‘The Peripheral’: the sci-fi series everyone’s talking about

‘The Peripheral’: the sci-fi series everyone’s talking about | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 24 October 2022   By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media
Four decades have passed since William Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in the short story Burning Chrome (1982) – a full seven years, please note, before Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and more than 20 before high-speed broadband became widely available.  

The word went on to be popularised globally by the founding text of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre, Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer (1984), which has sold seven million copies and is the only book to have won the Nebula, Philip K. Dick and Hugo Awards.

In this classic of high-tech adventure, full of hackers, hustlers, ninjas, AI entities, mercenaries, and corporate warriors – much of it set in the Japanese underworld – the author defined cyberspace as ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data’.

But here’s the thing. Having come up with a word that so well described the way in which information technology was about to transform the world, Gibson has long since relegated it to the category of ‘heritage’ terminology.  

As he put it in 2002, the partition between what we call ‘real life’ and what he had previously called ‘cyberspace’ is now so blurred as to be meaningless. In practice, we had already become cyborgs, flesh-and-blood beings completely integrated with an automated network of unfathomable potential: ‘We tend not to see it because we are it, and because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that “physical” has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen... are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that child’s optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit, here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked nervous systems. Invisible. We cannot touch it. We are it.’

This is one of the principal philosophical premises underpinning his 2014 novel The Peripheral (and its 2020 sequel Agency), which has now been compellingly dramatised in an eight-part series streaming on Prime Video from 21 October. Based in two locations and two time-frames – the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2032 and London in 2099 – the story follows Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz), a gamer who plays for money, as she travels, using an advanced prototype headset, into a virtual world that starts to feel all too naturalistic.

Looking after her sick mother, Ella (Melinda Page Hamilton), and fretful about her Marine veteran brother Burton (Jack Reynor) – still troubled by the ‘haptic’ implants installed by his military masters – she works by day in a 3-D printing shop. Encouraged by her friend Billy Ann (Adelind Horan) to make more of her gaming talents, Flynne shrugs off the notion: ‘It ain’t real. And, like it or not, this is the only world I got.’

But what if this particular game is real (depending upon your definition of that hotly contested world), and her 2032 life and the supposedly imaginary London of 2099 – a gleaming city full of towering statuary, where corporate parties are held at Buckingham Palace – start to become entangled and intimately interconnected? 

To say much more would be to spoil a twisty, gripping tale that is firmly rooted in Gibson’s original novel, but not hidebound by its precise form or content. 

Here are this week’s recommendations:

‘The Peripheral’: the sci-fi series everyone’s talking about | Soho House


Decision To Leave (selected cinemas, 21 October)
A hiker is found dead at the foot of a South Korean mountain peak, having – what? Tripped? Killed himself? Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) takes on what looks like a routine case, and, in short order, finds his entire existence completely capsized.

The climber’s widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei, in Oscar-worthy form) responds oddly to questioning, giggling nervously or with chilling coldness. This ought to alert Hae-joon, but he is immediately transfixed by Seo-rae – a Chinese caregiver to the elderly – with an erotic intensity that makes Basic Instinct (1992) look like a Pixar movie.

Married to Jeong-Ahn (Lee Jung-hyun), who works at a nuclear power plant in Ipo, he is based during the week in Busan – which gives him plenty of time alone to struggle with the emotions that suddenly compound the insomnia that is already wrecking his sense of self and balance.
The detective-falling-for-suspect trope is familiar to all lovers of film noir, and director Park Chan-wook pays explicit homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), as well as to Christopher Nolan’s version of Insomnia (2002). But this is far from a genre movie: its debt to the disturbing surrealism of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) is no less great. Time jumps and dream sequences complicate the plot, but deepen the viewer’s investment in the characters. 

What is the nature of the all-consuming chemistry between these two strangers? She says he is ‘dignified’. He intimates that she has fulfilled a yearning within him. Yet their affair – ‘our time’ – is more like courtly love, almost entirely chaste (at least on camera) and far from the fierce sexuality of Park’s The Handmaiden (2016). As a tough cop, Hae-joon is capable of violence, but not in the spirit of the director’s most famous movie, Oldboy (2003).

This is a film about restraint, social convention, and the moment when those guard-rails collapse. It is also a sublime study of unquenchable passion, of the mystery of intimacy, and of grief that spreads ‘like ink in water’. 

‘The Peripheral’: the sci-fi series everyone’s talking about | Soho House
‘The Peripheral’: the sci-fi series everyone’s talking about | Soho House


The Waste Land: A Biography Of A Poem by Matthew Hollis 
‘The thing is a mad medley… so much waste paper.’ Such was the verdict of the Manchester Guardian on T.S. Eliot’s great 434-line creation. The New York Tribune, in contrast, grasped the truth; that this was indeed ‘the finest poem of this generation.’

In less gifted hands, a ‘biography’ of a work of art might have failed dismally, sinking into twee self-consciousness. But Matthew Hollis, a poet, scholar and biographer, is more than equal to the task and, in framing this study as he does, enriches our understanding of one of the great works of modernism in its centenary year.

Sizzling with the shock of the new, and the desolate post-war landscape from which it arose, The Waste Land also reflected Eliot’s belief that ‘[p]rimitive art and poetry can… revivify the contemporary’. His poem is the product of a particular time and place, compellingly so (consider: ‘Unreal City,/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many’; or ‘On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing’). But it also sweats mythology, not least the legend of ‘The Fisher King’, refracted through the lens of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual To Romance (1920). 

Above all, Hollis portrays to brilliant effect the interactions of Eliot, his wife Vivien (who had an affair with Bertrand Russell) and Ezra Pound (who, as he put it himself, ‘performed the caesarean’ to deliver The Waste Land). The failure of the Eliots’ marriage is present in almost every line of the poem; but it would never have come into being without Pound’s belligerent, inspired collaboration. This is a dazzling and accessible work of literary exploration.


Being Funny In A Foreign Language by The 1975
Pared down, brisker – 11 tracks, clocking in under 44 minutes, and altogether more focused… can this really be The 1975

As it turns out, the Manchester-based four-piece has rarely been in finer form. For their fifth album, they have retained frontman Matty Healy’s trademark irony, self-deprecation and occasional moments of pretension, but wrapped the formula in perfect pop that recalls – variously – LCD Soundsystem, Hall & Oates, Bruce Springsteen, and The Waterboys.

So, in ‘Part Of The Band’, Healy lets rip: Am I ironically woke? The butt of my joke?/ Or am I just some post-coke, average, skinny bloke/ Calling his ego imagination?’. On the opening track, he even has the cheek to declare that ‘we’re experiencing life through the postmodern lens’.

Which might be unforgivably arch, were it not for the instantly infectious sound that defines this album and, on ‘Looking For Somebody (To Love)’ enables the band to combine Springsteen-style propulsion with searching lyrics (‘Maybe we’re lacking in desire/Maybe it’s just all f**ked/But the boy with ‘the plan’ and the gun in his hand was looking for somebody to love’).
Great dance grooves and stadium-ready anthems make this one of the most instantly likeable albums of 2022. Tour dates here.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy your week and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media

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