I think the best science fiction is unforgiving. Or just un-giving; it gives you nothing. It drops you into a future, or a past (sometimes you cannot even tell which) or a present which is so future-like or past-like or merely strange that it has become unrecognizable and it provides no maps or glossaries or dramatis personae to refer to.
The narrator in this situation is much smarter than you. Street smarts, because this is their world, and why would they stop what they’re doing to explain the inner workings of this world to you, an interloper, a casual reader who after all is only stopping by.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this is in the Books of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe invents an entirely new vocabulary (borrowed entirely from now-forgotten middle and early modern English) for his world, which is the first thing one is left confused by, but it is the narrator, the diabolical and certainly unreliable Severian who really twists the knife, who toys with the reader, unspooling endless lies, concealing the terrifying truth in layers of half-truth; half-truth being twice again as baffling as no truth at all.
Wolfe’s novel is one of the far future written as if it takes place in the long-forgotten past; hard science fiction dressed as high fantasy, a world in which swords are lasers and ancients are aliens. In William Gibson’s The Peripheral, the near future is the deep past, the far future is still the far future, and both are very much the present. And Mr. Gibson isn’t much concerned if you, gentle reader, cannot keep up.
I recall being perplexed and more than a little lost in Gibson’s incantations before. Even his most famous work, Neuromancer, is far more densely woven than its pulpy title and reputation suggest. In the case of the Peripheral, it took me hundreds of pages to feel like I had some semblance of a handle on what was going on, which I think was very much the point. I had been staring at a literary Magic Eye; nothing but empty signifiers, nothing but static lines, but when the picture finally came clear, in was in stunning Three-Dee.
In the future the world is shit. Flynne lives in an exurban waste land where fun is drones, guns, and artificial meat, and work is drones, guns, and artifical meth. She gets a sweet gig playing videogames for pay, and then everything goes to hell when she sees something that perhaps she shouldn’t have.
In the future the world is really shit. Wilf lives in a London disassembled and reassembled by nanotech, totally depopulated by a series of little apocalypses, and currently ruled by asinine kleptocrats with a fondness for Victorian opulence and weaponized everything.
Wilf lives in Flynne’s future until he doesn’t, because Wilf and his friends have, on a lark, decided to go and change the past. Now Flynne lives in an alternate history over which the aristocrats of a now-altered future have an unsettling degree of control. Physical time travel is impossible, but information flows freely in both directions. Some clever 3D printing and telepresence technology allows Flynne to travel to the future-that-is-not-her-future by inhabiting a Peripheral.
Things get considerably more complicated from there.
Besides the sense of total disorientation in the first two hundred pages reminding me more than a little of Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, the unnverving realism of the time travel mechanics in The Peripheralreminded me of another un-giving scifi masterpiece: Shane Carruth’s Primer. In Primer, the audience is given little help in unraveling the numerous potential timelines that begin to unspool the first time Abe turns on the time machine. Carruth’s unmvoing camera is a constant reminder of how much we are not seeing. And the overall sense of unknown (even moreso, the unknowable) is shared diagetically by Aaron and Abe, who quickly realize that though they can discreetly alter the past, they can sufficiently foresee the butterfly effects this causes in their own present and immediate future. It finally dawns on them that they have changed things too much and can never go ‘back to the future,’ so to speak.
In The Peripheral, by contrast, radically changing both the present and the future is not such a bad thing. Just as he did in his recent trilogy of present-tense science fictions (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History), Gibson here uses the useful psychological distance of genre fiction to examine the dystopia that we already inhabit: radical inequality, mega-corporations, environmental catastrophe, abandonment of military veterans, pacification of the citizenship through technology, surveillance societies, the explotation of the third world, and the third-worldification of just about everything — these are all facets of our own lives in 2015, and Gibson merely does us the favor of holding up a funhouse mirror, a mirror that amplifies our flaws but does not, it must be said, fundamentally misrepresent them.
Gibson’s protagonist Flynne has the advantage of being able to really travel to an even more horrible future, which inspires her to try to make real changes in her own timeline. Barring a sudden radical change in our understanding of temporal physics, the best we can do in our own fractious timeline is to travel to the imaginary dystopias shown to us by visionaires like Gibson — one hopes there are some close-readers out there for whom that glimpse at one possible set of outcomes is enough. If not, I’ll see you in a few years at the nubbins counter at Hefty Mart. I’ll be the one cradling a 3D-fabbed smartweapon and distrusting everything.