Fiction Science Club

‘The Peripheral’ brings sci-fi prophet’s vision up to date

The future may not be evenly distributed, but there’s a dystopia-inducing concentration of it in “The Peripheral,” a science-fiction novel by cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson.

Now the novel has been turned into a streaming-video series distributed on Amazon Prime Video, and it turns out that Gibson’s future is more like the present than it was when the book was published in 2014.

“We initiated our writers’ room three weeks before the pandemic hit and the country shut down,” series producer/writer Scott B. Smith recalls. “There’s something called ‘the Jackpot’ in the story, which involves a kind of multi-vector apocalypse. And we felt like we were watching that happening in real time.”

Smith discusses how his team created the screen version of “The Peripheral” — and how Gibson’s world of the future squares with the challenges of the present — in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Gibson has been at the forefront of cyberpunk fiction for 40 years. One of his early short stories, titled “Burning Chrome,” marked the first sci-fi reference to cyberspace. In 1984, he expanded upon the cyberspace theme in his first novel, “Neuromancer.” That book also used the word “microsoft” to refer to brain implants, not all that long after the better-known Microsoft was founded.

The most famous quote attributed to Gibson has to do with the interplay between the trends of today and the truths of tomorrow: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” It’s an aphorism that ranks up there with the wisdom of Arthur C. Clarke (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”). And as is the case for most aphorisms, its origins are murky.

Gibson has continued in his role as an edgy sci-fi prophet for decades, inspiring movies including “Johnny Mnemonic” (based on another short story of his) and “The Matrix.”

“The Peripheral” and its more recently published sequel / prequel, “Agency,” are part of Gibson’s Jackpot Trilogy, which is centered around an apocalypse that unfolds in slow motion during the mid-21st century. The Jackpot rolls up all the ills of modern society — including climate catastrophes, pandemics, dwindling resources, civil conflicts and AI-assisted corruption.

The main characters in the book, and in the Prime Video series, are a sister and brother getting by in rural America. To make ends meet, they take on virtual-reality simulation jobs — but when the sister (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) takes over for her brother (Jack Reynor) in a high-end sim, she gets swept up in a timeline-bending run for her life.

I couldn’t help noticing that the technological twists and the tone of “The Peripheral” echoed the feel of another sci-fi series, HBO’s “Westworld.” That shouldn’t be surprising, in light of the fact that “Westworld” co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are also executive producers for “The Peripheral.” But the parallels presented Smith and his writing team with a tricky challenge.

“Honestly, as we were generating story points in the writers’ room, there were times where we would suddenly have to be, like, ‘Wait, no, no, no, we can’t do that. That’s Westworld, season two,'” he told me. “There’s just a certain pull, given the subject matter, to solving certain narrative problems in ways that they had already.”

The challenge was doubly tricky for Smith, a novelist and screenwriter who picked up an Oscar nomination in 1999 for the screenplay adapted from his crime thriller, “A Simple Plan.” Smith had never been involved in a science-fiction project like “The Peripheral” before.

“Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan’s company sent me the book,” he said. “They suggested that I first read the Wikipedia entry, because I think they feared my ability to drop into it.”

Fortunately, Smith could turn to Gibson himself for advice. “He’s been incredibly generous and supportive,” Smith said.

At the age of 74, Gibson isn’t the kind of person who does a lot of press interviews. Instead, he’s working on the third book in the Jackpot Trilogy at his home in Vancouver, B.C. When I asked a Prime Video publicist whether other journalists had been talking with the author, she pointed to a 2019 profile in The New Yorker.

But Gibson stays engaged with the public via his Twitter account, @greatdismal, and he’s tweeted his thumbs-up for Smith’s adaptation. Smith said that positive review came as a “heart-stopping” relief.

William Gibson, at left; and Scott B. Smith, at right. (Gibson Photo by Michael O’Shea; Smith Photo via Zoom)

So what are Smith’s favorite technological twists in the series? He said a lot of work was put into developing the back story for the giant statues that are visible in scenes of London in 2099. In Gibson’s fictional universe, those statues are part of an air-scrubbing system. “They’re the solidified carbon that’s being pulled from the air and being constructed into these beautiful classical structures,” Smith said.

And although Amazon’s Alexa AI agent doesn’t get a product placement in “The Peripheral,” Smith noted wryly that a Roomba-style floor cleaner makes an appearance. That tech twist was part of the script long before Amazon acquired iRobot, Roomba’s manufacturer.

There’s at least one other Gibsonian technology that Smith wishes he could have written into the script: robotic Lego-style building blocks that can crawl up onto a table and assemble themselves. “That would be so fun, but it would be so much money to do that for something that’s just happening in the background,” Smith said wistfully.

Smith’s version of Gibson’s “Peripheral” may be packed with high-tech gadgetry and video-game action, but he hopes the show gets viewers thinking about the deeper implications of technology as well.

“One of the things we talked about is empathy — how empathy can be enabled through tech, or inhibited,” he said during our Zoom conversation. “How do people remain real to each other where there is this divide? Even you and I, we’re Zooming as opposed to sitting across from each other. How does that affect our interaction?

Cyberspace can be a double-edged virtual sword, and maybe that’s the message that “The Peripheral” is sending us from a sci-fi future. “I think that there’s a way in which the technology can be disinhibiting,” Smith said. “But it can also be like a drone feed or something. It can be a way to dehumanize someone.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

Smith isn’t a huge science-fiction fan, but he did tune into “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers” while he worked on “The Peripheral.”

Damon Lindelof was the co-creator of both of those HBO series.

"The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta. (
“The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta. (St. Martin’s Griffin)

“I’m such a fan of his, and of the ability to tell these stories that are fueled by genre but have these quirky, odd characters — and give the space to those characters,” Smith said. “That’s definitely been an influence on me as I wrote ‘The Peripheral.'”

We’ve already listed the “Watchmen” graphic novel as a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop. But “The Leftovers,” the sci-fi novel that was written by Tom Perrotta and adapted for the HBO series, merits inclusion on the CLUB Club reading list as well.

Read the book, then watch the series? Or watch the series, then read the book? When it comes to “The Peripheral,” William Gibson recommends the latter course.

“I think you’ll almost certainly find the Amazon Prime series somewhat easier to grasp, more linear,” Gibson advised on Twitter. “Then you can try reading the book and seeing how it differs from the series.”

Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of “The Peripheral” premieres on Oct. 21, with fresh episodes rolling out every Friday through Dec. 9.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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