What Black Mirror, Her and the near-future genre tell us about tomorrow

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Taking after George Orwell and JG Ballard, some of the most prophetic and disturbing fiction about the near future continues to be made on TV and film

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13. The first line of George Orwells 1984 immediately places you in a world that is different but not too different. Everything up to the end of the sentence is completely normal; its an everyday April, bright and cold and the clocks are ringing. The only unusual touch is that last word, 13. The future, Big Brother and all, isnt far from us. Only about an hour, in fact.

1984 is an example of near-future science fiction narratives that extrapolate from current technology and society to think about what life could be like in 10 years, or a year, or an hour. Television shows including Black Mirror, Orphan Black and Humans and films such as Her, Ex Machina and High Rise (which was adapted from near-future master JG Ballard) dont take warp-speed flights to distant stars. They just take a step or two into the screen were already looking at.

Part of the reason that the near future is enjoying such a boom at the moment is that the present looks more like the future than ever, according to Gerd Leonhard, futurist and author of Technology vs Humanity. Basically whats happening is that science fiction has caught up with us, so what seems like science fiction is now possible, he told me.

He said the central conceit of Her, in which a man falls in love with a computer operating system, depicts whats pretty much already here, in that we can consider the computer a friend. The Black Mirror episode San Junipero, in which people live inside a simulation, Leonhard says, is also quite close to fruition. That is in a way already happening. We use mobile devices as a kind of second external brain, which were using to escape from our own reality. But its still outside our bodies. So I think were five or seven years away till we get to the point where we can create a fake reality using augmented and virtual reality and holograms.

The director of San Junipero, Owen Harris, was a little more skeptical than Leonhard. The episode imagines a future in which people can upload their consciousnesses into a computer-simulated reality, either temporarily while theyre still alive, or permanently after death. In terms of how much I believe this can happen, Harris told me, I think its impossible to know. Its quite difficult to make that leap into trying to imagine how this could work. But then, thats not to say that it couldnt. Because things that we struggle to perceive at one point in time, they can come to pass.

For Harris, the fun of Black Mirror isnt predicting the future so much as the tantalizing possibility of what might be. I like that sense of tipping point that that creates, which is sort of that you could quite literally wake up tomorrow, and you wouldnt be completely blown away if you were to read about this piece of technology being trialled or used for the first time.

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Black Mirrors San Junipero. Photograph: David Dettmann/Netflix

San Junipero, in particular, is a love story, just like Her. For Harris, the near future provides a perfect place for romance. When youre dealing with relationship tales, theres still a familiarity about them and a truth to them even though the technology that theyre dealing with is largely science fiction.

Near-future fiction can be a way to forecast possibilities, and it can be an enjoyable narrative device. But its also a commentary on whats happening now, according to Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction. I think science fiction is rarely in any important way about the future, in the sense of trying to predict the future, Freedman said. Its record in trying to do so is very mixed at best. Instead, Freedman says, the interesting thing about Black Mirror is the way that it examines the present, echoing JG Ballards maxim that the future in my science fiction has never been more than five minutes away.

One common theme in the majority of episodes, he notes, is spectatorship, how we like to watch things. In the first episode of Black Mirrors first season, a terrorist threat forces the fictional British prime minister to have sex with a pig on live television. The terrorist message is sent through YouTube; pressure on the prime minister to save the kidnapped peoples princess explodes via social media. Mass popular demand creates a visual event, to be consumed with horror and delight not unlike the way in which the reality television career of Donald Trump has led to the ultimate reality television: the Trump presidency.

Spectatorship and life have become inseparable not in the future, but now. An awful lot of our life is devoted to looking at electronic screens, Freedman points out. Thats a very recent thing; go back 30 years and except for television, we didnt spend a lot of time looking at electronics, we didnt live through electronic screens. Generally, the television was at home in your living room or bedroom, but now of course we have screens with us wherever we go.

Near-future sci-fi is a way of gaining perspective, not on what might be soon, but on what is, right now. Orwell wasnt (just) writing about a future Britain, but about the contemporary Stalinist Soviet Union and for that matter about authoritarian tendencies in Britain and the west, which he experienced first-hand while fighting in the Spanish civil war. Similarly, the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire is ostensibly about a future in which computer programs in soldiers heads lead them to see their enemies as subhuman monster roaches. But its also a parable about how propaganda justifies ethnic cleansing, which seems quite relevant to the near future in which America could institute a Muslim registry.

More even than most science fiction, near-future sci-fi offers a kind of dialectic between what is right now and what might be. Shows such as Black Mirror look at the present to imagine the future, and then examine the future to think about whats happening now. Near-future is a reminder that the present is teetering on the precipice of tomorrow. That 13th hour is always about to strike.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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