Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Pulsating with racial and national anxieties, cyberpunk icon William Gibson’s future America is not so different from the one we know.

William Gibson, 2008 (Gonzo Bonzo / Flickr)

How far into the future can futuristic fiction see? What does it sense in the present that can then be projected into its vision of the world to come? What happens to climate change, stock market shudders, global inequality, and undocumented labor when you fast forward in time? Who does Donald Trump become when you give him half a century more?

William Gibson is the writer we’re often told has the answer to these questions about fictional foresight. An American who has lived in Vancouver, Canada since the 1960s, Gibson is a one-man brand for speculative fiction, a sort of Steve Jobs of prose narrative, the man who—as a note in a recent MoMA exhibition put it—is “credited with having coined the term ‘cyberspace,’ and having envisioned both the Internet and virtual reality before either existed.” Gibson’s recent collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, shows him writing on the future for Wired, Time, Rolling Stone, Forbes, and the Whole Earth Catalog, and addressing audiences at the annual BookExpo America in New York and the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles. Taken together, all of this makes his latest novel, The Peripheral, appear as much the expression of an entire culture as a book written by a single person, a vision of the future that comes to us with the stamp of approval of the West’s most powerful cultural arbiters.

None of this arbitration is directly visible in The Peripheral, of course. On the surface, it sets about portraying a world far from MoMA and Forbes, a kind of down-at-the-heels, rural America set in the near future where the protagonist Flynne Fisher’s most poignant memories involve recalling how her brother Burton and cousin Leon adapted shotgun shells by injecting polymer into the casings. It’s one way of trying to deal with the future, shooting at whatever is coming for you around the corner.

The Peripheral actually has two futures, the near future of Flynne trying to get by, and a distant future, depicted mostly through a publicist named Wilf Netherton living out his dissolute life in a bleak, emptied-out London controlled by Russian mobsters. The two futures, set some seventy years apart, are separated by an apocalyptic event called the “jackpot” that has killed 80 percent of the world’s population. The near future in rural America offers semi-employment for people like Flynne and PTSD for war veterans like Burton, Leon, and their friend Conner. It is a world of cheap prefabs, 3D-printed phones and food, a thriving drug trade, and an outlet called Hefty Mart with headquarters in Delhi. There is an American president named Felicia Gonzales, but in spite of the occasional ethnic names drawn from central casting, Gibson’s future America is more or less lily-white.

The distant future is not that much better. Some of its denizens have set up a communication link with the near future, a connection that helps uncover a murder plot and the use of exoskeleton-like devices called peripherals, which can be controlled across time. Beyond this, there’s a floating garbage patch in the Pacific and a villain named Hamed al-Habib in the far future, along with many references to anthropology, media, and popular culture. It’s all kind of interesting, but it’s also kind of not.


This is not something that could be said of Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1984), which gave us the beginnings of a new variant within science fiction, what came to be known as cyberpunk. Neuromancer’s distinction, carried across the novels Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) to form what has been called the Sprawl trilogy, was to imagine a “cyberspace” before the arrival of the internet, a sort of virtual reality created by computers and artificial intelligence that served as an additional dimension to the physical one.

The Sprawl books threw into relief the shifting limits of the body, especially those of solitary, freelance operatives adrift in the backwash of state agencies, criminal cartels, and global corporations. The worlds that Gibson built in these novels were constructed with a distinctive vocabulary (“cowboys,” “meatspace,” “simstims,” “microsofts”), while the stories often consisted of a technological upgrade to the classic noir elements: hard-boiled protagonist, gritty voice, mysterious femme fatale, and textured landscape. The Sprawl, stretching from Boston to Atlanta, dominated the setting of these stories, as did hypermodern Japan, with third-worldish locations like Mexico City and Istanbul thrown in to emphasize grit and danger.

Gibson followed up the Sprawl trilogy with another, usually referred to as the Bridge trilogy: Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996), and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). These novels took the cyberpunk aesthetic further, but also displayed a greater interest in media and pop culture. Japan and its worrisome Asian modernity still featured, but the novels reimagined the original noir territory of California, now splintered into the privatized states of NoCal and SoCal and the iconic Bay Bridge in San Francisco reduced to a squatter shantytown. In these Bridge novels, Gibson explained in a talk, the future had been dialed down; Virtual Light was set a little more than a decade ahead, in a future 2006, rather than in the 2030s that formed the backdrop for the Sprawl novels. In the books that succeeded the Bridge trilogy—Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010)—Gibson eschewed the future for the present. It is only now, with The Peripheral, that he has returned to the future again.

The question of why and when an established mainstream writer—which is what Gibson has been for many decades—chooses to switch gears from the future to the present and then back is an interesting one. Gibson himself suggested that Pattern Recognition was wrestled into the present by the attacks of 9/11 and its “psychic aftermath,” and that the books following it responded to other contemporary events, including “the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq” and “the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” It is as if “future” and “history” were in dialectical opposition in Gibson’s writing. He could imagine the future only as long as he thought Americans were living in some kind of endless Fukuyama terrain at the end of history; once history showed up again in the form of 9/11 and its aftermath, the future had to cede place to history. So what does that tell us about Gibson choosing to go back to the future?


Fredric Jameson observed that Neuromancer, Gibson’s first novel, coincided with “the neo-conservative revolution and globalization.” Gibson’s subsequent fiction, too, kept pace with globalization and its anxieties and aspirations. The Sprawl trilogy, set in the 2030s, celebrated a kind of free-for-all, the machinations of corporations and militaries balanced by the awakening of artificial intelligence entities, a Singularity of sorts that might even allow some of us to upload ourselves into the ether. The Bridge trilogy, set in the aughts but written in the late 1990s, began to see that free-for-all as approaching a kind of endpoint. In the trilogy, one could see how, for all the talk about computer technology and virtual reality, much of Gibson’s writing was permeated by a kind of lament for the vanished industrial age of the United States, one that valorized the white men and women who would have been heroes in those bygone days.

In this, Gibson’s writings were ahead of the curve. It would take mainstream American popular culture at least another decade to mirror his combination of damaged, hardened, largely white protagonists against a decaying industrial infrastructure. “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” the Polish-American dockworker Frank Sobotka says in The Wire, something that could be said by any one of Gibson’s cowboys/hackers/bike messengers/rentacops sifting their way through the ruins of industrial modernity. And just as Gibson’s fiction displayed a deep sense of unease with the way non-American capital had flooded into this de-tooled America, popular television too found its rapacious capitalists largely among foreigners.

Gibson’s latest work returns to those anxieties, but after a detour of sorts. His contemporary, post–9/11 novels combined globalization with a Cold War ethos of warring states and powers, displaying liberal American anxieties about the world at large as well as about the shadowy, right-wing conspirators at home who might tip the United States into something other than a “free” democracy. At the same time, these books embraced marketing jargon, lifestyle contrivances, and media artifacts in great detail. It was as if Gibson, in spite of himself, was gentrifying his own fiction, turning the gritty thrillers of his early- and mid-career into novels that also function as high-end product catalogs or museum brochures.

The Peripheral, however, abandons that flirtation with consumer brands and marketing patter. In the aftermath of the Bush years and its shocks of history, the future has run out of time and irony. Globalization for Gibson is now an undeniably evil thing in all of its manifestations: industrial, digital, and consumerist. It is capable only of ruining America. This in itself would not be an entirely objectionable position, but the racial and national anxieties pulsating through Gibson’s oeuvre are fully visible in this novel, including in the unheeding and rapacious act of cultural appropriation that allows Gibson to call his largely white, rural America a “third world” place, subject to the playful whims of a future London. Of course, it is not really the English who are to blame for such imperialist tendencies, but the evil Russians who have turned future London into a kleptocracy, aided by the arch-villain, rogue “Gulf klept,” and “fifth son,” Al-Habib.

It says something about the state of the culture that such a vision of the future is produced, disseminated, and received without much in the way of critical comment in countless admiring reviews and profiles. The emphasis, as always, is on how prescient Gibson is, in reading past and present to create his future, in how his technological references build upon what exists today (Exoskeletons that can do time travel! Embedded smartphones! Nanobots!). Yet what goes unnoticed is that Gibson’s reading of the jackpot manages to be both conventionally Malthusian and evasive: “It was androgenic, he said, and she knew from Ciencia Loca and National Geographic that that meant because of people. Not that they’d known what they were doing, had meant to make problems, but they’d caused it anyway. . . . And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.”

Given this posing of the world’s problem as partly a problem of haplessness and partly that of sheer numbers, it is not hard to suspect that the post-jackpot future where 80 percent of the world’s population has been wiped out represents wish fulfillment as much as a nightmare scenario for Gibson. That such reactionary politics should sit deep in the heart of green, liberal, techno-futurism isn’t unusual. It animates much of the current vogue term, “anthropocene,” as if all humanity has been, and is, equally responsible for the current state of the planet. What this brand of techno-futurism hides within its seemingly innocent heart is a fear of the world, which it understands as consisting of a civilized, democratic, and beleaguered Western core surrounded by unchecked Malthusian numbers with ravenous, rapacious appetites. In Gibson’s novel, this produces a future that looks a lot like Fortress Europa and Fortress America, the twin fonts of democracy. When China comes up as a point of reference in The Peripheral, the publicist Wilf tells Flynne how “they,” unlike the West, weren’t a democracy and were able to rebuild much more quickly after the jackpot. Still, China exists behind some kind of post-jackpot bamboo curtain and is of no more interest than as a distant backdrop, Asian modernity having pulled itself behind the veil. Straddling London and America, with passing references to New Zealand and Canada, The Peripheral is largely an Anglo affair. In that sense, the future is not so different from history, after all.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of two novels and The Beautiful and the Damned (Faber and Faber, 2012), a work of narrative nonfiction that was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and won the PEN Open award.