In a good story, the opposing tension supports the weight

The other day I watched the Black Mirror episode ‘The Entire History of You‘, and it was wonderful and terrifying and a really good work of science fiction.

Most of all, it was a really good work of fiction, period, because it successfully gave you two competing claims for a moral then forced you to decide which was right.

True sci-fi, as opposed to space fantasy, is always more about the anxieties of the present than the ostensible setting. How could it have an appeal if it were any different? In ‘Entire History’, a device implanted behind your ear records everything you see and hear to allow you to rewind and review it. That’s less about any technology coming than the smartphones, social media, and digitization of your memories already here, to the extent they remember more about your past than you do.

Part of the trick working in the episode is to make the technology secondary to the setting even if it’s central to the plot. The setting makes it clear a memory-capture device does not upend society; rather, it’s accompanied by banal sorts of exaggerations in current trends. There are escalations in our litigiousness with children suing their parents for their well-documented unsatisfactory upbringing. There’s further erosion of privacy  as airports search your memories for the past two weeks to recognize any suspected criminal faces. Mature couples bring up past instances of better sexual encounters to watch in order to climax—but using the device instead of memory. Life continues to be life.

The main plot concerns a guy we immediately identify with when he (weakly) expresses ethical reluctance to be involved in those lawsuits of children against their parents. That’s important because from then on, we’re mostly set against him as he suspects that his wife, the mother of their infant daughter, may have had some sort of relationship with a guy at a party.

Our protagonist acts like a jealous, irrational asshole as he continues to replay and analyze moments from the party; combining zoom and lip reading software to hear what he couldn’t from across the room; identifying in memories played as entertainment by the host that the wife and guy were making out in the background of a different party. He finds out she didn’t just date him for a week, as she’d said, or a month as she first admitted. It had been six months. That means when the guy talked at dinner about rubbing one out to memories of past flames, he was talking about our protagonist’s wife in front of her husband, who didn’t know they’d been together, and all of their old friends there, who did know they’d been together and who he might have been talking about.

So our protagonist goes to the guy’s house, now drunker than drunk, and assaults him, forcing him to delete all of the memories of the wife the guy still had stored.

Now, a lesser show would have made it turn out our protagonist was just being paranoid. It would have put the blame on the new technology for allowing him to obsess and obsess over something that was a figment of his imagination until he ruined the happy life and marriage he otherwise could have had. Indeed, the married couple nearly divorced about 18 months before because of his (apparently) unfounded and irrational jealousy toward a different man.

But this is not a lesser show, and as he’s forcing the ex to publicly delete all of those memories, our protagonist sees that the most recent sexual encounter the two of them had was… 18 months before. When he goes home again, he confronts his wife, and she says it doesn’t mean anything, they were on a break and she was drunk. But she was so drunk they didn’t use a condom either, and their baby apparently isn’t our protagonist’s after all.

The episode is so interesting and stays with you because it’s willing to make the argument that obsessiveness is bad, and analyzing—over-analyzing endlessly as new technological developments now facilitate—isn’t healthy or good for relationships. That argument is so effectively presented it doesn’t need to cheat by weakening the counter-argument.

The opposite point is allowed to be just as strong: technology didn’t make his wife lie about her ex, have a fling again with him, never tell her husband about the possibility her daughter wasn’t his. All of that stuff is the regular sort of shittiness people do to each other and have done since time immemorial. The technology to uncover a betrayal may have made the protagonist more unhappy in the end, but the damage was in what was done, not the discovery.

One of the reviews from its original airing seemed to miss this. ‘This was the least effective of the Black Mirror dramas, because the technological element wasn’t so crucial to the trajectory of the story. Jealous people will always find ways to destroy their relationships without the recourse to memory databanks.’ Emily Yoshida at Grantland seemed to think people wouldn’t go outside if this technology existed, but again, that seemed part the point: this is not so new; it’s just more.

Someone recently asked “What makes a story good?“, and I answered this way:

When you have a protagonist or group of protagonists who want a thing, but the antagonist or counter-narrative is written in such a way to be at least as compelling.

One of the reasons that dogmatic thinking doesn’t produce truly great works of narrative art is that it can’t manage this trick, and it’s the same reason that doggerel fiction doesn’t have lasting appeal as ‘literature’ no matter how temporarily popular it is. There’s a tension in the audience as they try to figure out the message or decide if they agree with it, and it takes something of a master at their craft to have the confidence to make a really full-throated argument against their own druthers.

As an example, what makes the graphic novel V for Vendetta stand out to me is the pains Alan Moore took to depict fascism in a positive way and anarchism negatively.

Moore is an avowed anarchist; his protagonist is an anarchist superhero. But the book starts with a threatened gang-rape of a girl by government agents and ends with a gang-rape in progress of a woman by a gang of men around a campfire. You can suss his sympathies from that because the girl at the beginning was innocent and attempting prostitution to provide for her family in a repressive dystopia while the woman at the campfire had been a conniving shrew the whole time and finally has lost the ability to manipulate people. But you don’t get the impression that society as a whole is any better off. At least the fascists helped Britain survive when nuclear apocalypse would have wiped them out previously. Will anyone even be able to feed themselves now that they’re all free to do as they please?

In the movie, the difference is less stark but the choice intended to be clearer: liberal representative democracy is held up as a shining beacon (‘People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people’), oh and the conservatives faked the whole crisis in order to get into power. V himself gets a lot of his rough edges sanded off so he’s easier to root for rather than the audience regarding him as a possible deranged psychopath.

Moore had the confidence to make the argument that he was wrong, and to stack the deck evenly against himself in ways the Wachowskis didn’t. They aren’t bad filmmakers, but Moore is a better storyteller for that reason as much as any other.

A story is good when your audience experiences real intellectual tension, and the continued study or discussion of it is due to differing attempts to reconcile contradictions based on each person’s subjective reaction to all the jagged bits of meaning.

I came back to this thought when I was over at a friend’s house watching vanilla Law & Order. It never was a perfect show, but the setup was almost perfect. The facts of the case were usually not in doubt, but the circumstances were. The legality of how evidence was collected, or the state of mind of the accused when the crime was committed, or the effect of following the law in this specific case led to a worse outcome than if it had been overlooked. With Law & Order: SVU, you were always supposed to feel a certain way. Richard Belzer, through the character John Munch, once gave a short monologue about Newt Gingrich, and the Republican character had no response. Even in politics, SVU always made sure you knew what to think.

The Wire is rewarding because there are no heroes and very few villains other than the system itself. You get to be with nearly everyone to understand why what each one does makes sense to them, even if the result of all those actions is mutually detrimental chaos. The fifth season doesn’t hold up quite so well in part because, with the newspaper plotlines, we have a clear hero in Gus who is flawless and villains in the senior editors and dishonest reporter who behave stupidly without any good reason why.

Rahul Kanakia has much more experience creating fiction and having to structure it, and I think the whole narrative/counter-narrative thing is stolen from him outright. If I’m not misunderstanding him, his point is that if the counter-narrative is too strong, it overwhelms the narrative. But really, that just makes it the narrative by accident, then.

In any fiction I’m consuming, what I prefer is being trusted to be an arbiter of what the creator is saying. No doubt I get it wrong an awful lot! But it stays in my head because I’m struggling with it, and the assumptions I bring in as I examine and reexamine it are what shift my opinion one way and another. The work itself remains balanced till I nudge it, and if it’s designed very, very well, it could fall over any way at all, different ways at different points in my life.

That equal force helps it work for future audiences as well, because their assumptions may change, and if you’ve stacked things to only work one way, they’ll feel the weight of it leaning against them and not be able to enjoy it. In 50 years, a TV episode decrying how a particular technology is ruining everyone’s lives will seem quaint and irrelevant. An episode about how technology interacts with human life is always relevant.

Basically, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote about opposed ideas is true for what the mind produces as well as what’s in it.

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