It is vital that you prevent anyone from telling you about William Gibson's new novel. Do not read the back cover. When an enthusiastic friend begins to enthuse about the way Gibson ... I will not finish that sentence, and you should not allow them to finish it either. If need be, shout, "Look, over there! A spurious change of subject!" and run away while they're distracted.
One of the key moments in the breakdown of the old idea of science fiction as idea-driven and stylistically naive was the publication of Count Zero, Gibson's second novel, in 1986. Neuromancer had blown the doors off the genre two years earlier, winning the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards for best novel, popularising the cyberpunk movement, and drawing broad-spectrum cultural attention at a time when non-geeks mostly associated science fiction with Star Wars and Star Trek.
Not to spoil Neuromancer for anyone who has yet to discover it, but the last page of the book contains a conceptual zing: an abrupt widening of focus which seemed to set the stage for a sequel based around a whole new sheaf of ideas. The excitement when the sequel finally arrived is hard to overstate, as is the scale of the disappointment. Gibson firmly turned his back on the landscape he had seemed primed to explore, and instead flexed his prose muscles, playing new games with the smoky, atmospheric language which some readers had taken to be merely incidental to Neuromancer.
Style as conceptual medium - style as the thing which creates the world of the story, language as idea - was not new to the genre in the 1980s, but Gibson was a key transitional figure. His latest novel is the most densely speculative thing he has written in over 10 years, and in fact offers his first new vision of a comprehensively imagined 50-years-out future Earth since Neuromancer, but the most exciting thing about it is the language.
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Every sentence of The Peripheral has weight, elegance, and a carefully judged freight of meaning. Gibson has refined and attenuated his always-sophisticated style so much over the years that reading him is now akin to solving a series of nested puzzle poems. Figuring out exactly what his characters are doing in each of his ultra-short chapters requires close, careful reading; there is a wealth of high-level social observation encoded in the story, but the greatest of the many pleasures I took from it was simply figuring out the most basic aspects of the plot.
With Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, this is one of my favourite three Gibson novels. It's spare, minimal, clean, altogether cooler than cool.
Read it before some idiot tells you more about it.
The Peripheral by William Gibson (Viking $37)