This story contains spoilers for Black Mirror season 5 episode “Smithereens.”
The second episode of Black Mirror season 5 — “Smithereens” — probably won’t sit well with sci-fi enthusiasts hungry for another trippy tech-twist. In fact, writer Charlie Brooker has gone on record about the episode, telling EW they “wanted to do a contemporary episode without any sci-fi elements at all.” And yet, when one considers the purpose and lasting execution of science fiction, “Smithereens” could totally be viewed as a work of hard SF.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut in the essay “Science Fiction,” science fiction authors and critics love to stay up late and debate about the definition of science fiction. In Vonnegut’s day, these debates existed in real life, mostly at small science fiction conventions. Today, those battles are waged in a forum that Vonnegut and his cronies would have considered to be science fiction incarnate: the internet. So what happens when a sci-fi show isn’t really science fiction? Relative to Black Mirror, this debate gets tricky, but, if we accept a less dogmatic, internet knee-jerk definition of sci-fi, this episode not only qualifies as good science fiction, but it might be the gold standard.
At first blush, it’s easy to agree with Brooker. “Smithereens,” like the first season Black Mirror episode “The National Anthem” (yeah, the one with the pig) isn’t science fiction because it could really happen right now.
Let’s think about that for a second. Everything in “Smithereens” relies on a speculative scenario involving technology impacting the human experience in a realistic way. In our world, distracted driving exists, and is, statiscally, a huge problem. But in our world, the social media giant Smithereens does not exist, and no one, to date, has taken interns hostage from Twitter or Facebook, and demanded to speak with Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey. But that’s what happens in this episode. After losing his fiancee, Chris (Andrew Scott) decides to take Twitter/Smithereens and his phone addiction personally. The character is literally taking on a faceless and voiceless piece of tech and demanding it become human. So the human interaction with a technological problem is where the fiction occurs. In other words, a fictional depiction of how technology impacts one person’s decisions is what makes the story of “Smithereens,” work.
Unlike the Miley Cyrus bot in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the technology in “Smithereens” doesn’t become a character, but instead, the characters act as regular people, in response to how the technology has impacted their lives. We sometimes call science fiction by its code-name, “speculative fiction,” and in this case, the thing being speculated is how far would one human being go to reforge a human connection with someone running a fairly inhuman social media company? This is a classic What If? Question, perhaps the most important moment of all good science fiction; a premise that can push us to think about scientific and technological concepts in new ways.
I know it’s slightly scurrilous to argue that because the episode exists in a world in which the social media company “Smithereens,” exists, that that fact alone automatically makes it science fiction, because it takes place in a parallel dimension where Smithereens and Persona rose to dominance instead of Twitter and Facebook in our world. And yet, it’s in these small details where divergent timelines and cool speculative fiction actually get under our skin and make us think. In the Joe Handelman novella, “The Hemingway Hoax,” a literary scholar experiences several parallel dimensions in which technology is just a little bit different than in the previous dimension. In one dimension, the your car radio picks up old network TV stations, and stuff like that. It’s a small detail inside of a larger narrative that makes the point of departure for science fiction compelling.
Famously, author William Gibson hasn’t returned to the cyberpunk worlds he crafted in novels like Neuromancer or Count Zero. This makes sense from a practical standpoint if only because aspects of cyberpunk simply feel more like a tired aesthetic now instead of a serious approach to good science fiction storytelling. But I’d argue that cyberpunk is in fact, alive and well in episodes of Black Mirror. And because of its science fiction soul (technology versus the human spirit) I’d argue “Smithereens,” and a handful of other Black Mirror episodes (including the new “Striking Vipers” episode) fall into something you could easily just call Realistic Cyberpunk.
Good science fiction has never been about technology dominating the conversation about the narrative. If anything, science fiction becomes timeless regardless of the tech speculation one way or another. Arguably, the most unrealistic thing in this episode isn’t the technology itself, but rather the response fictional CEO Billy Bauer (Topher Grace) has to the whole situation. Would Zuckerberg take the call in real life? Would Dorsey?
Imagining either of those two guys behaving in the slightly human and apologetic way Bauer does in this episode is crazy over the top. It’s hyperbolic. It’s optimistic about how human beings would react to an extreme situation involving technology. And that’s science fiction.