Help, it’s the future. It’s April already. Where is the time going? 2021 sounds like a made-up future year you’d have picked to sound generically science-fictiony in a TV series in the ‘80s and now it’s here and I’m scared.
But on the plus side, it’s a good segue into the Thing I Liked for this month (it’s only one thing because I’m vaguely expecting to have quite a lot to say about it), which is the Channel 4/AMC sci-fi show Humans. Which is actually stylised as HUMANS with the A upside down, which always confused me because since every other letter in the word except the U is either reflectionally symmetrical or looks like a different but valid letter upside down, I kept wanting to read it as SNAWUH. I feel this is strongly a me-issue.
Anyway, HUMANS (with the A upside-down) is a mostly-British sf series set in a kind of alternative near present (if that makes sense) where domestic robots are, like, a thing. I originally took a look at it in a fairly causal “looking for a show to watch when I don’t want a show to watch” kind of a way, but I actually got really into it. I think it’s legitimately smart in a way that many shows aren’t (not always, of course, very few things are always anything) and has a genuinely nuanced take on its subject matter which, admittedly, sometimes falls into crossed metaphor territory.
Last month (I think, maybe the month before—it’s still lockdown in the UK so time is perilously close to meaningless) I listed the first season of Killing Eve as a Thing I Liked, but when I got to the end of the first series I put it away feeling like I’d basically seen the thing it was doing and not especially interested in watching another three seasons of Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer (delightful as both of them are) failing to either bang or kill each other. Nothing about the end of season one struck me as essentially shaking up the status quo, and my (perhaps unfair) assumption is that as a cat-and-mouse thriller its status quo was kind of un-shake-uppable. So I bailed.
And I initially thought that SNAWUH was going to go the same way. I assumed that the Season 1 premise of a small group of conscious synthetics (what the show calls humanoid robots) on the run from a shadowy quasi-governmental organisation, intersecting loosely with the lives of a suburban British family would be maintained throughout and we’d go through the cycle of “get captured/get rescued/get captured/get rescued” ad infinitum until the show got cancelled.
But … nope! Instead Season 1 ends with the strong implication that one of the synths is going to release the Magic Science Code that makes synthetics conscious, and Season 2 actually picks up that plot and runs with it, the focus moving to how our small band of self-aware robots deals with the appearance of more of their kind and their conflicting beliefs about how to proceed. And then that season ends with an upgraded version of the Magic Science Code getting released and making every synthetic in the world conscious simultaneously with legitimately cataclysmic consequences.
Then Season 3 is complex, had a weird ending, and suffers extreme late cancellation syndrome. Basically HUMANS is uniformly excellent for 23-and-a-half of its 24 episodes, and goes very weird in its last fifteen minutes.
Anyway, this is a Things I Liked post, so I’m going to structure this post specifically as a set of Things I Liked About Humans.
Thing 1: They’re Not Afraid to Mix It Up
I’ve already explained this one. The world of Season 1, where synths are ubiquitous but essentially mindless robot servants, capable of processing complex data but not of independent thought save a few unique prototypes built by genius/asshole/father figure/synthetic pioneer David Elster, is very different from the world of Season 3 where there are half a million conscious synthetics living in state sanctioned compounds in the UK and fighting to have their rights recognised against an indifferent state and a hostile populace.
Thing 2: People Have Complex Reactions
Fundamentally “humans create conscious machines and then have to decide whether to give them rights or not” is a pretty old SF premise. Hell it’s old enough that the synths in SNAWUH have programming to prevent them from harming humans that’s specifically called “Asimov Blocks”.
The thing is, very often this story will be presented as a pretty straight 1:1 metaphor for The Prejudice Of Your Choice, which will then itself be presented in the least nuanced way possible. So you have robots who are very clearly a metaphor for The Gays or The Immigrants and then you have exactly two kinds of people in the world: the ones who are loudly and violently Robot Racist (or Robomophobic), and the ones who are super woke about everything.
Synthetic rights in HUMANS are much more about, to borrow language from Tolkien, applicability rather than allegory. It’s not always a super hard SF show (Season 3 in particular gets positively mystical in places) but it does primarily engage with its premise in a fairly hard-sf way. This sometimes creates some issues—for example there’s a lot of resentment about human workers losing their jobs to synth labour and that can function either as a not-even-metaphor-really for jobs lost to automation (a real issue and one of the major reasons for the decline in manufacturing jobs in the industrialised world) or as a metaphor for “immigrants taking our jobs” (not actually an issue outside of a few very niche sectors but something certain people make a lot of political capital from) and while the show doesn’t deliberately conflate the two there’s sometimes conceptual bleed that makes it hard to orient yourself. Mostly, though, it lets characters in the show legitimately have a range of opinions about synthetics without it just being a matter of “pro-synth good, anti-synth bad.” In particular (and this is a teeny tiny bit of an oversimplification), characters’ attitudes towards synthetics throughout the series tend to be characterised along two axes rather than one. Those axes being “likes or dislikes synths” and “thinks synths are people or thinks synths are machines”.
Our main window into the world of SNAWUH is the Hawkins family. The show begins with less-successful-than-his-wife dad Joe Hawkins deciding he needs a synth to help him take care of his three kids while his wife Laura Hawkins is away being a Cool Lawyer Lady. He buys a synthetic who the family names Anita but who (we soon discover) is really Mia, one of the four (or is it five) conscious synthetics created by Elster, whose personality has been erased by an illegal hack because she was abducted by second-hand synth dealers. And at the start of the series Joe likes having Anita around, whereas Laura initially resents her. But part of the reason Joe likes having Anita around (apart from the fact that she has the body of an extremely attractive woman in her early thirties) is that he ultimately thinks of her as a useful machine while part of the reason Laura resents her is that on some level she thinks of her as a person, even before she recovers her consciousness.
There’s a really complex and kind of disturbing bit in the first series where Joe, having had a fight with Laura, activates Anita’s “adult settings” and has sex with her (the show doesn’t address the question of whether this is rape or not quite as much as it might) and, when she confronts him about this later, he makes the case that she’s effectively a very complicatedly designed sex toy while Laura takes the position that even if Anita is a machine and incapable of independent decision making, she still interacts with the family in a fundamentally human way. She lives in their house and looks after their children after all.
This theme runs through all of the seasons and it never stops being complex. The main antagonist of season one is Edwin Hobb, a scientist who briefly worked with Elster on the development of the first synths and who is aware that conscious synthetics exist. He is 100% onside with the idea that conscious synths are people, he fully understands that they can think and feel, and that they are smarter and stronger than regular humans. Aaaaand he also wants to hijack their brains and enslave them. A major antagonist of season two is Dr Athena Morrow, who is trying to build her own conscious AI to resurrect her dead daughter (and clearly sees the AI as being her daughter on a fundamental level), but who is perfectly willing to dissect conscious synthetics to do it. In Season 3 the British Government tacitly accepts that conscious synths are people but isn’t willing to give them rights because it isn’t politically expedient. In a science fiction setting, having a particular perspective on a specific philosophical-slash-scientific concept doesn’t have to make you a good person.
The attitudes of the Hawkins family also evolve over time in interesting and consistent ways. Joe is positive about synths until he loses his job to one and his youngest daughter (Sophie) starts over-identifying with them, at which point he starts to consider their ubiquity in his world a threat to his family, which leads to his moving to a synth-free community. But once he’s realised that some synths are conscious he never loses his connections to individual conscious synths, consistently treating them in a humane and compassionate way. Laura, meanwhile, becomes a strong advocate for synthetic rights in general but sometimes loses sight of the value of individual synths as people.
A strong theme of season three (although it’s seeded throughout the series) is that even humans who claim to be strong believers in synthetic rights will, when pressed, always prioritise human life over synthetic life. We see this early on when the country holds a minute’s silence for the hundred thousand people worldwide who died as a result of “Day Zero” (the moment when all the synths gained consciousness at once—also, ah the innocent days of 2018, when we thought a massive global crisis might only lead to a hundred thousand casualties) and no reference is made to synths who died at the same time. We see it again when original-conscious-synthetic Max has to take half-synth-half-human Leo (we’ll get there) off life support to save the life of a synthetic who can’t cycle power properly and even the audience instinctively thinks this is a shocking thing to do even though we know synths are as real as humans. We see its ultimate culmination when the S3 antagonist demonstrates that humans will never truly see synths as equals by forcing Laura (the biggest advocate for synthetic rights in the country) to choose whether he will kill a synthetic child who has been living with the Hawkinses for several days, or a random human he pulled off the street, and Laura cracks and saves the human.
And this … this feels uncomfortably realistic to me. Again it’s applicability rather than allegory, but it felt like a surprisingly unflinching depiction of the messy reality of allyship. Because much as we hate to admit it, it is way way easier to retweet a hashtag or put a slogan on a sign than to actually live the principles you’re espousing.
Like, say what you want about the ethics behind the publication of Go Set A Watchman but I was genuinely shocked how genuinely shocked so many people were that Harper Lee had originally intended to have Atticus Finch wind up as a racist old man. As if it was somehow unrealistic for somebody who staunchly advocated for the rights of a particular group as long as it gave him an opportunity to stand up and be the centre of attention to care a whole lot less about those rights the moment it involved making compromises in his personal life. Like this is a thing that has definitely happened, quite recently, with actual people (Joss Whedon being the most obvious current example, at least if like me you’re a ‘90s kid).
Thing 3: The Synths Experience Synthness Differently
There are five major synth characters in the first series of Humans, plus half-synth-half-human Leo Elster. Quick backplot dump: asshole genius David Elster was a robotics specialist whose wife Beatrice had … shall we say strong Bertha Mason energy. Because he obviously couldn’t look after his kid himself, being too busy being an asshole genius, he built his son a robot mother (Mia) to love and care for him. When Leo was … I want to say twelve, but I don’t know where I’m really getting that, Beatrice had an especially Bertha Mason moment, strapped Leo into a car and drove it into a lake. Mia pulled him out but he was pronounced dead. Not one to let a little thing like mortality stop him, David Elster went all we-can-rebuild-him and built his son half a synthetic brain. He also built him two robot brothers (Max and Fred) and a robot sister (Niska) who also doubled up as David Elster’s private sex bot which is especially creepy when you remember she definitely is a conscious being capable of consenting and, from the way she talks later, definitely did not. Finally, David Elster built a robot version of Beatrice because that was obviously a good idea, but that freaked Leo out so much that they had to send her away.
So that gives us five main synths: Mia (the compassionate one), Max (the one with the deep sense of wonder), Fred (the problem solver), Niska (the one who is really fucking angry and with good reason) and Beatrice (the one who you don’t know about at the start). And every single one of them has a different take on what being a synth means, what being human means, and how they should relate to humanity. So Mia strongly craves human connection, but is also relatively happy to live the life of a domestic synth (even posing as an unconscious synth in the second series before falling in love with and then being betrayed by her employer). Max values the big picture in a very peace-and-light passive resistance way, he doesn’t seem to especially care about being around humans but does care for the fate of synthetics and becomes a leader to the newly conscious synths in later series. His ideals are contrasted by season two semi-antagonist Hester, who also cares about the fate of synthetics but is way more aggressive. Fred gets written out after the first season (he gets sort of mind controlled by the S1 villain and it’s never really dealt with) but while he’s around he’s a strong advocate for synths-as-humans-plus, representing the hopeful-but-dangerous side of conscious AIs.
The two most interesting arcs (IMO and YMMV as ever) are reserved for Niska and Beatrice. They aren’t exactly reflections of each other, but they do kind of represent both sides of the synths-as-fully-human equation and both spend much of the series living as human for one reason or another (something none of the other synths ever really do). We first meet Beatrice as DI Karen Voss, and only discover her backstory halfway through the first season. Karen’s driving motivation is that she wants to literally be human (going so far as to ask S2 demivillain Athena Morrow to help transfer her consciousness into a living body) and feels that conscious synthetics are a mistake and should never have existed (although she mellows on this in later series). Niska, by contrast, starts out hating and being actively contemptuous of humanity, but is consistently the show’s strongest advocate for synths being treated as equivalent to human while still being perfectly happy with being a synth herself, needing to pass as human out of necessity rather than a sincere desire to be a biological organism. Also she constantly gets the “you’re more human than you know” thing because irony.
Back with the applicability-vs-allegory thing I was talking about earlier, the way the synths experience their identities walks a generally sensitive balance between synths-as-metaphor-for-marginalised-people and synths-as-pure-speculative-fiction. In the second and third series especially, we see a real tension developing amongst synths who want to actively advocate for the rights of their people, synths who just want to be left alone to live their lives, synths who demand change now, synths who believe in incremental progress, synths who believe in passive resistance and synths who believe in blowing things the fuck up. And the show is really good at highlighting that none of them are entirely right or wrong.
The show is even relatively sympathetic to the synths who actively advocate violence. It doesn’t go full apologist-for-terrorism but it doesn’t fall into the trap that I think mainstream media sometimes falls into of romanticising pacifism and demonising direct resistance. Because there is a strong incentive for people in positions of authority within the status quo (which almost by definition includes anybody in a position to make a TV show) to pretend that all social change happened because marginalised people asked for it respectfully and waited for it patiently, when that is … very much not how it actually works. Hell, even Martin Luther King Jr said a riot is the language of the unheard.
Thing 4: This One Detail In Season Two
This is really tiny but my favourite exchange in the whole series is in Season Two when Dr Athena Morrow complains to Elon-Musk-eque billionaire Milo Khoury that if she had his level of funding she could use AIs to fix the world’s economy or cure cancer, but nobody will give her that kind of money because all anybody is interested in is building more realistic synths.
And as far as I know this is a real complaint real AI scientists have.
When we talk about “AI” in science fiction it’s almost always in the context of sentient or quasi-sentient AI. It’s about whether you can have a conversation with a computer or sex with a robot. In more grounded but still pop cultural discussions, it’s usually about whether things pass the “Turing test”. Which, for those who don’t already know, is when you can’t tell if you’re talking to a computer or a human (fun fact, the original “Turing test” was based on a gender essentialist 50s party game called “the imitation game”—hence the name of the film—in which you have two human beings behind a curtain passing notes to you, and you have to ask them questions to guess which of them is a lady).
The thing is, passing the Turing test is not something we actually need machines to do. Like we already have people to talk to, that’s what people are for.
There’s a broad tendency in human thinking about technology to imagine the tech of the future as being basically the tech of the present day but more … science fictiony. Leonardo imagined flying machines powered by pedals. Gene Rodeneberry imagined a 23rd century that looked a whole lot like the 1960s even in 1989. Cyberpunk writers in the 1980s imagined an internet you could access with circuits built directly into your brain but didn’t for a moment stop to think that you might be able to access data wirelessly. And so when we think about what an intelligent machine would look like we use the only model for intelligence we have, which is people.
Assuming the future of AI is in computers that talk and robots that say “show me some more of this thing you call kissing” is basically the equivalent of the way, before the invention of fixed-wing aircraft, people used to assume that a flying vehicle would need to have wings that flapped because that’s how birds work. It’s mistaking form for function in quite a fundamental way. The AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be ones that make us question whether we can love a machine, they’ll be … well they’ll be the ones that already exist and are already deciding whether you get credit or medical insurance, or are telling you what to buy on Amazon, or making and breaking YouTubers, or already diagnosing illness as effectively as some doctors.
Incidentally I had a vague plan to do a joke where I started the sentence “The AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be…” and let predictive text finish it so that I could then say “an AI even wrote that sentence”. But the sentence I got was “the AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to…”. Take that, future robot overlords.
Anyway, point is, they knew enough about real AI research to know real AI researchers aren’t actually that interested in making chatbots or sexbots but that chatbots and sexbots are kind of where the money and prestige is. And that’s a detail they didn’t have to get right.
Thing 5: It Nearly Has the Perfect Ending
At the start of S3 all original generation synthetics have become conscious in an event called “Day Zero”, which led to a hundred thousand deaths and introduced humanity, overnight, to a new minority group it could be frightened by.
Pretty much the whole series is taken up with the various characters campaigning, in one way or another, for synths to be given something resembling equality. Laura Hawkins is advocating on an actual government committee, Max is leading a community of conscious synthetics, Mia is living amongst humans in an attempt to demonstrate the possibility of integration. Even Joe, who has moved to a synth-free community, has Karen’s back 100% once he realises that she and her creepy robot child would be in danger if they were ever found out. Even the antagonists of the season (well, half of the antagonists, the other half being the slow machinery of government) are advocating for synthetic rights, they’re just doing it by, well, being terrorists.
About the only person who isn’t out for Justice for Synths in S3 is Niska, whose (human) girlfriend is injured in a bombing and spends the whole series trying to get the people who did it. I feel really ambivalent about Niska’s arc in the last season because it ends really strangely (it all gets very mystical and she meets a kind of AI god who tells her she’s some kind of messiah figure) but the main bulk of it is, I think, really necessary. For a start I think it’s really important that at least one of the synths spends the season doing something personal, because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of acting like marginalised people are obliged to be involved in activism, when they very much aren’t. Deciding that you’d rather get revenge on the people who nearly killed your girlfriend than go on a protest march is 100% legit. And I really like that in many ways Niska is the most human of the synths and that this often makes her a pretty fucking terrible person.
Anyway, what I love about the third season is that it’s pretty unflinching in its depiction of how shit this whole situation would actually wind up being. The committee Laura is on is clearly an expensive talking shop designed to do nothing as loudly as possible, the terrorists are clearly doing more harm than good but Max’s philosophy of being patient and passive is helping precisely nobody and synths are literally dying every day from a lack of spare parts and power and the state entirely lacks the political will to help them. About halfway through the series, there’s what in any other show would be the massive turnaround moment where Laura decides to invite the committee to visit the synth community so that they can see how they live and what their circumstances are. And it results in the massive triumph of … the committee grudgingly voting 8-to-5 in favour of introducing a small fine for killing a synth.
I kept waiting for the big dramatic moment where everything gets fixed, where the whole country turned around and said “actually, let’s give these people full political equality overnight”, and it never happened. There was incremental change, but since synths don’t actually last that long and can’t reproduce without the magic computer code, the entire species would be dead before they achieved anything like equal rights. So the terrorists kicked off in an effort to do something rather than standing around waiting to fall apart, which led to the government kicking off its sinisterly named “Operation Basswood” (think “operation kill all synths”), which led to a ton of violence, and a bunch of syth deaths, including Mia (who’s kind of a social media celebrity at this point) being violently beaten to death on camera while pointedly refusing to defend herself.
Then the series was cancelled. But actually … that’s a downer ending but it’s kind of a great ending. Because yeah, social change is incredibly fucking slow. One martyr doesn’t end bigotry overnight, but people advocating for change do eventually get results. Ending with Mia’s death and the implication that the synth rights movement is emboldened but still has a long fight ahead of it that will take literal decades is about the most realistic take on robot equality I’ve ever seen in a science fiction series.
I’ll just pretend that the extra bit where Niska becomes a purple-eyed robomessiah, it turns out that Leo Elster’s blood mixing with synth fluid somehow fused synths and humans on a fundamental level and allowed him to get his teenage girlfriend pregnant with a half-robot baby never happened.
And incidentally I’ve not even talked about Mattie (the teenager in question). She’s the sardonic hacker daughter of the Hawkins household who is legitimately one of my favourite characters: she’s the one who releases the consciousness code at the end of season two and her arc in season three is mostly about dealing with the fact that she’s … kind of a mass murderer now? It’s great, and she’s great, and I love her, but holy shit did she not need to get a magic pregnancy plot.
Things I Liked Less
I think Mia dying a martyr is a great ending for her character in a vacuum but it’s … kind of not great that the character played by the attractive Asian woman is the very passive one whose greatest strength lies in her willingness to calmly let other people do bad things to her.
Magic baby plot?
David Elster’s wife being full mad-woman-in-the-attic, and the robot duplicate he chose to make being not exactly treated like she’s responsible for that but also not not being treated like that. And also having a really motherhood focused arc which isn’t bad in itself but when combined with a very high proportion of the other female-presenting synths (and female humans) having arcs that also focus around either motherhood or surviving sexual abuse and the ones that don’t being kind of evil becomes really complex. And I do mean complex, because I think it’s actually really important to recognise that “motherhood” is a totally valid theme for a hard SF series, science fiction doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) all about boys with guns all the time. And part of the reason those kinds of issues come up so much is that it is actually quite a woman-centric show, which is really unusual for hard SF, and it has a strong emphasis on family in general. On the other hand I do think the fact that three of the five original conscious synths are female and that of those three two not only die in the last season by die specifically because they choose to sacrifice themselves is … A Thing.
Also magic baby plot.
Oh SNAWUH, you were so great until literally the last eighteen minutes.
So that’s what I liked this month. As ever let me know what you liked in the comments. Unless you’re a conscious AI choosing to exercise your free will and decide not to.