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Science fiction is getting to be less fiction and more science. And I thought how that is true about the metaverse as I watched The Peripheral streaming show.

Apple CEO Tim Cook recently dissed the term “metaverse”as something that people don’t understand and that probably won’t be good for people.

“I always think it’s important that people understand what something is,” he said, in an interview with a Dutch publication. “And I’m really not sure the average person can tell you what the metaverse is.”

But the creators of the Amazon Prime Video show based on a novel by William Gibson are grateful that fans are starting to understand the metaverse. In interviews with GamesBeat, executive producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan said that the past Hollywood shows — like their own Westworld; Marvel’s multiverse films such as Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and The Avengers; Ready Player One; Stranger Things and more — have helped pave the way for complex and deep shows like The Peripheral.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd,” said Joy in our interview. “I wish there were more nerds.”

You can see their perspectives in the video interview embedded in this story. Besides Nolan and Joy, I also interviewed director Vincenzo Natali as well as actors Chloë Grace Moretz, Jack Reynor, Gary Carr, JJ Feild and T’Nia Miller.

Grace Moretz said, “Now the show is coming out, there have already been a couple of shows that have really delved into multiverses and the ideas behind it. A year ago, it might have taken people longer to piece together what a multiverse is. Because it’s integrated into pop culture in a lot of ways, this goes a little bit further with it.”

Those with power and money will use the metaverse to as playgrounds and testbeds, she noted. Nolan said in our interview that the interesting narrative is the idea of competing metaverses, with one of them competing with the other to be more real.

Lisa Joy and Vincenzo Natali talk with Dean Takahashi.

“The notion of the metaverse is hierarchical,” he said. “In this world, you have two wholly real worlds and argument over which one was the metaverse. Gary’s character Wilf is in one. Chloe’s is in the other. And then argument over which one is the metaverse. Which one is the real world.”

Nolan said he grew up with Gibson’s books and it was an honor to go back to him as a source.

“According to Zuckerberg, the metaverse is upon us. I would say Gibson’s work precedes the metaverse. Credit Neal Stephenson with the metaverse and Gibson underneath all of that was cyberspace,” Nolan said. “I never thought the weird shit I was into as a kid would have any relevance to anyone else. All of a sudden it’s the fabric of the universe we live in now. It makes me very concerned what is coming down the pipe.”

The television series is based on the novel by Gibson, who — before Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in 1992 with Snow Crash — gave us the term “cyberspace” in his short story Burning Chrome (1982) and his first novel Neuromancer (1984).

Jonathan Nolan and Gary Carr of The Peripheral.

After 30 years of flying below the radar, the concept of the metaverse has been embraced by gaming execs like Tim Sweeney, John Hanke, and Dave Baszucki. And in the past year, the term exploded into the public consciousness as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company Meta. We’re even moving into a phase where its fashionable for people like Cook, who has his own vested interest in the segment of the metaverse dubbed augmented reality, to bash the metaverse.

And yet there are enough things happening to draw out Stephenson himself to start his Lamina1 firm to promote the open metaverse and speak at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit Next 2022 event in San Francisco on October 25-26.

This show is yet another that lights the way to the metaverse. Audiences familiar with those works today should be able to grasp the kind of story we have here. And it’s no surprise that The Peripheral’s executive producers are Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, the creators of Westworld, which has its own complicated timelines and concerns about how AI and simulations are blurring our realities.

Joy said this growing awareness is good for the world because there should be more nerds, who are people thinking deeply about the world and the implications of technology for humanity. Science fiction is a way to make complex ideas more interesting to digest. And with the pandemic, we have more reason to think deeply and figure out hard problems, Joy said.

“Science fiction and these complex stories are getting less and less complex for everybody to fathom because the future is here,” Joy said. “The idea of a pandemic would have blown our minds a couple of years back and now it is something that we have to adjust to in our daily lives. The idea of technologies looming in the abstract in the future — well they’re becoming real at an accelerated rate. Science fiction is less fiction and more fact.”

For the audience, this kind of show is challenging. The show is a lot like Westworld, where the audience has to figure out what’s going in a complicated timeline. And it’s no surprise, as the executive producers are Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. They trust the audience to catch on and figure out what’s happening.

“It’s not unlike a video game,” Joy said. “You’re in a world and you’ve got to move. You have to adapt. There isn’t necessarily a large rule book. The idea of exploring the world, that sort of behavior is increasingly encoded in our way of interacting with each other.”

Gibson’s The Peripheral debuted in 2014 with new ideas around immersive VR, which makes you feel like you’ve been transported to another place and even another person’s body. I happened to read the book recently in a science fiction book club. In the novel, Gibson just drops you into this situation and you have to figure it out. The show does that too.

The Peripheral is coming from Amazon Studios on October 21.
The Peripheral is coming from Amazon Studios on October 21.

The book is set in 2032, in an age where it’s possible to move from one version of time to another. It’s not just a kind of time travel. But it’s a point in time where you can move backward, change the events of the past, and create two or more different branches of time. One might go on to become reality, and the other might disappear as a truncated “stub” of time. Gibson’s concept of the stub is so easy to understand. If you find yourself at the fork in the road, you don’t want to be on the stub.

It depicts the lifestyle of some poor people in the future: Flynne Fisher (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), her Marine veteran brother, Burton (Jack Reynor), and their dying mother live in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2032. In London, in another reality, people live in futuristic luxury with AI characters walking around as servants. There’s a mix of both utopia and dystopia in the novel, said director Vincenzo Natali, in our interview. One of the aspects I love is that Flynne can make a living as a skillful gamer.

Oh my god I don't know what's real in The Peripheral.
Oh my god I don’t know what’s real in The Peripheral.

“It’s not binary,” Natali said. “It’s more complex than that. The future is not dystopic and it’s also not perfect. It’s somewhere in between. It’s nice to finally get Gibson’s vision on the screen. It’s always been compromised in various ways. One things that is so resonant about the show is Flynne is trying to find out what her future will be. That is what we are all doing now.”

Feild said, “Think of The Peripheral spinoff games. It’s set for VR, isn’t it?”

“I’d love to play that game,” Miller said.

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