This year’s premiere of “The Peripheral” on Amazon Prime video is likely to bring legendary science-fiction author William Gibson’s work to a wider audience than he’s had in a while. I’m thrilled that one of my favorite writers is set to reach a new batch of fans.
What follows is a guide for all you potential new William Gibson readers. I’ll describe his writing style so you can decide if you’ll want to try out his books, and I’ll provide an overview of his major works so you can pick your entry point.
Let’s start with the basic question of whether you’ll enjoy reading William Gibson.
You might like William Gibson if: You enjoy dense reads, you like immersive novels with heavy atmosphere and detailed descriptions, and you gravitate toward thought-provoking speculations on the future of technology and society.
You probably won’t like William Gibson if: You prefer easier reads, you want fast-moving action, you don’t have much patience for description.
Gibson’s style is dense, heavy on description and detail, and delivered in the slang from his imagined future worlds. He doesn’t hold the reader’s hand and walk them through the setting or explain why things are they way they are. He shuttles you into his worlds in a windowless van, kicks your ass out into a seedy neighborhood, and leaves you to make sense of it all on your own.
The downside of this style is that it can be hard to understand what’s happening early on, and that can make it difficult to get into his stories. The upside is that once you find your bearings, the worlds feel more real, more complete, and less contrived than other speculative fiction.
The other two hallmarks of Gibson’s work are his talent for explaining our present world through his conjectured futures and his unintentional knack for predicting key concepts of the future.
Let’s start with the first talent: his ability to use imagined futures to illuminate the present world. Perhaps the best example here is the concept of the Jackpot — basically his apocalypse scenario — in “The Peripheral.” Gibson describes the Jackpot as a mix of interconnected, concurrent crises like droughts, species collapse, wars and pandemics that killed the majority of the global population but left a super-rich remnant with the run of the world that remained. Can you think of a better description of what the last few years have felt like they’re pointing toward? I can’t.
Second, even though Gibson says he’s not necessarily trying to predict the future, he does an awfully good job of it. The most famous example is how he came up with the term cyberspace and a pretty good approximation of hackers in “Neuromancer” all the way back in 1984. There are other little spot-on predictions sprinkled all throughout his work.
The other common tropes in most of his books are characters that run the gamut from criminal underworld types and others living on the fringes of society all the way up to the richest, cleanest — and most ruthless — beings of the world. He often has dual lead characters, with one male and one female. There’s usually an emphasis on clothing, cars, gadgets, and all other facets of the material culture of his worlds. He likes to globe trot in his settings, which provides a nice range of backdrops for the action. There’s also some occasional biohacking and a few bursts of extreme violence.
So to sum it up, William Gibson’s books can be a challenge, but if you’re up for more exertion in your reading time, there’s a big payoff in store.
If all this sounds interesting to you, you’ve got a few good options for where to start reading his work.
WHERE TO START READING WILLIAM GIBSON
OPTION 1: “Neuromancer”
The first choice would be to go back to the beginning and start with “Neuromancer,” his first novel and the first book in his Sprawl Trilogy. This book follows Case, a former digital thief who’s addicted to drugs because of his shattered nervous system and is generally circling the drain of his life. He meets a contract killer named Molly, who introduces him to a mystery man named Armitage, who hires him to conduct some digital heists and promises to restore his health. The trio travels the world and even into space, encountering other criminal lowlifes, facing off against corporations, cops and even artificial intelligences.
Starting with “Neuromancer” gives you one of the purest hits of Gibson’s style and transports you back into a previous generation’s version of the future. The effect is of a universe that simultaneously more familiar and more foreign than any of his other worlds. Also, it’s his most famous book, one of the foundational texts of the cyberpunk genre, and has one of the best opening lines of any novel ever, so it’s a must-read if you’re trying to work your way through the sci-fi canon.
The downside of “Neuromancer” is that it was written so long ago that unless you’re old enough to remember the cultural milieu that this was based on, you’re going to miss a lot of the references and much of it won’t make sense.
In short: “Neuromancer” is the most quintessentially William Gibson novel, but it’s also the hardest to follow.
OPTION 2: “The Peripheral”
If you’re intimidated by the idea of the density of Gibson’s work, it might make sense to start with “The Peripheral” since some of the material will be familiar from watching the show. This will give you a foothold in the world and make it easier to digest and probably more enjoyable.
I’m writing this after watching the first episode of the show, and while the universes in the book and show are consistent, already there are major plot divergences. That means the book and the show won’t spoil too much of each other plot-wise and will reinforce and deepen the experience of each other if you tackle them at the same time.
“The Peripheral” is Gibson’s most recent work, and it’s also my personal favorite of this. The characters are some of the best he’s ever invented, the worlds are both cool as hell and eminently believable, the social and political commentary is so incisive and enlightening, and it has one of the best time-travel mechanisms and solutions to the many worlds problem that I’ve ever read. So I think “The Peripheral” is worth the extra deep dive that you get from reading and watching the show concurrently.
The other upside of starting here is that the Jackpot Trilogy, of which “The Peripheral” is the first book, isn’t done. The second book, “Agency,” was released in January 2020, and Gibson tweeted in July of that year that he was getting started on book #3, titled, simply, “Jackpot.” There’s no firm information on when it will be released, but there’s always something fun about being immersed in a series that isn’t finished and some fun that comes from eagerly awaiting a new book.
You might not want to read this one if you like surprises or want to expand far beyond the show, or if you like to binge book series and don’t want to wait for this one to wrap up.
In Short: “The Peripheral” is the most current and most comprehensible of the books since you have the show as a guide, but you probably won’t break much new ground than the show will cover.
OPTION 3: “Virtual Light”
Gibson tends to write in loosely connected trilogies, where three books in a row share the same universe and some of the same characters. Aside from the Sprawl Trilogy and the Jackpot Trilogy, his other two major trilogies are the Bridge Trilogy and the Blue Ant Trilogy. Of those last two, the Bridge Trilogy feels more quintessentially Gibson-like. It still has much of the grime, grit, and edge of Neuromancer, but it’s more comprehensible since it was written more recently.
The Blue Ant Trilogy is good, interesting, and very heavy on the social and artistic observations, but it’s something of a departure from the rest of Gibson’s work and is likely to be unsatisfying to most science fiction fans.
You might want to read “Virtual Light” if you started “Neuromancer” but put it down because it was too hard to follow, or if you’re interested in the idea of ultra immersive virtual-reality.
In short: “Virtual Light” is a good compromise between avoiding the intimidating foreignness of “Neuromancer” while providing a difference experience than “The Peripheral.”
I hope you find this post helpful. If you’re already a William Gibson fan, feel free to drop a comment on where you recommend starting. If you’re new to him and you took one of my recommendations here, let me know how it went for you.