Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Media Review: August 2020

Upload
Created by Greg Daniels
Produced by Amazon Studios, Baral Waley Productions, Reunion Pacific Entertainment.
First season released May 1, 2020.

The last time I went out to a movie in an actual movie theater was on March 8, to see Emma, which was bright and daring and I enjoyed it immensely. I’m even more emotional about it now—I had no way of knowing that would be my last time in a movie theater for the foreseeable future. I do hope that’s not the last time I ever see a movie in a theater, but all bets are off right now. We will see.

I love going out to movies in actual movie theaters and it’s strange to have missed an entire round of summer blockbuster releases like the usual spring MCU offering (Black Widow, poor Natasha cannot catch a break . . .). How odd and lucky is it that this new world of streaming entertainment has matured and become so robust at the exact moment when so many of us are stuck at home, in thrall to its power? We have far too many TV shows, documentaries, and movies for any one person to keep up with. So, you know, we have a choice, I guess.

What happens next? The pandemic might be the asteroid that hit the planet and destroyed the age of dinosaurs, and streaming entertainment are the small mammals emerging to explode into that ecological niche. But I’m not ready to let the movie theater experience go. Seeing movies at the theater is different. At the theater, I pay attention. At home, I kind of don’t. My phone is right there, pinging at me. My basket of knitting and crafts is there and I’m usually working on something, which divides my attention. I’ll hit pause and go get a snack—or maybe I don’t hit pause, because I don’t mind missing the next minute or so. It takes so much more to grab my attention at home, and I suspect I don’t judge movies quite as fairly.

But I really have been watching a lot of great stuff on various streaming services over the last couple of months. The thing I’m going to talk about today: Upload, a show with ten episodes available on Amazon Prime.

It’s really good. The most reductive way I’ve been describing it is it’s The Good Place meets Snow Crash, but there’s a lot more to it. The story is deceptively complex, with lots of moving parts. I’ll try to cover the basics.

This depicts a near future in which the ability to upload human consciousness into virtual environments has been (mostly) perfected. As is often the case with this trope, the act of scanning and uploading destroys the physical structure of the brain, so there’s no takebacks, and the procedure is usually reserved for people who are near death.

One of our two protagonists is Nathan, a stereotypical douchey tech-bro with a rich hot girlfriend, Ingrid. His self-driving car malfunctions badly, which is not supposed to happen, and has a terrible accident. He’s rushed to the hospital, and it’s unclear how bad his injuries really are, so a panicking Ingrid convinces him to upload. He does not have an afterlife plan on file, so she signs him on to hers. He is uploaded, a hilariously horrifying procedure.

This sets up a fascinating situation in which Nathan now exists in the most expensive, exclusive afterlife on the market, Horizon Lakeview, entirely on Ingrid’s sufferance. This is where we learn the unsettling truth: virtual afterlives operate much like smart phone apps. You want extras? Unlimited bandwidth? The ability to call your friends? To interact with them virtually? Upgraded avatars? Top-end customer service? You’ll have to pay for that. It’s not enough to save for retirement. You need to save for a potentially unlimited afterlife in which a comfortable existence has an itemized price tag.

Our second protagonist is Nora, the Horizon customer service rep assigned to Nathan. Her biggest goal is to get a loan to pay for a Lakeview plan for her dying father. And to convince him to upload. He doesn’t want to—her mother, his wife, died years before without uploading, and he believes he won’t reunite with her in an actual afterlife if he’s uploaded. This conflict causes a lot of tension between them.

Nathan quickly recognizes that Nora is nice, funny, sensitive, and smart, and that Ingrid is infuriating and controlling. But he has to keep Ingrid happy—she’s paying the bills and can delete him at any moment. Nora is attracted to Nathan, but no matter how much they can interact on the virtual plane, he’s still dead on the physical one. Meanwhile, Nora discovers that some of Nathan’s memory files were tampered with after his upload. And that his self-driving car was sabotaged. In life, Nathan was working on code for a freeware version of an afterlife that would be accessible to everyone regardless of funds. That’s a threat to a lot of big corporate revenue streams, and it becomes clear that Nathan was, in fact, murdered. His virtual existence might now be in danger as well.

This is a meaty cyberpunk thriller that is also a romantic comedy, and those two things should not go together but here we are. The setting is so well thought out, full of science fictional details, the whole thing probably requires another viewing to take it all in. My favorite throwaway moment might be watching one of the Lakeview helper AI’s fail a captcha test. There’s a kid at Lakeview who died on a school field trip—years ago, and he’s frustrated that his parents refuse to allow his avatar to age and develop. They want to remember him as he was, you see. There’s so much good stuff going on here. (I do have some questions, such as why you would want to “live” forever in what looks like a posh resort hotel, replicating what is essentially a mundane experience when you could, I don’t know, inhabit an avatar with wings in a Middle Earth fantasy setting or the like. A virtual existence is theoretically boundless, so why live essentially as you did before you died, which is what most Uploads at Lakeview seem to choose. Snow Crash partly confronted this question—that it’s a more impressive programming feat to replicate reality than to create something fantastical. So I assume it is here: You show off your wealth by buying into an afterlife that replicates mundane luxury. You’d think at some point people would be able to let that go.)

I’m also really interested in Upload because it’s the third show I’ve seen in the last couple of years in which the main character is dead and grappling with an afterlife that forces them to confront their moral failings and become a more responsible, ethical person. Upload is science fiction rather than fantasy like The Good Place and Russian Doll are, and will fill any fan of near-future thoughtful, technology-driven science fiction with joy. But it also feels very much like those other shows. Nathan is constantly confronted with the absurdity of his situation. The weird fluidity of an unreal reality is explored. Divorced from his real-world existence, he’s able to reflect on mistakes he’s made and wonder if he can do better, even now that he’s dead.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we now have three shows dealing with huge philosophical questions of ethics and personal responsibility at this particular cultural and political moment. All three of these shows speak to the idea—the hope?—that there are consequences for one’s actions, even after death. None of them are locked into a religious consideration of these questions. They’re more basic than that, simply asking: How do we, all of us, be better people? Why should we want to be better people? And all three of them come to similar conclusions: We must be kind. We must help other people. We must take responsibility for our actions, particularly when they impact other people. Not for the promise of reward, not to try to game the system, but because it’s the right thing to do.

That all three shows are also really good—well written, well put together, and riveting to watch—feels like a gift. Now, if only the people who really need to hear that message would watch.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times Bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, and over twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com.