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Peripheral vision

Peripheral vision

William Gibson, the master of cyberpunk and high-tech speculative fiction, at last gets a screen adaptation worthy of his work, in a spectacular new series starring Chloë Grace Moretz.

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 twenty 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.  

William Gibson photographed at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver

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. The dual aesthetic – Appalachian grit versus future techno-London – is superbly managed by show-runner Scott B Smith, especially as the tendrils of the two worlds start to intertwine. 

Illustration of Neuromancer by Argentinian comic book artist Juan Gimenez

Worth noting: this is emphatically not just another variant on The Matrix series: the questions posed by The Peripheral – which takes its name from a particular class of avatar – are only intellectual cousins to those explored by the Wachowski sisters. Also worth noting: the series, like the novel, immerses itself in the mutating architecture, history and spirit of London (the first episode ends with London Calling by The Clash, a band that Gibson has always loved).

The series certainly brings to a triumphant end the jinx that has always seemed to afflict adaptations of his work. Johnny Mnemonic (1995), based on a 1981 short story, has Keanu Reeves going for it – and just about nothing else. Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998), inspired by a Gibson story first published in 1984, has a stellar cast (Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Asia Argento, Annabella Sciorra), but still manages to be truly terrible.

Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

A clue to the failure of these sci-fi cinematic projects and of their respective directors to understand the true spirit of the author’s work is provided by the only Gibson movie that has succeeded to date: Mark Neale’s No Maps for These Territories (2000), a documentary road trip film, featuring the author sitting in the back of a car, discussing his work and ideas (for a more recent primer on his thinking, try Conversations with William Gibson, edited by Patrick A. Smith). 

Looking back on his migration to Canada from Virginia in 1967 (mainly to avoid the draft), his experience of the counterculture in Toronto and then his move to Vancouver where he lives to this day, Gibson explains that he sees himself neither as prophet nor, in the traditional sense, as a science-fiction writer. “It’s just happening.” he says. “We’re in something here. And it’s out of control.”

William Gibson in Mark Neale’s No Maps for These Territories, 2000

He worries less about the future than most people, he continues, because he understands that it is both unknowable and beyond human management. Technology, as he sees it, does not submit to “legislative change”, and so triggers in all of us “these moments which are vertiginous and terribly exciting and frightening… and I think it induces fear and ecstasy.” As a consequence, we are, Gibson reckons, always at least ten years behind any informed sense of the rapid-fire changes that are coursing through human existence and of what they mean.

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He is also amiably unimpressed by those who revere him as a guru or become overwrought with excitement when they read his books. When Dominic Cummings (who was still Boris Johnson’s chief adviser at the time) posted a recruitment notice in January 2020 calling for “wild cards” to join him at the heart of government, including “weirdos from William Gibson novels”, the author said that his “eyebrows shot up”. He suggested politely that Cummings should re-read his books to “take the measure” of his characters and not liken himself (if only implicitly) to Hubertus Bigend, the “quasi-evil genius” in his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition

Dominic Cummings following his resignation as special adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, November 2020

If anything, the 74-year-old Gibson presents himself as a first-draft cartographer of hypermodernity, rather than as a seer or polemicist. The device that first tipped him off to what was happening was not a computer or the pre-web Internet, but the much more humble personal cassette recorder launched by Sony in 1979: “I took the Walkman [in 1981] to downtown Vancouver, listening to Joy Division, which I had never heard. It gave Vancouver a weird totalitarian grandeur it hadn’t previously had for me. I didn’t take that thing off for a month.”

A young man listens to his Walkman while playing Pac-Man at an arcade in San Francisco, 1982

This inspired him to write freely and imaginatively about what he saw and heard in the present, rather than to seek a reputation for prescience; in which respect, his explicit inspirations were J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs rather than conventional science fiction writers. 

In the process, his writings have proved incidentally oracular: he foresaw the rise of the Russian oligarchs, the “media fast” (long before the digital detox), the increasing centrality of Japan in global pop culture, and the end of isolation (including healthy moments of solitude) as round-the-clock connectivity became the norm. But he has never regarded himself as a futurist, and, possessed of a wry wit, finds what he failed to foresee as fascinating as what he happened to get right. 

Akihabara, Electric Town in Tokyo, Japan

As he has pointed out, younger readers today often find Neuromancer baffling because the novel lacks the mobile telephony that is their portal into the digital world. He positively bursts with ideas. Will nanotechnology make it possible to make anything at marginal cost so that conventional economics is meaningless? Will gene editing and computational power converge to make immortality viable? But he offers up such questions to inspire thought, imagination, irony and humour rather than to prove that he is the digital Nostradamus of caricature.

William Defoe and Asia Argento in New Rose Hotel, 1998

Indeed, it is central to Gibson’s ideas that the sheer complexity of 21st century technology and of its possible consequences is one of the reasons that so many millions take refuge in the bovine simplicity of conspiracy theories. We live in a world of instant obsolescence, with all the bewilderment that entails.

“I think that our ‘now’ has gotten shorter and shorter and shorter,” he said an event in Chicago in 2014 to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Neuromancer,  “and I think our ‘now’ when I was about five years old was maybe a presidential term, or half of one, and our now today is a fraction of a news cycle, if that. It’s been shrinking….The thing that was the size of two Olympic tennis courts is now a quarter of what used to be called a postage stamp, that’s now itself on the verge of extinction. Writers today don’t have the real estate of now in which to plant their stuff.”

The D.E.U.C.E computer by English Electric was developed from earlier plans by Alan Turing, 1956

Gibson’s most famous aphorism is that “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” But one advantage of our hyper-mediated world is that we have the power to do something about that, in our dreams, imaginings, and free-roaming conjecture. In that sense – and to splendid effect – the new screen version of The Peripheral is, amongst much else, a radical act of redistribution.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Watch

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”. 

Shantaram (Apple TV+)

Before my first visit to Mumbai, I was told that there were two books I had to read: Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004); and Shantaram (2003) by Gregory David Roberts.

A door stopper 936-page novel, the latter, which has sold six million copies, portrays a semi-fictionalised, Dickensian version of Roberts’s real-life adventures in the underworld, slums and high life of Mumbai. It has defied adaptation for many years (Johnny Depp was at one point lined up to star in a movie version), but has found the right format in this 12-part Apple TV+ dramatisation: yet another example of the depth, visual richness and breathing space that streaming services with decent budgets can give to great stories.

Charlie Hunnam is excellent as bank robber Dale Conti, who escapes from jail in Australia, and takes refuge in Mumbai under the alias “Lin Ford” – soon absorbed into the demi-monde of hustlers, pimps and gangsters who gather in Ronaldo’s, an unofficial “free zone” café. His fixer Prabhu (Shubham Saraf) quickly becomes his friend; he is drawn to the enigmatic Karla (Antonia Desplat); and poses as a CIA officer to spring Lisa (Elektra Kilbey) from her drug-soaked captivity at Madame Zhou’s “Palace”. 

As a former ambulance driver, Lin tries to help the inhabitants of the slums with their desperate health needs. But he is also drawn into the milieu of the smooth crime lord Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig): precisely what he came to Mumbai to avoid. 

Though the pace is relaxed, it suits the content and the bustling cast of characters (at least in the four episodes that I have seen). There is a long, involved and absorbing story to tell. And – if Apple TV+ exhausts the original story of Shantaram – there is a sequel, The Mountain Shadow (2015) to inspire subsequent seasons.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Season Five (Channel 4, 23 October)

Gilead Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is dead – and June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) must now face the consequences of her leading role in his execution in the woods at the end of Season Four.

When Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 work of speculative fiction made its debut in 2017, its resonance in the world of #MeToo, Donald Trump’s misogyny and the emerging threat to Roe v Wade was immediate and unsettling (for more on its nerve-jangling topicality, see this essay from the Tortoise Quarterly). Extending the tale of June (or Offred, as she was known in the Waterfords’ household) far beyond the original novel – with Atwood’s blessing and active involvement – the series has depicted a near-future America turned Old Testament theocracy with a power and conviction that has won it many accolades and strengthened Moss’s claim to be the leading performer of the prestige television era (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 April, 2022).

In what we are told will be the penultimate season, the drama hinges on the conflict between June and Fred’s widow, Serena; still imprisoned in Canada and pregnant when we meet her again in this first episode, “Morning”. Quickly, her thoughts turn to the theatrical and political possibilities of widowhood. She knows, too, that June will not rest until she gets her elder daughter Hannah back from Gilead. What will be her next move? As ever, the blend of dystopian speculation and ferocious personal drama is impeccable. Praise be. 

Read

The Wasteland: A Biography of a Poem – Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

“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 postwar 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.

Megathreats: The ten trends that imperil our future, and how to survive them – Nouriel Roubini (John Murray)

Conscious of his reputation as “Dr Doom”, Nouriel Roubini, professor emeritus of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, cites All Along the Watchtower, the Bob Dylan song made famous by Jimi Hendrix: “There must be some kind of way outta here.”

But is there? We need, he writes, sustained growth of 5-6 per cent in advanced economies to pay down our debts; to fund the infrastructure and public services that will enable us to tackle climate change, longevity and unemployment arising from automation; and to reduce political and cultural tension. 

We need innovations like fusion energy to come to fruition, and fast. We need vaccines to stay ahead of viruses. We need big financial decisions to be increasingly automated and insulated from human caprice. We need rejuvenated globalisation to rebut the claims of protectionists and nativists. We need big tech to learn that – sometimes – “no” really does mean “no”.

Yet it would be idle to deny that the first 238 pages of this bracing and timely book present a pretty reasonable case to err on the side of pessimism. The pattern, Roubini writes, is now predictable: “We ignored grim facts. We didn’t believe our eyes. And, most ironic, we didn’t have the resources to act. It cost too much.” 

Which is why, he believes, we are facing “The Mother of All Debt Crises”; the hoarding of AI by corporations in such a way that inequality is radically deepened; a comparatively feeble response to climate emergency; an ongoing global refugee crisis; and precisely the socio-economic context that nurtures ugly populism and authoritarianism.

Many books spell out the perils that we face in the 21st century, but few do so in such crisp and persuasive prose, or with the penetrating good sense that is Roubini’s hallmark. One sets down his book angry at the laziness and smugness of those who have wielded power in the West in recent decades – the “summitocracy” one might call them – and with a yearning for something new.

Jan Morris: life from both sides – Paul Clements (Scribe)

When a new edition of her classic 1974 memoir of gender transition, Conundrum, was published in 1987, Jan Morris wrote that “when I go the event will be commemorated with the small back-page headline: ‘Sex-change author dies’.”

Morris was only half-right. When she died in November 2020, the Guardian’s news story appeared under the headline, “Writer and trans pioneer dies.” On the other hand, the coverage was much more extensive than Morris had foretold, and embraced the full range of her achievements: the author of 58 books; the dashing wartime intelligence officer in Palestine and Egypt; the Times foreign editor who broke the news of the conquest of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the eve of Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953; the legendary travel writer and foreign correspondent who covered the Suez crisis, the Algerian war of independence, South African apartheid and many other geopolitical crises.

A towering writer, Morris was also a towering egoist who, by her own admission was “disgracefully self-centred all my life”. Paul Clements knew her personally for 30 years and this is certainly a respectful biography. But – to be fair to the author – he makes no attempt to conceal his subject’s flaws, or the cracks in the story that Morris presented to the world of an unconventional but contented family (she divorced her wife Elizabeth, as the law required after her transition, but the couple became civil partners in 2008, binding a relationship that endured for seven decades).

According to their daughter Suki, “mum did not have a voice”, and their second son, Henry, said of Jan last year that “we were introduced, but we never actually got to know each other.” What Clements presents is readable and comprehensive life of a complex, prolific and significant writer, whose work will (as he suggests) be remembered by posterity.


Listen

Being Funny in a Foreign Language – 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 fucked/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 likable albums of 2022. Tour dates here.

No More Leaks – Central Cee

After the soaring success of 23 earlier this year (see Creative Sensemaker, 3 March 2022), Central Cee (AKA Cench, or Oakley Ceasar-Su) surprised fans on Friday with this sharp-edged four-track EP.

From opener ’Chapters’, Shepherd’s Bush’s finest is reminding us of the price he has already paid to get (close to) the top: “They think that I came up quick, they don’t know ’bout the rest of the chapters.” In ‘Bumpy Johnson’, he admits that “these songs are all self-snitchin’”, while in ‘One Up’ he confronts the weirdness (and perils) of stardom: “The fake do a good job blending in with the real these days, but I still tell the difference.” 

Finally, in ‘Crypto Price’ he acknowledges that, when it comes to all sorts of questions, great and small,  “I’m in two minds, it goes up and down like the crypto price.” One of the premier league of contemporary rap artists, whose new releases you absolutely don’t want to miss. Tour details here.

Older (Super Deluxe Edition)  – George Michael

The late singer-songwriter’s third and finest solo album was recorded when he was only 32, and is, in essence, the poetic cry of a man widowed much too soon in life. The loss of his lover Anselmo Feleppa to Aids-related illness in 1993 is the mournful thread that runs through Older – and one that inspired some of Michael’s most enduring compositions (especially ‘Jesus to a Child’ and ‘You Have Been Loved’).

There are plenty of extras here, too: live versions of “One More Try” and “Freedom! ‘90”, a new version of Wham!’s ‘I’m Your Man’, and remixes of ‘Fastlove’, “Spinning the Wheel” and “Star People”. In sharp contrast to many such multi-format remasterings, the new Older features no irritating filler.

Twenty years after its original release in 1996, Michael himself was dead, after a protracted struggle with drug abuse, pneumonia and general ill health. Listening afresh to Older, one is struck by a sense of sadness about how much more music he might have gone on to create, but also by how much he achieved artistically in 53 years of life (see Creative Sensemaker, 16 June, 2022).

…and finally, RIP Dame Carmen Callil, who died on Monday aged 84:

There was a time, in the late Seventies and Eighties, when no quality bookstore was complete without a Virago Press carousel on the shop floor – the distinctive green spines immediately eye-catching. Founded in 1973 by Callil, with Rosie Boycott and Marsha Rowe, the imprint announced itself as “the first mass-market publisher for 52 per cent of the population – women.” Callil’s genius was to publish not only new work by writers such as Angela Carter and Mary Chamberlain, but, in 1978, to launch the Modern Classics line which included Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Stevie Smith’s novels, and the work of Willa Cather, Molly Keane, Grace Paley and many others. Few publishers change the industry fundamentally and bring about that change in the name of social progress. Callil was one of them.

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

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy Amazon Prime, Christopher Morris/Corbis via Getty Images, Juan Gimenez, Tristar Pictures, Hollie Adams/Bloomberg, Chris McGrath/Getty Images, AppleTV+, Michele Mossop/Fairfax Media