A Political History of the Future: Severance at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My series at Lawyers, Guns & Money about how science fiction constructs its social, political, and economic futures, A Political History of the Future, has been dormant for several years (you can find an archive of previous posts here). So I should probably thank the producers of Apple TV+'s Severance for inspiring me to pick it up again. The show, in which a group of office workers undergo a procedure that severs their personality in two, creating completely distinct lives for their work and outside selves, does a lot of interesting things with its construction of a sort of high-tech company town, a place where employees who have never known the outside world are emotionally and psychologically conditioned in ways that, one suspects, companies in the real world would love to do. But it's also a show with some profound blind spots, ones that are perhaps inevitable for a series produced by a streaming service that is aiming for an upscale, affluent audience.

There's an adage that crops up a lot in science fiction circles: a dystopia is a future or alternate world in which things that are happening right now happen to white people. It's reductive, and not a little bit mean, but there’s a lot of truth to it. I've been thinking recently that we should formulate a corollary to this adage, in response to the emergence, in film and TV, of a type of near-future-set, strongly naturalistic science fiction story whose premise should, by all rights, be informed or inflected by class, but which has been set in a world where class goes unacknowledged. The new adage I'm contemplating, then, would go something like this: a capitalist dystopia is a future or alternate world in which things that are happening right now happen to middle class office workers.

It’s this observation that has kept me from fully joining in the acclaim that has rained down on Apple TV+'s Severance, which concluded its first season earlier this month. There’s a lot to praise about Severance, including some aspects of how it handles its central theme, the technologically-enabled dehumanization of workers. But by setting its story in a world of perpetual middle-classness, one in which the pressures that are brought to bear on workers in the real world seem entirely beside the point of the story, it misses a lot of the opportunities for insightful observation offered by its premise.
Also discussed: the science fiction trope of "self-enslavement", as exemplified by David Brin's Kiln People, the movie Moon, and several Black Mirror episodes. Also Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, which in many ways feels like a dress rehearsal for Severance that simply came about too soon. I also take a detour to discuss another recent Apple series, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, which falls far short of Severance's technical achievements (though Samuel L. Jackson gives a great central performance), but is also a lot smarter about incorporating real-life class issues into its storytelling.

Read the whole essay here.


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