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November/December 2019
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by David J. Skal

Those Were the Days

Dystopian futures, like zombie apocalypses, have become familiar and sturdy mainstays of popular culture, but their nightmarishly oppressive social and political structures are too often arbitrarily posited as fully developed constructs rather than the endpoints of complicated historical processes. However, the emergence of the limited cable series as a go-to medium for many talented filmmakers, within speculative storytelling and without, offers an ideal chance for gradual and more detailed exposition than is practical in standalone features.

Russell T. Davies, the creative force behind the BBC's enormously successful reboot of Dr.Who, as well as A Very English Scandal and Queer as Folk, delivers dystopia on a satisfyingly slow drip in the new BBC/Netflix six-episode series Years and Years, which doggedly follows the life of a British family from 2019 to 2034 as their country slips closer and closer to technologically-assisted authoritarian rule. American audiences might well consider Years and Years as a science-fictional riff on the ensemble family drama Brothers and Sisters of several seasons back. The family in question, the Lyonses, are a closely knit clan hailing from Manchester, where the family matriarch Muriel (Anne Reid) regularly gathers her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild at her rambling, dilapidated house.

Her son Stephen Lyons (Rory Kinnear) is a respected and well-to-do financial manager in London; his wife, Celeste (T'Nia Miller) is a successful accountant. When the Lyonses' teenage daughter Bethany (Lydia West) reveals that she's "trans," her parents shift immediately into unconditionally supportive mode, until she realizes they don't understand what she's saying. She's not transgender—she's transhuman, with the ultimate goal of escaping her prison of flesh and uploading her consciousness to a digital cloud. Mom and Dad immediately drop their façade of enlightened liberalism and read her the riot act. Not that it does any good. The scene is simultaneously funny and horrifying; Bethany isn't merely a young woman who spends too much time with her smartphone, she actually wants to be a smartphone. Ensuing developments drop the funniness and are just horrifying. Bethany accompanies a friend to an offshore floating hospital where Russian "doctors" run an unregulated human chop-shop (cash only, please), performing crude implant surgery that will supposedly synch you up seamlessly with your phone, tablet, or laptop. Bethany's friend has some kind of webcam installed in her left eye, and it's no surprise that the procedure is a disaster. Nonetheless, Bethany continues her quest for digital augmentation, which gradually becomes normalized, and eventually serves a crucial function in the resolution of a family crisis.

Much like the family in Brothers and Sisters, the Lyonses are much more comfortably situated than most of us, and take their affluence pretty much for granted. You will be forgiven a little twinge of schadenfreude when their self-satisfied world begins to wobble. Stephen is sufficiently self-confident to ignore all the advice he might give his clients about diversified investments and savings in a volatile post-Brexit financial environment. When his single bank fails, he loses everything. The Lyons family, previously cushioned from harsher economic realities, bumpily downscale their expectations and end up all moving into Muriel's house. Like everyone around him, Stephen is overqualified for most work available, and soon resigns himself to life in a gig economy, juggling ride-share driving, bicycle messengering, and worse.

Meanwhile, Stephen's gay brother Daniel (Russell Tovey), a housing official in charge of refugee housing, wrestles with a troubled marriage to Ralph (Dino Fetscher), a humorless conspiracy theory buff who takes flat earth scenarios seriously and doubts the existence of germs. Daniel is flirting heavily with the smolderingly hunky Viktor Gorava (Maxim Baldry), a Ukrainian refugee seeking asylum in the UK. When Donald Trump, in a final flourish during his last days in office, lobs a nuclear bomb at a disputed Chinese territory, Daniel, like most everybody, anticipates the end of the entire world, and he flees a family gathering to be with Viktor. Doomsday never comes, though Daniel and Ralph's marriage is finished. The latter isn't content with divorce, however, and discovering that Viktor is violating the terms of his pending refugee status by working off the books in a petrol station, vindictively reports him to immigration authorities and he is summarily deported back to Ukraine, where being gay once more is a threat to both his liberty and life.

Stephen's sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) is a globetrotting political activist with the bad luck to have witnessed the Chinese nuclear strike first hand, and to have received a level of radiation exposure certain to eventually kill her. It also gives her nothing more to lose, and she returns to England more than willing to take risks that both advance and complicate—and eventually resolve—numerous plot elements. One of these is the smuggling of Viktor out of Ukraine, a gambit that has unanticipated and irreversible consequences.

As Stephen, Rory Kinnear has the tricky job of inhabiting the character of primary audience identification, and he's not always sympathetic. Fallen from his financial services throne, he becomes petulant, resentful, and, on a couple of occasions, extraordinarily and deliberately cruel. In short, Stephen is the last character you expect to redeem himself, but his eventual about-turn is a dramatic high point. Kinnear is one of my favorite British actors; his Iago for London's National Theatre was one of the finest Shakespearean performances I've ever had the privilege to witness; if the NT streaming presentation of Othello ever has an encore performance at a cinema near you, please run, don't walk, and you will be amply rewarded. Genre audiences will warmly remember Kinnear's nuanced and affecting Frankenstein's monster on Showtime's late great Gothic romp Penny Dreadful. More notoriously, he was the unfortunate British prime minister in the Black Mirror episode—yes, that episode—wherein the beleaguered PM is forced to have sex with a pig on live television.

Emma Thompson—an always intelligent, ever-engaging screen presence, and, like Kinnear, classically trained—is simply a knockout as Vivienne Rook, an opportunistic politician who plays a cynical game of populism all the way to 10 Downing Street. She's a strange blond amalgam of Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen, with a generous dollop of the Donald thrown in, mixing "I just say what everyone's really thinking" with nebulous policy proposals and clownish media shtick, all delivered with an outsider's accent—imported, apparently, from the "authentic" north of England. Stephen's younger sister, Rosie (Ruth Madeley), proudly votes for Rook every time she stands for office, not for any ideological sympathy—Rook doesn't have a discernible ideology—but simply because Rook is more entertaining than anyone else running. (Sounds familiar?) Davies delivers one devastating insight after another about the steady degradation of our political sphere, often with throwaway lines all the more effective for the casualness of their delivery.

Rook finally unmasks herself in a chilling pitch to investors for an ever-expanding universe of for-profit refugee centers, which bear an unnerving resemblance to the detention camps currently blighting the US/Mexico border. Concentration camps, Rook explains, are actually proud British inventions dating from the Boer War that have simply gotten a bad rap. As Rook spins it,"The camps were crowded, pestilent, and rife with disease. On the one hand that was regrettable, on the other hand, fitting. Because a natural selection process took place, and the population of the camps controlled itself. You might call it neglect, you might call it efficient." The inconvenient surplus population is increasingly housed in Darwinian "Erstwhile" centers, for former persons, now disappeared.

To its credit, the series studiously avoids futuristic visual tropes and clichés. The cars, phones, and fashions look just like the ones we have currently, reinforcing a sense that this story may actually have more to do with the world we struggle with now rather than an imagined future.

If the amount of plot detail I've revealed here sounds spoiler-ish, it's really not, because the pleasure of Years and Years ultimately derives not from narrative surprises but from the virtuosic interplay of the personal and the political. Many details of the series' world are left murky, and Davies was probably wise to avoid a detailed explanation of exactly how Brexit unfolds, or how the Trump administration ends, because the truth is likely to be stranger than fiction for both. We know that Muriel has been cured of macular degeneration, but aren't told how she reaches the ripe age of 102 by the series' end with no visible signs of having grown older over a span of fifteen years. Perhaps the successful treatment of age-related eye problems has also arrested aging itself? Typically, Davies simply moves along to other things, suggesting as much as he explicitly describes.

One of the most disturbing background developments, deliberately underplayed, is that the world never gets around to tackling climate change. We learn this through carefully curated snippets of information. The North Pole, it seems, has completely thawed. Can anyone remember the last time they saw a butterfly? In other words, the world is officially doomed, but nobody dwells on it. After all, there are too many family matters to attend to. In the end, against all odds, ordinary families still hang together and muddle through. Be it ever so crumbled, there's no place like home.


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