January 3rd 2018, earth
A belated Merry Christmas from the year 2018, and a happy new year to you! I am writing you from Canada HQ, which is a bed from which I am ringing in the new year three days after the fact. This is part of a long-standing Gera tradition. As you’d expect, it starts by palming Ferrero Rocher into my mouth, slowly erecting a kind of sarcophagus around my body out of chocolate foil. Then at about 1am I will perform the ritual of watching as many episodes of Gilmore Girls as I can before I pass out, and the next day when I wake I will burst from my bed and with one single jerking motion of the arm will shed my golden foil-shroud and emerge like a newborn baby bird, ready for its next Ferrero cleansing. So begins another day.
Anyway, have you caught the new Black Mirror yet? (spoilers ahead)
PCGamer’s Samuel Roberts gives a definitive break down of the opening episode here. In ‘USS Callister,’ Robert Daley – a programming whiz at a futuristic game studio – has secretly developed a custom version of the company’s high-tech VR/virtual world Infinity. So high-tech is this tech that our intrepid programmer is able to take DNA samples sourced from coffee cups and discarded lollies, and create digital copies of those who have slighted him. The episode is ostensibly a warning against total escapism, at least at the beginning. Daley’s “bubble universe” is a playground for narcissists, which twists the original build into something darker. But as Sam points out, at its heart this episode is a celebration of gaming rather than a denigration of it.
“What’s great about USS Callister is that it still celebrate games, when it could teach audiences to fear them,” says Sam. “At the end of the episode, when Daley’s fantasy is broken, the Callister’s crew enter Infinity’s procedurally generated universe, wearing more contemporary outfits….with Daley out of the picture, the crew faces a universe of infinite possibilities.”
You might remember that Season 3 episode San Junipero takes a similarly positive approach to virtual worlds, using it as a means for extending consciousness after death. The episode shows how the elderly of the near-future use simulation to relive their youth, in this case in a simulated coastal town during a never-ending summer of ’87, and continue to live even when their physical body dies. Like USS Callister, San Junipero presents the idea that simulated worlds can be a legitimate alternative to the physical world.
Yesterday games writer Daniel Krupa wrote about this phenomenon for the Guardian. The article Spielberg’s Ready Player One – in 2045, virtual reality is everyone’s saviour identifies a recent shift within sci-fi, where simulation and virtual reality have become metaphors for a kind of alternative utopia.
“Virtual reality isn’t often depicted so alluringly on film,” Krupa writes of the upcoming film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s virtual reality-centered novel. “The Matrix is one of the best-known VR dramatisations – and one of the bleakest. Following an unsuccessful war with intelligent machines, the human race is little more than a crop, a plentiful source of bioelectricity. For their entire ‘lives’, humans are hooked into a near-perfect simulation of the world as it was 200 years previously, blissfully unaware of their enslavement.
“….VR is often treated with the same suspicion that has dogged video games as a whole over the last 30 years – that spending all day lost in a digital world is antisocial, morally suspect and corrupting.”
Is there something to this? And if so where does this change in sentiment come from?
It’s possible that this represents a generational leap. Younger voices are joining the film and television industry, and these creators are more familiar with the applications of modern technology.
But I wonder if this is representative of a deeper cultural trend. Soft sci-fi has long been used to present issues within social science and politics. William Tenn’s The Liberation of Earth (1950) and the film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers are early examples of this, using the trope of alien invasion as a metaphor for the American fear of foreign occupation.
The Trump effect on science fiction, if it exists, probably manifests in a similar way as invasion anxiety did in the ’50s – an abstract recognition of an existential fear. In 2018, perhaps the quiet anxieties of science fiction say more about the spirit of our times than we’d ever thought. That Earth looks increasingly less habitable a place and that a virtual one just seems like an overall better alternative.
Anyhow, I’ll leave you with this tweet.
fwiw screaming exit game into the sky does nothing
— GERA (@twitgera) December 30, 2017