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:
- 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.)
- The past can be altered, which alters the present. (Back to the Future, and most time travel fiction.)
- 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?