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The Peripheral is debuting on Amazon’s Prime Video tomorrow as yet another way to understand the implications of the metaverse.
The television series is based on The Peripheral, a novel by William Gibson, who — before Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in 1992 with Snow Crash — gave us the term “cyberspace” in his short story “Burning Chrome” (1982) and his first novel Neuromancer (1984).
Why is this important? Well, science fiction, tech, and games are all converging. Things we thought were sci-fi are becoming real. And this topic is one of those we’ll discuss with Stephenson himself at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit Next 2022 event in San Francisco on October 25-26.
This show is yet another that lights the way to the metaverse. While the plot may be mysterious and complicated, it mirrors Stranger Things as well as Marvel’s efforts to explain the “multiverse” to us with The Avenger series and Dr. Strange movies. Audiences familiar with those works today should be able to grasp the kind of story we have here. And it’s no surprise that The Peripheral‘s executive producers are Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, the creators of Westworld, which has its own complicated timelines.
This is good for the world because we need more nerds — people thinking deeply about the world and the implications of technology for humanity. Science fiction is a way to make complex ideas more interesting to digest. And with the pandemic, we have more reason to think deeply and figure out hard problems.
Is it good?
I hope it will be a good show. Is it a good show? I’ve seen a couple of episodes in advance, and I think it’s well done. It gives you a visual flavor for the technology and the environment around it, and those visual elements are pretty well done. The setting is mixed between London and the mountains of Appalachia. Like Westworld, it’s grounded in familiar real-world places, with only occasional intrusions of the future into the real-world environment.
For the audience, this kind of show is challenging. It’s a lot like Westworld, where the audience has
to figure out what’s going in a complicated timeline. And it’s no surprise, as the executive producers are
Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. They trust the audience to catch on and figure out what’s happening. One of the creators said it’s not unlike a video game in that way.
Gibson’s The Peripheral debuted in 2014 with new ideas around immersive VR, which makes you feel like you’ve been transported to another place and even another person’s body. I happened to read the book recently in a science fiction book club.
The book is set in 2032, in an age where it’s possible to move from one version of time to another. It’s not just a kind of time travel. But it’s a point in time where you can move backward, change the events of the past, and create two or more different branches of time. One might go on to become reality, and the other might disappear as a truncated “stub” of time. Gibson’s concept of the stub is so easy to understand. If you find yourself at the fork in the road, you don’t want to be on the stub.
In the novel, Gibson just drops you into this situation and you have to figure it out. It depicts the lifestyle of some poor people in the future: Flynne Fisher (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), her Marine veteran brother, Burton (Jack Reynor) and their dying mother live in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2032.
As their mother’s health deteriorates and the medical bills add up, Flynne and Burton make extra money playing simulations (Sims). The two siblings share Burton’s avatar, “jockeying” for high-paying customers to beat challenging game levels. When Burton is offered a chance to beta test a new Sim, it’s Flynne who ends up playing, pretending to be her brother. She’s the gamer, and her head really spins around when she goes into VR in this special Sim.
The Sim takes place in London and it tasks Flynne with breaking into a corporation known as the Research Institute — to steal a valuable secret. When the assignment goes badly wrong, Flynne begins to realize the Sim is more real than she thinks. And she’s just a pawn in a multi-timeline intrigue.
They start to catch on to the larger forces at work when someone puts a contract on the heads of Burton and Flynne. The mercenaries of the future converge on the heroes, who get a warning that some people think they’re important enough to warrant hitman’s contract. They almost dismiss the warning, but Burton, the former Marine, has the presence of mind to ask his campfire buddy to put a drone in the air.
They spot the mercenaries and a futuristic, drone-driven firefight ensues between the Marine crew and the hitmen. This scene is gripping and full of action, in contrast to its minimal description in the book. Of course, it’s TV and it needs a lot of action. But it was the right decision in departing from the book’s narrative. Gibson isn’t the best at writing action scenes, but the book’s ideas still come across, even if Flynne has martial arts skills in the show and not in the book.
I think this series will live or die based on how well it imports the ideas from the novel. But one of the good things is that it’s not all dystopian. It’s a mix of the good and bad of technology, and we get to wonder which ones we like or don’t like. If you’re done with The Rings of Power, this would be a good next show to get into.
The Peripheral is produced by Amazon Studios and Warner Bros. Television, in association with Kilter Films. The other executive producers for The Peripheral are creator and showrunner Scott B. Smith (A Simple Plan), director Vincenzo Natali (In the Tall Grass), Greg Plageman (Person of Interest), Athena Wickham (Westworld), and Steven Hoban (In the Tall Grass).
Gibson is also the author of Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History, Distrust That Particular Flavor and Agency. The latter is set in the same universe as The Peripheral.
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