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A Political History of the Future: Humans


Shana Tova, LGM! May the year and its curses end; may the year and its blessings begin! Let’s trumpet in 5779 with another installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its political, economic, and social futures. This time, our focus is the television series Humans, a co-production between the British Channel 4 and the American AMC, which recently aired its third season.

We’ve spoken before in this series about works in which robots and AIs upend human society by changing how we view labor. In our very first installment, we discussed Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous, in which the existence of intelligent machines means that both mechanical and human workers have to struggle to earn their personhood and freedom. In our last discussion, of the computer game Tacoma, I mentioned another game, Detroit: Become Human, which has been praised for addressing how the existence of human-seeming robots would change the world of labor and workers’ rights, while also being criticized for simply plugging its robot characters into existing crises of racism and prejudice, without considering how thoughtless that approach can end up being.

It’s not surprising that stories about robots end up circling around issues of prejudice and workers’ rights. The very word “robot” comes to us from Czech, where it means “worker”, and the first use of it to designate a mechanical (but sentient) worker came in a play in which society is rocked by the introduction of mechanized, automated labor which is able to think, but has no rights. Humans— which premiered in 2015, and is based on a Swedish series, Äkta Människor, which ran for two seasons between 2012 and 2014—is therefore operating within a well-defined tradition. But what sets it apart from many recent examples—besides being well-executed and featuring some very good performances—is its decidedly mundane focus on the ordinary lives of middle class people, and how the introduction of robots disrupts and reshapes them.

Humans is set in a world in which human-seeming robots, known as synths, are capable of performing complex tasks and participating in human interactions. While the show references the participation of synths in production and industry, most of the ones we see are deployed in the service economy. They are clerks, receptionists, nurses, street cleaners, home care workers—all the messy, thankless, low-paying work that desperately needs to be done for society to function, and particularly for middle class people to be able to live their lives in comfort.

The series’s opening episode introduces us to the Hawkinses, a typical middle class family in this world’s Britian: brilliant lawyer Laura (Catherine Parkinson), factory manager Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), and their three children, computer genius Mattie (Lucy Carless), aimless teen Toby (Theo Stevenson), and adorable moppet Sophie (Pixie Davies). With Laura harried by the demands of work and home, Joe and the children decide to surprise her by buying a synth, whom Sophie christens Anita (Gemma Chan), to act as the family’s nanny and maid, a decision that Laura greets with anxiety and distrust, seeing it as a commentary on her ability to function as a mother.

Unbeknownst to the Hawkins family, Anita is actually Mia, one of five synths who are conscious, feeling creatures, and who have been hiding among regular synths for decades. The others are Niska (Emily Berrington), Max (Ivanno Jeremiah), Fred (Sope Dirisu), and Karen (Ruth Bradley). They were created by the inventor of synths as companions for his son, Leo (Colin Morgan). Leo himself is a hybrid—when an accident as a child left him brain-dead, his father grafted synth technology into his body, making him both human and machine. Legally dead, he’s spent his life on the run with his synth family, until a crisis before the show’s beginning forced them to scatter, which brings them to Hawkinses’ doorstep.

Untangling this history and reuniting the broken-up family is the business of Humans‘s first season. As I observed to a friend shortly after its conclusion, this makes the show something rather old-fashioned, a throwback to the British or Australian children’s shows I used to watch as a kid, in which a remarkable being—a time traveler, an alien, a wizard—befriends a child, and eventually an entire family is dragged into the project of saving their new friend from being jailed and experimented on by the government. Humans isn’t explicitly marketed to children, and the world it’s set it is more complex than that of, say, The Girl From Tomorrow. But the show’s bedrock in nuclear-family stability and middle class respectability gives it a very different tone from other science fiction TV series.

One core difference between Humans and a lot of other science fiction shows about robots or despised minorities with special powers is that it doesn’t center violence—and, when violence does occur, it is used exclusively to horrifying, demoralizing effect. Synths are strong, quick, and agile, but there are hardly any badass robot fights in this show. On the contrary, it often seems as if synths are a great deal more fragile than humans, succumbing to beatings and abuses that a human might recover from (which makes sense if you consider that these are basically talking household appliances, the sort of thing you’d be expected to replace after a few years). Images of damaged and mistreated synths recur frequently throughout the show, as a reminder of both the danger that our main characters face in human society, and the fact that this is a story where problems will mostly be solved by talking (though some characters, like the belligerent, short-tempered Niska, find this incredibly frustrating). This is a role left primarily to Laura, who over the course of the show’s three seasons embraces the cause of synth rights, and Mia, who becomes a figurehead in the growing community of conscious synths.

It’s an approach that, paradoxically, allows Humans to address much heavier, darker subject matter than more high-concept executions of its premise, precisely because the show is so grounded in the familiar. When the salesman who has just handed Mia over to the Hawkinses waits for Toby and Sophie to step out of earshot before confidentially giving Joe the codes that unlock Mia’s “adult options”, it sends a shudder down your spine that none of Westworld‘s prurient scenes of rape and depravity can match. (And yes, those codes get used, and yes, it’s as creepy as you’re imagining.) In season 2, Mia, once again pretending to be a regular synth, takes a job at a restaurant and falls in love with her boss. When she reveals herself to him, he initially seems accepting of her personhood. But when a friend discovers their relationship, he’s so embarrassed by the thought of having fallen in love with a machine that he agrees to sell Mia to a fence, a level of horror that few SF narratives have even attempted.

Humans‘s strength, in fact, is in exploring the ways that the existence of synths—and eventually, of conscious synths, a condition that spreads from a few individuals in the first season to the entire population in the third—sweeps its characters up in changes that they are only barely aware of, or, in some cases, also participating in, because what other choice is there? In the series’s opening episode, Mattie complains to her parents that there is no point in her working hard at school, because any job that she could train for will be better done by synths by the time she finishes her training. Laura and Joe, who will shortly bring a synth into the home to do work that isn’t going to a human, can only offer half-hearted objections, which ring even more hollow later in the season, when Joe is made redundant because even his supervisory position can now be handled by a synth.

Even this shock to the system takes a while to register—in season 2, Joe and Laura attempt couples’ counseling with a synth therapist, seemingly having no thought to how this affects humans and validates Mattie’s concerns. But trying to opt out of the system comes with its own costs. In season 3, Joe moves to a humans-only community where he sells “human-grown” produce for several times  what the regular supermarket stuff goes for and waxes about the joys of feeling useful. He’s soon put off his new home, however, when he witnesses his neighbors beating a synth woman to death.

Another interesting question raised by the show’s family-focused storytelling is the effect that growing up with synths—essentially, disposable, killable creatures that look entirely human—has on children. In the first season, Mattie prevents two boys at a party from taking the shut-down household model upstairs for sex, insisting that doing so reflects their willingness to do the same to an unconscious human woman. In season 3, a psychologist observes that in the wake of waves of violence against newly-conscious synths, British children now suffer from high levels of anxiety after witnessing parents and other authority figures enact terrible acts of violence against synths they’d known as friends and caretakers.

In one of the show’s most interesting storylines, season 2 introduces the concept of children pretending to be synths. Toby befriends Renie (Letitia Wright, about thirty seconds before Black Panther made her a superstar), a girl at his school who insists that she is a synth, and mimics their slightly-plastic appearance and demeanor. After observing Renie, Sophie begins exhibiting the same behavior, to Joe and Laura’s great concern. In both cases, the phenomenon is attributed  to separation anxiety—Renie feels abandoned by her frequently absent father, and Sophie is upset over Mia’s departure from the Hawkins home, and so both take on the guise of a creature who has no emotional needs. But underlying that is the simple fact of an entire generation of children growing up with a completely different model for personhood—and for competence and usefulness—that is constantly paraded before them, and reacting accordingly.

There is, in fact, a particularly dark reading of Humans in which its nuclear family focus is a way of highlighting the fact that in the show’s world, the middle class is sacrificing its children’s future in order to maintain their own lifestyle, leaving the next generation with no option but to become automata. I don’t think this is entirely what the show intends, but nevertheless it is hard not to read a great deal into the fact that in the same season in which children like Sophie and Renie try to tamp down their anxieties by pretending to be robots, there is also a subplot about a synth manufacturer trying to monetize newfound synth consciousness by using it to improve the emotional behavior of his newest product, synth children. The scientist working on this project, Athena Morrow (Carrie-Anne Moss), has even created an AI as a replacement for her own daughter, who died in an accident, and of course the inventor of synths turned his son, Leo, into a cyborg. It’s a more plausible, and thus scarier, riff on the “robots will replace us” refrain that Westworld and its ilk are so fond of—synth children are cheaper than real ones, endlessly programmable, and they won’t grow up to complain that you mortgaged their future for your own comfort.

Unfortunately, the third season leaves a lot of this low-key complexity behind in favor of bigger concepts that don’t really work. This is the first season of the show produced and aired post-Brexit and Trump, and you can sense the writers’ desire to tackle issues like prejudice, anti-immigrant resentment, and increasing fascism on a much larger scale than previous seasons. But they end up biting off more than they can chew. The season begins a year after the code that has granted consciousness to specific synths is transmitted to the entire population at once, causing widespread mayhem and death. Synths are now corralled into camps where dwindling spare parts supplies and unreliable power levels have been slowly eating at their numbers. Venturing into human society, however, comes with its own perils, as illustrated in an early storyline in which two synths on a shopping expedition are killed and left hanging from a tree outside the compound. The season begins with the bombing of a human-synth hangout, responsibility for which is quickly claimed by a group of messianic synths who believe that it is their destiny to replace humanity.

These are rather shopworn tropes, and their handling often feels perfunctory—in particular, as someone who grew up in the shadow of terrorism, I was frustrated by yet another instance of Western writers using it as a shorthand for political dispute without bothering to create a political context from which it might believably emerge, nor acknowledging the many different forms it can take. The conflicts between synths who want to live peacefully with humans—led by Max and supported by Mia—and the ones who want violence for reasons that not even they can properly articulate, are familiar from a thousand X-Men stories, and no more interesting for being so frequently repeated. As if to add insult to injury, the season ends on a plot twist that is the sort of nonsense that political SF shows trot out when they realize their storytelling has gotten a little bit too real (magical babies are involved).

Nevertheless, there are moments where you can feel the old Humans shining through, particularly when it comes to Mia, Max, and Laura’s attempts to navigate the nearly-impossible challenges of their new reality. Laura has made herself the face of the synth rights movement, at the cost of her career and with social consequences for herself and her children, but her achievements often aren’t enough for her synth allies. When she agrees to sit on a government commission examining the synth question, she’s accused of selling out, and when she convinces the commission to enact a £300 fine for attacking a synth, it’s a major accomplishment that is, at the same time, clearly not enough.

Max and Mia, meanwhile, struggle to come up with a political strategy that could ensure their species’ survival. Both reject violence, even though this costs them support within their community, but are also aware of the obvious risks of trying to coexist with humans. In the middle of the season, Mia leaves the synth camp and rents an apartment in a human neighborhood, hoping to prove that she isn’t a risk to humans, and the hatred and violence she encounters there are sickening to watch. There is, obviously, a risk of falling into glib respectability politics in both characters’ storylines, but the writing and acting are strong enough to counteract that. They convey Max and Mia’s anger, frustration, and despair at their nearly-hopeless situation, as well as their awareness that they can’t give up.

Towards the end of the season there is also a reminder of Humans‘s tough-mindedness and ability to tackle topics that other shows would blanch at. When Laura’s efforts with the commission fail, she’s informed of a plan to “solve” the synth problem by tacitly encouraging anti-synth groups to attack the synth camps, which the military has been ordered to step back from protecting. It’s an almost blow-by-blow recreation of real-world genocides that is all the more horrifying because it’s depicted in the context of a normal, functioning country, and planned with an eye towards public perception and deniability. It’s easy to imagine how the society in the show’s world could wipe out a sentient species and then go on with their lives as if nothing happened, because that’s how it would happen in our world.

Especially given this lurch in focus between seasons two and three, it can be hard to sum Humans up. At its glibbest, it is a fantasy about how the only thing necessary to solve deep-seated social problems is for well-intentioned middle class people to get off their asses and do something about them, set in a world in which your parents are always ultimately well-meaning, and family always comes first. But that squareness is also the source of the show’s strength. Not only because it allows the writers to depict genuinely awful abuses and acknowledge them as horribly ordinary. But because it insists on the extremely uncool but important message that nothing is going to change if you don’t do something about it. As Laura says, when trying to alert the media to the genocide plan, “if what people are hearing doesn’t make them angry, then there’s no hope for us”.

Next time on APHotF: most likely Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee, followed by State Tectonics by Malka Older.

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