Science fiction authors won’t tell you this, but they are lousy at predicting the future. I
love my genre fiction, but learned long ago I get more reliable prognostications from a
daily horoscope or stale fortune cookie.  

Maybe we should be glad, given the dystopian flavor of so
many of these genre novels. I really don’t want to live in a
J.G. Ballard or Samuel Delany novel, or find myself trapped
in a
Philip K. Dick matrix-like construct. If I have to live inside
an author’s make-believe world, I’d even take gloomy
Dostoevsky over positivist H.G. Wells. I trust Raskolnikov
more than
Dr. Moreau.

So when it comes to forecasts, I'll settle for random
passages from Virgil. Or the Edgar Cayce archives.
I'll even opt for Nate Silver. Anything but sci-fi.

But I make an exception for William Gibson, who is a
genuine futurist masquerading as a science fiction writer.
He denies this vehemently. “Only charlatans say they really
know the future,” he declares. But technologists pay close
attention to his stories and utterances, and for good reason.
Gibson has a better forecasting record than any of your Silicon Valley gurus or elite
venture capitalists.

Some thirty-five years ago, Gibson laid out a blueprint for the digital age in his
influential novel
Neuromancer. This work is widely credited with introducing the
concept of cyberspace. Some have even suggested that Gibson may have gone
beyond predictions, and actually contributed to the evolution of the Internet: "What if
the act of writing it down,” asks fellow sci-fi writer Jack Womack, “in fact, brought
it about?"

It’s hard to live up to such a reputation. But Gibson has somehow managed to stay
at the forefront of conceptual thinking even as history turns his previous dreams into
banal reality.  There’s no glamor in email or social networks nowadays, and Gibson
has been forced to push ahead into the unknown—perhaps his favorite home turf.  
In his 2014 futurist thriller
The Peripheral, he is still as provocative and edgy as ever.
Even if you come to this book, like me, having read hundreds of other sci-fi stories
set in the future, and think every meme and formula has been fully exploited and
exhausted, Gibson will show you otherwise.

The Peripheral, Gibson reinvigorates the most tired subgenre of them all, the time
travel story.  In fact, I don’t think I would have even considered reading this novel if
someone had warned me it involved time travel. Been there, done that, too many times.
But Gibson is so subtle and slick in this book, that you could read this entire novel
without even grasping that it’s a variant on the time travel tale. Instead, Gibson latches
on to the fascinating notion that the past can be reinterpreted as a kind Third World
culture, lacking our technologies and up-to-date viewpoints.  Even garden-variety
historians can be seen as neo-colonialists exploiting previous generations for their
own benefit and advancement.

But Gibson pushes this concept further. What
happens if two rival powers both try to exploit the
past, in a kind of sci-fi imperialist power grab?
Here our author latches on to his next insight:
this rivalry might resemble a kind of video game.
You could even imagine a flippant game player
destroying a whole past world simply out of zeal
to ‘win’ the competition.  One society’s recreation
is another’s destruction.

Gibson has many other angles here, but none of them are obvious, even after you
are well beyond the midpoint of his twisted novel. At first glance, Gibson is telling
two different stories that have nothing to do with each other. In one narrative, a
young woman named Flynne gets lured into playing a video game that is too eerily
realistic. Without realizing it, this seemingly innocent pastime leads to an unknown
enemy taking out a contract on her life—but in the real world, not the game. What
did she do to set off this backlash? Even worse, her adversary seems to have
almost unlimited resources and is determined at all costs to kill our protagonist. In
a second narrative, an alcoholic publicist finds that his eccentric client, a performance
artist in a kind of post-Marina Abramović mold, has set off an international incident
after one of her projects goes awry.  

I hear readers often complain that they find it difficult to figure out what is happening
in William Gibson’s stories. They have a valid point. The confusion level here is off
the charts, especially in the opening chapters of
The Peripheral. But that isn’t a
shortcoming in Gibson’s work, but a carefully calculated gambit. He wants the readers
to experience the strangeness of the worlds he presents. It’s too his credit that, even
after you start feeling some sense of mastery over the storylines and their intersections,
he still has many surprises in store for you.

I have suggested elsewhere that too much emphasis in literary studies is placed
on experimentation with language, and not enough attention is given to innovations
with concepts. Reading William Gibson is the perfect corrective to this bias. But it’s
worth noting how slow the literary world has been to take notice. The
New York Times
never even mentioned his pathbreaking novel Neuromancer until the book had been
out for a full ten years! Yet with the benefit of hindsight, Gibson’s breakout book may
have been the most conceptually advanced work of fiction of the 1980s.

Yet I must give Gibson credit for his writing too. Many sci-fi writers with great
conceptual skills are second-rate stylists. As much as I admire Isaac Asimov and
Philip K. Dick, I would never recommend their books as role models for aspiring
authors. Gibson, in contrast, is a poised writer with great control over his sentences
and paragraphs. He would have never been crowned the king of cyberpunk if he
hadn’t been able to capture the whole ethos of that movement in his artfully-
constructed texts.

But in
The Peripheral he shows, against all odds, that punks can keep their edge
even in their late sixties. That’s an achievement in its own right.  I’m not sure how
many more great novels William Gibson has in him—unlike our esteemed author,
I’m no futurist and don’t give out forecasts—but if this book is any indicator, he is
still at the top of his very difficult game.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His
most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: March 21, 2018
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Gibson latches on to the
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
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