I will be discussing Amazon Prime Video’s new SF series THE PERIPHERAL in relation to the novel of the same title by William Gibson, published in 2014. So far six episodes out of eight have been released, and we have seen enough of the show to begin to have an overview of the issues that it allows us to approach.
I am also writing this post in dialogue with the excellent episode by episode commentary being given by Damien Walter on his youtube channel and in the discussion on his facebook page devoted to THE PERIPHERAL. He is giving us a very interesting series of commentaries on the series and I am hoping he will eventually get around to an in depth treatment of the relations between the series and the novel.
READING FAST AND SLOW
I tried to read THE PERIPHERAL when it first came out, but I found it slow going and gave up. I tried again a few times over the intervening years, but never got very far, until I watched the first two episodes of the Amazon Prime series, which inspired me to break through my reader’s block and speed through the whole book in just under two days.
I found the first hundred pages of the novel quite laborious, although the story picked up a lot after that, and I was left with mixed feelings and uncertain about my overall reaction to the story after finishing it. I finally decided that I liked it just a little more than I was dissatisfied with it.
I am glad I watched the first two episodes of the TV series before reading that first part of the book, as I could afford to be patient and persist in the reading, even if some of the details were very different. I liked it enough to want to read the next volume, THE AGENCY, of what is announced to be a trilogy, but William Gibson’s obsessive over-specifying of concrete details is part of the long-windedness of his style, that I find heavy-going. Gibson is striving for both a sense of wonder and a mundane concreteness, and this formal constraint is also part of the theme of the wonders of an accelerated world and their impact on our concrete reality.
WATCHING BRANCHES GROW: be careful what you stub
In many ways the series is an improvement on the novel, in particular in creating real stakes (“skin in the game”) for the link that has been created between the stub past (in the Clayton, South Carolina of 2032) and the future London of 2099. Information flow from the future to the past has a bifurcation between the actual past (maintained unaltered) and a new past branching off from it.
We can imagine the novel and the series as themselves being accelerated information from the future allowing us to branch away from its disastrous timeline and to avoid its apocalyptic prolongations.
WORLD-CROSSED LOVERS AND OTHER OTHERLINGS
In the series the novel’s intra-worldly love interest between Flynne and bachelor Deputy Contstantine gives way to a potential inter-worldly love interest between Flynne and nice guy/bad boy Wilf (Constantine is already married in the series). This detail is the sign of a larger divergence of the series from the book, in that inter-world relations are given greater importance over intra-world ones.
HAPTIC PATHOS AND ARTIFICIAL EMPATHY
This intensification of the inter-worldly connection continues with the beginning of the influence of 2099 on the stub being pre-dated to provide an inter-worldly origin for the “haptic implants”. In this plot development we see the rationale for keeping the haptic implants in place in the series, which seemed strange given that they were removed from the discharged soldiers in the book.
VISUAL SPEED, NARRATIVE SLOWNESS
I have noted that the series’ beginning , because of its visual nature, proceeds much faster than the novel, establishing the central conceit of transformative time travel and showing the world-building at a glance rather than saying it in painstaking descriptions.
On the negative side, the series’ plot proceeds much more slowly than the novel, and I for one don’t look forward to never-ending seasons of THE PERIPHERAL. It is clear that in the two remaining episodes the show will not be able to cover all the remaining plot points of the novel. I would have preferred a one book one season approach.
A CONSPIRACY OF SHADOWS
A second problem for me is the insertion of the hackneyed trope of the “shadowy organisation/malevolent secret society working in the background” into the story. The Research Institute does not have this role in the novel, and it seems an undue concession to the tropes of the genre.
However, introducing this new element may be a necessary move to intensify the inter-worldly interacting and manoeuvring. I particularly like Damien Walter’s linking of accelerationism (a major theme of both the novel and the series) and the myth of a Platonic “higher” world.
TROPES ARE THE SHADOWS OF IDEAS
Perhaps responding to this addition of more tropey elements, Damien Walter, in a comment on facebook, suggests that “the show is becoming a bit Twin Peaky”.
I think this comparison is justified. The Twin Peaks vibe comes in with the tight-knit interactions in rural Clayton, the secrets, the magical “other” lives (thanks to future world, not occult Lodge world), the possession of bodies, the upgrading of Corbell Pickett to a major character (Pickett’s contribution is all too brief in the novel), and the introduction of “Bob”, who functions to break the symmetry between the good guys (around Flynne) and the bad guys (around Cherise). Bob is a rogue bad guy, and he may manage to make things more chaotic – similarly Detective Lowbeer is a rogue goody, from whose intervention anything goes.
The difference between these specific elements of THE PERIPHERAL and their counterparts in TWIN PEAKS corresponds to the more general difference between science fiction (where everything has a natural explanation) and fantasy. Thus the parallelism that we can establishThe Peripheral/Twin Peaks may contain a greater lesson.
ROSETTA STONE BETWEEN MYTHOS AND LOGOS
Everyone likes to quote Arthur C. Clarke’s “law” that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic, but they often fail to notice that this equivalence points in both directions, it permits an inter-translation.
The Rosetta Stone that allows translating from lower to higher, and from mythos to logos, is materialised in the head-set which allows jumping back and forth between coarse flesh bodies and more subtle peripheral bodies. What jumps back and forth between bodies is the spirit, converted into a “polt”. This Rosetta Stone is conceptually materialised (so to speak) in the idea of “data transfer” via “quantum tunnelling”.
LET’S MAKE NEW SYMBOLA
Damien Walter suggests that the search for a new adjustment of the relation between mythos and logos within a single text “has always been a fascination for Gibson. Neuromancer is a logos / mythos symbolon”.
I agree, but I would add that I think this symbolon, with its two pieces of logos and mythos, of cognition and poesis, haunts all of science fiction, its very name a version of that “symbolon”, with its two pieces that must fit together once again.
The very title of NEUROMANCER, “Neuro-” + “-romancer” is a symbolon that is virtually equivalent to Olaf Stapledon’s “STAR MAKER”, given that poesis is both story (romance) and making. The science changes between the two titles, from cosmology to neurology, but the deeper symbolon perdures.
(Note: reading “neuro-” + “-mancer” works too, as we have another version of the union of science (neuro) and mythos (manteia – mantic practices of divination).
My question to Damien Walter would be to apply his own guiding question “what are the myths of the 21st Century?” to THE PERIPHERAL, book and series. Is THE PERIPHERAL opening up onto new mythic ground, or is it part of the generalised nostalgic recycling of 20th Century symbola?
ACCELERATION AND EMPATHY
Martin Heidegger declared in 1961, that “only a god can save us”, thus giving primacy to the saving power of the mythos. William Gibson in The Peripheral seems to retort that “only an acceleration can save us”, giving primacy to logos in its de-mythified form as technology.
However, this acceleration is also the danger, leading us ever-faster towards the “Jackpot”-Apocalypse. THE PERIPHERAL adds a further element into the mix to resolve this dilemma, implicitly arguing that only an acceleration piloted by empathy can save us. This is what Philip K. Dick argued as well. An enhanced form of fellow-feeling, of empathy, that infuses the mythos and pilots the acceleration would seem to be necessary.
This question of the mythos of the 21st Century may be tied to the idea of a new “hard science fiction” that is closer to home in both space and time, limiting itself to the near (or nearish) future and the near spatial neighbourhood. Perhaps the mythos must become less “mythic” in the stereotypical sense, and more mundane. This evolution towards a more “mundane” mythos is to be seen not only in William Gibson’s works, but also in such a writer as Kim Stanley Robinson.
The question arises: is this more mundane mythos a renouncement of the dreaming or a turn in our relation to the dreaming from a more escapist to a more productive mode?
Surely, other lines of evolution of the mythos-logos-pathos formula are possible that are both captivating and productive.
To go further:
2 thoughts on “MARGINAL THOUGHTS ON THE PERIPHERAL (1): we are the “polts” in the machine”
Very interesting post, and thank you for the link to mine. I haven’t watched the TV series yet, but I will soon. Gibson’s vision of how to survive the Jackpot is very technocentric, but I might agree with that outlook. We know what we ought to be doing with the planet, we have the science and technology. It’s changing societies that is hard, and the myths and philosophies they are built on. The hard part for me is having some faith in humanity instead of technology.
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Yes, Gibson privileges the technology while suggesting that things will be alright when some “good” humans get to pilot it. Instead of technology hand-waving he indulges in some humanity hand-waving. So he does invoke faith in humanity, but leaves it very vague.