Black Mirrors and Time Travel: Death and Regret in Sci-fi

Mar 03, 2013

(Spoilers for Black Mirror,  11/22/63 - minor spoilers for Caprica, Buffy, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf - but you know, read it anyway.)

At what point does it become wrong to want to change the way things are?

While it is natural to want this at the heart of so many stories is the idea that at some point trying to change the universe becomes unhealthy and monstrous. Anxiety in this mould about technological progress has been a feature of science fiction since the beginning - but anxiety about technological progress isn't really about technology, what ‘science is bad’ is really saying is that people are bad and that the ability science gives us to control our own destiny will distort and twist us in the most fundamental ways.

Black Mirror definitely buys into this relationship between the bad people and their toys. The National Anthem argues that modern technology is bringing us closer to animals rather than lifting us above (although I’m not convinced the story pulled off the mob aspect that well), The Entire History of You and Be Right Back share a theme that the imperfection of memory is a blessing that keeps us from living in the past and technology that allows us to re-experience things we’ve lost keeps us from growing as people.

Be Right Back deals with Martha, who after the death of her husband (Ash) is signed up to a internet start-up that given access to the social media profiles of the dead can recreate their personality, given voice samples can call you on the phone, and given photos (plus money) can send you a robot to take their place. This shares a lot of DNA with the Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, where a major set of plot threats are various character’s ambitions for protagonist Zoe’s (who ‘dies’ in the first episode) resurrection computer program. Like Be Right Back, Caprica’s method of resurrection is based on the equivalent of scouring social networks and the internet but in Caprica’s case this is actually good enough and the end results are effectively perfect copies of the original people.

In Be Right Back Robot Ash’s presence is harmful because he simply isn't a good enough copy to replace the original, what was meant to displace grief ends up extending it. Caprica looks more towards the social fallout of the possible end of death. From Clarice’s plans to create a heaven for martyrs of her religion to Daniel’s plans to sell the technology and make it available widely (complete with promo video of a man stepping out from behind his coffin to his grieving family) there is no doubt that the technology works, simply how it is going to be used. Robot Ash is flawed because the story model requires a fatal flaw (like these great tales of caveman science fiction). Using technology (or magic) to address your desires (resulting from ambition, grief) will only create monsters - either figurative or literal.

Something that’s fun with these kind of stories is to think about how the possible future society that’s got over these issues will look back on them. If you could be resurrected from your social networks and it could be perfect - would this be wrong? Would resurrection really be so bad for us as a society? If the technology was perfect (say people made regular backups) would a version of Ash who could only talk out of a mobile phone be a completely different order than if the car accident had just paralysed him? Isn’t it really another degree of the great spectrum of disability? What I wonder is if this is the kind of attitude that people in a few hundred years are going to find rather quaint - will they be horrified at the frailness of all those people who went through their lives without the wifi chip in their skull taking backups, and a little amused that we thought their deathless society would be an unnatural, wrong place?

The end of death is one of the keystones of the transhumanist future and different approaches abound everywhere in science fiction. In Bear’s Eon universe, the inhabitants of Axis City get two chances in a physical body before an indefinite existence in city memory. In Clarke’s City and The Stars in order to make immortality viable over millions of years without society growing stale (which fails, but anyway) the people of Diaspar use a form of reincarnation, where people are given twenty years or so to establish new lives before their previous memories are returned to them. In Red Dwarf dead crew can be bought back to life as holograms and the dead are a growing force in society, when Rimmer is whining about being dead Lister just argues that “death isn’t the handicap it used to be in the olden days. It doesn't screw your career up the way it used to”.

There is a similar approach to the sanctity of death in fantasy where, despite the otherwise strangeness of the world, often reversing ‘natural death’ remains an uncrossable line. Magical worlds that co-exist with the real world tend to certain rules to explain why the real world is only superficially altered from our own with the addition of these fantastic elements, usually in some form of unwritten Prime Directive of non-interference - the specific problem being that magical rules tend to be fair (in the sense that all actions can be reversed - at a cost) whereas the real world is notably for being distinctly unfair. Harry Potter's world has a host of magical ailments for magical healers to fix but St Mungo’s doesn’t go around curing muggles of cancer. In Buffy, Joyce and Tara are explicitly unable to be resurrected through magical means because of the non-magical nature of the deaths and season five’s Forever dwells on the horrificness of trying to break this rule. While the real- and other-world mix to some degree, real-world death is repeatedly treated as a line the other just can't cross, or at least not lightly.

In science fiction this comes up quite a lot in stories about time travel - attempts to fix real-world wrongs using otherworldly time-travel are frequently the source rather than remedy of regret. As How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe puts it "within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine".  In the Whoverse this happens most explicitly in Father’s Day when Rose's attempt to save her father literally breaks the story-world apart and lets monsters in from beyond the fourth wall to teach her a lesson. The Tenth Doctor's “Time Lord Victorious” speech in Waters of Mars is effectively him declaring his refusal to let his otherworldlyness bind his actions, hubris the story punishes him for in short succession. However this is a line that Who is increasingly fuzzy on, at the end of the The Almost People the Doctor gives Cleaves what is in effect a magic potion to fix the brain clot in her brain. Like Joyce’s aneurysm in Buffy, the clot isn't caused by the Doctor or the events of the story, it's presented as a decidedly human problem that's solved (in a moment) through magical means. Similarly, in last year’s Christmas episode a normal man was flying back in a doomed plane from a normal war and is rescued from death through essentially magical means.

When a story is showing the dark side of Trying To Change How Things Were it tends to show history breaking in two ways. In Red Dwarf’s Tikka to Ride Kennedy’s assassination is accidentally prevented, leading to an alternate history where Kennedy’s failings of a president are given time to play out, leading to an earlier and different end to the Cold War where the future the show is set in no longer exist, while in Stephen King’s 11/22/63 time doesn't want to be changed, and the act of doing so on a large enough scale (preventing the Kennedy assassination) breaks the universe, with earthquakes, disasters and a decay of the laws of physics. One teaches the a lesson that history is complicated and events have unexpected repercussions, the other that meddling in the past is just Wrong with a capital W and you will be punished for doing so.

At their core Black Mirror and the range of similar stories are essentially conservative in the 'people aren't getting any better' sense, but this also spills over into 'attempts to make people better will always fail' - because the one thing we certainly can't be trusted to change right is ourselves. A future where people play pick 'n' mix with their memories, change history on a whim, and the dead walk on the streets demanding equal rights is certainly weird and unsettling to us today - but wouldn’t they find stories demanding a ‘dead’ person go away so everyone else can move on a little bit horrifying themselves?

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