William Gibson, The Peripheral (New York: Putnam’s), 2014.
Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (New York: HarperCollons), 2015.
Note: Spoilers for both books
I don’t often read contemporary fiction, but every so often I get the urge to see what’s being written nowadays. Perhaps because I’ve been writing so much about technology these days, I thought I would give Gibson’s The Peripheral a try. Despite being pretty much the exact demographic for Gibson’s stuff (you can fill in the blanks), I’ve only read Neuromancer and a few of the short stories. What I’ve read has generally left me cold, and a reread of Neuromancer a couple of years ago confirmed my suspicion: Gibson has the ability to match the right (high-)concept with the right elements of the zeitgeist to create a plausible world “twenty minutes into the future” (as Max Headroom put it). Neuromancer is well worth reading for the vision of the future (our present, for the most part) that Gibson imagined, what he got right and what he got wrong. But it no longer has the power of the new that I imagine it did when it appeared in 1984. Cyberpunk is old hat to us now; the colour of a detuned TV is blue, not snow…
With genre fiction, it often seems that the genre conventions, especially in terms of plot, are a useful armature on which to hang the author’s concerns. The worst kind of genre fiction is bland and formulaic, but the best - Chandler’s noir, for example - flesh the formulaic plot out with ideas and problems just beyond the capacity of most genre fiction to address. Unfortunately, a genre plot can often be shoehorned on to a story, giving shape where shape doesn’t exist - this is the problem with The Peripheral and - to a lesser extent - Seveneves. Gibson’s set up and worldbuilding in The Peripheral are, as usual, great - both the world of the stub (twenty minutes into the future of the kind of poor white libertarian outlaws so enamored of TV these days) and the post-apocalyptic London in which the stub exists, are really well-drawn. There are glimpses of fascinating mysteries in this world: what kind of war engendered the creation of “haptic” soldiers? How was the stub server (“somewhere in China”) discovered? What is the nature of the stub’s reality. Instead of following up on these ideas, perhaps using a genre plot to frame them, Gibson’s focus is on the genre plot itself, using these ideas as incidental flavour. The problem is that the genre plot is… a little lame. An AV Club reviewer writes that The Peripheral “delivers a rote noir procedural”, and I think that this would be all right, if the procedural took a backseat to the questions, when necessary. Gibson, and perhaps this is the right call when writing “commodity fiction” is concerned almost exclusively with delivering his plot with the right pacing; the interesting questions, problems, and mysteries of the world he has created come second to that.
From the perspective of a world perhaps closer to the bring of nuclear war than at any time since the Cold War, with the added bonus of an increasing rate of climate change, portending a cataclysim which could make nuclear war look cozy, one of the most fascinating hints is the banality of the jackpot (the apocalypse which lies between the world of the stub and the depopulated, nanobot-curated future London). It clearly causes Wilf some pain to recount the details of the jackpot, but it happens “off camera”, and everything seems to have turned out all right in the end. So the jackpot is both an apocalypse and… well, just something that happened. Climate change had something to do with it, but mainly what it spurred was a welcome (and overdue) depopulation of the earth and the spur humanity needed to develop the technologies that would make post-scarcity a reality, even if it’s a kleptocratic post-scarcity. This may sound cynical, but - bar the mechanics of the noir plot - it’s actually pretty techno-utopian. I can’t even rememeber the maguffin of the noir plot, but needless to say it all falls a bit flat when nanobots can create anything you need.
Techno-utopianism is something Gibson has in common with Stephenson, though Stephenson’s tends to be unalloyed by any nightmares such as Gibson can imagine. Full disclosure: I’ve only read half of Quicksilver, half of Cryptonomicon (multiple times), and Anathem. Cryptonomicon, with its picaresque globetrotting, and its Dickensian tone leaves me cold - I think you have to be more absorbed by the technical ideas than am to really sink into it. Quicksilver I’ve found interesting, but it’s a dense read. Anathem I really liked, though I felt let down by the ending. Stephenson, like Gibson, seems to feel that his novels require some kind of genre plot to give them shape or pacing, but unlike Gibson, he tends to spring the genre plot at the end, perhaps to make up for a failure of imagination or technique after maintaining tension and story for 600+ pages.
So let’s get the main problem out of the way. The first two-thirds of Seveneves are set on earth and on (what becomes of) the international space station after something destroyes the moon. A Neil Degrasse Tyson standin predicts that the leftover chunks of the moon will soon grind themselves down into pieces too small to remain in orbit, and will come crashing down on earth in a fiery apocalypse. The first 600 pages of Seveneves is basically just a gripping working out of the consequences of the destruction of the moon. And it’s great. It could lose a hundred pages or so probably, which would tighten things up, but it’s so detailed and the ideas so thoroughly worked through, that it’s very gripping. Stephenson, like Gibson, isn’t as good on people as he is on ideas, but you’re reading both of them for the ideas, mainly, so that’s good enough. The third part of Seveneves jumps “five thousand years” later, when the bombardment of the earth has ceased, and the survivors of the human race have reseeded the planet with water from comets, flora and fauna from the DNA stored on the space station when the Hard Rain began. I didn’t find the jump of five thousand years particularly jarring - it’s science fiction, I’m OK with it. The world of five thousand years hence is - as usually - fascinating and drawn with an immense amount of technical detail (this section too could probably stand to lose about a hundred pages). What bothers me more is the jump from realistic, “twenty minutes into the future” speculative fiction, to the kind of militarized Marvel Comics science fiction that - I assume - Stephenson felt he needed either to attract the fanboys, give the book an ending, maintain the pace in the (200 page) spring to the end, or all of the above. The story in part three was adequate, the details of the future world were fascinating, and dealt with the consequences of decisions made by the survivors thousand of years ago, and introduced twists to the narrative that, I think, would have been good enough for a, say, 50- to 100-page epilogue to the main story. As it was, the shoot-em-up elements of the last third were jarring.
Even without an epilogue - and perhaps this is where a cutthroat editor would have been a benefit - the first two thirds of Seveneves are fantastic. I think the novel could have ended with the council of the Seven Eves and it would have been a wonderfully ambiguous ending to a story all about minimizing ambiguity. Perhaps section three could have been a standalone novel, set in the Seveneves future.
Stephenson seems to write two kinds of books: picaresque techno-thrillers (Cryptonomicon, REAMDE) and set-em-up-knock-em-down speculative fiction (Anathem, Seveneves). I much prefer, I think, the second kind, but in both Anathem and Seveneves, it’s as if Stephenson hasn’t trusted himself to end the novels without a leap from speculative fiction to genre fiction; perhaps this, too, lies at the heart of Gibson’s reliance on genre. It’s interesting to compare them both with, say, Philip K Dick, who mined the same area (speculative fiction) in a completely different way.