Do you enjoy games where you can create an avatar and then roam a virtual world, carrying out missions, fulfilling quests and saving damsels or dudes in distress?
OK, now imagine the possibilities if the avatar you created existed in the real world, not a virtual world.
This is the premise behind Cyberpunk godfather William Gibson’s newest book: The Peripheral.
In Gibson’s imagined future world, a ‘peripheral’ is basically a meat puppet; a genetically engineered biologically identical host body for the idle rich to take over and use to interact with the world when it suits them not to be themselves. Doing a drug deal and afraid you might be shot? Send your peripheral. Want to go to a costume party as a famous Hollywood actor? Don’t just put on a stupid rubber mask, hire the full scale peripheral identical to the star in every way.
Peripherals can also be self animated, by a basic AI algorithm, so that you can be wondering around an 18th Century London set and interacting with all and sundry, not knowing who is real and who is a peripheral unless you really engage with them, because the AI on a peripheral is, after all, pretty basic.
Of course, being a Gibson book, there is a mystery, thriller element.
Imagine if one of the peripherals is a bodyguard, guarding a VIP. It’s a cool game, right? Be the bodyguard, protect the VIP from the bad guys. You’re thinking all the actors must be peripherals too. But what if the VIP turns out to be a real person, and the hit you can’t prevent, is actually a real murder. Now the killers are coming gunning for you, because you, in your peripheral, were the only one to see the murder.
It’s a typically far thinking, on the edge of plausible scenario Gibson paints, and the world he sets it in is wonderfully dystopian, full of high and low tech mysteries and a history never quite explained.
Gibson is the man who brought us Neuromancer, Mona Lise Overdrive and the book made into a wonderfully forgettable Keanu Reeves film, Johnny Mnemonic. He takes the big tech trends of today, like role playing games, drones, bioengineering and quantum physics and says to himself ‘OK, what if’, then hits the fast forward button and takes us into the future.
If there is one challenge with ‘The Peripheral’ it is that he tries to do too much.
Into the scenario I’ve described above, which should have been enough in itself, he throws in some Quantum Entanglement. I’m no expert in quantum mechanics but the basic theory here is that information can exist in two times/places simultaneously – what Einstein called ‘spooky action, at a distance’ – allowing our protaganists in the future to open up a channel between their future reality and a distant 21st century group of protagonists. The guys in the 21st Century are pretty soon controlling peripherals in the far future, while the guys in the far future are manipulating events in the 21st Century in order to influence events in their own time and reality.
Yes, it gets quite confusing and you can’t help feel it’s all totally and completely unnecessary. I am a huge Gibson fan, so I persevered, but I spent the first quarter of the book just annoyed at how nothing was clear, everything was just one big confusing mish mash of people, times, places, plots and counterplots.
Yes it all eventually came together, but at the end of the book I sat there thinking, I wish he’d ditched the whole Quantum Entanglement angle and just stuck with the main theme of the book – the Peripherals.
Perhaps he was worried that it would be seen as too derivative and unoriginal a theme, because it is true some of the ideas have been explored many times before, not least in classics like ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ (filmed as Blade Runner) by Phillip K Dick.
But the way he takes a fad of today (role playing in simulations and online MMPORGs) and plays it to its ultimate expression with people role playing in cloned biologically engineered bodies, is quite original.
It would have been enough.
Conclusion: 3/5 from a huge but slightly disappointed Gibson fan.