Tuesday, November 25, 2014

William Gibson's The Peripheral and the debt to Iain M Banks. And a detour via Jeremy Duns and Chris Morgan Jones

I absolutely loved William Gibson’s so-called ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History) and have had his latest novel, The Peripheral, on Kindle pre-order for weeks. I came to it fresh from a long thrillerbinge on first Chris Morgan Jones’s Ben Webster books (Agent of Deceit and The Jackal’s Share) and then Jeremy Duns’ Paul Dark trilogy.

Chris Morgan Jones’s writing is terrific - and his take on the spy/private eye novel is strikingly new: Drawing on his own background, his hero is essentially someone who carries out due diligence checks on companies and individuals, on behalf of other companies and individuals. Russia and Iran provide the nastiness in the two (so far) Webster books, which are revelatory on the often violent and sordid world of international business. Extremely cool, with a sense of the threat, bullying  and viciousness lying behind those glossy corporate adverts you see on telly.

Jeremy Duns couldn’t be more different, and yet the Paul Dark books (Free Agent, Song of Treason, The Moscow Option) are also a breath of fresh air. Based on rigorous research and actual events ranging from World War Two to 1969, they’re crazed, tongue-in-cheek first person romps full of cars, bad sex, daft twists, ultraviolence and Bulldog Drummond-like feats of athleticism. James Bond in other words, the difference being that Dark is a Russian agent embedded in the British Secret Service. 

Initially a wee bit alienating and difficult to take with the seriousness Fleming, even at his most arch, demands, you find yourself swept along and always keen for the appendix in each book revealing the detailed historical facts that fuelled the fiction. Though by the middle of the Moscow Option, I’d kind of had enough. You could see those Åland Islands approaching 700 miles off...

Between Song of Treason and  The Moscow Option The Peripheral popped up on the Kindle, and I threw myself into it with enthusiasm. And found myself struggling in a future rural dirt-poor America portrayed in Gibson’s trademark style: You have to work at his worlds, the unfamiliar tech, the unnamed wars and disasters and political machinations that have brought these characters to their grisly pass. And then we’re 70 years in the future, and there’s some sort of gaming  connection. Suddenly it’s a time travel and drone/android/human identity book. And a love story.

The Blue Ant trilogy worked so beautifully because the strange tech was only half unfamiliar, and most of it on the verge of hitting the edges of the midstream. And the use of Gibson’s own favourite objects, ones actually available ( Buzz Rickson jackets, VW Phaetons, 3D projections, remote airships) or from history (coding machines, watches, heavy denim) left you tingling with an almost physical desire to possess some of them. (There’s even a special William Gibson edition Buzz Rickson flying jacket if you’ve got a spare £500. Nylon, of course).

The problem with The Peripheral is that the tech, indeed the central concept of ‘The Peripheral’ (an advanced humanoid inhabited at a distance by a ‘real person’) is very familiar, but from other books. Notably Iain M Banks, to whose work The Peripheral owes a very considerable  debt. Almost all Banks’s Culture novels feature the human soul/drone habitation issue, usually tackled with great wit,  and sarky Scottish charm. The odd (and I think successful) Banks combination of SF and ‘literature’ (no ‘M’ in the authorial byline) Transition is even nearer in tone and has ‘time’ travel involved too.

And I have to say that Banks, even over the course of some very long books indeed, is generally very consistent  when it comes to his internal SF logic, avoiding paradox and making the science appear plausible. Something Gibson loses his grip on in The Peripheral. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but the central notion of ‘the stub’ - a kind of fork in the road, leading to a dead end in time and history - is completely undermined by the motivations of  one of the central ‘future’ characters. And that swarm tech is just a bit too convenient at times.

There’s lots to enjoy, some great fight scenes, a strong (typical Gibson) central female and an interesting satire on poverty-into-wealth via technology. But the ending is eye-poppingly daft and afterwards, I was left wondering why one of all those editors, writers and readers credited in the appendix with helping didn’t just say: Hey, Wullie! Scrap it. This stuff’s been done before, and better.

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