Scott B. Smith started writing the Amazon Prime Video sci-fi series The ringroad three weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic quarantines much of the world. A global pandemic plays a central role in the series based on William Gibson’s 2014 novel of the same name, making the experience of adapting the work “almost like watching the book unfold in real time as we try to write,” Smith told TIME. ahead of the show’s premiere on October 21. Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story burning chrome, is considered a visionary among science fiction writers, known for his ability to predict the future. For Scott, it was like Gibson had started all over again. “I have so much respect for Gibson and his ability to inhabit this near future, it’s extraordinary,” he says. This is why the creator did not want the futuristic series, produced by Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, to stray too far from its source.
The ringroad follows Flynne Fisher (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), a struggling gamer who lives in the rural southern United States of the not-so-distant future. After witnessing a murder while playing a mysterious virtual reality game set in 22nd century London, she realizes that everything she has experienced while wearing the VR headset is real. With the help of her brother Burton (Jack Reynor), she embarks on a dangerous journey to save the world from a menacing force bent on destroying humanity.
The curvy sci-fi noir looks to a future in which reality and virtual reality become one, but, in real life, Gibson, now 74, is actually quite averse to technology. “I would expect him to have a hologram of himself,” Scott says. “He obviously knows so much and watches people interact with technology, but he’s not the guy you think he is.” Gibson is a science fiction writer who is more interested in how humans choose to interact with technology rather than the use of technology itself.
Below, Scott explains how he paid homage to Gibson with his small-screen adaptation of The ringroad.
Keep it simple, even when the story gets complicated
Jack Reynor in “The Peripheral”
Sophie Mutevelian—First video
The first sentence of The ringroad is a bit of a puzzle: “They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but sometimes the haptics bothered him.” The “haptics” refer to an implant that Flynne’s former soldier brother, Burton, received while serving in an elite military force, which allows him to sync up with his fellow soldiers. (In the series, Burton describes it as “two souls being one,” and that connection can often feel a lot like love.) But Gibson doesn’t reveal what haptics are until later in the novel, and he doesn’t. not do everything. immediately. He compels his readers to follow his trail of contextual clues in the hope that they will find meaning for themselves.
“I have a friend who says Gibson’s attitude to the reader is ‘hold your fucking hand,'” Smith jokes. But Gibson’s respect for the reader’s intelligence is what the screenwriter loves most about him. “His treatment of science fiction is very naturalistic,” says Smith, who got his start as a novelist. “He doesn’t define those words or those concepts because people [in his book] do not need to be defined. In other words, it’s their world, and we’re the ones visiting, so Gibson asks you to please follow along.
Patience is also key when watching the series. The first episodes of The ringroad lack the usual exposition dumps that are common in nerd sci-fi. “I allowed for a degree of confusion and trusted the other people involved in the elaborate production who would speak up if something was unintelligible,” Scott says. However, he knows that asking a reader to find out for himself is a risk; viewers who haven’t read Gibson’s novel might feel so disconnected that they simply stop the show. But it was advice he was willing to follow thanks to advice his producers, Nolan and Joy, gave him early in the writing process: “Keep it simple, it’s easier to convey and it’s is always sufficient. In other words, the viewer’s imagination is more than capable of filling in the blanks, so why not let them?
Scott found this note particularly helpful when writing the scene in which Flynne first puts on the high-tech virtual reality headset. Before she was taken to London in the 22nd century, Scott knew fans would want to know exactly what happens when she tunes into this immersive technology. Instead of writing an instruction manual for Flynne to read aloud to explain this futuristic technology, he asked Moretz to show, not tell, what it would be like to plug into this sensory experience. “She closes her eyes, she counts to ten, she opens her eyes and boom,” Scott said. “Flynne is now completely somewhere else and the viewer just flows through her.”
Read more: 8 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books That Deserve a Screen Adaptation
What would Damon Lindelof do?
The ringroad is based on Gibson’s novel, but Smith took a page from Damon Lindelof’s playbook when writing the series. The creator of Lost, Leftovers, and The Watchers has an “incredible ability to create quirky and unusual characters that fans love,” says Scott. (And, in some cases, loves to hate.) “Damon uses this sci-fi space to really allow these characters to get weird themselves.” In fact, Scott thinks lovable weirdos were too rare in science fiction until Gibson’s 1984 novel. Neuromancer, which follows failed hacker Henry Case and mercenary Molly Millions. “Traditional sci-fi can be very cold and the characters are almost props to convey all the concepts being expressed,” says Scott. But Gibson’s characters always felt like real people who could have existed at any point in history. This timelessness “was key and what drew me to the world of Gibson,” Smith says. “He’s so prescient, so known for his ability to prepare for the future, it obscures some of his amazing abilities as a novelist.”
The series, like the book, centers on sibling duo Flynne and Burton, who struggle to make ends meet and care for their cancer-stricken mother in near-post-apocalyptic Appalachia. Knowing their fate, it’s not hard to see why they would risk everything for a game. Smith was told that Flynne and Burton’s hometown of Clanton “resonates emotionally with Gibson,” who grew up in a small Virginia town in Appalachia. “I think you can feel Gibson’s connection there in the book,” Smith says. “There is a heat there. You can’t help but encourage these people. He was able to bring that same warmth to the series thanks to The ringroad‘s stars Moretz and Reynor, who “immediately became almost a pair of off-screen siblings too.” The couple’s easy familiarity with each other is what helps sell this brother-sister bond. “There’s so much love between them, but sometimes it comes out in giving each other shit,” he says. What the siblings could not understand.
Creating a more promising than dystopian future
Gary Carr and Chloe Grace Moretz in “The Peripheral”
Sophie Mutevelian—First video
Although it was written nearly a decade ago, in many ways, The ringroad feels more prescient than ever. “All of Gibson’s work shows how technology enables and expands connection, but also shows how it can imprison or subjugate us,” says Scott. This is a timely concern for anyone who has read the reports of how social media affects the human brain. Gibson’s warnings of a future in which humans would be more robot-like were even more dire as Scott was writing the series. Often, he and his writers room would share links to stories about Elon Musk’s forays into “brain chips” and humanoid robot assistants. Both are present in Gibson’s novel in the form of the “haptic” implants Burton received while in the military and the ubiquitous ceramic robots called Michikoids that can quickly turn into killing machines. The ringroad began to feel “too relevant,” Scott says, noting that Musk “could be a Gibsonian character.”
These kinds of technological advances that seek to make humans more machine-like might scare some people off, but Scott says The ringroad, both the book and the series, are actually helpful reminders not to give up on humanity just yet. “One of the things that we talked about a lot in the writers room was this idea of empathy and how technology can inhibit empathy or enable it,” he says. The reason Flynne is so easy to support is that she hasn’t lost her compassion for others. She didn’t become completely cyborg. “That human quality,” Scott says, “is what lingers through the techno dystopia that might happen on screen or off.” The ringroad wants to be a friendly reminder of that fact.
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