Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Black Mirror, Season Two

(UK, 2016)

Well, it’s back, the most dystopian science fiction anthology series I’ve ever seen. I mean, these stories are black, really black. Normally I’m much in favor of stories that take the protagonist from a terrible situation, through a series of hardships and struggles, but it all comes out okay in the end. These stories do not. But they are so imaginative, so thought-provoking, so well-written, that I can’t look away. Most of the stories involve cyber horrors of one kind or another, and you can usually see the present-day phenomena they are exploring. And the stories explore one of the most basic premises of science fiction stories: If this goes on …

S3.E1. Nosedive. If this goes on … Social media. Likes and dislikes. The verb “to friend.” User reviews on Amazon and the IMDb. Suddenly everybody is rating everyone and everything. So in this story, everybody has a “life rating,” so to speak. With every social interaction, from a long conversation with an old friend to simply bumping into someone on the street, literally bumping, you aim your smart-phone-like device and rate it, from one to five stars. Keeping your average score high is desperately important. You need to keep yourself 4.0 or higher, minimum. People rated 4.8 are superstars.

Naturally this leads to the smarmiest, phoniest conversations you will ever see. All perfect teeth are always on display in huge, false smiles. People say wonderful things about each other … then check their phones to see how they were rated.

Poor Lacie is running at 4.2, and thus unable to rent in a building that requires a 4.5. Then her old high school chum Naomi, a 4.8 who has everything anyone could possible want, asks Lacie to be her maid of honor at her upcoming wedding in a few days. This could be her opportunity to be uprated by a lot of upper-class people! So she goes to the airport … and her flight is overbooked, and they won’t help a 4.2 get on another. She rents a car, and sets off on the worst journey since Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or National Lampoon’s Vacation. This story is so horribly possible that it scared me.

S3.E2. Playtest. This one was much more like an old Twilight Zone story: A man finds himself in a strange situation and has to try to get out of it. This time it’s volunteering (because he needs the money) to test a new virtual reality system, that is a lot more than just visual. It also involves direct machine-to-neural net contact, the implantation of a small device in contact with your spinal cord, which is not possible now but is a staple in science fiction stories. And who knows? It’s certainly not impossible.

The scenarios which are popular with the public are horror trips. The writers of the programs want to scare you badly. The idea is that our hero will spend the night in an old mansion and see what happens. Naturally he approaches it all as a lark, and naturally it turns out to be anything but. The illusions involve all your senses, and you can’t tell if a monster or a person is real until you try to touch it. Soon he is terrified, since some of this stuff apparently is all too real. Then there are multiple twists, and before long you are unsure just how much of what you saw in the lead-up to the experiment was real, and how much is virtual memories.

S3.E3. Shut Up and Dance. This laptop I’m writing on is the first one I’ve had that has that little glass eye above the screen, so you can Skype, or whatever. The first thing I did after I turned it on was to paste a post-it over the lens. Now I’ve got some clip-on speakers covering it. Can someone really hack you and spy on you through that camera? I’m not sure, but I’m not taking any chances.

This is the story I like the best, so far. It is totally present-day, and doesn’t use any new technology. A teenager named Kelly masturbates to some pictures on his computer. Not long after he gets a text message and a video showing him doing it. Another text tells him that if he doesn’t do as he is told, the video will go to everyone on his contacts list. Whoever is hacking him tells him to go to a parking structure and wait. He does, and a man arrives on a scooter and hands him a box. Kelly realizes this man is being run by the unseen puppet master, too. There’s a cake in the box, and he is supposed to deliver it to a hotel room. The man in the room doesn’t need or want the cake, but then he gets a text and a video, and he turns pale and says the two of them have to go to another carpark. Obviously they have something on him, too. And we’re off to the races.

It wouldn’t be fair to tell you any more. You won’t be surprised to find that things get worse, then worser, then worsest. There was a surprise ending that I didn’t see coming at all. Really, this all hangs together very well, given only that the mysterious hacker can do the things we see. The all-powerful hacker has become a standard character in a lot of TV and movies. What they can do in real life is probably something we will never know … until they do it. I’m not involved in any social media. This movie makes me even more determined to stay away from it all. And don’t forget, never do anything on your computer that you would be ashamed to see as a headline in the New York Times. And once something is on the Internet, it never goes away. It is immortal.

S.3E4. San Junipero. SPOILER WARNING: I won’t reveal the ending, which is not really a twist, but I should warn you that things are not what they seem at first, and we’re almost halfway through the story before we begin to see how some little clues here and there add up to something strange. It’s not a world-shaking revelation, it’s not a gotcha! twist ending, but still, if you don’t want to know, stop here.

It is apparently 1987, and Yorkie, a shy, awkwardly dressed woman (MacKenzie Davis) enters a nightclub where there is a lot of disco dancing. She makes a connection with another woman, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but they don’t do anything about it. Then it’s one week later, and this time they hook up. And it is around then that we realize that “San Junipero” is a virtual reality environment. VR is very hot right now, but basically it’s just 3D in the real world. This is total VR, just as detailed as the “real world, engaging all the senses. It feels exactly like reality. It can exist in many different years, and on subsequent visits Yorkie sees the same nightclub in the ‘90s and in 2002.

The second big reveal is that 85% of these people are actually dead. Their minds have been either copied or transferred to “the cloud,” and they can basically live forever. (If it’s really living, which I think is debatable. See below.) The other 15% are visiting, allowed only five hours per week so they can see what the afterlife is like and decide if they want to go there. At midnight they all turn into pumpkins. So … where are the bodies of these living people? What is their condition? How old? Is Kelly alive or dead? And is it really life?

This could easily become an entire series, as there are not only moral, but existential questions to be answered. I explored some of them in some of my stories, like “The Phantom of Kansas.” If your memories are recorded, then your consciousness can’t be transferred to a new body. The new person will be just like you, but it won’t be you. But if you are transferred, conscious, with continuity of memory, into the data banks and given a virtual life, it might seem as if you are still you … but are you?

This could be a lot of fun. Bottom line, you know, we don’t have the slightest idea of what consciousness is. No one can touch it. It comes from nowhere in the womb, and seems to flicker out at death. Does one have a soul? The most logical answer is no, all that religious bullshit was created out of the fear of death. And we arbitrarily decided that other animals and plants do not have souls. But the fact is we know nothing. Not one iota of data. What is the difference between my body and a rock? What would be the difference between my mind and a hypothetical A.I.? Dunno, and dunno. But fascinating to theorize about it.

S3.E5. Men Against Fire. I’d call this one far-fetched, at least at the moment, but when we start implanting chips into our brains, as most SF writers are assuming is somewhere down the road, all bets are off.

It’s ten years after some sort of war, and an elite combat force is charged with tracking down and killing the survivors of the other side, who are referred to as roaches. When we see them, they sure look like they need killing. They are ugly, they make awful screeching sounds, and the biggest difference between a roach and a zombie is that zombies attack, and roaches run away, just like those little scuttling bugs in the kitchen. But as usual in a story like this, things are not as they seem. The soldiers have chips in their heads that allow them to see 3D virtual reality, shared by all, as an aid before storming a roach hideout.

A new recruit, during a raid in which two roaches are killed, encounters a new device they have developed. It’s a dingus that re-programs the chip in your head. Suddenly he sees and hears the roaches as they really are, which is just regular human beings.

It’s the old, ugly philosophy of eugenics rearing its head again. The powers that be are on a crusade to eliminate “defective” genes from the pool. You know, people with a history of MS or cancer or retardation, Democrats, you name it. Anything, apparently, that deviates from the perfect Aryan Nazi ideal. Hitler would have loved it. But it is well known that in combat, 70% of soldiers don’t fire their weapons at all, and most of the rest aim over the heads of the opposing troops. It’s much harder to kill someone else if you concede that they are a human being who just happens to be wearing a different uniform than you are. But if the enemy can be seen as the other, as sub-human, as a freaking cockroach … well, hand me the Raid, Sarge! The chips in their heads make the targeted people look and sound like monsters.

Naturally the newbie is horrified, and naturally his comrades view him as a traitor when he protects a roach woman and her child. And of course he is arrested and taken in for re-programming. There is a twist at the end which I won’t reveal, except to say it’s something like the end of the Jason Bourne saga.

S3.E6. Hated in the Nation. Here’s another one about so-called “social media.” I can hardly express how much I dislike them, every one of them. I just learned that forty percent of the bubble-headed fuckwits in this county get most or all of their news from Facebook. Forty percent! I didn’t even know there was news on Facebook. And maybe there isn’t. It seems a hell of a lot of the “news” you can get there is total lies, faked up to look like the real deal. But if it’s on the Internet, it must be true! I actually saw a Trump supporter on the news say that.

Then there is Twitter. God, do I hate Twitter. I hated it even before that gibbering buffoon who will soon be our president started his daily spouting. The first time I became aware of how awful it could be was when a woman flying to South Africa tweeted an ill-considered remark concerning AIDS. When she landed, she found herself in a shitstorm of defamation from morons who engage in stuff like that. And they are morons, all of them. Sure, it was a silly thing to say, an offensive thing to say, a joke in very bad taste, but the response was a fucking lynch mob. It is the 21st century equivalent of the stocks in Puritan New England. Public shaming, without benefit of a trial or even a chance to say you’re sorry. Many of these people openly call for the actual killing of the offender.

So here we have a situation where someone, somewhere, has set up a poll to determine the most reviled person in the UK that day. If someone gets a plurality of responses to #deathto that person, that person dies, horribly. The cops can’t figure out how it’s being done. It’s sort of a locked room mystery at first. The method of these killings seems pretty unlikely to me, but it works for story purposes. And the real purpose of this story, of course, is to point out how fucking horrible the so-called “online community” can be. Like any mob, such a community is only as smart or as decent as its dumbest and most indecent member. Think about it the next time you grab a torch and run screaming with the mob.