Science fiction has always wished for something to look forward to, and left unspoken its self-preserving anxiety about the future becoming now, of events advancing faster than you can speculate.
For writers like William Gibson and George Saunders, our high-speed century has produced the genre and fact of the real-time dystopia, in which they’ve decided that you can no longer keep ahead of the future, just try to keep pace with it.
In The Dark Knight Rises Jonathan Nolan was fighting the last class war, but in his CBS series Person of Interest, which rose again for its second season last month, the lens is sharply focused on the live feed of our unsuspecting domestic takeover.
The cereal-toy surveillance tech once reserved for infallible lawmen in our pulp past is, in our current reality, trained on the innocent and guilty alike, in both the right and wrong hands through the popular devices at everyone’s fingertips. In Person of Interest, it’s aimed at evading the very authorities we’re supposed to trust with it, and maneuvering around their misjudgments.
To this end the creator of a Total Information Awareness-type omniscient computer/ubiquitous camera (Michael Emerson) and his ex-special-ops enforcer (Jim Caviezel) try to rescue people whose “number comes up” (hmmm) for being endangered but whom the government doesn’t care about unless it’s terrorism-related (the tunnel-visioned purpose they commissioned “The Machine” for). It’s a race between watching over and being watched.
One character in the two-part second-season opener remarks that, amidst all this accelerating tech, humans are still due for an upgrade, and the series makes unsettling use of the enduring science fiction idea that the more things go forward the more they don’t change.
Taking the film-noir trope of the disillusioned soldier come back to a homeland corrupted by its triumph, PoI’s pilot had off-the-grid returning global-war-on-terror vet John Reese (Caviezel) lament that “I went around the world looking for bad guys, but there were plenty right here all along.” If there’s a more definitive neo-noir articulation of our perpetual-war, post-prosperity miasma, it doesn’t come up in my memory.
The erosion of safety with the expansion of “defenses” is a pervading theme of the show, as the concentric cabals that ordered The Machine and want to control it circle and tighten around each other. The practical consequences dominated Season 1 (advisedly paranoid protagonists keeping engaged with society but under the radar; uneasy alliances with effective but dirty cops and amoral but supportive outlaws), and Season 2 started with the fanciful complications: What if a hacker discovered The Machine and wanted to treat it as a new intellectual lifeform in captivity to myopic government autocrats and misguided do-gooders?
To this end, the unseen supergenius “Root” (Amy Acker) surfaces to kidnap The Machine’s creator Mr. Finch (Emerson) to try and access the device and set it free to make its own decisions for humanity. “You created God,” she advises Finch, in a reversal of the government agents’ admonition to Case in Neuromancer that now, the myth of dealing with a demon—the self-aware and self-interested computer—is possible.
At the end of Season 1 (SPOILER), the isolated clean cop Carter (Taraji P. Henson) and the reforming bent-badge Fusco (Kevin Chapman) started to reconcile after a year of not realizing they were each on Reese and Finch’s speed-dial for offline ops, leaving the season-finale moral cliffhanger of what might happen if we had a fabric of personal trust rather than a net of anonymous scrutiny.
Similarly at the outset of Season 2, with a nation or even a world’s security and self-direction at stake, we feel very specific sympathy for the murderous, messianic Root (SPOILER), who turns out to have involuntarily fallen out of the grid she’s now obsessed with when she became a teen runaway (but for reasons it’s near impossible to see coming); and we can’t wait to find out if our vulnerable protector, Finch, will be safe, though he himself puts the mission of The Machine above this.
Thus the season-opening puzzler is, don’t we have a right to care more about the people in front of our own eyes and not always sacrifice that to the big picture beyond our comprehension, and on command-center camera feeds?
The answer Person of Interest may be trying to tell us is that certain concerns for our well-being and longevity never get old, and, to our peril and maybe our salvation, some of our reactions to them never get new.
Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comicbooks for Image (The Next issue Project), Trip City.com, the acclaimed indie broadsheet POOD, and GG Studios, and blogs regularly at HiLoBrow.com and ComicCritique. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold on the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second, has dabbled in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements. His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises.