Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Media Review: September 2020

How many times have you watched the first season of a new series, loved it, and then found yourself hoping it didn’t get renewed? For me, this phenomenon has become more common lately, and not just because there’s so much to keep up with nowadays. The classic model for TV development—create a show formulaic and addictive enough to sustain several seasons’ worth of content—isn’t always the narratively expedient one. Sometimes a single season is perfect; extending the story beyond that might be gilding the lily, or worse.

Evidently the TV industry is learning this lesson, because it’s made more room for limited series in recent years. It’s a welcome trend, delivering memorable fare across multiple genres, including science fiction. This month’s examples are exceptional, self-contained works of futuristic SF that likely would have been damaged by an open-ended approach.

Devs
Created by Alex Garland
Produced by DNA Films, FX Productions, and Scott Rudin Productions
Released March/April 2020

Over the past twenty years, Alex Garland has built a solid reputation in genre filmmaking both as a screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) and as a writer-director (Ex Machina, Annihilation). His latest auteur project, the FX miniseries Devs, is a finely crafted and thought-provoking work of science fiction that should only elevate that reputation.

The backdrop is northern California, ranging from the bustling, hilly streets of San Francisco to the remote, wooded campus of Amaya, a quantum computing corporation run by relaxed, bohemian founder Forest (Nick Offerman). Amaya is a powerful new tech giant that employs the best and the brightest, including brilliant software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno). Lily’s boyfriend Sergey (Karl Glusman) also works at Amaya, and on the day of his big presentation to the Amaya brass, he’s offered a coveted promotion to the “Devs” team. The Devs project is where Amaya’s elite work, sequestered in a state-of-the-art, classified facility away from the rest of the campus.

When Sergey doesn’t return from his first day of work, a concerned Lily reports the disappearance to Amaya’s chief of security Kenton (Zach Grenier). Quickly, Kenton and Forest are on the case, and find shocking evidence of Sergey’s tragic fate. But something about the situation doesn’t sit right with Lily, who senses a deeper mystery. She enlists her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha), a cybersecurity expert, to crack the encryption on Sergey’s phone for clues, and fearlessly begins uncovering the conspiracy surrounding Sergey’s demise, as well as the deeper mystery of what’s going on with the Devs project.

At first glance, Devs looks to inhabit the same day-after-tomorrow conspiracy thriller space as contemporaries like Homecoming or Mr. Robot. Its ominous tone is certainly similar to those shows, as is its searing critique of modern institutional power and its callous disregard for collateral damage. On this level, Devs is a smashing success, in both structure and technique. From its initial mystery, it unfolds in a gripping escalation of new questions and reveals, drawing the viewer along while steeping them in surreal atmosphere. Slow-burn suspense is punctuated by moments of shock and horror, and ultimately, Lily’s investigation solves the mystery without dispelling its mystique, allowing the intriguing journey to linger after the screen goes dark.

But there’s a robust science-fictional foundation to Devs’ mysteries, and much more to the SF than the thin veneer of near-futurism that informs its aesthetic. Garland doesn’t just use science fiction; he understands its protocols. His neo-Hitchcockian plot is undergirded by big skiffy concepts, which are given haunted, surprisingly grave voice by the cast members on the Devs team, especially Offerman, Alison Pill, Cailee Spaeny, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Spilling Devs’ conceptual secrets in detail might mar the experience of discovery; suffice it to say, the Devs team is studying the nature of reality itself, using quantum computing and multiple worlds theory. Their discoveries in these areas motivate them in unexpected ways, which speaks powerfully to Garland’s chilling theme about the perverse way accelerating change is oddly accompanied by fatalistic stasis. The way these ideas interact with Devs’ thriller mechanics is clever and intricate. While the series’ hopeful epilogue feels incongruous and uncharacteristic, on the whole the series remains highly satisfying, a powerful achievement in thought-provoking science fiction.

Years and Years
Created by Russell T. Davies
Produced by Red Production Company
Released June/July 2019

If Devs finds its science-fictional power in elliptical metaphor and existential thought experiment, Years and Years, a joint production of HBO and the BBC, is considerably more grounded and political. Indeed, this grim, hard-hitting series from Russell T. Davies—best known to genre fans for his work reviving Doctor Who for the twenty-first century—is practically “mundane SF,” the science fiction subgenre many writers practice but nobody seems to have claimed.

Years and Years is set in England, primarily in Manchester. A family drama at its core, it has an ambitious narrative strategy: tracing that drama over the course of a decade, from the present to 2030. Centrally, it’s about the Lyons siblings. Eldest son Stephen (Rory Kinnear) works in finance in London with his wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) and two daughters. Daniel (Russell Tovey) is a housing officer for an immigration authority in Manchester. Rosie (Ruth Madeley), also in Manchester, is a single mother with spina bifida. Edith (Jessica Hynes) is the progressive, wayward daughter who travels the world as an activist for various causes. Although they have busy individual lives, they stay connected, frequently arranging remote family group calls, as well as annual birthday gatherings for their widowed grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid). These take place at her large, declining Manchester home, which their collective story tends to orbit.

The family’s dilemmas are ordinary, if topical. Stephen and Celeste are an interracial couple, which presents parenting challenges as well as subtle interpersonal tension with the more conservative Muriel. Daniel is gay, married to the dim Ralph (Dino Fetscher), but later attracted to a Ukrainian immigrant named Viktor (Maxim Baldry). Rosie, who defiantly embraces her disability, leads a modest existence that presents stark class contrast to the luxurious life of Stephen’s family. Meanwhile Edith, even absent, injects the family dynamic with confrontational politics. In other words, the Lyons sit at the cross-section of a number of modern society’s defining cultural debates.

As the story commences, those debates are about to be inflamed by world events. After establishing the status quo for this complex family, Years and Years proceeds over the course of six jam-packed episodes to accelerate the drama through a decade of turmoil, propelling the family deeper into the future in a series of disorienting montages. These time jumps hurl them into increasingly dire new scenarios, as political upheavals, financial crises, climate change, and the inexorable march of science and technology combine to continually reshape their lives. This rapid-fire change casts their daily struggles into increasingly speculative contexts. Some, such as Stephen’s fidelity issues, are mundane; others, like the desire of Stephen and Celeste’s daughter Bethany (Lydia West) to become a transhumanist, are more directly science fictional. But much of the speculation is political, reflected in the gradual rise to power of one Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), a tough-talking populist who bubbles along in the periphery of the Lyons’ lives like malicious background radiation. As Rook’s crackpot political novelty evolves into something more pernicious and powerful, the family’s life becomes even more difficult, eventually embroiling them in dangerous culture wars they’ve long observed from the sidelines.

No lie: Years and Years is a difficult watch, hitting close to home with a harsh, serialized Black Mirror vibe. It’s an unflinching cautionary exercise about the consequences of political inaction in the face of ever-worsening global challenges—and, considering current events, it almost didn’t get made in time. As I write this, the COVID-19 pandemic is six months deep and protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have exploded into civil unrest and widespread police brutality across American cities. We’ve basically already entered one of the futures that Years and Years tried, belatedly, to warn us about; at this point, one might see the miniseries as historical fiction from the future of an alternate timeline.

Thompson’s steely performance as the deceptive, horrible Rook was clearly conceived in reaction to the rise of Trump and other right-wing authoritarian extremists currently casting the world into peril. She is a uniquely terrifying character; imagine a corrupt, malicious politician in the vein of Hitler, but armed with Emma Thompson’s charm and poise. While Rook’s villainy may seem dated in places compared to what’s actually happening, in other ways she’s an even scarier monster, in that she’s actually charismatic and persuasive. Much of the political subtext in the series is generated by the skillful way the principal performers embody our reactions to such a dangerous figure.

That said, for all the grim, mettle-testing subject matter, Years and Years is also an impressive SFnal feat, a bold attempt to bridge the gap between our troubled present and the dark probabilities of our near future. It’s a risky undertaking to depict a future this near to hand, but even if the next decade proves it to be spectacularly wrong—and may we be so lucky—it’s still a timely and relevant commentary on our era, doing important science fictional work. Like Devs, it views the problems of today through the lens of a very close tomorrow, and does so from an earnest, thoughtful perspective, bringing compassion and conscience to the issues.

Unfortunately, also like Devs, Years and Years falters a bit down the home stretch, adding a lengthy, jarring coda that undercuts its painful message with an attempt at something more uplifting. The coda doesn’t entirely work, nor do I think it’s necessary; for all its bleakness, Years and Years is embedded with a spirit of hopeful struggle that might have landed more effectively without an explicit attempt. In its own way, while speaking to similar themes, Devs similarly opts out at the end with a turn that feels more screen-tested than true. In both cases, arrival is less satisfying than the journey. But, at least for me, only slightly less satisfying, because both are still memorable, impressive science fiction shows that couldn’t be more timely to the era in which they were produced.

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.