What will happen to me when I die?
With even faithful Catholics often focusing their attention on where we go when we die rather than on the richer scriptural ideas of glory and Resurrection, it’s no surprise that the secular world is working to make the godless afterlives of science fiction a reality. What if my consciousness can eventually go into an internet server—the cloud—instead of heaven, purgatory, or hell? What if I can count on carrying on as my old, disembodied self, rather than patterning my life now in the hope of transformation (body and soul) when the Lord comes “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27)?
As Christians struggle to articulate timeless answers, Greg Daniels’ new series Upload, set in the near future of 2033, aims at the sweet spot for modern seekers: winding up dead, but (to borrow a phrase from The Princess Bride’s Miracle Max), maybe not “all dead.”
Upload stakes out an alternative view of the afterlife, as does NBC’s much more light-hearted The Good Place. Upload is fairly serious sci-fi complemented with a small dose of the kind of high-tech humor perfected in Mike Judge’s HBO series Silicon Valley. An Amazon Prime offering, it stars mostly unknowns, including Robbie Arnell as Nathan Brown, a handsome computer genius whose mysterious demise lands him in the expensive digital retirement home of Lakeview.
Nathan’s post-mortem needs are taken care of by his wealthy, possessive girlfriend, as well as by an “angel,” a lovely New York-based hourly employee named Nora, played by Andy Allo. At Lakeview, you get what you pay for. If you run low on money, you get downgraded to a low-activity status, or even freeze up entirely until the bills are paid. Many companies offer bargain-basement afterlife options (depicted humorously in the eighth episode, “Shopping Other Digital After-Lives”). But for those with means, there are endless opportunities at Lakeview and other high-class After-Life servers that allow you to upgrade your own eternity with in-app purchases.
In an interview with Vox.com, Daniels compared the commercial arrangement of Lakeview with the medieval sale of indulgences—an understandable, but very ill-informed jab at the Church.
Nonetheless, the consumerism of Lakeview sets up a useful contrast with the biblical vision of the kingdom of God. It is a far cry from the glorious heavenly banquet of Isaiah 25, or better yet Isaiah 55:1: “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Nathan has moments when the absurd injustice of his situation becomes clear. It can’t really be paradise if it depends on someone’s credit card limit.
The characters in Upload rarely ever use the word “soul,” but a soulful longing for truth is at the heart of several people’s struggle, and especially Nora’s. Anxiety over social credit wears Nora out, and her fatigue with virtual reality and rating systems grows. Casual sex is taken for granted in Upload, but Norah becomes utterly bored with hook-up culture and dating apps.
Surely, life in this world—let alone eternal life—cannot possibly revolve around me, my preferences, or my definition of myself. Ironically, it is Nora’s friendship with the uploaded Nathan that starts to make her come alive to a more meaningful reality defined by sacrifice. Nora’s father, played by Silicon Valley’s Chris Williams, helps too. He believes in “all that old stuff,” and despite suffering from chronic “vape lung,” he refuses to be uploaded.
Upload contains elements of a thriller, a mystery, and a love story, all of which open wider in the final episode of the season, pointing towards season 2. The show’s depiction of self-driving cars and 3-D printed food will fascinate techies and horrify luddites like me. People with even a mild fascination with conspiracy theories related to wealth and technology will find their itch scratched. X-Files fans will enjoy seeing William B. Davis (the Cigarette Smoking Man) as David Choak, a thinly veiled version of the late libertarian philanthropist, David Koch.
Upload is thought-provoking, but by no means flawless. It follows a growing trend of stretching what could have been a good ninety-minute movie or even a single episode of Black Mirror into a five-hour season. The storytelling is a little messy; but the show makes clear that just about anything makes more sense than the aspirations of a digital, secular avoidance of death. To me, it’s another cautionary tale of a dystopia to avoid at all cost. Why would we want to go on being the way we are, only less so? The Christian evangelist reminds the Upload viewer of the alternative: “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
Astonishingly, creator Greg Daniels doesn’t seem to have fully recognized the hellscape he has built, holding on to the idea of a felicitous disembodied getaway made possible by genius coders. He told Entertainment Weekly, “The show is set in my preferred choice of afterlife. . . . Part of my goal is to try and get Amazon to actually get into this business in time to have it ready for me.”
We can only pray that thinking deeply about what comes next will move Daniels away from his “preferred choice,” and prepare him for the Good News of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. And we can also pray that Upload will unwittingly cut the hearts of its viewers with the truth. On the whole, it did for me.