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The Peripheral review: a piercing novel becomes generic sci-fi

Of all William Gibson’s books – most of which are considered unadaptable for so many reasons – The Peripheral is arguably the most well-suited to the screen as a series. On its face, the 2014 novel comes ready to go with a compelling tale-of-two-worlds premise: rural, small-town America meets a post-apocalyptic, nanotech-fueled London that follows the god-given European tradition of seeking to colonize anything with a profitable heartbeat. It’s got ordinary people getting mixed up in powerful secrets, recognizable near-future technology, and a trademark barrage of Gibsononian terminology – klepts, polts, neoprims – that you pick up along the way from context and extrapolation. The book is considered one of Gibson’s more accessible and engaging works; sure, some of it hasn’t “held up” well over the years, but (and this is a hill I will die on) cyberpunk and its offshoots aren’t genres meant to age like fine wines.

This review contains light spoilers for Amazon’s adaptation of The Peripheral.

Amazon Studios’ take on The Peripheral goes something like this: in the near-ish future, Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) is an average girl in a small town (probably in the Carolinas somewhere) who also happens to be pretty damn good at gaming. She and her brother di lei, Burton (Jack Reynor), take freelance VR gaming jobs playing for rich people. Burton is an ex-Marine from an elite Haptics unit, a squad of his hometown friends who were all recruited together to exploit their ready-made sense of camaraderie. Their mother (Melinda Page Hamilton) is sick and blind, and Flynne, who works at a 3D printing shop, keeps things running while Burton and his friends di lui drink beer and play with drones. Flynne’s world is a dramatized extension of present-day American capitalism, complete with predatory medical care, corporate infrastructure in rural areas where everyone relies on HeftyMart, and omnipresent drug manufacturers (“builders” in the book) in an age where anyone can print anything .

Flynne ends up taking a job playing a new experimental sim set in London that requires wearing a mysterious headset. She realizes a little too late that something feels off, and she sees things that she shouldn’t be seeing. She meets Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr), a contact for the shady Columbian company Milagros Coldiron that supposedly hired her for her gaming skills, and Aelita West (Charlotte Riley), a mystery woman with an ax to grind. When Flynne gets back to the real world, she discovers there’s a bounty put out on her family di lei as a result of getting involved with this so-called game. As the characters scramble to gain a foothold in both worlds, it becomes clear that she hasn’t been playing a sim – it’s actually a version of the future (I would ordinarily not have chosen to put this so explicitly in a review, but marketing for the show straight-up gave away the reveal on social media).

As with all adaptations, The Peripheral comes with changes; unfortunately, in this case, they’re to the detriment of the story. In the book, Gibson does a great job exploring celebrity and power and the delicate work of managing optics in a post-social media world – the complex art of seeing, watching, being seen, and being watched. He goes all in on the trends and cultural crutches we use to prop up our withered attention spans, and to this end, the book is packed with some truly awesome trainwrecks, like self-absorbed artists doing poorly thought-out stunts in spectacularly bad scenarios . The show keeps none of that. Wilf, originally a charming alcoholic mess of a publicist, gets downgraded to a generic fixer character who just sort of exists on the periphery of the rich and powerful. Several key characters get absorbed and combined into one. Flynne, deliberately a reticent, voyeuristic character in the book to underscore the larger themes at play, becomes a much more conventional, proactive heroine on screen, which makes sense if you’re playing to Westworld fans tuning into to see a new Dolores type making her way toward self-empowerment.

And then there’s London. In the fourth episode, Wilf reveals that an apocalypse-like series of events called The Jackpot – a domino effect of climate change, multiple pandemics, and thirty-two flavors of disaster – has decimated the future, so all the people that Flynne has been “Seeing” on London’s streets are just technological placebos to ease the misery of Wilf’s empty reality. In the book, London is described as pretty much… London, except with the presence of structures called “shards.” In the show, we get colossal, overgrown, tacky Greco-Roman statuary dotting the city, surrounded by blocky clouds of what I can only imagine are the Assemblers (fictional nanotech being used to rebuild post-Jackpot society). It feels like a leftover mood board idea from Westworld like a crude afterthought tacked on to emphasize the idea that narcissists and oligarchs run the city.

Gary Carr and Chloe Grace Moretz in The Peripheral.

a:hover]:text-black [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black text-gray-63″>Image: Sophie Mutevelian / Prime Video

It is truly difficult to escape the Westworld comparisons while watching The Peripheral – with the flat-affect monologues and serene androids, it’s more of an extension of Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s world than a heartfelt adaptation of Gibson’s. This particular vision of The Peripheral has chosen, for some reason, to nuke the book’s most incisive social and cultural features and replace it with a tepid extension of the Westworld formula to presenting artificial life: a shallow, 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’s a spoiler) is that Fishers’ world is simply one “stub” of many – a past history that branched off from reality when “Continua 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, cutting-edge artificial bodies that basically act as telepresence robots) like rigging the lottery or setting up a fake shell company to run a fake game. In the end, though, it gets flattened into a rote story about Flynn and Burton “leveling the playing field” and getting what’s theirs.

Book-Flynne’s original jaunt into London was as a security drone operator, where she gets to watch a very fancy party as an outsider who isn’t supposed to be there. There’s a fantastic Rear Window voyeur quality to the original incident that would have been dynamite to play out on screen. But instead, it’s translated into a basic Hollywood action sequence. Even the omnipresent Michikoids – ceramic robots that can morph into killing machines with unnerving spider-like eyes – feel like Westworld leftovers. “This ain’t just another sim,” I watch one character repeat after another as I reach for The Peripheral novel to remind myself that a better world exists.

JJ Feild in The Peripheral.

a:hover]:text-black [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black text-gray-63″>Image: Sophie Mutevelian / Prime Video

It’s not all bad, though. There are some truly entertaining moments in later episodes involving Flynne’s bestie Billy Ann (Adelind Horan) and an acerbic ex-hitman named Bob (Ned Dennehy) who gets 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 under-utilized in the show. The smarmy Russian Lev (JJ Feild), Wilf’s klept “friend,” exudes all the charm and confidence that should have rightly gone to Wilf. There’s also a brief moment when a body-mod specialist mentions the possibility of giving a client retractable titanium razor claws, which is a fun Easter egg for Gibson enthusiasts who yearn for a Neuromancer adaptation. Unfortunately, when Ash (Katie Leung) finally says what nobody wants to say – that Flynne’s “stub” of altered history is simply another form of colonialism where the rich and powerful of the future can act as imperialists – it feels much too late to throw that in as a hook.

On the merits and methodology of evaluating book-to-screen adaptations, Sean T. Collins said it best in his review of the Rings of Power finale – that change is value neutral, and there shouldn’t be moral judgments levied on adaptations. Instead, says Collins, we should examine whether the new adaptation has elevated or improved upon the source material and whether this new visual version of the story has generally upheld the source material’s tones and themes. The first six episodes of The Peripheral have felt, at best, like a poor misunderstanding and handling of the source material where all the character and flavor have been strained out in favor of a much more familiar, easy action romp. The novel is a testament to Gibson’s strength di lui as a keen observer of trends and linguistics and the way he can spin the future into sharp, clever setpieces 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 21st.

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