“The street finds its own uses for things,” wrote William Gibson in his 1982 short story “Burning Chrome,” one of the founding texts of the cyberpunk branch of science fiction. (In the same story, Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.”) The line concisely summarizes how technology is repurposed and used in ways its inventors never intended. It also now seems prophetic. We live, in many ways, in the world imagined by Gibson, including how every innovation is redirected to new ends, some inventive and some destructive.
Adapted from Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name (the first of a proposed trilogy), The ringroad broadens the notion of what “the street” means. Set across two time periods and two continents, the series’ settings – a near-future rural Appalachian community of 2032 and an eerily quiet and seemingly underpopulated London of 2099 – are a far cry from the crowded, cluttered spaces of the near future. found at Gibson novels like Neuromancer. But from an economy that makes a decent living by helping players progress through immersive VR games to the concept of remote-controlled androids that mimic the human body in every way (the title’s “peripherals”), the series is situated squarely in Gibson territory. Technology advances, but these advances never seem to bring humanity closer to utopia or away from its basest instincts.
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Sometimes they even invite disaster. On the outskirts of a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz, a mix of sunshine and tenacity) splits her time working for a small 3D printing shop and helping her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) to earn a living as a sort of VR sherpa for wealthy but unskilled gamers. It’s a beautiful place with a troubled community. Some, like Burton and his multi-amputee friend and former teammate Conner (Eli Goree) suffer from PTSD after serving in a recent war, a feeling reinforced by some of the technology used to make them a stronger fighting unit. Others depend on drugs sold by local dealers, whether out of addiction or, like Flynne and Burton’s fatally ill mother, because their needs go beyond what insurance can provide.
The Fishers enjoy an unexpected boon, however, with the arrival of what appears to be state-of-the-art virtual reality from a Colombian company interested in using Burton’s gaming skills to test the technology (unaware that Flynne is the better player). and the source of much of Burton’s reputation). Or so it seems. Volunteering to try it out, Flynne finds herself on a dangerous adventure quest in futuristic London, one that feels more real than any gaming experience she’s had before. There is a reason for this, a Flynne begins to understand after being contacted by Wilf (Gary Carr), who warns her that she is in danger and, in time, reveals that he is speaking to her from the same London that she visited via the headset, as impossible as that sounds.
There’s more than just time travel to what happens, but exactly what falls into spoiler territory in a series whose twists and turns force viewers to reorient themselves and reconsider what they’ve been watching. It’s familiar territory for two of the show’s executive producers, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, best known for their work on HBO. Westworld. The ringroad shares this series’ elegance and tendency to burst into hard-hitting action scenes at least once per episode. But Gibson’s novel and the advice of creator Scott Smith (a novelist in his own right, responsible for A simple plan and The ruins) give it a stiffer spine. The series feels like it knows where it’s going and isn’t afraid to take time to get there.
The ringroad streamlines Gibson’s narrative but also expands the world of the novel and deviates from it in some crucial aspects. Subsequent episodes reveal bits and pieces of Flynne and Burton’s past and deviate to portray the backgrounds of increasingly important supporting characters like Corbell (Louis Herthum), a local crime boss whose villainy gives him a competitive edge and gentle manners give him an air of refinement. On another front, the series slowly reveals both Wilf’s origin story, the political divisions in his world, and the reasons he hired Flynne to search for a missing woman named Aelita (Charlotte Riley). But the rhythm never feels stuffy. We get teasing glimpses of a larger world that the series may or may not explore. A major character, Ainsley Lowbeer, a detective from Wilf’s London, doesn’t show up until the sixth episode, but Alexandra Billings’ sly and commanding performance is worth the wait.
For all his influence, Gibson has proven difficult to bring to screens in the past. (The 1995 movie Johnny Mnemonic remains the most well-known adaptation to date.) This particular novel provides a good basis for a slow-boiling television series in both of its settings, but particularly in the scenes set in the year 2032. Depicting a world a few degrees from our own . , making it look like a plausible result of the continuation of recent trends, it taps into Gibson’s ability to use the future to comment on the present, and the notion that human desires and failures remain the same even if the tools used to realizing them change . Once the technology hits the streets, it can end up anywhere, sometimes dragging those who use it into dark places from which they may never escape.
Firsts: Friday, October 21 on Prime Video
Who is in: Chloe Grace Moretz, Gary Carr, Jack Reynor
Who is behind: Scott Smith serves as showrunner, working from a novel by William Gibson
For fans of: Gibson’s fiction, twisty stories, sci-fi concepts
How many episodes we watched: 6 out of 8