Rural gamers upload the crappy future in Amazon sci-fi thriller
William Gibson watches the manifestation of his own sci-fi novel, The Peripheral, on a secure site he must log into through his iPad. He says he’s only on episode two, which means, for once, his fans are ahead of him in the timeline. Amazon adapted the novel with the talents of novelist Scott Smith (A Simple Plan, The Ruins) , Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld) and visionary director Vincenzo Natali. The result is the kind of direct page-to-image interface Gibson might have conjured in one of his novels.
Gibson hasn’t fared well in screen adaptations. Johnny Mnemonic, which Gibson worked on with director/artist Robert Longo was supposed to be a weird art house film, but Keanu Reeves’ Speed fame hit during filming and Sony stepped in and botched the production. Abel Ferrara adapted Gibson’s ‘New Rose Hotel’ short story, but he ran out of money before he finished the film and spliced old footage into a sketchy flashback to finish the movie. Any fan of his work couldn’t help but be pessimistic about this new show.
But The Peripheral achieves the seemingly impossible: they’ve taken the image Gibson’s prose paints in the minds of his readers and made it live and breathe on screen. But the whiz bang gizmos of Gibson’s fiction are only part of the show’s appeal. The humanity he brings to the sometimes cold world of the sci-fi genre is another pleasure, and this is where the show also fires on all cylinders.
Our hero is Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl living in rural Clanton County in the Blue Ridge mountains in the year 2030. She plays games for rich people in a plausibly downbeat near-future to level these rich folk. He ex-Marine brother Burton does the same. The two use the funds gained playing simulations to pay for their mother’s impossibly expensive medication. Unlike most depictions of the South these days, the characters here are smart and anything but provincial, and very capable of outmaneuvering the characters in The Peripheral’s second future, 2099 London.
That London is bereft of the crowds we know today, having gone through, along with the rest of the world, a life-altering event called the Jackpot. The Jackpot took 80 of the human population over four decades of climate wars, pandemics, and ecological collapse. In this London, three powers (one has yet to appear) vie for control. One is known as the ”klept,” a Russian oligarchy that runs much of the city. Against them are arrayed the London Metropolitan Police (who’ve become draconian) and the mysterious Research Institute, a firm interested in connecting to alternate pasts called “stubs”. Here I’ll indulge in a bit of an infodump which the show, miraculously for Hollywood, usually avoids.
The method of “time travel” is actually data transfer. Flynne uses a special headset to project her consciousness into an artificial body, the titular Peripheral, in 2099. Peripherals are used for all sorts of things in that future. But this is not Flynne’s future. Any time the future contacts the past, the timeline bifurcates. Essentially, Flynne’s world is a spinoff timeline of the London future she visits. They term these spinoffs “stubs,” as they are the budding branches of new timelines. If Flynne’s world follows the trends that created the dsytopic 2099, her world also ends in the “Jackpot.” A missing character named Aelita, around whom the plot revolves, appears intent on making sure Flynne’s world has a better 2099 than hers.
The show, like the book, uses a thriller frame and sci-fi tropes to tell what is largely a cautionary tale of our own present. The people in the show who serve as villains aren’t terribly different from our own oligarchs. Survivors get the consolation prize of living in thrall to some super-elite person or organization. But we have many cautionary tales in our fiction. This show is more than that, driven by its characters and their imagined futures. The heart of the show if Flynne’s rural, nowhere life, where she’s just eking by, living day-to-day and trying to take care of her dying mother and her brother Burton, who has PTSD and leftover implants called “haptics” that cause him immense pain. It’s a life going nowhere.
But when the future comes calling, they offer a cure for her mother’s disease, something Flynne can’t pass up. Yet the more she travels to the future with the headset, the more strange symptoms she herself begins to experience. And her actions there have caused the massive Research Institute to target her and her family for elimination by hired mercenaries. Fortunately, Burton and his fellow ex-Marine unit were special operators and prove more than enough to kill the mercs. But then they have nine bodies to dispose of in the back yard while the County Deputy, whom Flynne has possibly unrequited feelings for, pokes his nose into the mess.
There’s more to it, but unpacking the show here takes away from the experience. And it is an experience. The show throws the audience into deep science-fiction territory with little explanation of terms and content. It does one of the rarest things in Hollywood today: it credits the viewer with intelligence. The Peripheral show, like the book, is remarkably subtle in presentation (aside from some mustache-twirling villain moments). While the future tech, superlative production design, and general sci-fi-ness of the show are there to grab you, the show isn’t about some future world of space wizards and their empires. It’s immediately relatable in a way sci-fi rarely is. It’s about a smart girl in a nowhere, no-chance rural town trying to squeak by in a crapsack America worsening by the day. That girl finds a possible way out. Wouldn’t we all want to escape such a place too?