You know, while I was editing and writing my interview with William Gibson for this piece, I kept lamenting about all the great quotes and observations I’d have to leave on the cutting room floor for space and spoilers.
But, since the book’s been out nearly a month, I figured that some readers would want to hear Gibson talk about the book more in depth. So what follows below is an almost-raw transcript of my conversation with Gibson about the considerations he put into the world of The Peripheral and the way he engages with and writes about technology. It’s a little different than how I usually publish articles on Kotaku so I hope you enjoy it.
Evan: It was the gaming angle that hooked me into the book at first, and then once things evolved I was like, “Oh, it’s not really a game.” But it still kind of is, which is interesting. The idea that you are essentially playing with human lives is a really super frightening one. Can you talk about why you thought of that as a conceit and if it informed your way into sketching out the world?
William Gibson: That’s an interesting question. I wonder? Well. I don’t have a very logical methodology in constructing these things. I just embrace randomness in large part. It emerged very early in the narrative that Flynne’s brother probably does have post traumatic stress disorder even though the VA doesn’t want to pay for it.
He’s pretty hinky. So we had that. Then his relationship with Flynne, which is a brother/sister thing, seemed to have something to do with that or his PTSD had affected that relationship. She actually seemed to me, just as she was presenting to me as I wrote her, to have some of that going on. It occurred to me that she could have actually gotten into gaming.
Evan: Right. She had her own version of it.
William: Yeah. She had her own version of it but she acquired it in an online multiplayer game which is just one of those jumps in imagination you make when you write this sort of thing. Then I had to figure out what kind of game would have done that to her, and that actually gave me the economy of the kind of gaming she’s been involved in which seems like as far as we know might be half the economy of this small town.
The other half being cooking meth or some equivalent. The other poor people play for pay. They’re paid to play. I was assuming whatever interface they’re using, which is never really described, that the interface of the evolution of the games and such, particularly if your children’s dinner depended on it, it could cause you some very serious stress indeed.
Evan: It also seems like in the future — the future of Flynne’s world, I should say — is also a blown-out version of that, entering another reality to change your fortunes. Her being the point of entry to introduce that seems pretty natural.
Evan: Funny. You mentioned poor people. The one thing that kept going through my mind. I wondered if in the future if there are enough people left that there would be poor people? I mean if 80 per cent of the population died…
William: I don’t know if conceit’s the word for this thing…but the way I shot the story is so that the reader’s knowledge of the world is limited to the two point-of-view characters as whatever they are told and whatever they believe which may not necessarily be true.
They don’t think about the wherewithal of their respective wider world, and with Wilf’s world you can’t tell what’s going on outside. The rest of England might be Children of Men but a million times worse. We just don’t know. Neither do we know what is going on with the neo-primitives, and there are all these curators who follow them around.
It’s like, “are these the children of rich folks who opted to go native and regress or are they the descendants of less oligarchically set up individuals?” I did a cheat. I just didn’t show it.
In fact, I don’t know. Being asked about it reminds me of my first one of my first business experience with gaming which was having a couple of board game guys turn up and talk about Neuromancer and they started asking, “Where do they grow the food for the people in the Sprawl?” I said, “I don’t know.” And they looked at one another like, “Oh God! What have we got here? This guy’s got no basis for this nonsensical world.”
Evan: As I was also reading it I was like there’s too much great world-building in here that you would love to see made interactive like in a video game. But at the same time it’s such a bleak, nihilistic vision that I don’t know why I would want to play through it.
William: Well is it bleaker than Fallout? I don’t game myself, but I look over my adult daughter’s shoulder. She’s a pretty keen gamer. I kind of go, “Whoa, that’s dark! They’re doing what?” Really dark. This is dark too.
Evan: Well, the ending, to me, totally breaks from some of the stuff that precedes the book, in that there’s a sliver of optimism in there. A sliver.
William: It depends. I think it’s a matter of a happy ending being a matter of when you roll the credits. I actually saw it not being entirely sure what the final couple of chapters would be. When I got down to them and they emerged I thought they were seriously dark. I also thought that the irony in that would be that some people would accuse me of having written an absurdly happy ending. It’s hard to talk about this without blowing it for people who haven’t read the book.
Evan: That’s OK. That will be my job.
William: If things are the way they seem in Flynne’s world the last time we see them, everybody in that universe is living in a real life conspiracy theory because their history is going to be run by these crazy Illuminati dudes, some literately bat-shit lady in the future [who] used to be the head of the secret police just trying to make everything right for them.
In that last seemly passing conversation that Flynne has with Lowbeer, Flynne asked something like, “Isn’t there some danger given what we’re doing that we’re just going to create our own version of your future,” and Lowbeer says, “Be aware of that the most dangerous people in the world have no idea they have the capacity to do evil.”
Then she looks out at the Thames and says, “Human. All too human.” Then you cut back Flynne in her kind of weird domestic bliss and to me that was really chilling. The thing that backs it up was the feeling I had when I wrote that final Wilf chapter, I was like, “Man, is he OK? What did they do to him?”
He’s happy. I wanted him to be OK and I wanted him to be OK with Rainey. I hadn’t even planned that. But I thought he’s got a girlfriend. She seems to be reasonably sane. But there’s something about his enthusiasm for life that made me kind of go, “Eek, what did they do?”
Evan: He spends 90 per cent of the book protesting the future that he’s inherited. He goes, “I don’t like this.” For him to be like, “Oh, I guess I can live with it…” all of a sudden. I can see something dysfunctional underneath that.
William: Yeah. Like if they ‘fixed’ Lev’s brother…
Evan: Yeah. He could have been fixed too.
William: Yeah. Then they could have fixed Wilf. So it is ambivalent. But I imagine that there will be some readers who won’t get the ambivalence. I just can’t do satisfying work if I’m going to cut it back for the readers who might not get it. That’s what happens when you write for Hollywood. There’s a ton of guys sitting there saying, “That’s cool but you can’t do it because 40 per cent of the audience wouldn’t get it.”
Evan: You have to run the risk that you lose them. The other thing that struck me as I was reading was that anything about time travel, and why we want time travel, it’s ultimately always selfish, right? It’s not that there’s altruism attached to it.
I feel like either you’re a tourist and you want to see how things were like way back when or you want to change things. It feels like there’s no good end once you dip your toe into that kind of technology. You did it a different way with quantum computing and virtualization but it makes you wonder if there’s a way we can pull self-centeredness out of that advent of new technology?
We’re talking about being on the cusp of when we upload ourselves into computers. The singularity. Ultimately it’s only going to be self-serving. People can talk about a greater good, but do you feel there is a way we can do that? Or are we just going to have to continue to deal with the messiness of human emotions no matter what?
William: My mind doesn’t really work in those terms. It’s not something I wonder about. [laughs] I marvel at how assuming that emergent technology is now and has perhaps long been the main change driver in our society.
Assuming that, look at how technologies emerged, they are never legislated into emerging. This aspect of what humans do that must drive change and increasingly has terrible possibilities to do us harm as well as good. That becomes more apparent as we go along. It’s just random arse shit that somebody comes up with an idea. And often is not the…
William: …consequence that drives the change from a given emergent technology completely unintended. None of the people that brought that technology into the world ever thought that would happen because it’s about what happens when people get a hold of it. Then it becomes fantastically complex. The guys who figured out phone pager technology didn’t know that they would rewrite the geography of urban crime, which they directly did. The people who…internal combustion engine, this will be good for us.
Evan: Right. And we’re screwed climate-wise as a result.
William: Yeah, and that’s so complex and so systemic that we wouldn’t have been able to explain to the inventors of internal combustion what it was. There would be too many alien concepts. We got out of the time machine and said, “Wow! Fritz. Don’t do that. Don’t turn that final screw. Tear that baby down. We’re from the future. You’ve gotta trust us.” We wouldn’t be able to explain it to them.
Evan: The most chilling thing about the future that you portrayed in London is all of this wondrous technology but there’s no people.
William: That was the thing that bothered me most. I don’t consciously do scenario building. It’s always been an unconscious thing. Somehow, when I was learning to write, I developed this module where I put the present in one end and it comes out the other end, and I try to figure out what happened to distort it that way and work that into the story.
I hadn’t written any science-fiction in this current century yet, not any imaginary futures. I did my first 21st Century imaginary future. I basically put the first 14 years and the 21st century in one end, which for me the first 14 years was like writing those three beginning books.
It’s kind of a convenient lead to say that The Peripheral is a return to what I was doing prior to the Blue Ant books. But, for me, The Peripheral is the sequel to the Bridge trilogy books. But I put them in the module and what came out of the other end was the Jackpot.
I was looking at the Jackpot and I was looking at this depopulated but really pristine London and what I got was that the survivors — and this actually upset me initially — is that when the survivors and the Jackpot sort of come out of their walled enclaves and whatnot, and look around and go, “Damn, we dodged the bullet. We really dodged the bullet.”
So I thought, “Well what is the bullet?” The bullet was overpopulation. Eek! I’ve written a Malthusian nightmare. They would think, “Whoa! We should never allow that to happen again. We should never have unbridled growth and unbridled population increase.” It actually sound like the rhetoric of the scarier ecologues.
Evan: Yeah. I know what you mean. The ones who say”there are too many of us.”
William: It’s kind of Earth First. But if the Earth First message was coming to you from Russian oligarchs.
Evan: Yeah. There’s actually a DC Comics villain that operates under the same premise. He’s 600 years old, he’s lived forever. He’s like, “Oh, I know the solution to all of today’s problems.” Only to kill half of humanity.
William: Do you know James Tiptree’s work?
Evan: A little. Yeah.
William: Tiptree’s first story that she ever published was called the “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” and in it you follow this sad little dude with a runny nose and a bad cough as he flies all over the world and gets off to feed the pigeons. It’s a very short story. By the end of the story you realise his mission is to spread the plague because he’s seen what’s coming. It’s an extremely dark, dark little thing. That was her first outing. She was a CIA analyst.
Evan: Definitely seems like working on some data that made her feel a certain way. Going back to the book, I feel this is very like social, economically driven piece of work. The idea that the ultra-rich people of the future are screwing around with backwater…
William: Well, they’re third-worlding the past.
Evan: Yeah. It’s super, super frightening.
William: That’s what we do when we third world anybody. Basically, we go and third world the past. We don’t go and third world China. But you get people who are living where the future hasn’t been quite as well distributed — that’s like the whole history of the world. The Europeans show up here and look at the Native Americans and go, “These guys got low tech. We’re gonna make out here.”
Evan: I don’t know if you know the Sims video game series. The last one came out, there were previews over the summer, and they announced that they removed the swimming pools from the little houses that you can build. And the fans were in an uproar because they were not just aesthetic but they were one of the main ways that they use to kill their Sims.
William: They would drown them in the pools?
Evan: Build a pool. Tell them to go swimming. Take out the ladders. Put a cover on. Yeah.
Evan: Reading The Peripheral reminded me of that, with the end uses of technology not necessarily being altruistic. But it’s like a dollhouse of real people’s lives, too.
William: Lowbeer, we assume, was a very heavy person who has probably done unspeakably horrible Stalin like things to get anyone through the Jackpot. She’s kind of grossed out. You can tell by what she says when she finds out about the Stub and she says to Flynne, “I don’t like what these people are doing.” But she also tells Flynne that Flynne is not legally alive. [laughs] So that nobody can go to jail in Lowbeer’s world for killing her or doing anything in her world.
Evan: Part of me wondered about the technological apparatus of the Stub. I was picturing something like a bunch of virtualized bodies. Are you accessing them through a server somewhere? How much did you think that through?
William: I had to work it out on the fly as you always do. But I worked through any number of iterations to get it to the state it’s in the book which I found satisfactory as long as nobody turns the camera away from the part that’s on camera. I’ll give you an example of when that doesn’t work and it’s an example from this book.
I had worked out a really, really super evolved internalized smartphone culture for Wilf’s world, which I actually had to some extent even before I began the book, it was just something that started assembling itself. I thought, “This is cool. I’ll be able to use it one day.”
But then in the opening Wilf chapter, I wrote it using that level of technology which actually was much more appropriate to the kind of world he lives in than this thing where you’re touching the top of your mouth and seeing little badges. But it was too utterly strange. It took the story [elsewhere]… I’ll use it one day.
I think maybe it needs to be its own book or story. But it just took the narrative sideways and it made me think of what it would be like in the ’60s, someone would have gotten up one day having had this really detailed dream that in fact that was exactly the way that all of our cellular telephony operates in 2014.
She sits down and writes this science fiction novel employing that technology and tries to publish it and everybody just goes, “You’re insane.” Imagine how difficult it would be for her to be telling a story while all of her characters were carrying around these little miniature television radio things, two-way radios, writing each other short notes, mailing each other Polaroids, and playing Angry Birds.
It would be like, she couldn’t tell a story. I had something that was that weird. It involved the people you were hooked up with, like the people you were seriously branded with. When you go to sleep, you would be sharing their dreams and they could just speak to you at any point anywhere in the world. There was no filter. It was very…
William: Yeah. It was very ambient. It was really fun to write although it was really a demanding kind of writing…
Evan: Because you have to think about all of the various extrapolations. Is there privacy? Is there not privacy? How do you implement that?
William: Yeah. And you have to render it for the reader in such a way. This is always I think the most difficult thing about doing that. You have to render it for the reader so that the reader finds it incredibly weird and interesting and yet the characters who use it on a daily basis are as unaware of it as we are…
Evan: Yeah. Of Twitter.
William: Yeah. Of Twitter.
Evan: You mentioned the interfaces. This is a book about interfaces. It’s about how you interface with people, with the past, with the present, with the future. It strikes me as right on the cusp of another wave of interest in VR. Like, this is the perfect time for that. How excited are you by this stuff? Or how much dread do you have about it?
William: Professionally I’m agnostic. I need to be. I strive to be agnostic because in those moments which we all have in which I’ve become either a Luddite or a technophile for just a few minutes, I have no perspective. I have no sociological, anthropological perspective. I actually try to be a little bit behind in terms of consuming stuff because if I’m using it you can’t see what other people are doing with it in the same way.
Evan: You need to preserve that buffer of newness, for lack of a better term.
William: If I feel like I’m looking at people using an emerging technology, that’s really interesting to me. I think my first iPhone was a 4S, so I watched people use iPhones and other smartphones for a long time. What I was getting out of that was this kind of…
Evan: Hey, you’re not making eye contact anymore.
William: Yeah. You’re not making eye contact. You’re apparently talking to yourself in the street. I was in Tokyo one night [a few years ago] and saw for the first time little Nokia flip phones, which I had never seen. I flew from the Canada of the Motorola brick to the Tokyo of these little flip phones and I went out night clubbing with the young super hip Japanese guys and I saw how they could navigate that evening.
The evening is a remarkably complex social life with these little gizmos. I thought, “Man, that’s going to change things.” A month later, I was in London standing on a train platform in Kensington on the Tube waiting for the Tube to come through and I looked around and all the British people were doing the thing they do standing on platforms where they don’t make any eye contact. I kind of thought, “Those little phones in Tokyo, how would they impact us?”
Then I went home and I happened to be back a month later, and the little phones they’re with all the people on the platform and it was gone. I thought, “This is epic. This is an epic moment in the history of this ancient city in which the solitude was lifted. No one even notices now.
All these people who have these phones, they’re there, and they become that which has those phones. This thing that I remember is gone. An old guy once told me his perception of the week broadcast television came to Manhattan.
He said Manhattan has never been the same since the night that turned on the broadcast television because that was the night people quit sitting on their stoops. He said after that it was a different city. It might be true. These huge things happened and we don’t even notice because we’re up watching Art Linkletter.
Evan: Back to the gaming angle just for a little bit. It sounds like you have peripheral knowledge of media and the business, whatever. If you can see the Peripheral being adapted into a game would it be an action-shooter type thing? Like a strategy game like Civilisation where you’re trying to game the past from the future? How would you see it?
William: Gosh. I don’t know. What I would hope for would be that someone would turn up with an idea or and adaptation that that would strike everyone as both terrifically novel and really apt for the material. I don’t know enough about gaming to imagine what that would be but that would be my dream state of just being the guy who wrote the book…
Evan: Might carry that vision into another medium. Yeah. Talking about Flynne and Operation Northwind. I know that you’re not a guy sits down in front of a computer and plays games every night, but that was really well done. The idea that you have an arch enemy. You got that trollish kind of vibe down…
William: It works because your archenemy is a real guy but is really a sadistic dick, but he’s really like a lawyer in Tampa or something. If that was AI, that character, it wouldn’t have worked. When she killed him, she really hurt him because she broke his streak of never getting killed.
Evan: But that is the way online multiplayer culture works. You’re playing for bragging rights. You’re playing for things that aren’t real: Rewards, and Badges, and Achievements that aren’t real. But people over invest in that dynamic.
Again that sensibility bleeds through in the future London of the book, too. It feels like, “All right. What are they really playing for?” They’re playing for bragging rights. They’re already rich and powerful. Whatever. But they’re just playing for the ability to give the other person the finger.
William: The really horrible guy that Lowbeer probably assassinates, the guy who creates these hellworlds just so they will generate weapons. I’m not sure where that came from. I was just like, “OK, we’ll freely extrapolate on this.”
Evan: In the beginning, he’s in his own pocket universe and iterating over and over again to the point where it’s really horrible. But, hey, here’s something we can use. Let me make sure I don’t have anything else for you and I’ll let you go. There were two things that stood out for me. The cronut thing. The printed cronut thing. This is a personal anecdote, like, that guy’s right down the street.
William: Oh. Is this where the cronut guy actually is?
Evan: He’s like five blocks that way. Yeah. I went to his restaurant after I started this job three years ago. Because people were raving about an egg sandwich he was doing. I go, “All right. I like egg sandwiches. So I went there. It kicked me that if I had been a regular I could have gotten in on the cronut before the six hour line. But I loved the idea of it becoming so mundane in the future, in Flynne’s future.
William: I just saw on Twitter this morning that Dunkin’ Doughnuts has done it. That’s what I assumed would happen. But by Flynne’s day, it would be beyond passé. I was playing with that. Because the horrible thing about trendy stuff isn’t that it’s evanescent and vanishes like the morning dew. It’s that it can stick for like a 100 years, and it’s just always there. Maybe we can say it becomes an American classic snack. [laughs]
Evan: The other thing I really liked, my secret favourite character from the book was Flynne…not Flynne, was Ash, because she has all this affectation about her. But you also get this sense that she’s not pretending to mourn. She kind of is really sincere about morning the past.
William: She’s seriously mourning. Occasionally I try to cut away to her subculture. But I felt like if I did that I might lose something. She had the personality to pull it off but I wasn’t sure that her coterie of future goths would. This stuff can go to parody instantly, and a lot of it kind of deliberately does in Wilf’s world. But I didn’t want to do it with her because I really loved that same thing that you liked about it.
Evan: Yeah, it’s like, “You’re kind of bitchy and necessary and, on top of all of that, there’s these affectations that are just fascinating because they seem to come from some real emotional core and not just pretending to like be fancy and stuff. All right. I think I’m good. Thank you very much.
William: Oh, thank you. That was a really, really interesting interview.
Evan: Thank you. I hope I print something that does it justice. But I appreciate that. Good luck tonight. Thank you very much.
William: Thank you.