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Roads Both Taken

Sean Sheehan

The Peripheral, by William Gibson, Penguin, 496 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0241961001Agency, by William Gibson, Viking, 416pp, £8.99, ISBN 978-0241237212Hegel on Possibility: Dialectics, Contradiction, and Modality, by Nahum Brown, Bloomsbury Academic, 248 pp, £85, ISBN: 978-135008169What Would Be Different: Figures of Possibility in Adorno, by Iain MacDonald, Stanford University Press, 272 pp, £21, ISBN: 978-1503610279

We are in the actuality of the present and it harbours known and unknown possibilities. Potential actualities abound and some-among-many of present possibilities will become real moments in the unfolding future.

In “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Borges, all the possible actualities of a situation occur simultaneously and each one triggers a different reality. It’s a crazy notion – par for the course with Borges – but one that seeks support in an interpretation of quantum mechanics. If there is no wave function collapse, Schrödinger’s cat, for instance, becomes two cats that are equally “dead” and “alive”. The cats exist as different quantum events that branch off into separate worlds that never interact. Bryce De Witt, a theoretical physicist associated with such giddy propositions, talks of a universe – more accurately, a multiverse – split into a multitude of “mutually unobservable but equally real worlds”.

This is not quite the foundation for the latest sci-fi trilogy by William Gibson but there is a point of overlap. The second book in his latest trilogy has just been published, but it’s best to begin with the first one, The Peripheral (2014). The novel is partly set in London, in the early twenty-second century, where publicist Wilf Netherton becomes involved with a digital technology capable of communicating with the past. Via a highly secretive server, contact back through time is possible through a wormhole that allows data, but not physical bodies, to be transmitted (a faint echo of Ursula Le Guin’s “ansible” here). This is enough to occasion a variation of the butterfly effect and initiate a separate timeline that forks off from the moment of first contact. Everything prior to that temporal moment is common to both worlds and, because contact can only reach into the recent past, many aspects of life remain common to both after the forking. But the bifurcation in time instigates two worlds that develop in their own separate ways. In Netherton’s world, an environmental catastrophe called the jackpot has taken place: “changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone … every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves”. The jackpot hasn’t yet occurred in the other world that branched off seventy years earlier and with which Netherton becomes acquainted.

The Peripheral’s first chapter is set in this earlier time, in a southern backwater in the US where surveillance by Homes (the Department of Homeland Security) is a fact of life. Even with this background in the pocket, the reader will feel as banjaxed as a newbie facing a 10,000-piece jigsaw of an abstract painting. Launching into an audio book of the story compounds the challenge. Gibson likes to throw you into the narrative and semiotic deep end of his two worlds and learning to navigate involves slow reading and getting your head around new concepts and associated lexicons. A newly minted vocabulary takes its place in an initially dizzying prose that settles down into a past-faced and gratifyingly punchy story.

Part of the pleasure lies in joining up the pieces from the snappily titled chapters as they shuttle between the two temporal trajectories. The protagonist in the US world, ethically sound but savvy Flynne, thinks the online drones she finds herself operating might be some kind of beta-testing for a new sci-fi multiplayer game. Alarm comes when she witnesses a murder in the “game” that, far from being virtual (“some kind of nanotech chainsaw fantasy”, she speculates) is the very real world of London seventy years into the future.

In The Peripheral, Gibson’s protean imagination – his neologism “cyberspace” appeared in a short story in 1982 – continues to conjure up conceits for our fast-approaching future. It might be a word, like “fabs” (the products of advanced 3-D printers), an innovation (neurally controlled smartphones; animated tattoos of extinct life forms) or an idea like the ersatz recreational zone in London’s Cheapside – a hybrid of Star Trek’s holodeck and nostalgic cosplay – where wealthy hobbyists while time away. Central to the inventiveness of the narrative is the peripheral of the title, “an anthropomorphic drone ... a telepresence avatar”.

It’s often observed that the best futuristic fiction is really about the present but if so remarkably little of it engages with class rule and the political conflicts thereof. Not so with The Peripheral or in the recently published follow up, Agency, where contemporary events also have a presence. In one of Agency’s two timelines, Brexit has not happened and Trump has not been elected – although neither course has led to radical change (“there’s lots of people happier with a dumb-fuck in the White House”). But these are superficial touches compared to the existence of irresponsible plutocrats, the “klepts”, who seek to maintain their oligarchic rule in the future of any created stub. But Gibson’s huge talent and political instincts are too intellectually prescient to be contained by a sci-fi label. Seductive details, not essential to the plot and seemingly throwaway, inform crafted sentences that pepper each of his short chapters. Some are futuristic – A used shopping bag “crinkled, trying to origami itself into the butterfly it needed to become in order to fly back to the newsagent” – others are transient observations of a minor character: “Chinese-American, late thirties in a gray sweatshirt and mom jeans that probably weren’t ironic”. The central protagonists in the two novels are ordinary women, vulnerable but with an Elmore Leonard style of coolness. Gibson cares for them and likes to describe, without being sexist, how they conduct themselves and manage their bodies.

Agency, a better read for having the novelty of the two-worlds setting out of the way, has some of the same characters, notably Netherton and Lowbeer. The high-ranking fixer Ainsley Lowbeer is way above normal age and only manages to mentally survive by having some of her memories suppressed. What concerns her is a new “stub” (any diverging world initiated by making contact with the past) that has been in existence for two years since it was created in 2015.

Stories based around time travel invariably create paradoxes and enigmas. Gibson runs a tight ship in this respect partly because his books, unlike Liu Cixin’s, are not of the hard science fiction kind. Why stubs can’t be created within a stub is shelved as a mystery, an acceptable concession given the potential narrative chaos if this possibility was allowed for.

Perhaps it is best left to philosophy to explore temporal logic and the modalities of possibility, necessity and contingency.

For Leibniz the metaphysical reality of countless alternative worlds was a given but God in his wisdom has chosen the best one for us. Hegel refrains from the sarcasm this deserves but he does note that while “ … it is possible that the Sultan may be come pope. For he is a man, can as such convert to Christianity, become a Catholic priest, and so on”, this remains a merely logical possibility. Such thinking encourages idle speculation: “we see this, for example, with so-called pub politicians in the political domain”. Don’t we just.

Real possibilities, Hegel soberly observes, arise from “the existing multiplicity of circumstances which are connected with it” and “when all conditions are present, the matter must become actual”. There is something impossible attached to the possible if there is no actuality that comes to realise it. When an actuality is realised, other possibilities are erased and what does become actual discloses itself as necessity. Nevertheless, such necessity “has its starting point in the contingent”. There is something “blind”, says Hegel, about a process where “dispersed circumstances” with no “inward coherence … collapse inwardly and from this negation a new actuality emerges”. Purposive activity, by contrast, is a way of seeing that determines conditions for itself; but, although it achieves a state of inward coherence, complete knowledge will always evade our grasp. For Hegel, contingency and a level of blindness will always remain the trump card.

These are the ideas Nahum Brown unpacks in his book Hegel on Possibility. He acknowledges how the existence of possibility has to avoid “the absurdity and meaninglessness that would result from the total existence in actuality of every possibility whatsoever”. In line with most recent readings, he rejects the traditional picture of Hegel as an obsessive systems thinker of the deterministic kind. Interpreting him in this way is as out of date as equating William Gibson with cyberpunk. Hegel becomes instead a philosopher of plenitude and plurality who sees possibility as an immanent domain of being, allowing the actuality of the present to transition into something different by reintroducing and activating contrary possibilities that were previously excluded. Brown is no stylist and his writing tends to be dryly academic, dutifully pitting one reading of Hegel against another, but he rightly emphasises the fundamental role of contradiction as developmental and productive in the unfolding of an always changing reality. Hegel’s “totality”, once a derisory term for his critics, is one of constitutive contradiction. It makes negation an ontological force where contingency, possibility and necessity exist in a dialectical threesome that makes the world go around. Any totality of the traditional sense is an effect created retrospectively: the “event is prior to the unfolding of its consequences, but this can be asserted only once these consequences are here”, as Žižek puts it.

The Peripheral and Agency buy into this, weaving Hegelian non-fiction into Gibson’s speculative storytelling with verve and precision. The moment of contact with a period of the past becomes a contingency for those living in that period. It generates a new timeline and a new necessity – “what happens in a stub stays there”, a character notes – but also fresh possibilities. Situations emerge which to some extent allow for purposive manipulation from the world of the original timeline. This is what Lowbeer tries to do, attempting to avoid catastrophes in other timelines that occurred in her own, but she knows that the future, a priori unpredictable, remains open in all time continua and that contingency will be the final arbiter.

Theodor Adorno would be in full agreement with Lowbeer’s awareness and for this reason is not satisfied with Hegel’s exposition of possibility and actuality. This is the initial thrust of Macdonald’s What Would Be Different and he goes on to explore how Adorno places possibility on a bridge between metaphysics and history. What is challenged are the limits imposed on thought and social action by adhering to the notion that all possibilities but one are exhaustively consumed in the process of actualising a particular state of affairs. If there is something impossible about the possible when there is no actuality to realise it, this threatens to leave no pool of unactualisables other than contingent and formal ones of the kind that could make a pope out of a sultan and purely stochastic occurrences. The gap between “is” and “ought” is shrunk when social structures, patterns of thought and philosophy perpetuate and fetishise existing norms of civil society, thwarting a space for alternative outcomes. This was a criticism of Hegel by Marx, who introduced his own modal concept of “deactualisation” to suggest an undoing that could release alternative versions of what could develop. Marx rejected the relegation, to the point of invisibility, of what can be seen as lying in abeyance for a future reality. Adorno pursues this point, insisting that possibility is “present and sufficiently developed and does not need to be inflated into an abstract utopia”. If it is inflated, he continues, it invariably produces complaints about impracticality, youthful idealism or just wishful thinking.

The idea that blocked possibilities can be redeemed, preconditions recovered, does not mean there is a reservoir of failed opportunities waiting to be taken out of the archives. What appeared in graffiti on the streets of Paris in 1968 – “Be realistic, demand the impossible” ‑ relates more to the sense that dwelling on loss cheats us of what could or could not happen. When the student agitation spread to Germany, Adorno himself found it too uncomfortable for his liking and was unable to live up to his own theoretical insights. It is difficult to imagine the thinker who had so deeply influenced him, Walter Benjamin, responding so lukewarmly to the students’ demands and the last chapter of What Would Be Different – an engaging book throughout – looks at Benjamin’s quasi-theological perspective on possibility.

Informed by Marx, Benjamin recognised history as riven by class-fuelled contradictions and he found in its fissures a viable space for utopian hopes. In experience there is “the sign of a messianic arrest of happening”, experience there is “the sign of a messianic arrest of happening”, a “fight for the suppressed past” and a remembrance of what is yet to occur. Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” becomes a Hegelian dialectic built upon missed possibilities woven into the nature of history. Benjamin’s endlessly rereadable “On the Concept of History” provides a philosophical accompaniment to Gibson’s The Peripheral and Agency as the novels’ most likeable characters struggle to redeem what was possible but missed in the past. Benjamin’s question is felt by them and us: “Are we not touched by a breeze of the air that was around those who were there earlier?” It’s a way of saying that time is unfinished, the domain of the possible remains. Benjamin writes of a weak messianic force: there is “a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth.” The messianic force is a profane one and weak because it may not be realised but it endows us with the task of fulfilling the missed opportunities of the past, to do what was undone. In their own ways, it is what the women and men – not forgetting the fully autonomous AI, Eunice, that we come to love – endeavour to accomplish in Gibson’s latest trilogy. What went wrong the first time might be put right the second time but we will have to wait until the third novel appears to find out.

In the meantime, new catastrophes arise in our present timeline and these too will have to be faced.


Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).