‘The Peripheral’ Is a Show About How Much the Future Sucks
William Gibson’s thrilling, grimly-detailed novels have made him a titan within science fiction, but the uncanny prescience of his stories have also made him a major figure in the wider world—the secret source code for everything from your iPhone to your favorite jacket. Since the early 1980s, he’s imagined the over-connected future we’re living in, or at least hurtling towards, and influenced countless books and movies while doing it. As Zach Baron put it when profiling him for GQ in 2014, ahead of the release of his novel The Peripheral, “His work has permeated the culture to the point that even he can’t tell what’s his and what isn’t.”
In spite of his influence, Gibson has had less success getting his own work on screen, with the exception of the 1995 Keanu Reeves–led boondoggle Johnny Mnemonic, based on the story of the same name. This is not for lack of trying: Gibson spent some largely unfruitful years working for Hollywood, and while his script for Alien 3 was never turned into a move, it has become so widely circulated as dweeb samizdat that it’s been both legitimately published and turned into a novel by another writer.
The drought is now over: The Peripheral has been adapted into an 8-episode series, and the first two are streaming today on Amazon Prime. The adaptation is maybe not a great TV show, but it’s deeply of a piece with Gibson’s vision of a pretty crummy future. And the fact that the show was shaped by many of the forces he’s long explored in his work makes for pretty fascinating viewing.
A big sticking point when it comes to screen adaptations has been that Gibson’s imagination seems genuinely difficult to film. His stories tend to feature futuristic leaps that make perfect sense when you’re in the grips of his writing, but might not translate on-screen: two characters sharing consciousness, intentionally confusing interactions with sentient computer programs, rapid trips through radically transformed cities and gleaming space stations. It’s not hard to imagine some studio suit getting light-headed at the thought of the CGI budget alone.
But now that Denis Villeneuve has conquered Dune, perhaps the old rules of science fiction adaptation no longer apply. And so for lots of people with a collection of creased mass-market science fiction paperbacks lining their childhood bedrooms, it is genuinely thrilling to see someone even take a swing at adapting a William Gibson story. For the rest of you: minor spoilers for The Peripheral follow.
In the declining southern hinterlands of the near-future United States, Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) is earning real money playing an immersive virtual-reality video game in place of her brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), a Marine veteran who has had his body turned into a weapon by the Corps in some past war. When instructions to jack into a new kind of VR arrive from a mysterious Colombian company, Flynne finds herself transported not into another game, but the London of the far-off future, where she pilots a human-like “peripheral” and warily teams up with hard-drinking Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr) to find a missing woman and defend her friends and family from the people suddenly out for blood in her own timeline. Imagine a combination of the human-imitation moral dilemmas at the center of Blade Runner with the bong-rip time travel of Tenet and you’ve got a good idea of the immediate appeal.
But even if you’re not particularly into science fiction—if you’re simply in the market for a new show to stream—there’s plenty to be excited about in The Peripheral. An unfortunate defining pattern of our current era of television has been the way that shows like Game of Thrones create a compelling world, run out of plot roadmap even as they get more popular, and eventually collapse into a heap of dropped plot threads. (The poster child for a promising show slowly undermined by the creeping feeling that none of this will ultimately add up to anything is Westworld, which happens to share two producers with The Peripheral.) Gibson’s novels, on the other hand, almost universally build towards a hack, heist, or other climactic set piece—a satisfying reward for learning the rules of the strange future you’ve found yourself in. Unlike a lot of people making TV right now, Gibson has a proven track record of crafting mind-bending premises that actually add up to something.
That “something” tends to be a quietly white-hot critique of our current financial and technological superstructure. And if you go back and read some of his books, there is unsurprisingly a lot that feels eerily relevant to the current state of mass culture. The archetypal Gibson protagonist is a freelancer swept along on a tidal wave of morally ambiguous money and power, which is probably how it feels to make TV right now. On page two of his first novel, Neuromancer, he alludes to a world where not getting plastic surgery makes you strange, “an age of affordable beauty” that neatly prefigures our current era of the nearly-universal veneers, cosmetic injectables, and inexpensive hair transplants that have subtly changed the way our famous people look on screen.
This ambivalence would add a funny flavor to any streaming adaptation of The Peripheral, but it’s particularly ironic that it’s playing on Amazon. There’s a grim recurring joke in the source novel about how the only place to buy things in the future is a single everything-store conglomerate. And an antagonist of Neuromancer is an unfathomably powerful corporate family that has escaped earth’s gravity to a private orbital villa and extended their lives with genetic engineering and cryogenic freezing. If that doesn’t make you immediately think of Jeff Bezos, who is steadily adding muscle by God only knows what means, rumored to be backing shadowy anti-aging startups, and leading ego-forward expeditions into outer space, you’ve got to admit it at least rhymes.
This context bleeds straight into the disappointments of the on-screen product. The costumes are a particular sore spot, given that Gibson is perhaps the author most attuned to street fashion in contemporary literature. His 2001 novel Pattern Recognition is your favorite stylist’s favorite thriller, so it’s a little bleak that, watching the show, the only thing you can say about the clothes in London in the year 2100 is that it appears that Shein is still in business. But that generic feeling permeates the entire enterprise: the actors seem too blandly handsome for a drug-fueled dystopia. The lighting is oddly even. Exposition is handled through clunky flashbacks and POV shots. It looks and feels, in other words, a lot like just about every other streaming show in our current oversaturated era of maximum prestige TV. (As Vice asked: “Why Does Everything On Netflix Look Like That?”)
There are hard business reasons for this. As Max Read put it in a Substack essay about this phenomenon earlier this year, most “public, integrated multinational conglomerates…prize consistent returns—whether from multi-season television shows, or established and wholly owned I.P.—over any particular kind of innovation, creativity, or daring.” Overworked non-union CGI artists aren’t doing their best work. Studios don’t want to pay for dialogue that you can actually understand. Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney was unfairly dogpiled for pointing this out, but even actors are feeling squeezed. The economics of maximum streaming have changed the way movies and TV are made, and usually not for the better for anyone creative.
Predicting the future isn’t a parlor trick for Gibson: it flows naturally from creating believable literary worlds. Inhabiting those is entertaining, but much of the pleasure of reading one of his books comes from the way they demand you to look at your own reality from a different temporal perspective. (Re-reading the source novel The Peripheral last week, a tossed-off description of government-issued hand sanitizer left over from some unnamed disaster sure made me sit up straight!)
A similar thing happens watching the deeply compelling but disappointing adaptation. The key event of the story is a semi-apocalypse called the “jackpot,” which sounds more or less like if the next forty years go very badly but not unexpectedly wrong. And so streaming The Peripheral on Amazon at a time of ecological collapse, nuclear saber rattling, and the creeping sense that money is sucking the life out of art will certainly get you thinking about how terrifying and disappointing our future is. The show might not be a perfect adaptation of Gibson’s book, but because the show’s problems are so symptomatic of larger issues, in a funny way it is perfectly true to his vision.
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