We love to watch the future burn. Children hunt each other in The Hunger Games; humans rape and kill humanoids for sport in Westworld. Even in WALL-E, science fiction for babies, technology catastrophizes. The most popular sci-fi tends to show future worlds immolating; it’s a genre for our collective fears about technology, or uncertainty, or our lack of connection, which means that truly great science fiction is usually outwardly pessimistic about what humanity will do. Entropy, chaos, and despair make for a richer dramatic palate than happiness, which may be why Star Trek is perhaps the only mainstream science fiction series to have a predominantly optimistic worldview. There’s a reason it’s called Star Wars and not Star Friendships Enabled by Astro-technology.
The British series Black Mirror, which debuted a third season on Netflix last week, is a collection of cautionary tales sometimes literally based on the premise “what if phones, but too much.” It is uneven by its design as an anthology, swinging from cornily devastating to devastatingly corny and back again, with the one consistency being the “Technology Is Bad, Folks” theme. The newest season of Black Mirror takes the technophobic motif to eye-rolling extremes, especially in its first and last episodes: “Nosedive,” a.k.a. “Yelp … for PEOPLE,” and “Hated in the Nation,” a.k.a. “Killer Twitter Cyberbully Bee Drones.” Yet smack in the middle of a season of hysterical parables, series creator Charlie Brooker dropped a straight-on romance that doubles as a love note to technology.
“San Junipero,” a story of an unlikely courtship, has plenty to recommend it, from its crackling, tender performances, to its gauzy cinematography, to its boppy soundtrack. The seafoam art-film Saved by the Bell hallucination location is a caricature of the late ’80s, just off-kilter enough to suggest something futuristic is afoot. But I want to talk about one of its achievements in particular: As a meditation on a possibly more gorgeous future, “San Junipero” is startling not just within the grim world of Black Mirror but within the greater cultural landscape. In this episode, the protagonists get a love story and a happy ending only due to technology. New lovers Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are able to meet because they’ve uploaded their consciousnesses to a virtual reality. Outside the weird consciousness-uploading program, one of them is in a coma and the other is dying of what seems to be cancer; inside the program, they are able to enrich constrained, tragic lives and ultimately extend them — together. (To the sound of Belinda Carlisle.) Technology is the tool of liberation, and even of love.
Like most other sci-fi themes, mind-uploading usually leads to calamity — in 2014’s Transcendence, for example, Johnny Depp’s consciousness gets uploaded into a computer, and then Computer Johnny Depp gets power-drunk and turns evil. Avatar’s techno-future, which is probably the closest plot comparison to “San Junipero,” also happens to involve cosmic colonialism and genocidal war. There are some exceptions — the Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica featured mind-uploading into new bodies, for example — but nothing I’ve seen has presented a virtual reality environment as a potential site for a meaningful afterlife. “San Junipero,” meanwhile, both creates that afterlife and then explicitly interrogates its value and consequences.
It is not all rosy sentimentality; the episode suggests that people who go to San Junipero struggle to find purpose, hence the sinister nightclub with a fight club inside. Yorkie and Kelly also discuss how people can choose to “leave” San Junipero, which implies that residents eventually grow bored and choose the abyss over the simulacrum. The ending is bittersweet, as both protagonists physically die, and Kelly must grapple with the loss of her husband (who chose not to live in San Junipero) and her daughter (who did not have the choice). When I saw the enormous data center housing the consciousnesses of at least thousands of people, I wondered about hacking and power surges and all the things that could go wrong in a technology-based heaven; while these people get to love each other a little while longer, they are certainly not guaranteed eternity.
“Good [science fiction] supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place,” Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson wrote in an essay called “Innovation Starvation.” “A good [science fiction] universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers.” Stephenson started Project Hieroglyph at Arizona State University to entice science fiction writers to tell stories about innovation instead of destructive, evil, life-curdling horror-tech. It hasn’t quite sparked a wave of optimism in pop sci-fi, and there are plenty of good reasons to fear the bad things we could do with increasingly sophisticated tech: The hubristic confidence of Silicon Valley billionaires lends itself more to apprehension and mockery than it does to creating triumphant speculative worlds. We should spend some time plotting worst-case scenarios; also, Margaret Atwood is a national treasure. Overly hopeful stories can veer into treacle, and I like the terrifying dystopian visions I see on my screens.
I will argue, though, that “San Junipero” is more evidence that Black Mirror is better at telling stories about people who use technology than it is at satirizing how people use technology. Its strength is in episodes like this one and last season’s extremely sad “Be Right Back,” where people try to use technology as a shield against heartbreak. (In “Be Right Back,” a woman gets a synthetic clone of her husband based on his social media profile after he dies. Things don’t go well.) There is room for cynicism and cutting social commentary in science fiction, but many of Black Mirror’s attempts at this kind of entertainment are enormously corny. The show almost always excels in establishing odd future worlds — I enjoy even its “bad” episodes because I like the novelty of its universes — but in episodes like “San Junipero,” it gives the worlds it builds the stories they deserve. And with “San Junipero,” Black Mirror has given science fiction a refreshing reminder that speculative work doesn’t necessarily have to be dreary or devastating to punch your guts.