It’s Alive!: ‘Black Mirror’ & TV’s New Golden Age of Science Fiction

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Think of science fiction as a mirror for our times. Just as television’s first “Twilight Zone” (1959-1964) reflected cold war fears and anxieties, “Black Mirror,” the more recent Netflix anthology series is very much of the moment.

Plots range wildly, from a dating site with ulterior motives. Genetic engineering by a creepy Captain Kirk clone. An underclass on stationary bikes earning credits for food while they generate electricity. One episode, “San Junipero,” about two women who are more than best friends won two 2017 Primetime Emmys, and was nominated for a Hugo Award for best dramatic sci fi short.

“Black Mirror” segments are very much about how we are changed by technology, says Lisa Yaszek, science fiction historian and critic. As “Black Mirror” creator Charlie Brooker said of his show, “If technology is a drug, what are its side effects?” What do we see when we look in the black mirror of our computer screens?

And if androids dream of electric sheep, what did Philip K. Dick dream about? The new Amazon anthology series, “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” is based on the works the master sci fi writer whose stories became the films “Blade Runner,” “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and “The Adjustment Bureau.”

“The beauty of Philip K. Dick is that he’s one of the first authors to note how individuals and cultures react to technological changes, how they impact us psychologically and sociologically,” says Yaszek. At the time Dick was writing, the global economy was beginning to develop and he had alternate ways of perceiving reality, she adds, including realizing that perhaps the government did not always have our best interests at heart.

Author of “Galactic Suburbia,” a study of post-war women science fiction writers, Yaszek will appear in episodes of “AMC Visionaries: James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction,” a six-part documentary beginning April 30. It’s another nod to how science fiction filters our now.

A sci fi resurgence happens about every 20 years or so in moments of great cultural change, says Yaszek. “Science fiction is such a great place to work through our anxieties. Most of the anthology shows tend to focus on things that upset us.”

Cat Rambo, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, author and former editor of Fantasy Magazine agrees, saying we turn to fiction because we want to know something more. “Obviously, there’s the escapist urge, but there’s also the urge to live another life, in order to figure out our own.”

Hour or half-hour anthology shows based on short fiction are really well adapted to our fractured schedules and overbooked lifestyles, says Rambo. “Short stories can be adapted into TV shows more easily than novels, because short stories tend to focus on one thing, like one antelope out of a pack that can be hunted down.”

There are no aliens, lasers or spaceships in HBO’s “Room 104,” but it’s straight out of “Weird Tales,” the magazine that first published H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s. The series is set in a single hotel room, and each episode is about different guests who stayed in the room over the years, for better or worse.

The latest incarnation of “The Twilight Zone” will stream at some future date on CBS All Access, and with Jordan Peele as an executive producer, it’s sure to hit some hot topics. Peele’s genre-busting, racism-exposing “Get Out” was recently nominated for best picture, best director and best original screenplay, making him only the third person in Oscar history to hit this triple, and the fifth African-American to get a best director nomination.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we are going to see more science fiction stories, because we live in strange times,” says Yaszek, professor of literature, media and communication at Georgia Tech.

“The basic story of science fiction is the story of brave people working through their differences and using science and technology to make a better world. It doesn’t have to end in dystopia.”

 

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Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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