The Peripheral

April 19, 2015

Might catastrophe be used as a form of population control?

The Peripheral is the latest novel by science-fiction don William Gibson. Like Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer, his latest work is a delicious mashup of cyberpunk and noir: a techno murder mystery which follows a cast of likable but suspicious characters in over their heads into a hard-boiled chrono-political affair where nothing is ever quite what it seems to be.

The story takes place not just in the future, but in two futures, through an interesting vision of time travel. In the future, you can’t send matter through time, but you can send data. And oh, the things you can do with data. In the novel’s world, people control androids—the titular “peripherals”—in other time periods by sending the content of their consciousness as data.

The book’s first future is an exaggerated vision of our present. Automation has sent unemployment skyrocketing, and the only jobs left are with local meth syndicates or the equivalent of Walmart. (Drugs and big-box stores seem to be the cockroaches of the American future: able to survive any apocalypse.) Ugly foreign wars have left a class of damaged veterans—like the protagonist’s brother—who collect what little they can from the VA while doing odd mercenary jobs on the side to make ends meet. Even the Westboro Baptist Church makes an appearance as the rancorous religious group “Luke 4:5.”

The second future is also recognizable, but in a different way. It takes place some 70 years later, after a catastrophe ironically dubbed “the jackpot”:

No comets crashing. Nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures; honeybees gone like they almost were now; collapse of other keystone species. Every last predator gone. Antibiotics doing even less than they already did. Diseases that were never quite the one, big pandemic, but big enough to be historical events in themselves. And all of it around people. How people were. How many of them there were. How they changed things just by being there.

Only about 20% of the world’s population is left—the best 20%, as they see themselves. What remains of our species are those rich and well-connected enough not to have been affected by the jackpot. The broken world, the empty cities, and even the past all become their playground. It’s a chillingly cynical idea: that the inability of those in power to do anything about climate change (or similar existential threats) is no failure at all but a willful act of population control, a solution to the problem of automation rendering most of humanity useless. (I’ve wondered the same thing about mass incarceration.) Those with resources will always be able to escape the consequences. As Wilf Netherton, this future’s smarmy publicist, puts it:

None of that had necessarily been as bad for very rich people. The richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was. Constant crisis had provided constant opportunity.

And finally…

At the deepest point of everything going to shit, population radically reduced, the survivors saw less carbon being dumped into the system…

And seeing that, for them, the survivors, was like seeing the bullet dodged.

“The bullet was the 80% who died?”

And he just nodded.