I don’t remember when I first read William Gibson’s landmark Neuromancer, but it would have been the early 1990s, and I was entranced. That book defined, a decade before “internet” was a household word, the possibilities and dangers of an online or virtual life at least as compelling as the present flesh-and-blood one.
With The Peripheral, Gibson returns to the theme of operating a virtual body remotely, and the metaphysics of life being a little too close to gaming.
Flynne is a young woman scraping together a living in a dying town whose main industry is illicit drug manufacture. Sometimes she works as a supporting character in rich people’s video games. Paid to fly a security drone around a virtual London, she witnesses a murder. It looks real. It may, in fact, be real.
The linkage between the world Flynne lives in and the world where the murder occurs blurs the line between who’s a real person and who is merely an AI or a character in a game. What happens when a disabled former Marine uses a neurological interface device to operate a prosthetic body in another location, leaving his legless original body in a back room in a warehouse? What if the warehouse is in another universe? What if the software that runs that universe isn’t 100% secure?
What is life, after all, but a completely realistic, totally immersive, massively multiplayer game with very real stakes? And what happens if some of the players are cheating to get ahead – manipulating the fabric of the universe as though the world were merely another virtual reality server?