Thursday, January 15, 2015

Chicago Nerds: The Peripheral

Talked about William Gibson's 2014 novel "The Peripheral" with the Chicago Nerd Social Club on Monday night. I really, really dug the novel; I was a Gibson fan going into it, and in "The Peripheral" he's both returned to a more overtly SF universe and demonstrated yet more growth as a writer. The group generally liked it, and we had a fun discussion. Possible spoilers (and a fair dose of critical meandering) below!

So without giving too much away: the novel takes place in two different timelines that are interacting through some rather conspicuously unexplained technology (some kind of quantum computing server farm offscreen in China). One timeline is in our relatively near future, while the other is the better part of a century further on, after an apocalyptic period known as "the jackpot".

What jumped out most for me in "The Peripheral" is its structure: Gibson uses alternating view-points and extremely short chapters--an average of 3-4 pages each. For the CNSC group, at least, that turned out to be a somewhat polarizing style choice. The majority of us really enjoyed the short chapter structure, both for ease of picking-up/putting-down and the rapid, addictive pace it sets. Dale compared it to a Netflix series binge: somehow seven hours worth of material is more digestible than a single sub-two-hour film, because of the way episodes break up the time & cliffhanger. The "just one more!" effect.

However, a few of us found that the short chapter structure made it more difficult to become immersed in the world, perhaps especially given that Gibson doesn't go out of his way to explain how either world works. I personally really enjoy SF that throws me into a strange world without much help, so the "show-don't-tell" has to be pretty intense to detract from my reading enjoyment--Rajaniemi's "The Quantum Thief" (2010) crossed that line for me, but it's one of the features of Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide" (1990) that I love the most. Gibson certainly goes further in that direction than he has before, particularly where jargon is concerned.

We also got into a fun digression/analysis of commuting schedules as related to impact on reading. This last year is the first I've used public transit for commuting, and I'm not sure what kind of overall effects that has had on my reading. I definitely read at more regular intervals now, as opposed to a few big reading binges. I have noticed that short fiction, perhaps counter-intuitively, is harder to commuter-read, because unless the story length syncs up perfectly to the trip length, there's less narrative continuity & remaining story to pick up again later. I think that was essentially the issue some had with "The Peripheral".

The one word that comes to my mind first when I think of Gibson is not "cyberpunk". It's "cool". Gibson is so effing cool. And this structural approach struck me as a way to emphasize that, almost satirically so. Let me try to explain this.

There's a family of techniques in story-telling that I think of as "cool cuts"--when a dramatic line, action, or image is used as the final bit of a scene, its dramatic nature emphasized by the apparatus of the narrative rather than the in-world scene. This works particularly well for ominous or bad-ass one-liners: one character delivers the line, and then the book/film/comic/whatever cuts away to a new scene (or credits, or "to be continued", etc.), leaving that phrase kind of resonating.  Effing cool. Every time I see these "cool cuts" I hear the "chung chung" of "Law & Order".

But the technique has proliferated and concentrated to the point that I now find it kind of humorous. In real life, the scene would continue to play out, which would variously strip the dramatic nature of that line away--it's rare you actually get to say a stinger and then hang up the phone, let the elevator doors close, or whatever--you have to say goodbye, you have to walk away, you have to risk someone calling you out on the overly-dramatic thing you just said. One of the things I love about Edgar Wright's comedy films is that he subverts these moments, draws attention to their artificiality, by delivering these kinds of one-liners but then not cutting away--so we watch the one-liner character have to awkwardly walk away, or the receiving characters don't get it or aren't impressed. Parodic over-love of this technique is itself becoming something of a trope; see for instance the dialogue of Chris Pratt's raised-by-lowbrow-pop-media character Andy Dwyer on "Parks & Recreation".

For novels, there's a continuum of chapter structuring strategies, from self-contained to cliff-hanging. Tolkien's a good example of primarily self-contained: a lot of the chapters of LOTR begin and end with the characters in relatively safe, stable places; major action is dealt with towards the middle of the chapter. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" books, by contrast, cliffhang pretty consistently--episodes end with unresolved action, often of the "argh! What happens next?!" variety.

Two digressive thoughts here: 1.) cliffhanging is almost certainly the dominant strategy in modern storytelling, probably because it's a propelling one (and fits well with the keep-the-sequels-coming-ethos), and 2.) there's some interesting fractal structure here--works which deal with their chapters in a more self-contained way seem to have an easier time with their own endings, while works that consistently cliffhang their inner episodes are better situated for serialization/continuation. Possibly one reason television shows have a hard time with endings--they've either embraced the self-contained approach that makes a big series ending rather moot (the problem of most sit-com or otherwise arc-less series), or their constantly cliffhanging/open-ended approach to endings has poorly prepared them to create a world where endings stick gracefully.

Writers who are not writing self-contained chapters do well to master the cool-cut. In action-packed works this is pretty easy: literally cliff-hang; end the chapter with a character in danger, or with someone making a dramatic revelation, preferably with an ominous one-liner. Then cut away! Chung chung!

Gibson has always been excellent at a certain species of the cool-cut, and the reason I find "The Peripheral's" structure almost self-satirically cool is that he gets to drop ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR of them on us. Seriously, you read 3.5 pages and then: sweet Gibson line. Chung chung!

If you consider a novel as a substance, composed of chapter-particles, then this one just has a phenomenal surface area:volume ratio. More beginnings, more middles, more endings. (The first time coffee brewing theory has intersected with my literary criticism, that I am aware of anyway. Also, aside: there's an arguably unnecessary and personally gratifying coffee-making scene in "The Peripheral", brewing by mass, using a pour-over, wetting the filter...Gibson is effing cool.)

I say that Gibson has a certain species of this cut, and it connects to another thing I really love about him generally and this novel particularly: his world is very object-rich. Gibson always has an eye for design in many different areas, and communicates that very well--either by naming specific brands, designers, architects or artists, or by describing clothes, vehicles, furniture, buildings, bits of technology with a pretty-much unmatched grace and style.  Many of his chapters open or close with an object foregrounded, mundane or fantastic, which makes the experience much more tangible--particularly nice when so much about the larger world is opaque to us. He makes particular things--Ash's fantastic dresses, Netherton's crown/sperm camera interface, Flynne's pillowcase--stand out against an essentially blank background.

It's something I love about much of Gibson's work, particularly evident in "Pattern Recognition" (2003). He's my favorite example of an artist working with mono no aware, a term from Japanese aesthetics that roughly means the "beautiful impermanence of things". His appreciation of material objects, coupled with a science-fictional ability to either create newly weird objects or to estrange us from mundane ones, makes those objects kind of float before us, somewhat wonderful, somewhat grotesque, somewhat wistful--there's a lot of dirty, flimsy, or disposable objects alongside a lot of fancy rich ones.

In "Pattern Recognition" Gibson introduced an image that I find emblematic of some of his own stylistic growth over his career: a film being edited down to a single frame, a bird in flight, not even in focus. His work has always had a sort of hard-boiled punchiness to it, with short fragmentary dialogue exchanges, often compared to the best noir writers like Chandler, or to Carver (the Raymonds!), but also infused with a rhythmic gonzo energy and love of metaphor, of over-the-topness, that reminds me of the Beats or even Hunter S. Thompson at points. Over time, though, he's also gotten very good at a more restrained, spare deployment of the same basic techniques; "Pattern Recognition" is almost haiku-like at points, with a few short, fragmentary lines presenting objects or scenes strangely imbued with significance. Indeed, while the Beats, particularly Burroughs, are an oft-cited influence on Gibson, I find his more recent work evocative of the Imagist poets at points--Imagism and mono no aware having quite a few congruences.

"The Peripheral" shows Gibson paring his own writing and formula down to about the smallest-sized bits possible, which makes the things he's good at jump out even more.

On re-reading this, I also found myself frequently commenting on the excellence of his point-of-view control. He's using a particular type of third-person that critics of Cherryh (shocker) have dubbed "Third Person Intense Internal"--though third-person, it not only limits itself very tightly to what that character sees and knows, it approaches first-person in its presentation of what they're thinking--very rarely or never using italicized "internal monologue", but rather presenting what they're thinking directly, often with a fragmentary style. This creates an immersive experience for the reader without some of the framing issues of full-on first-person: often a jarring experience for me, because first-person narratives must either be recounted-- told to someone, written down, etc., in which case when did you have the time to do this (also removes any genuine tension about their survival) or magic internal, where we're just sort of getting their internal monologue the whole time. And who talks/thinks like that internally all the time?

Gibson's not only the best example I can think of (other than Cherryh) for this TPII approach, he also deploys it with masterful and nigh-invisible skill given "The Peripheral"'s alternating viewpoints and extremely short periods of time in each chapter to establish said viewpoint. He nails it with all these very tiny touches--an image that, in Netherton's chapter, is described as "gilt and ivory" is described in Flynne's as "gold and cream". Little tiny points like that, or like how a character in a Flynne chapter is described as looking like they have "no fucks to give", a phrase that would be totally out-of-character for Netherton. This is not Flynne talking, externally or internally, but rather an example of the excellent control of tone and diction for a chapter told from her viewpoint. Once you're looking for it, this approach is really satisfying in how unobtrusively executed it is, as in the way that perspective-bound verbs like "he knew" or "she saw" something are only used for the viewpoint character, never anyone else in the scene (unless the viewpoint character is thinking about what another person is thinking).

I really liked how good Gibson is at this in the chapters where Flynne and Netherton are interacting for a little bit of time, rather than off doing their separate things: the tiny chapters coupled with this style mean that we get to check out the scene and the other character in a quick succession of viewpoints, which enriches the scene and introduces just a tiny tinch of ambiguity (not like, Rashomon level) at points.

It wasn't very in-your-face, but there's a theme here of "right seeing, right action", that is also recurrent in Gibson's work, the most overt example of which is the scene-stealing assassin, Konrad, from "All Tomorrow's Parties" (1999). Here as there, knowledge and action are ideally combined in this sort of Taoist/ass-kicking way. Flynne's brother Burton is described as having been "rigorously selected for the military...for an unusual integration of objective calculation and sheer impulsivity" (265), and Flynne's nickname "Easy Ice" comes from a very similar ability under pressure. Lowbeer's approach to problem solving recalls Wintermute's and the other AI's penchant (in the "Sprawl" trilogy) for "improvisation, not planning" given a surfeit of information, which again evokes a sort of Taoist or Zen approach to complex tasks.

Back to the Chicago Nerds discussion! We did talk about style for quite a bit, as well as lots of other elements. I liked some of the character development quite a bit, particularly Netherton; a few people thought that Flynne wasn't sketched out in much depth, but we definitely liked the way Gibson handled Lowbeer. Big fans of Ash's clothing, eyes, outfits, mobile tattoos, and general Goth mourning for a destroyed world.

One thing we noticed was a lot of relatively-recent bits of cultural ephemera kind of tossed in there: cronuts, fecal transplants, thylacine de-extinction are all topics that were popping up a lot on the internet prior to this book's publication. Likewise 3d printing, which the cyberpunks and other SF writers have been playing with forever but only really started cresting into common consciousness in the last few years. By the way if you haven't seen those videos of the last thylacines, check them out. Really odd to see, so dog-like but not; like a biological version of the "mirrorworld" concept Gibson uses in some of his works--where different manufacturing processes, cultural spins, or convergent technological development create an uncanny distancing effect from mundane objects in another country.
Benjamin's yawn is not a response to any Gibson novel.
Also, minor note but I dug it because it's so cool--the reclaimed plastic wind-walker things on the Patcher's island are almost certainly inspired by Theo Jansen's kinetic creations, which are awesome. Indeed I wonder if they might have fed into the whole inspiration for the island and the way Netherton finds it upsettingly grotesque--the reclaimed plastic, the translucency, the sort of insect-like uncanny movements.

By the way, that implanted "bullshit module" that Flynne uses to pose as an art critic? You should definitely check out the "Artybollocks" artist statement generator.

We talked for a long time about apocalypse, the environment, economy. I found myself referencing Gibson's talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival a lot; particularly his ideas of a "slow apocalypse" that we might be in the middle of now, the notion that "dystopia depends on point of view", and the idea of the internet "colonizing" the physical world until they're no longer separate spaces.

Further reading: I highly recommend Paul Graham Raven's review, "The Spectacle of Disintegration", at the LA Review of Books; he gets into the two meanings of "the peripheral" (as an adjunct machine device, and also as the outer edge of things), as well as Situationist readings of/influences in Gibson. Really excellent, insightful piece.

More further reading: Gibson's interview with the Paris Review is outstanding, and you should read it. Written before "The Peripheral" but provides a lot of insights on his work, SF, and the world.

A great book club! Selection for next time is "A Natural History of Dragons" by Marie Brennan. Monday, February 9th, 6:30pm @ Filter Cafe.

Also if you're on Goodreads, Paul has been keeping a list of our suggestions for future clubs, so even if we didn't pick them it's a good list to check out.

Chung chung!

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