By Ramiro Camelo

Based on a novel by William Gibson -the godfather of cyberpunk fiction- The Peripheral is an adaptation by the same producers of Westworld. In it we seem to inhabit a Matrix like universe with scenes not dissimilar of James Bond or a sequel of the Bourne films

For more than 30 years, Hollywood producers have been trying to successfully adapt William Gibson’s dystopian narratives.  Definitely, the first and most successful effort is the clearly underrated 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves, this was years before ‘The Matrix success’ directed by visual artist Robert Longo. A second attempt by Abel Ferrara, adapting New Rose Hotel in 1998 had some disastrous reviews and now is totally forgotten. With those poor precedents film-wise, perhaps the series format might offer a better chance to unpack Gibson’s cleverly constructed novels. To undertake this new effort of adapting a Gibson novel into a series, Amazon is gambling with Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, creators of the nowadays somewhat maligned HBO’s Westworld.  The book chosen is The Peripheral, published in 2014 and the first instalment of his most recent jackpot trilogy. It is a very dense novel, similarly to the rest of Gibson’s oeuvre, and considered unadaptable for so many reasons.  

This review is based on watching up to the half-point of the series, four episodes out of eight, therefore it contains no spoilers. At the time of the first public reading of the initial chapter of The Peripheral at the New York Public library, Gibson declared «It’s back to sci-fi. He’s set it in two different futures. One about 30 years from now and one ‘way the hell down the timeline’.» The series is divided into two storylines at play which runs parallel and get closer and closer from the very beginning. It is a sort of time travelling from flashbacks to flashforwards and vice-versa.

In the near present of 2033 we are in Clanton, a small town in North America, with the ambient set up under a washed-up colour palette. The main characters are the Fisher siblings, Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Burton’s (Jack Reynor). Their life is centred on caring for their blind mother addicted to an expensive painkiller Tamosene. Flynne struggles to make ends meet managing Forever Fab, a 3D printing workshop. Burton lives in a battered airstream parked outside the house. He spends his time drinking beers with his friends, all of whom served in the Marines together and have an intense bond further enhanced by sharing  “haptic implants” embedded in their skins which, as an elite unit in the US army, allowed them to sync up wirelessly to become a deadly team. Burton works as a Sim tester for game developers, and very soon we notice that Flynne is a gifted gamer. When her brother heads to another town to try to contain the protest of an religious extremist group Flynne is asked to do his work. She starts testing a new VR device that allows players to  “quantum tunneling” a very realistic time-traveling experience to teleport someone’s consciousness from the past into a fully functional avatar body, called a “peripheral”.

Flynne is periphered into 2099 to a dystopian, ultra futuristic, uber-glam London, where the most bizarre landmarks are giants Greek sculptures merged into skyscrapers. A city whose streets pavements look mirror polished and appears to be severely underpopulated due to a world cataclysm dubbed the “Jackpot.”  There, Wilf (Gary Carr), a P.I. working on behalf of wealthy dandyish Lev (JJ Feild), is desperately trying to track down his adopted sister, Aelita (Charlotte Riley). She has been lost in action while carrying high-stakes a corporate spying operation on his behalf, accompanied by Flynne in her peripheral self. The villains of this tale seem to be a group called the Research Institute, a sort of sovereign think-thank led by Dr Cherise  (T’Nia Miller) They are trying to study and control timelines to avoid a second jackpot happening again. The institute’s unorthodox methods are not always legal or painless, think of Agent Smith from ‘The matrix’ and you get the idea of what Dr Cherise is really like.      

The Peripheral has many of the sci-fi fixtures that Gibson had visited many times. Such as hightech robots, for example, Koids are fancy droid assistants with tessellated wireframes carrying different tasks as maids, chauffeurs or even the police.  Engineered humans enhanced with cyborgs components, Cooner is an amputee sidekick of Flynne and Burton who merges seamlessly with a mini-tractor. The haptics of Burtons and his veteran friends are cybernetics under skin implants developed by the US military intelligence as devices to increase combat communication.  And Gibson doesn’t forget people addicted to prescription drugs mostly build on demand, the black market of painkillers fuels the dirty money that maintains the rural economy. A science fiction but familiar scenario somewhat closer to 2022 than 2099.       

Clanton town is so grim and tiresome that London 2099 is the land of Oz where Flynne needs to escape into from time to time. As with many time-travelling narratives, at some point, you might not know where the different stories of The peripheral are leading to or if they are misleading you only to build up towards a pointless and bland final act. It is too early to know if the four remaining episodes will prove or dismiss my own gut feeling of a possible anticlimax and disappointment.  However, three hours after the pilot episode, one wonders if the McGuffin of an ultra-advanced VR set used to be ‘periphered’ into is perhaps the fictional future of video gaming using meta-realities and if its stub timelines will be able to hold our attention throughout the story. The alternative instead would be a series of gimmicky pieces like in a puzzle that once take out of the box we won’t be able to put back together. Well, the stakes with The Peripheral are high, after seeing how HBO’s Westworld by the third season had exploded into annoying shifting timelines and self-congratulatory story structures one can only wonder if The peripheral will suffer the same fate. We can only hope that Joy and Nolan won’t burn their ship twice. 

Ramiro Camelo is associated editor of Perro Negro. He is a contemporary art curator trained at The Royal College of Art. He is currently based in Helsinki.

Read on otherf contributions by Ramiro Camelo for Perro Negro: The Grumpiest Woman in New York, La biblioteca del futuro: escribiendo para lectores que aún no han nacido and The Best Sciencefiction Films of the Last 50 Years (in Spanish)