Of all William Gibson’s books – most of which are considered unadaptable for many reasons – The Peripheral is arguably best suited to the screen as a series. At first glance, the 2014 novel comes ready to launch with a compelling tale of two worlds premise: small-town rural America meets a nanotechnology-fueled postapocalyptic London that follows the God-given European tradition of seeking to colonize. anything with a profitable heartbeat. It’s got ordinary people mixing in powerful secrets, recognizable near-future technology, and a barrage of trademark Gibsonian terminology – klepts, polts, neoprims – that you pick up along the way of context and extrapolation. The book is considered one of Gibson’s most accessible and engaging works; to be sure, some of them haven’t “held” well over the years, but (and this is a hill I’ll die on) cyberpunk and its offshoots aren’t genres destined to age like fine wines.
This review contains mild spoilers for Amazon’s adaptation of The Peripheral.
The Amazon Studios Vision The Peripheral It goes something like this: in the near future, Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) is an ordinary girl in a small town (probably in the Carolinas somewhere) who is also very good at gaming. She and her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) take freelance jobs playing VR games for rich people. Burton is a former Marine in an elite Haptics unit, a squad of friends from his hometown who were all recruited together to exploit their sense of camaraderie out of the box. Their mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) is sick and blind, and Flynne, who works at a 3D printing shop, keeps things going while Burton and his friends drink beer and play with drones. Flynne’s world is a dramatized extension of current American capitalism, complete with predatory healthcare, corporate infrastructure in rural areas where everyone trusts HeftyMart, and ubiquitous drug makers (“builders” in the book) in an age when anyone can print. anything .
Flynne ends up taking a job playing a new experimental simulator set in London that requires the use of a mysterious headset. She realizes a little too late that something seems wrong, and she sees things she shouldn’t be seeing. She meets Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr), a contact for the obscure Colombian company Milagros Coldiron who allegedly hired her for her gambling skills, and Aelita West (Charlotte Riley), a mysterious woman with an ax to grind. When Flynne returns to the real world, she discovers that there is a reward for her family as a result of getting involved in this so-called game. As the characters struggle to gain a foothold in both worlds, it’s clear that she’s not playing a sim – it’s actually a version of the future (normally I wouldn’t have chosen to put this so explicitly in a review, but marketing for the show direct gave the reveal on social media).
As with all adaptations, The Peripheral comes with changes; unfortunately, in this case, they are to the detriment of history. In the book, Gibson does a great job of exploring celebrity and the power and delicate work of managing optics in a post-social media world – the complex art of seeing, watching, being seen, and being watched. He delves into the cultural trends and crutches we use to sustain our withered attention, and to that end, the book is filled with some truly impressive shipwrecks, like self-absorbed performers performing ill-thought-out stunts in spectacularly bad settings. . The series has none of that. Wilf, originally a charming alcoholic advertising man, is demoted to a generic character who sort of exists on the fringes of the rich and powerful. Several key characters are absorbed and combined into one. Flynne, deliberately a voyeuristic and reticent character in the book to emphasize the larger themes at play, becomes a much more conventional and proactive heroine on screen, which makes sense if you’re playing for Westworld fans tuning in to see a new kind of Dolores moving towards self-empowerment.
And then there’s London. In the fourth episode, Wilf reveals that a series of apocalypse-like events called The Jackpot – a domino effect of climate change, multiple pandemics, and thirty-two types of disasters – has decimated the future, so every person Flynne “sees” on the streets of London are just technological placebos to alleviate the misery of Wilf’s empty reality. In the book, London is described as practically… London, except for the presence of structures called “shards”. In the show, we have colossal, overgrown, tacky Greco-Roman statues dotting the city, surrounded by cloud-like blocks of what I can imagine being the Assemblers (fictional nanotechnology being used to rebuild post-Jackpot society). Looks like a leftover mood board idea Westworld as a crude reflection put forward to emphasize the idea that narcissists and oligarchs run the city.
It’s really hard to escape Westworld comparisons while watching The Peripheral — with the flat-effect monologues and serene droids, it’s more of an extension of the Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy than a heartfelt adaptation of Gibson. This particular view of The Peripheral chose, for some reason, to destroy the more incisive social and cultural characteristics of the book and replace it with a lukewarm extension of the book. Westworld formula for presenting artificial life: a superficial and cosmetic exploration of lifeless dolls onto which we can project our hopes, dreams and desires. It’s clear that London is a power fantasy for Flynne, Burton, and their friend Conner (Eli Goree), a triple amputee who is determined to find a way to live in the future in a peripheral body. But it’s a fantasy without the bite or weirdness or idiosyncrasies that made the source material so engaging to begin with. It’s also a show that can’t handle the way Gibson writes relationships – not romantic ones, but ambiguous, awkward, pleasantly tense friendships – so, of course, they make the main characters kiss.
The meatiest part of the story (here is a spoiler) is that Fisher’s world is simply a “stump” of many – a past history that branched off from reality when “continuum enthusiasts” in the future found a way to exchange data with the past. It’s not time travel, but a way to influence things from afar (hence the peripherals, high-end artificial bodies that basically act as telepresence robots) like rigging the lottery or creating a fake shell company to run a fake game. In the end, though, it all turns into a repetitive story about Flynn and Burton “balancing the playing field” and getting what’s theirs.
Book-Flynne’s original trip to London was as a security drone operator, where she can attend a very fancy party as a stranger who shouldn’t be there. There is a fantastic rear window voyeur quality to the original incident that would have been dynamite to be displayed on screen. But instead it translates into a basic Hollywood action sequence. Even the ubiquitous Michikoids – ceramic robots that can transform into unnerving spider-eyed killing machines – seem Westworld leftovers. “This isn’t just another yes,” I see one character repeat after another as I reach out. The Peripheral romance to remind me that there is a better world.
It’s not all bad, however. There are some truly amusing moments in later episodes involving Flynne’s best friend Billy Ann (Adelind Horan) and a scathing ex-assassin named Bob (Ned Dennehy) who is hired to kill the Fishers. The scenes with Bob are a breath of fresh air, and I love how Alexandra Billings plays Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, one of the strongest characters in the book who is woefully underused in the series. Russian sycophant Lev (JJ Feild), Wilf’s “friend”, exudes all the charm and confidence that should have gone to Wilf. There’s also a brief moment where a body modification expert mentions the possibility of giving a customer retractable titanium razor claws, which is a fun Easter egg for Gibson enthusiasts who crave one. neuromancer adaptation. Unfortunately, when Ash (Katie Leung) finally says what no one wants to say – that Flynne’s altered history “stump” is simply another form of colonialism where the rich and powerful of the future can act like imperialists – it seems too late to play that game. on like a hook.
On the merits and methodology of evaluating book-to-screen adaptations, Sean T. Collins said this best in his review of the Rings of Power finale – that the change is value-neutral and there should be no moral judgments imposed on the adaptations. Instead, says Collins, we should examine whether the new adaptation elevated or improved upon the source material, and whether this new visual version of the story generally maintained the tones and themes of the source material. The first six episodes of the peripheryIt felt at best like a misunderstanding and handling of the source material, where all the character and flavor was forced in favor of a much more familiar and easy action romp. The novel is testament to Gibson’s strengths as a keen observer of trends and linguistics and the way he can turn the future into sharp, intelligent pieces that we can recognize without feeling too alienated.
I can’t help but feel that this was a wasted opportunity to bring to life a world that resonates so well with our current media landscape – a world begging for an adaptation that understands why we watch what we watch and do what we do.
The Peripheral is streaming on Amazon Prime Video on October 21.