mind the birthplace of modern pink SF.

Blogger sysadmn December 23, 2014 11:59 AM  

Ive not read it, but remember, you have a Minnasotan who lives in Italy telling you Gibson can't portray Southerners. Grain of salt and all that.

Skepticism is fair, but in his last three novels, Gibson hasn't done that good a job of portraying anyone. His characters lack passion and drive; it's as if they're taking large doses of anti-depressants and following a script rather than living.

Anonymous Steve December 23, 2014 1:57 PM  

I never could make myself like William Gibson's books or cyberpunk in general.

Instead of seeking out new life and new civilisations, it served up navel-gazing virtual reality adventures and computer hacker exploits. To me, it seemed like a narrowing of ambition, a retreat from the idea of exploring the mysteries of the universe, which had been central to most earlier science fiction.

Anonymous Jack Amok December 23, 2014 2:53 PM  

Can't find the quote, but Gibson said roughly "Google frees me up from having to explain things as an author it lets him no have to explain things, if people want to know they can google it.

Well, as a reader, if I have to switch from the book to Goog, er, Bing, to look something up, there's a chance I may not come back. And if I do, certainly the immersion is blown.

Maybe it's better than two camels fucking in the background, but it ain't as good as doing exposition right.

Anonymous p-dawg December 23, 2014 3:15 PM  

@Jack Amok - Ever read "A Clockwork Orange"? Some people hate that book, because you have to check the glossary all the time the first couple times you read it. Some people love it, for the same reason. Different strokes and all that.

Anonymous Klagobert December 23, 2014 5:07 PM  

Gibson was a cool read as a teenager. The bare-knuckled lyrical language and the sheer everything-is-going-to-hell-and-I'm-down-for-the-ride attitude resonated well with the tenage angst:

`Really, my artiste, you amaze me. The lengths you will
go to in order to accomplish your own destruction. The re-
dundancy of it! In Night City, you _had_ it, in the palm of your
hand! The speed to eat your sense away, drink to keep it all
so fluid, Linda for a sweeter sorrow, and the street to hold the
axe. How far you've come, to do it now, and what grotesque
props... Playgrounds hung in space, castles hermetically sealed,
the rarest rots of old Europa, dead men sealed in little boxes,
magic out of China...' Ratz laughed, trudging along beside
him, his pink manipulator swinging jauntily at his side. In spite
of the dark, Case could see the baroque steel that laced the
bartender's blackened teeth. `But I suppose that is the way of
an artiste, no? You needed this world built for you, this beach,
this place. To die.'

But his vison was never all that, and the sheer stupidity of some of his constructs grated even back then. I'm sad to hear he hasn't improved.

Anonymous Jack Amok December 23, 2014 7:38 PM  

Ever read "A Clockwork Orange"? Some people hate that book, because you have to check the glossary all the time the first couple times you read it. Some people love it, for the same reason. Different strokes and all that.

I've always considered "A Clockwork Orange" stylistic crap, but as far as "hard to follow", no, Burgess did a great job with that. As long as you were willing to go with the flow, it made sense enough. You could figure out what the words meant, at least the important ones, if you just kept reading. Frankly, that's the one and only thing brilliant about the book.

Burgess himself wasn't particularly proud of it. Too damn bad it was his best known work.

Anonymous Jack Amok December 23, 2014 7:43 PM  

Gibson was a cool read as a teenager. The bare-knuckled lyrical language and the sheer everything-is-going-to-hell-and-I'm-down-for-the-ride attitude resonated well with the tenage angst:

You got that right. And he captured a particular spirit of the times, just as computer technology was swarming its way visibly into everyday lives and the Japanese were looking like the tech kingpins of the future. The perfect enviornment to spool out stories about dys-tech-topias.

Plus, Mona Lisa Overdrive is perhaps the best title ever given to a novel.

Blogger Joshua Sinistar December 24, 2014 8:58 PM  

I liked William Gibson, but his problem was he was too Punk and not enough Cyber. He was one of the first to start the Diversity Cult where strangely everyplace was a polyglot ghetto without a real culture or people. It seemed real though, because everyone was messed up and no real culture existed.
Some might say it was prescient in that it portrayed the shallow corporate materialism we all know and hate, but I think that the materialistic shallowness of his books were probably just lifted from his existence in the burned out ghettos that these hipsters were living in the time. The rest of America has simply been invaded by the plague of zombies that always existed in the Rust and Ruins of the Hollowed Out Infrastructure of the Inner Cities.
I wouldn't call William Gibson a Science Fiction Writer at all. His stories are just Punk/Goth subculture living amongst the Ruins of Western Civilization. Stripped of the Tech, it is just another Punk/Goth anarchist subculture screaming obscenities at the vast wasteland of lost dreams and sad lonely lives dealing with pain with drugs paid for with prostitution.

Anonymous Anubis December 25, 2014 1:02 PM  

"Google frees me up from having to explain things as an author it lets him no have to explain things, if people want to know they can google it."

Google search ( coherent plot )

I personally feel that the US would be better off without football as it would free people to do activities themselves or build their own flying car in their spare time.

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