Haptic Feedback

I watched season 1 of The Peripheral on Amazon. It is based on a book by William Gibson. The ending was open to the possibility of their being further seasons. I have not read the book and do not know how far the adaptation deviates, but Gibson himself is involved so we can assume it all has his approval. Perhaps it is like the Amazon version of The Man In The High Castle, which expanded from the source material but in a way consistent with the author’s other work and ideas.

We start in London in 2099, where Wilf Netherton is sitting unhappily on a bench near the Thames. Robot boats are conducting a simulated battle on the water.

He is soon joined by a young girl that he seems to have known well for a long time, called Aelita.

But far off someone is manipulating plastic models of humans on a replica of a house somewhere. This turns out to correspond to the home of the Fisher family, in the US in 2032.

Flynne Fisher and her brother Burton Fisher are looking after their terminally ill and blind mum. They are trying to pay for her expensive medications with the little wages Flynne gets from working at a 3D printing store, while Burton plays for money in virtual reality combat games using interactive headsets.

Of course Flynne is the real talent and thanks to her performance someone sends him a mysterious special headset to use for a mysterious special client.

Using the headset puts her in what seems to be Burton’s body, but in the world of 2099. She is then ordered by her mysterious controller to carry out a kidnapping so she can get in to some sort of important facility and get information from some sort of supercomputer, before being killed off by security agents.

From now on it seems the Fishers are in danger from deadly agents travelling back from the future to attack them. Meanwhile the person who sent the headset also seems to have a link from 2099. Appraising that Flynne is the real operator, they create an appropriate bodysuit for her to use when connected to the later timezone. These remote physical bodies are the “peripherals” of this world.

Burton and his dudes are ready for the challenge of defending his home estate once they realise what’s going on. They are in fact all veterans of a special combat unit who had haptic technology implanted, so they can connect in special ways between each other’s situations. They also have a lot of quite useful military kit still available.

The details of these worlds:

  1. In 2032 we are already a few years on from some sort of political upheaval. Burton’s unit were fighting some sort of secessionist movement in Texas, it seems they won but the US as a whole is politically broken. Their hometown is dominated by Corbell Pickett, a local car dealer who cleared out all rivals with a swift and ruthless campaign a few years back and now has the local law under his thumb.
  2. In 2099 we are now some time after the great sequence of crises and disasters labelled “the Jackpot”. London has been rebuilt to look like a rather cleaner version of what it is in 2022, plus a few items of unexplained giant statuary on the skyline. This came after a period of chaos and hardship in which many families were broken, and children like Wilf and Aelita ended up in detention camps and orphanages before getting placed with well-off new parents who raised them to work for the new techno-elite who survived the social collapse. Not many real humans are alive in this world, there are lots of peripherals and androids, and the Met Police check up on who is controlling them and whether they have permits.

There are still a few parts of London that haven’t been rebuilt, but altogether this was mostly just filmed on location and the big statues added with all the other effects.

There are various factions contending amongst the power elite of 2099. Flynne and Burton come under the wing of the “Klept” Lev Zubov and his entourage, who employs Wilf. The secrets that Aelita used Flynne to steal are in the vault of the grand Research Institute, controlled by Cherise Nuland.

It’s the RI that started the business of connecting through time in order to learn more about the world of the early 21st century. The way it works is that by making a connection they have created a “stub” in the past, a branch in history, which is connected to 2099, but – this is the smart move – it isn’t the past of the timeline 2099 that is at the other end. Thus we completely cut out paradoxes: nothing that happens in stub-2032 makes a difference directly to this 2099, although the 2032 that 2099 knows about in its surviving records are a reliable guide to The Stub. One other curiosity is that connections always seem to be consecutive: if 2032-Day1 connects to 2099-Day1, then when 2032-Day2 connects it must connect at 2099-Day2. It is not clear if there is a strict absolute interval or if it is just maintaining the relative ordering of events in the two timezones; since nobody seems to mention it, we don’t find out if this is a technological fix in the headset to ensure consistency, or a physical restriction on how time-communication must work. As we’ve already established that the Stub universe can’t cause paradoxes in the future branch, I don’t know why this restraint applies. The model of reality implied in all this sounds rather like the ideas of the philosopher Storrs McCall.

The idea that the US will collapse into civil war has been with us since… the end of the actual Civil War, it seems. White supremacists/militias are the usual suspects to set off major terrorist incidents. This folklore has been around so long, and I absorbed so much of it in the years after the Oklahoma Bombing of 1995 that when first news of the WTC attack in 2001 broke (not too long after the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Bomber) that I expected it would turn out to be a homegrown US white terrorist group again. The US Second Civil War was of course one of the details revealed by John Titor. It was also the background plot of In The Shadow Of The Moon (2019), with future agents trying to confound the present-day conspiracy network. It looks likely that Americans will eventually have to have another Civil War simply because it is such an embedded part of their present culture and soon none of them will be able to conceive a future without one. The window of opportunity here is for a scifi story about the conspiracy to mind-control everyone into believing that the war has already happened and their faction has won. This will of course turn into a satire about social media bubbles.

I like some of the visuals in The Peripheral, though I wonder if 2099 London is simply what Americans imagine London is already like. Those big weird statues of what seem to be Hercules and various other mythical Greeks are simply a tourist struggling to remember the overall impression of Nelson’s Column, the Tower, Soho, and various other random fragments of history, all jumbled together, or glanced at from the cable cars in Docklands. The portrayal of a city where few real people exist and others are just phantom images, present only to make rooms look busier, is of course how London already appears to anyone in politics or the media, judging from Sunday newspapers.

America in this show looks like it does already, with lots of guys with guns in small towns with not much to do. This show has a generally positive image of military veterans even if they seem to be simply for hire and not too concerned about what they are fighting for. An old IRA man is also living in the US in 2032, and can be coerced into attempting to kill the Fishers, which shows his employers must actually possess quite a lot of information about The Stub. We also have a rather long segment about Corbell Pickett’s son feeling lost and unhappy after his world falls apart.

One other aspect of this world that very obviously references our own is the status of the Klepts such as Zubov. There is a section at the end of episode 8, after the main credits, where we see him unexpectedly confronted at his Club by some important old boys who talk in ze funny Ruzzian aczent mixed with actual Russian words, and tell him he’s been naughty boy and has disappointed the important men who are in charge since “the Putin Diaspora”.

And then they have a good old laugh because they were winding him in a direct copy of the scene in The Death Of Stalin where Zhukov winds up Khrushchev. So that’s who the main baddies are in this world, although the Research Institute isn’t great either. Cherise Nuland behaves quite like a Bond villain at times, and even does one of her own killings. They really can’t get the staff in 2099.

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