The defining scene of “Sense8,” the new sci-fi drama on Netflix, comes about halfway through the first season. It starts in San Francisco, where Nomi, a “hacktivist” and transgender lesbian, is making out with her girlfriend, Amanita. At the same time, in Mexico City, Lito, a smoldering actor, is lifting weights with his boyfriend, Hernando. In Berlin, Wolfgang, a safecracker, is relaxing, naked, in a hot tub. And in Chicago, Will, a police officer, is working out at the gym. The premise of “Sense8” is that Nomi, Lito, Wolfgang, and Will—along with four other “sensates” in Nairobi, Seoul, Mumbai, and Reykjavik—are telepathically linked. They are able to feel each other’s emotions, appear in each other’s minds, and even control each other’s bodies. In this instance, because they’re all feeling sexy, the sensates find themselves having an impromptu telepathic orgy. They’re a little freaked out until they realize that they can all enjoy Wolfgang’s hot tub simultaneously.
In sci-fi speak, “Sense8” is about transhumanism—the idea that in the future, as a species, we might become more than we are right now. Julian Huxley, the brother of Aldous, coined the term in a 1927 book called “Religion Without Revelation,” in which he wrote that transhumanism was “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”Rothman gives a fascinating summary of different categories of Sci-Fi. I recommended that you read the article. I can't resist a few more clips:
If you read a lot of science fiction in one go, you notice that it has two weaknesses. The first is the future, which tends to be complicated, depressing, and fatiguing to read about; the second is the aesthetic of futurism, which is grim and predictable. Everything is big, scary, and metallic (or else small, gross, and biotechnological). The implicit message of futurism is that human progress is inseparable from suffering; often, the only kind of beauty is terrible beauty. Futurism is what gives sci-fi its frisson.
“Sense8,” though, is joyful, in part because it shows us transhumanism without futurism. It’s not a superhero show, in which a random individual is elevated into something better; it hints, science-fictionally, at a fundamental change in human nature generally. At the same time, there’s no technological explanation—and, therefore, no futurist cost—for that change. (In one episode, it’s suggested that, in the distant evolutionary past, all human beings were once telepathic, but no one seems to care very much about this hand-wavey idea.) On some level, the sensates’ telepathic empathy is a metaphor for the Internet, which seems, in some ways, to be making us more open to others’ experiences (especially queer experiences). The show also evokes the joys of creative collaboration: people who watch the Wakowskis work together often say that they have “two bodies, one brain.” Really, though, the point of “Sense8” is to revel in the broadening of empathy—to fantasize about how in-tune with each other we could be. In its own, low-key way, therefore, “Sense8” is a critique of sci-fi. It asks whether, in tying our dreams about human transformation to fantasies of technological development, we might be making an error. The show suggests another path to transcendence: each other.