The Peripheral

(Warning: spoilers)

Back in November I watched the first season of The Peripheral on Amazon. It’s science fiction based on a book by William Gibson. If you’re familiar with Gibson’s works then you’ll have an idea of what to expect, a work of cyberpunk, a genre he basically pioneered. I find Gibson’s writing difficult, but I do like his ideas. So of course I enjoyed the show a great deal and highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already.

I waited to write about it because the only way to write about its premise is to get into spoilers, hence the warning above. If you don’t want core elements of the first season spoiled, you probably want to set this post aside until you’ve had a chance to watch it.

At the beginning of the show, the setting is the near future (about 2033 if I remember correctly) in rural America. Flynne is a young woman with a talent for playing deeply immersive video games. She works in a 3D print shop. Burton, her brother, is ex-military with combat implants that give him a lot of trouble. Together they eke out an existence while taking care of their sick mother, who is blind, scrounging funds any way they can.

Burton signs up for a paid beta program with a mysterious software company, who sends plans for an advanced VR headset. Knowing she’s better at gaming than he is, he has Flynne login in his place. She plays the game, which is hyper-realistic, including feeling intense pain. After deciding she’s had enough and logging off, she gets a call from someone warning her that assassins are being sent to kill her and her family, and that she can only be helped if she gets back into the game.

Okay, last spoiler warning.

It turns out it isn’t a game, but a connection with the future. When Flynne puts on the headset, she’s operating a peripheral (android body) about 70 years in the future. Essentially the future has managed to establish a data connection with the past. Physical travel isn’t possible, but sending information is, including the future engaging in commerce with the past, such as sending a VR headset design, or other factions hiring assassins, as well as remote control of a peripheral in the future.

Whenever time travel (or in this case time communication) is introduced in science fiction, there are different possibilities for how it might work, particularly for what the consequences of altering the past might be. These can include:

  1. Whatever happened, happened. The past cannot be altered. Any attempt to do so merely becomes part of the history. (Think of the original Terminator or 12 Monkeys movies.)
  2. The past can be altered, which alters the present. (Back to the Future, and most time travel fiction.)
  3. The past can be altered, but doing so sets up a new timeline. (Avengers: Endgame, Loki, and other MCU material.)

The Peripheral goes with 3. By interacting with the past, the people in the c. 2100 period have created a new “stub”, the beginnings of a new branch, or timeline. So the world they’re interacting with resembles their own past, but it’s eventually established that their interference began well before the start of the story and has altered it in important ways. It’s also revealed that a number of stubs have been created for research purposes, including the one Flynne is in.

So people from the future are free to change things in Flynnes’s time with no concern about how it might affect their own time. This has resulted in some monstrously destructive experiments taking place in other stubs. It also becomes a plot point in the season finale, as Cherise Nuland, the villain, decides the best way to eliminate Flynne is to initiate an apocalyptic scenario in Flynne’s stub. However, Nuland is reluctant to do so because of the investment her company has made in settings things up Flynne’s stub.

I can’t recall it ever being made explicit that the multiple timelines are the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But Flynne’s solution to her predicament is straight out of the quantum immortality thought experiment.

Flynne, using her peripheral in the future, breaks into one of Nuland’s research centers guarding a connection to her stub, and uses it to fork a new stub in her own time. She then severs the connection to the new stub so Nuland can’t access it. She subsequently has a friend kill her physical self in her own stub, removing Nuland’s incentive to destroy Flynee’s world (and friends and family).

But another version of Flynne continues to live in the new stub. In one of the final scenes, she shows up in her peripheral in the future, indicating that she’s connected from that other stub and ready to fight.

All of this happens pretty quick in the show, with a lot of details unstated, making me wonder how many people followed what happened. (Or perhaps whether I followed all of it myself.) For example, when Flynne disconnects in her own time after creating the new stub, it seems like she would have to have some way to know which stub she’s in at that point, so she knows whether to arrange for her own killing.

And she remains able to connect to the future from her new stub, despite the connection being severed from the future side. I can see that being plausible. But two other characters, her brother Burton and their friend Conner, were also connecting from her time to the future. Shouldn’t they be able to connect from both the old and new stubs now, with a possibility that they may run into each other? I’m curious to see where the second season (if, hopefully, there is one) goes with this.

There are other aspects of the stub mechanics I wondered about. Such as the fact that if the future interfering with the past creates new stubs, then new stubs should be getting created constantly. And causal interaction from the past stubs should actually be creating new stubs in the future as well. It’s tempting to wonder how all of this doesn’t get tangled up with each other.

But all of the stubs should be relative to the stub (past or future) that creates them. When a new stub is “created”, what it really amounts to is establishing a connection with the new stub while preserving a separate one with the older stub. So it all works out when you think it through (I think).

It does make interesting one of the monstrous actions of Lev Zubov, a crime lord in the future. Zubov can’t stand the thought of other versions of himself existing in the other stubs, so he arranges for his ancestors in the past stubs to be murdered, ensuring those other versions of himself are never born. Give the sheer number of stubs (near infinite) in existence, his actions seem pathetically futile.

So obviously there’s a lot going on in this show, with a lot of intriguing story possibilities.

Have you seen it? If so, what did you think? Any thoughts about the stub dynamics? Or the overall storyline?

32 thoughts on “The Peripheral

  1. Moretz is always easy on the eyes. And the trike is cool. I can’t deal with time travel anymore so that whole thing, bah. And what’s with the massive statues?
    3D printed everything? Even electronics? And was that drug manufactured from a chemical recipe? All that was worth a story in and of itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On time travel, yeah, I’ve reached the point where it needs to do something different. The traditional storylines have gotten pretty stale. I thought this take was new enough to be interesting, but that’s definitely subjective.

      The thing about the future is it’s unclear just how much of it is physically real vs augmented virtual stuff. I could us discovering in later seasons that we’ve just scratched the surface so far.

      The 3D printing and other near future tech were pretty cool. Of course, we find out this is probably not our timeline, so some of it is probably intentionally too advanced.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fingering this out a bit more…
        The presented future timeline, although alluded to as downstream from season #1’s stub, is actually detached — grandfather paradox and all that. Which means that, technically, the “future” could be talking to another multiverse variant — that is in the same strict timeline, but one where events unfolded differently, more slowly. Which would mean, this is not “time travel” at all. “Multiverse hopping” would be a better term. And in theory, this “future” instance could be found to lag behind another variant — which is even more advanced that it. All of them, though, on the same inviolate timeline.

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        1. The boundary between time travel with multiple timelines and multiverse hopping seems like a blurry one. I think of the Loki series, which effectively ends up being a multiverse show arising from time travel.

          I do get the impression in The Peripheral that the technology can’t connect to any timeline arbitrarily. So they can’t just decide to connect to a different version of their world that branched off long ago. They can only connect to the stubs they create off their own past, or that of stubs they already have connections to.

          At least that’s my impression based on what we know so far. Maybe in future seasons we’ll end up in a multiverse of madness scenario.

          Of course, whether a stub is “created” or merely “gained access to” could just be a matter of definition. We have the same interpretational freedom when considering the many-worlds interpretation of QM. We can see it as universes splitting, or already existing universes diverging from each other. Different perspectives on the same ontology since the boundaries between universes is really a human description.

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  2. Haven’t seen The Peripheral, but can you elaborate on the difference between scenarios 2 and 3? It seems to me that the phrase “altering the past” just means entering a new timeline. I’m not even sure I can comprehend an alternative.

    For instance, if we exist in world W with events A>B>C, where C is the present, then “changing the past” seems to mean creating (or entering) a new world event sequence such that we might have W’: (A>B2>C) or more realistically, (A>B2>C2) since presumably a different B would in turn cause a different subsequent event chain. By definition, this constitutes a new timeline/world from the original one.

    Is 2 supposed to describe a scenario where you enter a new timeline (W’) and then somehow go back to the original timeline (W), with the events in W’ having some causal effects in W? Just curious to get your intuitions on this.

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    1. The main difference between scenario 2 and 3 is that with 2, there is only ever one timeline, which can be altered by changing the past. With 3, there are numerous timelines and altering the past in your current timeline just creates a new one.

      Of course, if someone thinks they live in a 2 reality, they could never be sure they don’t actually live in a 3 one. If they do live in a 3 reality, but their time travel tech doesn’t let them get back to their original timeline, then it will seem to them like it’s a 2 reality.

      The Peripheral gets around this somewhat by only allowing communication between time periods and timelines (stubs). Communication is all you need to bring in the causality issues, but it gets around not being able to know which version of reality you’re in.

      Myself, I think if we appeared to exist in a 2 reality, I would be deeply suspicious that it was actually a 3 one. 2 by itself just presents a lot of causality issues (grandfather paradox, vast light cones changed when a past event is altered, etc). 3 retains the appearance of those issues but they all get worked out by the multiple timelines.

      Of course, all of this is moot if time travel, or even communication with the past, is not possible.

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  3. Haven’t seen it; but will check it out. Have you watched or read OUTLANDER? I really like it. The actors are great and the 3 questions remain throughout. The time travel is from 1947-90’s back to 1747 and forward. Season seven begins in April. The setting is now in America at the cusp of the Revolutionary War. Fantastic!

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    1. I saw part of one episode a while back. It looked pretty good, but I didn’t realize at the time that the main character was from the 20th century, only learning about the overall premise later.

      How much does the time travel aspect figure into the story? My impression is it was a gateway mechanism to get someone with a 20th century outlook into 18th century situations. Or is the fantasy / sci-fi part bigger than that?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes to both your questions. I find it both entertaining and thought provoking. I recommend starting from the beginning. (I’ve heard the books are even better.) The author is no doubt a 2nd-wave feminist – so there’s that. It’s both a story about love and adventure, and war of course. “There’s always another war coming” says our male hero, who has to choose sides, his home country, England, or his new country, America. And the female lead – wow! She’s the time traveler. And then there’s … ya gotta watch it.

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  5. I’ll have to give it another try. I started it then got diverted off into something else. I’m looking for something like this that I can watch that my wife would not likely want to watch when we’re not watching together.

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  6. I liked the series as well, the writing and characters were imaginative although I thought a bit blatantly female-centric. I am reserving judgement concerning how satisfying the various temporal manipulations are. Not 100% sure I can buy the stub extrusion idea… for example how is it that Flynne’s base or core consciousness is not resident within the now-destroyed original Flynee of 2033 Tennessee or wherever? How is it justified that her ‘identity’ now resides elsewhere (elsewhen). It might be that the concepts become more acceptable once plots unfold in season 2… if that even happens. (It is annoying how many interesting series never survive past their maiden voyage — the recent and well-written ‘Night Sky’ with JK Simmons is a perfect example of this.)

    I thought Billy, or Bobby, or whomever’s character (the Catch-22-ensnared police underling) was nicely done.

    I am a little confused, by the way, with your time scenario analysis. You seem to say that option #1 does not alter the future… but in The Terminator example that seems to be exactly the premise. Kill off the leader of the human uprising (in the future) by making him never born via offong his mother in the past. So, unclear what you mean by difference between 1 and 2 here.

    Also was surprised by your remarks on Gibson’s prose. I always sort of liked it. Last one I rea was “Idoru”. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the female-centric concern, I actually didn’t feel it, but now that you mention it, it does seem like a lot of the authority figures in the show, at least the positive ones, are female. But I’m not sure it’s really out of balance. It’s hard to judge, since we’re somewhat used to a lot of male characters, and when it’s more balanced, it can feel lop sided.

      On Flynne’s consciousness, this may deepen your skepticism, but I think the idea is that once Flynne creates the new stub, there is a version of her in the old stub, and a version in the new stub. The Flynne in the old stub has herself killed, removing Nuland’s incentive to accelerate the Jackpot in her world. The Flynne in the new stub, knows Nuland doesn’t have access to her world, and so can continue connecting to the future from it. It also means there’s a new version of Burton, Conner, and all the others in the new stub, which may lead to the complications I noted in the post. Although we may learn new details next season that changes some of this.

      I agree on the police guy. We get the impression throughout the season that he’s a kind of a boy scout, so when he makes the move he does, it’s totally unexpected.

      In the original Terminator movie, certainly Skynet intends to change the past by sending the Terminator to kill Sarah Conner. But with Reese going back as well, and ultimately fathering John Conner, the whole thing becomes part of the history as it was understood from the future. So Skynet’s efforts just end up creating the very history it was trying to erase. We just didn’t know that would be the case until the end of the movie. (Of course, in subsequent movies they moved to 2, because the sequels wouldn’t work otherwise.)

      On Gibson’s writing, yeah, I don’t know what to say. I just struggle with it his approach. He tends to use a lot of made up jargon, which he expects the reader to figure out. I can do it, after a fashion, but it feels like a lot of work. I read Neuromancer and a few of his short stories decades ago before deciding his writing wasn’t for me, even though I like the overall concepts. I recently read the beginning of Neuromancer again to see if I’d have the same reaction, and mostly did. But I haven’t tried any of his more recent stuff. Might have to do that at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I watched 5 episodes last night and reread this. I’m not a sci-fi geek and not a proponent of many worlds so … . I agree with many of the comments. The main hook was the female lead. It was for me entertaining but not thought provoking. Too confusing. As a story it’s lacking in almost every element. And the 5 W’s? What and Why are missing. Is the main idea things in the near future are really bad, but it’s going to get a lot worse? But wait – there’s a beautiful, young brilliant woman, MA trained, who’s going to save the world, hidden away in Appalachia. Alright.

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    1. The main McGuffin is the information Nuland is concerned about getting into the hands of the Klept. But that’s not really made clear until near the end of the season.

      I do think the idea is that in the near future, things are bad, with much worse to come. Gibson’s visions are generally dystopian, or perhaps more accurately, worlds with at least as many problems as our current one.

      But definitely this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I watched part of episode 1 and figured, I won’t watch this, I’ll read Mike’s spoiler. Probably still won’t watch it. I prefer type 1B time travel stories over type 2 or 3.

    1B: Whatever happened, happened. This does not mean that the records of the past, which you think you have, are not fake. And if they are genuine, that does not guarantee that your interpretation of them was correct. And of course, what your records leave out, they leave out. Interactions between past and future may help set the value of variables in that unknown zone – and may even make some zones less (or even not at all) knowable.

    Hmm, I should write a story like that. Or more likely, figure out which Stanislaw Lem novel already beat me to it, and read that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing about type 1 (or 1B) is that it’s hard to see how it holds under a determined effort. Suppose we have time travel tech and decide we’re going to kill baby Hitler, no matter how many times we have to try. So we send the first expedition and they fail, somehow becoming part of what always happened. We send a second expedition with the same result. Then a third, fourth, etc.

      Now, maybe all this violence in Hitler’s early life is what messes him up and sets him on his destructive path. But it’s hard to imagine how all this activity goes unnoticed and stays out of the historical record.

      What’s interesting is if we try this in a type 3 reality, every attempt creates a new timeline. But if we don’t realize that’s what’s happening, and the time travel tech doesn’t allow for the time traveler getting back to their original timeline, then to the time traveler it looks like they’re in a 2 universe. But to those of us who sent them, it looks like the people we send not only fail, but keep disappearing.

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      1. Well, you seem to be supposing that the time travel options include every time (maybe within a certain range) as departure point and as arrival point. Time Travel Unlimited, so to speak. Within that framework, there can be only one ideology that prevails throughout this accessible history, provided that it cares about history.

        Since the stories are fantasy anyway, just make a different assumption.

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        1. True, in fiction we can make the rules of magic tech anything we want to suit the storyline. Still, it’s fun to think through implications.

          Another problem with unlimited time travel is what happens with major events? What prevents an essentially infinite number of time tourists from all future epochs converging on the same spot to see what really happened, and hopelessly gumming up the event?

          Of course, we can just say it requires the sacrifice of 10,000 suns or something to get enough energy to do it, which limits the number flooding in. I once heard about another story where the most significant events were “locked” because everyone was trying to open a wormhole to them, and the traffic jam prevented anyone from connecting.

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  9. Reading (listening to) Recursion – Blake Crouch, which ties in nicely with this multiverse / time layering motif. I recommend it (so far). I won’t give anymore away as even referring to the theme is enough to prep your mind for the storyline.

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  10. I finished watching it and, honestly, the ending troubled me. There’s a spiritual teacher on YouTube, Teal Swan, (whom I watch on occasion); and she’s been called “the suicide guru”. Unfairly, I think. But she does talk about other worlds, sort of.
    And this I recall back in 1999. The Columbine school murder/suicide event that seemed to spark that becoming more common. It followed the movie THE MATRIX. Which is along the idea of other worlds. There are a lot of troubled (?) people in the world and they get ideas from watching “entertainment”.
    Of course, we can’t draw a direct cause and effect, but there is a pattern.
    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always been leery of the idea that fiction alone can push someone to commit suicide (or murder or other drastic actions). Certainly it’s possible if someone is already on the edge that seeing a certain concept in a story might push them over. But then if they’re already that close, who knows what else might do it.

      I think it’s more productive to focus on the things that get them to that edge. It seems like lived experiences, socioeconomic factors, religious indoctrination, radicalization, and medical condition are much larger factors.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agree. However, our system is focused on what the proximate cause was/is. Otherwise we get into the “twinkie defense”. I don’t have an answer. There are a lot of people on or near the edge. Most don’t murder or suicide – they get sick and seek relief.
        The Columbine incident just popped into my head.

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  11. I hope I’m not too off topic here. I’m one who certainly enjoys good SciFi. But, I confess, I’m obviously more of a dilettante of the genre than Mike and most of you. Nevertheless, I’ve recently become a fan of the recent work of Lucas Films (now part of Disney). In particular I was impressed with the Star Wars prequel “Rogue One” and again impressed with the (prequel to that prequel) “Andor.” Although I assume that hard-core Star Wars fans may not like it since it has zero scenes depicting elaborate light saber duels, Jedi mind tricks and gravity defying uses of the Force.

    “Rogue One” got praise for the depth of its story from many critics and I quite agree. I assume that’s why Disney created the prequel called “Andor” about the life of Cassian Andor, one of the main characters of Rogue One. In my opinion the Star Wars franchise has matured with this film and series. The story explores in depth various aspects of moral ambiguity in ethics, especially political ethics and, of course, revolutionary action in a fictional setting with the rise of a totalitarian regime. I especially enjoyed the way one character, Syril, a young man with some real emotional baggage is enthralled by a fascist love of order. He is played by the actor Kyle Soller who turns in a masterful performance. His character is a good example of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” Arendt used that term to describe Adolf Eichmann when she covered his trial for genocide in the 1960’s.  Eichmann and the fictional character Syril are the kind of personalities I think who are most drawn to fascists regimes. There are other parts of the series that demonstrate excellent writing but I will stop here as I may be too far off our current topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re good Matti. I’m not strict on subject matter. (I’m not completely indifferent to it, but this is definitely close enough.)

      I watched Andor over the break and enjoyed it. Or I should say I finished watching it since I initially struggled after the first episode. But there were so many glowing reviews I circled back to it. Definitely pays off big in the end.

      You’re right that’s it’s not for all SW fans. My cousin’s kids bailed once it was clear there’d be no Jedi.

      But I’m with you on it being nice that they could focus on regular people. It’s kind of cool to see Mon Motha as someone with deep anxieties still trying to cling to her pre-revolutionary life, not ready to take the full plunge, yet events increasingly forcing her hand.

      As you note, even on the Empire side we see at least some of them as people, albeit with hang ups that predispose them to think the Empire is a good thing. And it’s definitely noteworthy that a lot of the worse outcomes happen through banal indifference people in authority have toward the plight of others, rather than any kind of moustache twirling evil cackling villainy. Andor ends up in prison, not for any of the things he’s done, but because he’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      BTW, did you watch The Mandalorian? It’s not as grounded as Andor, but pretty good at exploring alternate viewpoints, and how some of the ones celebrated in the movies look very different to others in different places.

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      1. Thanks Mike! Good to know you saw the same quality in the story telling there. In fact, I recently subscribed to Disney Plus specifically to watch Andor because I was pleasantly surprised by the direction of Rogue One and heard good things about Andor from some critics. Cassian Andor has a theme setting speech in late in Rogue One about committing questionable actions—e.g., his killing of a fellow rebel in one of the opening scenes. The Andor series explores that, among other ethical issues, very nicely. In fact, the whole series is really a theatrical version of those “trolley car” ethical conundrums created by Philosopher Philippa Foot as well as a darn good action adventure. I did not yet watch the Mandalorian but now I will. I’m pleased that Lucas Films is going to do a second and final season of Andor. There are multiple plots lines to explore.

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