When I first heard that Mark Zuckerberg planned to throw his company headlong into building the metaverse, I was in disbelief. It was a wild escapist fantasy, a dream that a decade’s, nay, a lifetime’s worth of problems could be solved by running away to another world. But then again, that’s exactly what the metaverse has always been.
In Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, which first coined the word Zuckerberg has become so fond of in recent years, mobster-pizza-delivery-driver Hiro Protagonist escapes the grind of his daily life in the “burbclaves” that have overtaken America by slipping on a headset and vanishing into a world where he is literally a hero, a master hacker who dual-wields katanas and rides his motorcycle on the infinite Street at the speed of light. And in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a direct heir of Snow Crash, Wade Watts finds freedom and the chance to get away from it all in a virtual world aptly called the Oasis. In stories like these, the idea of the metaverse is indelibly tied to a kind of magic portal fantasy for adults: the dream that another, more thrilling, more special, more important world waits just over the garden wall.
Amazon’s new series The Peripheral, based on the William Gibson novel by the same name, inherits all of that history and more. The series’ lead, Flynne Fisher, is a small-time 3D printer technician living somewhere in rural America circa 2030. She’s also a gamer, and a good one — so good, in fact, that a mysterious game developer contacts her to beta test an advanced next-generation VR headset (“Chosen one”/magical contest fantasy check, and check.) The new game drops Flynne, piloting her brother Burton’s avatar, into a sleek futuristic London crafted with such cyberpunk flare that I almost wish I could see it on the big screen, one complete with dozens of genre homages. Fans of Netflix’s tragically canceled Altered Carbon will thrill to the towering “air scrubbers” that pierce the London skyline and the clouds above, while Flynne’s gleeful testing of her new body’s superhuman abilities has, if I may use a highly technical term, serious Matrix vibes. Possessed of a confidence in the male avatar that she doesn’t seem to feel in her own body back in America, Flynne races through eerily glossy London alleyways in the dead of night, eager to complete her mission of kidnapping a member of the prestigious Research Institute and delivering her–unconscious and possibly dead–to a mysterious buyer.
Unfortunately for Flynne, this is not a game.
This is the twist that makes The Peripheral capable of equalling, and in some ways surpassing, its predecessors. As Flynne learns too soon, the headset she’s been given is not a simulator but a time travel device, one capable of sending information, and only information, backward and forward in time. Far from simply playing a game, she’s casting her mind forward into the 22nd century, piloting a clone made decades after her own death.
As ridiculous a premise as it sounds, it’s this twist that makes The Peripheral worth watching. The fact that Flynne’s personal escapist fantasy is, in fact, real, gives it a grounding that makes every gruesome fight and chilling reveal about this grimdark future that much more nail-biting. The show captures exactly the gritty sense of cyberpunk-surrealism that I’ve been missing since Altered Carbon left the air in 2020, holding up a twisted mirror to our present that hits too close to home to be comfortable. And, in some ways, the new series’ habit of slipping back and forth between 2030 and 2100 is even more effective than its predecessors’ at throwing the sleek, bloody future and the gritty, fracturing present that lead to it into sharp relief.
While The Peripheral is still airing live, the premiere taps into something deep: the desire to peek over the next hedge and see how deep the rabbit hole goes — the urge to dream the world away, and how dangerous that urge can be. As a story it’s more fantasy than sci-fi, but, perhaps ironically, it’s the kind of fantasy that makes the real world it reflects all the more interesting. I guess Amazon Prime will be getting my subscription money for a while yet.
About the Author
As a new editor of the Quest, Declan is already at work on a new version of the Quest site and, when not in class or reading a book somewhere in the canyon, is likely to be found holed up in the SPO listening to music and muttering something incoherent about semicolons and divs. Like Anie, Declan looks forward to working with both new and returning Quest writers this semester, and plans to spend more than a few late nights in the Quest office (before staggering into his 9 AM history class on Thursday morning).
Can you recommend anything similar to these two shows. They’re both fantastic!
Westworld S1 I’d say.