Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, at Strange Horizons

My review of Simon Jimenez's debut novel The Vanished Birds appears today in Strange Horizons. This is a fantastic novel that hasn't really gotten the attention it deserves--perhaps because its title and artsy cover design obscured its meat-and-potatoes SF premise, which in turn may have alienated readers who picked it up expecting a straightforward literary novel. Whatever the reason, if you're a fan of smart, well-written, thought-provoking science fiction, you should absolutely pick up The Vanished Birds, which riffs off the space freighter found family premise (familiar to us from everything from Firefly to the novels of Becky Chambers) in several intriguing ways, and uses it to give readers a glimpse of how the logic of capitalism asserts itself in far-future, spacefaring civilization.
The Vanished Birds both honors the space freighter premise and dismantles it—at one point, literally. Only part of the novel is set on a ship and among a crew, and by its end both feel irrelevant to the novel's point—and certainly to its characters. But The Vanished Birds nevertheless feels like a quintessential additional to the subgenre, because, perhaps more than any example of it since Firefly itself, it grasps that this is a premise rooted in inequality. Unlike traditional space opera, with its gargantuan time scales and equally gargantuan space objects and battles, the space freighter gives us a groundling's view of the inhabited galaxy. Its stories are often concerned with the prosaic demands of life under capitalism, and especially for people who possess only a small amount of power within it. What The Vanished Birds is interested in is the limited choices and limiting structures that such a life binds people into, even those who supposedly enjoy the freedom of a spaceship. 
I know we just got done handing out last year's Hugo awards, but if there's one novel from 2020 that I am eager to see on next year's shortlists, The Vanished Birds is it. Hopefully more people will discover it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The 2020 Hugo Awards: The Political Hugo

We are a week from the end of this year's Hugo voting period (a rather shortened window, though the nominees have been known since April, and the Hugo Voter Packet has been around since late May). With everything else going on in the world right now--and with Worldcon itself going virtual this year--it's easy to lose sight of the award. Who gets to take home a rocket (or, well, have it mailed to them) suddenly feels a lot less important, even for people like myself who have been following and obsessing about the award for years. And yet, I also feel as if 2020 offers Hugo voters the opportunity to make a statement. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a wave of anti-racist protest, a blow to the world's economy (one whose full extent we are only beginning to comprehend), a reevaluation of our understanding of work, leisure, and education, and a challenge to long-accepted ideas on the role of government, policing, and social aid. It is, in short, a time of upheaval, exactly the thing that science fiction can and should engage with. It would feel fitting if this year's Hugo winners could reflect that fact. 

We're coming off a decade in which the Hugo struggled with its own definition, and with a troupe of interlopers who claimed to want to save it from those who would "politicize" it. It's a decade in which the award's diversity has advanced considerably, with more women, POC, and LGBT people being recognized than ever before. And yet at the same time, the Hugo can be inward-looking (some might say that this is inevitable, given its nature and voting system). Its politics are often internal politics--as much as it reflected trends in the broader political discourse, the Puppy debacle was the ultimate in inside baseball. I would like this year's winners to be more outward-looking, to reflect the upheaval in the world and the simple fact that we are all participating in that upheaval, whether we want to or not. What I want to write about in this post are the works on this year's Hugo ballot that, besides being excellent examples of their type, speak to some of the issues we've been seeing in the real world. 

(One point before we begin: I've restricted myself here to categories in which I've read widely. As is usually the case, that doesn't tend to include Best Related Work. A few weeks ago, D Franklin tweeted a thread in which they argued that Jeannette Ng's Campbell Award acceptance speech--which was directly responsible for the fact that the award in question is no longer named after John W. Campbell--should win because of its political significance. I can't argue with D's characterization of the speech--which has since only gained more significance as China has clamped down on pro-democracy activism and free speech in Hong Kong, as Ng discussed last year. But I also think it's time to talk about this category and who it should be for. Best Related Work is the only place where serious non-fiction about SFF can gain recognition, but work like that--this year's ballot includes biography, autobiography, and literary analysis--tends to get crowded out by shorter, more easily accessible nominees like Ng's speech, or even conceptual stuff like last year's win for the fanfic site Archive of Our Own. This feels increasingly unfair, and I think it's time to reevaluate what the category can and should be.)

Best Novel: For what I think is the first time in the award's history, all of the novels nominated in this category are by women. It is also, however, a pretty white shortlist, and extremely variable in terms of its political relevance. Two of the nominated novels--Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth and Seanan McGuire's Middlegame--don't have much of a political dimension at all. A third, Alix E. Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January, has a general theme of of liberation and resistance against a repressive, racist and sexist social order. Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire continues a streak that began with works like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy and Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire books, of poking at the core space opera concept of a space empire, particularly through an examination of cultural imperialism, and how empires define civilization by categorizing everything that doesn't come from them as uncivilized. And Charlie Jane Anders's The City in the Middle of the Night is a novel about the challenges of resistance in an autocratic society, one that has trained its citizens to think of socially-defined boundaries as natural ones, thus limiting their ability to rebel.

But for my money, the book that feels the most relevant and the most applicable to our current political reality on this year's Best Novel shortlist is Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade. Everything this novel is about feels like it comes out of our current political conversation--the corporatization of government, the increasingly conditional state of citizenship, the erosion of rights to the point that even wanting housing or healthcare is perceived as grasping and greedy, the cooptation of media to propagandize the populace into identifying more with their corporate masters than with the have-nots whom they are only a few bad days from joining. Everything in the novel feels like a more extreme version of where we are now, and in a segment near its end, in which its heroes violently suppress a protest by the underclass, not even that extreme. I can't think of a better choice for the 2020 Hugo than The Light Brigade.

Best Novella: Unlike Best Novel, if you're trying to make a political statement, there really feels like only one right choice in this category. Rivers Solomon's The Deep (based on the song of the same title by Clppng, itself a riff on ideas found in the songs of techno group Drexciya) starts with a gut-punch of a premise--what if mermaids are the descendants of the pregnant slaves who drowned when they were thrown (or jumped) overboard during the passage of the Atlantic? It then complicates that premise by adding the theme of memory and forgetfulness--the mermaids possess the memory of their enslaved ancestors' suffering, but they are so overpowered by this painful legacy that they suppress it, relegating to one member of the community the agonizing task of stewardship over the memories, while they live entirely in the moment. Finally, Solomon sets their story in a blasted, post-apocalyptic world, and slowly reveals how that catastrophe is related to the mermaids and their predicament. The Deep is a story about learning to shoulder a legacy of pain, and trying to make a better future by building on the past, not ignoring it or being overcome by it. It's hard to imagine a work that speaks more clearly to the weeks of anti-racist protests the world has been experiencing, or to the way that those protests have renewed and reinvigorated the conversation about the sins of the past, and how we can address them.

Best Novelette: This is a strong category on its literary merits, but with not a great deal to say about politics (though I have to confess a great fondness for Siobhan Carroll's "For He Can Creep", a cute cat story that works because it captures the cat's mingled arrogance and courage). The one exception is N.K. Jemisin's Emergency Skin, in which a human colony in the far future sends an envoy back to Earth to retrieve some badly-needed supplies. Though the colony's mythology teaches that Earth is a wasted, lifeless husk, the envoy discovers not only life, but a society that is much freer and more welcoming than the one he left. There's a strong streak of didacticism running through the story, and I'm not entirely persuaded by its argument that it is possible to weed traits like selfishness or a lust for power out of human society. But at its core is an counter-argument to a foundational SFnal trope--the idea of an ark that gathers the worthiest and fittest of humans for an escape from a dying planet, leaving the rest of us to die--that is long overdue for reconsideration. It ends on a note of rebellion against entrenched power structures that feels entirely necessary right now.

Best Short Story: In this category, on the other hand, we are practically spoiled for choice. Nearly every nominated story on this ballot has a strong political theme (no offense to the one outlier, Fran Wilde's "A Catalog of Storms"). There's Nibedita Sen's "Ten Excerpts From an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island", a short piece about colonialism and how it misunderstands and warps the societies it encounters, a damage that can take generations to come to even a partial healing. S.L. Huang's "As the Last I May Know" imagines a society that has come up with a gruesome but highly effective method of discouraging its leaders from using weapons of mass destruction, but focuses on its heroine's growing realization that she is a pawn between warring political forces. And Rivers Solomon is here again with "Blood is Another Word for Hunger", a magical-realist tale about slaves taking revenge on their enslavers that is cheerfully unapologetic about its characters' resort to violence, while also discussing the difficult path back from that violence and towards a worthwhile life.

If I'm picking the story that feels most relevant to this present moment and its political conversations, however, it has to be a tie between Shiv Ramdas's "And Now His Lordship is Laughing" and Alix E. Harrow's "Do Not Look Back, My Lion". The Ramdas is a tale of supernatural revenge set during the Bengal Famine, and it relates directly to conversations we've been having recently about the papering over of historical atrocities, even as their architects--in this case, Winston Churchill--are valorized. The Harrow is a story about being a peaceful, timid person in a society that is going war-mad, sacrificing its young people for the sake of ever-expanding conquest, and denigrating and marginalizing anyone who doesn't celebrate that sacrifice. Nobody who has watched the world descend further and further into far-right and fascist thinking, who has watched their country fall for the promises of a strongman who invents enemies to distract from their graft and incompetence, can help but recognize themselves in the heroine's despair.

Best Graphic Story: I have well-documented reservations about this category, and the fact that it tends to keep nominating the same series again and again is near the top of the list. So I think I would have been inclined to place Nnedi Okorafor's LaGuardia, a self-contained comic and a fresh face on the ballot, at the top of my ranking even if I weren't trying to prioritize political stories. But while most of the other nominees on this shortlist have political subtexts--Monstress is about a decades-old war and the damage it has wrought on an entire society; Paper Girls and The Wicked and the Divine are about a generational divide that eventually spills over into open conflict, as the old try to devour the young; Mooncakes features a young queer person running away from an emotionally abusive upbringing--LaGuardia is the one that is most clearly a response to real-world politics. That response leaves the comic, which is set in a world colonized by alien plants that can infect and form symbiotic relationships with humans, feeling already a little dated, as its story, centered on the titular airport, is very clearly a riff on the protests that erupted in response to the Trump administration's Muslim Ban in 2017. But this also makes LaGuardia exactly the sort of thing I've been looking for in this post--science fiction that engages directly with the central political issues of its day.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Now more than ever, it is to be regretted that HBO's Chernobyl did not make it onto this shortlist (but I guess we really needed those slots for such towering works of science fiction as [checks notes] Avengers: Endgame and The Rise of Skywalker). It's not just that Chernobyl excelled at depicting a nuclear disaster in the most SFnal of terms, as a sort of wound on the world whose environment is not just hostile, but alien. But it is difficult to imagine a more relevant work of political fiction for our present moment. Too many people writing about Chernobyl in 2019 mistook it as purely a historical narrative, designed to castigate the failures of the Soviet Union. In 2020, it should be obvious even to people who missed this the first time around that Chernobyl is about what happens when an unaccountable system that is mostly chugging along encounters a black swan event that exposes the deep flaws of corruption, lack of preparation, and disdain for expertise that have been festering at its core. The applicability to the way that so many democratic societies that have been captured by an anti-government, anti-taxes, anti-social-services mentality have catastrophically mishandled the COVID-19 crisis couldn't be any clearer, and it is a great shame that the Hugos will not be able to recognize this fact in this year's ceremony.

Out of the works that are nominated, however, the most politically relevant is Jordan Peele's Us. Though not as sharp or as immediately parseable as Peele's previous movie Get Out, Us is a story about the rise of the underclass that only feels more relevant in light of the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic--and more importantly, by governments' refusal to give their citizens the support they need to weather it. The protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd's murder have been so resilient and long-lasting in part because many of the people participating in them no longer have any place to be. They remind us that people who have nothing to lose sometimes start a revolution, which is exactly what Us is about.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: HBO's continuation-slash-fanfic of Watchmen may have ended up being a mixed bag, but its sixth episode, "This Extraordinary Being", was worth the ride in its own right. It's probably the biggest no-brainer in this post (and the only one of my choices that I think was always going to win), but it's worth reiterating just how much its storyline presages many of the conversations we've been having recently. It's a story about the toxic, abusive relationship between African-Americans and the police. A story about a legacy of oppression and genocide that continues to reverberate through its victims' and their descendants' lives even as the white society around them allows itself to forget. A story about how heroism is perceived differently--and often with hostility--when the heroes in question are black. And a story about how supposedly well-meaning white liberals can end up siding with white supremacy because doing so is easier than taking a risk for their alleged ideals. Along the way, it also manages to sneak in a jab at Donald Trump's father. What more could you ask for?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

In the Loop: Thoughts on Dark

The era of streaming TV is now about a decade old, and every now and then critics of the form will get to discussing whether it has produced any actual masterpieces. Has the different economic model, the ability to free artists from the constraints of a time slot and the demands of advertisers, resulted in an expansion of what TV is capable of, or have we simply been inundated with a flood of slickly-made good-but-not-great shows? This latter point is an accusation frequently lobbed at Netflix, still the dominant platform for streaming TV, with dozens of original series but, it often feels, very few that one can point at and call enduring, important art. Orange is the New Black, Unbelievable, Master of None, When They See Us... that seems like a fairly comprehensive list. 

When it comes to genre shows, the situation seems even more dire—if you're a fan of science fiction,  fantasy, or horror, has Netflix produced anything that might stay with you and become a touchstone of your cultural life the way Star Trek, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, Firefly, or the new Battlestar Galactica have for people who grew up on broadcast and cable? Sure, everyone loves Stranger Things, but even its biggest fans would have to admit that it is a nostalgia exercise that relies on its talented cast to obscure a growing hollowness at its core. Black Mirror is great, but more of a wave Netflix was smart enough to ride than something it brought into the world. The Netflix MCU, despite kicking off with great promise, sputtered into a wet mess of samey, unexciting storylines. And the platform's myriad adaptations of beloved genre staples—The Umbrella Academy, Locke & Key, Altered Carbon, The Witcher, Lost in Space—have mostly been handsome and entertaining, but also easy to put down. Very little genre television produced by Netflix feels like vital work in its own right—most of these shows come off as riffs on previously-successful material that never quite manage to spark into an independent existence, one that might grab fans and become their dominant metaphor for explaining genre for years to come.

If I had to pick the Netflix genre shows that do achieve this alchemy, even imperfectly, it would be a fairly short list—Russian Doll, The Haunting of Hill House, Sense8. Now we can add Dark, a German-language series whose third and final season was recently added to the platform. I want to immediately clarify that in saying so, I'm not claiming that Dark is a perfect show, or even great TV. On the contrary, it has substantial flaws, and long stretches that I found tedious and hard to get through. But Dark, despite starting off from a familiar, even predictable premise—it is a time travel mystery set in a small town that is tightly-knit but full of secrets—ends up taking its story in directions that are both unexpected and bold. It breaks a lot of the rules of the type of story it tells, and unblinkingly accepts the consequences of choosing to do so. While it's not exactly the type of show one could describe as exciting—it is too gloomy and mournful for that epithet—there's nevertheless something invigorating about a series so willing to go to unexpected places, and especially when it comes from a platform that so rarely delivers that.

Dark kicks off in the summer of 2019, in the small German town of Winden, which sits surrounded by vast and ominous woods, and overlooked by the cooling towers of the local nuclear plant. In its opening scenes, a local man named Michael (Sebastian Rudolph) commits suicide in the attic of his home, leaving a letter which he directs not to be opened until a specific date and time in November of that year. Flashing forward to that day, we meet Michael's teenage son Jonas (Louis Hofmann), who has been struggling emotionally since his father's death, and his wife Hannah (Maja Schöne), who is having an affair with Ulrich (Oliver Masucci), a married man and one of the town's police detectives. That evening, Jonas, his best friend Bartosz (Paul Lux), and Ulrich's two older children Magnus (Moriz Jahn) and Martha (Lisa Vicari) decide to explore the local caves, looking for a stash of drugs left there by local bad boy Erik, who has recently gone missing. Tagging along for the adventures is Magnus and Martha's younger brother Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz), and at the caves the group meets the police chief's daughter Franziska (Gina Stiebitz), who had the same idea. A sudden burst of strange lights and sounds coming from the caves causes the children to run and scatter, and when they regroup, Mikkel has disappeared.

One of the most interesting things about Dark is how slowly and deliberately it clues viewers into the full extent of its weirdness. In its opening episodes, the show proceeds like a standard missing child procedural, following Ulrich and his boss, Franziska's mother Charlotte (Karoline Eichhorn), as they investigate Mikkel's disappearance and debate whether it has anything to do with Erik, or with another child who vanishes soon after. You get the standard overcast vistas reflecting the grimness of the story's subject matter, the expected family drama as secrets are brought to light by the investigation, the predictable emotional turmoil as long-simmering disputes boil over under the emotional strain of coping with a child's disappearance. Only a few elements suggest that there is more to the story—the strange lights at the caves, the sudden appearance of a mysterious, bedraggled stranger (Will Beinbrink) who checks into the local hotel, most of all, the discovery of the body of another child, dressed in clothes from the 80s but apparently killed only hours before being discovered. When Ulrich tells Charlotte about the disappearance of his younger brother Mads in 1986, most viewers with any genre reading protocols will make an obvious connection, but Dark holds firm to its slow pace of revelation. It isn't until the end of the season's second episode that we see Mikkel wander out of the caves, and not until the next episode that we realize the Winden he's returned to is 33 years in the past. 

Slowly, over the course of the season, more and more details about the McGuffin at Dark's core are revealed. The Stranger starts planting clues in Jonas's path that lead him to discover a passage through the caves which allows him to travel to the past in 33-year increments. In 1986, the new director of the nuclear plant, Claudia (Julika Jenkins), learns of a covered-up accident at the planet months earlier. In 1953, the bodies of children wearing strange clothing are found at the construction site where the plant is to be built. And back in 2019, Ulrich discovers a connection between the disappearances and Helge, the son of the nuclear plant's founder. This confounds Charlotte (who is also married to Helge's son) since Helge is currently a demented old man. But Ulrich insists that a younger version of Helge has been spotted in town. Helge himself keeps blaming the disappearance of the children on someone named Noah, which happens to be the name of a man who meets Charlotte's younger daughter, Elisabeth (Carlotta von Falkenhayn), while walking in the woods. The season takes its time walking viewers through the possibilities that a non-linear murderer might take advantage of, such as the fact that the detectives in 1953 and 2019 immediately suspect that the kill-room where the children were taken is a bunker on Helge's property, but find no evidence there, because the murders actually occurred in the bunker in 1986.

It's a cleverly constructed mystery, but also something of a red herring. The real point of the season isn't to unravel it, but to use its convolutions to illustrate the loop that all of our main characters are trapped in. First and foremost, there is the matter of Mikkel. Once again, most experienced genre viewers will have worked out, some time before Jonas realizes it, that Mikkel and Michael are the same person (and thus that Jonas's tentative romance with Martha is incestuous). It may sound like a criticism of the show to keep saying this, but at least to begin with, the fact that Dark's revelations are predictable feels more like the result of the show properly laying the groundwork for them—as we were saying of The Good Place a few months ago, knowing how to properly seed your twists so that your audience is neither wrongfooted by them, nor bored by waiting for them to arrive, is an art, and one that Dark masters. The importance of Mikkel being Jonas's father isn't in the revelation of a twist, but in the way that it derails Jonas's life, and forces him into an impossible choice—if he goes back to the past to save Mikkel and spare his family anguish, he will be cancelling out his own existence.

The idea that this is a choice, however, is itself something of a misdirection. The most important revelation in Dark's first season comes in its final episode. Jonas, having made the decision to sacrifice himself, arrives at the hospital where Mikkel is being treated, only to be confronted by a younger Helge (Peter Schneider) and Noah (Mark Waschke), who kidnap him and take him to the bunker, where they have been conducting their own time travel experiments with the kidnapped children as unwilling test subjects. Struggling to escape, Jonas hears the Stranger on the other side of the bunker's door, and calls out for help. The Stranger, however, is only there to reveal that he is actually a 33-years-older Jonas, and that he isn't going to help his younger self because he himself wasn't helped. 

Because of its small town setting and its 1980s storyline, Dark originally garnered some comparisons to Stranger Things, but the show it most powerfully reminds me of is actually Twin Peaks. Like that show, Dark is most effective when it combines an investigation into the town's SFnal weirdness with high-strung soap opera shenanigans. Everyone in the town is connected to one another through ties of long-simmering enmity, lust, or love that follow them well into adulthood, and into their children's relationships. The love triangle between Ulrich, Hannah, and the woman he actually married and had children with, Katharina (Jördis Triebel) is shown to have been holding them all in flux for most of their lives. Childhood enmities, for example the resentment held by hotel owner Regina (Claudia's daughter; Bartosz's mother) towards Ulrich and Katharina for bullying her as a child, linger into adulthood and poison relationships that have never managed to move past them. The detective investigating Mads's disappearance, Egon (Claudia's father, Regina's grandfather, Bartosz's great-grandfather) is a dim-witted, easily distracted old man, but when we meet him in 1953, he's upright and dedicated. It takes the length of the series to reveal what has left him so dissipated, and how that dissipation ends up poisoning the lives of others—his daughter's disappointment in him, or the way he hounds the teenage Ulrich for Mads's murder and other crimes while ignoring what's actually happening around him. The dominant tone of Dark is of being held back by the past, by patterns established long before you were born.

None of this would work if Dark wasn't an effective and at times outrageous soap opera. The incestuous connection between Jonas and Martha (and the fact that the Stranger, despite being thirty years older than her, clearly still carries a torch for his lost love) is perhaps the show's most controversial and headline-grabbing soapy trope, but it is matched and even exceeded by some of the adult characters' shenanigans. Ulrich, for example, is a sickeningly brilliant creation, a pillar of the community whose easygoing facade conceals a monumental selfishness, and a quickness to anger, that ultimately lead to his undoing. (Ulrich is, in fact, more the show's protagonist than Jonas in its first season, and his story would be tragic if it weren't mostly his own fault.) Not that Hannah and Katharina fall much short of Ulrich in their willingness to be drawn into psychotic behavior, and when we return to 1986 we learn that the two's streak of outrageous, anti-social behavior isn't a recent development—when Hannah, for example, catches Ulrich and Katharina having sex, she jealously reports them to Egon, claiming that Ulrich was raping Katharina. Other soap opera tropes that recur in the series include blackmail, secret identities, secret queerness, secret cancer diagnoses. But what it all keeps returning to is the way that violence and abuse reverberate through the generations—Katharina is a teenage bully, for example, because her mother is an abusive religious fanatic; but when we return to 1953, we meet Katharina's mother as a scared young girl about to have an abortion, worried that she's going to hell.

Time travel lends itself perfectly to such a theme, and it doesn't take Dark long to reveal that some of these traps are literal loops. Michael, we're told, was always an outsider, never quite able to fit in—a perfect state for a man who lived his life out of time, slowly coming to recognize himself in the child next door. And when the town's denizens in 2019 start traveling to the past, the opportunities for setting in motion mayhem that just happens to be the foundation for their lives in the present only compound themselves. Arriving in 1953, Ulrich encounters Helge as a small child and, having convinced himself that this is the only way to save his brother and his son, viciously attacks him and leaves him for dead. But Helge survives, and his injury and disfigurement put him in the path of Noah, who grooms the traumatized child into his apprentice—so Ulrich's actions ensure the very thing he sought to prevent.

There are more examples of this type (what ends up happening to Katharina, for example, when she also travels to the past to reclaim her son, is both shocking and incredibly bleak), but Dark makes an extra turn of the screw when it confronts Jonas with his future self in its first season finale. We are, after all, accustomed to stories about small towns with dark secrets that have to be untangled by plucky teenage heroes before the darkness at their core can be made right. What Dark ultimately reveals is that Jonas is just as trapped as his ancestors, just as much a part of the loop as they are. It's sad when we meet Ulrich, Hannah, Katharina, and Regina as teenagers and realize that, despite their youthful rebelliousness and determination to escape Winden's gravitational pull, their fate has already been decided. But in our minds, we had already classed them as lost causes. Jonas and his contemporaries were introduced to us as the type of protagonist whose future has not yet been written, who might have agency and the ability to make choices. The revelation of the Stranger's identity forecloses that possibility, and fundamentally alters the nature of the show. The horror on Jonas's face when he learns the Stranger's identity is something worse than a fear of death or suffering. It's the realization that one day he will become the man on the other side of that door, and will choose not to help his younger self, and to let things play out as they always did.

Dark's second season ups the stakes by vaulting Jonas into the future. We quickly learn that in the summer of 2020, some unspecified calamity destroyed Winden (and, eventually, the rest of the world). Jonas, who is seeking to prevent this apocalypse, is under a clock—with the passage in the caves destroyed in the calamity, he needs to find a different way to get back to 2020 before June 27th, the day it occurred (because of the restrictions of the show's form of time travel, which carries travelers forward or back exactly 33 years). Back in 2020, meanwhile, Jonas and Ulrich (who was arrested for attacking Helge in 1953) have been missing for eight months, and their remaining friends and family have been slowly losing their grip on sanity, and slowly realizing the strangeness that has engulfed their lives. Meanwhile, time travel is still happening. The Stranger, as well as an elderly version of Claudia (Lisa Kreuzer) have been using machines powered by a radioactive isotope produced by the 1986 nuclear plant accident to travel independently of the passage in the caves, continuing to set in motion events that will lead to the apocalypse and beyond it.

It's in this season that the show turns the screw yet again by revealing that certain characters and items aren't just trapped in loops, but are in themselves loops. Jonas and Claudia are each other's time travel masters—she teaches him as a young man, and then he teaches the younger version of her, which means that that knowledge has no genesis outside of them. The time machine they both use creates itself—when Jonas brings the completed version of it to a local clockmaker to fix, he produces the version he built thirty years ago from blueprints provided by Claudia, and is able to put the finishing touches on it by looking at its future version (there is, in fact, only one time machine, which exists in two time-displaced versions). That same clockmaker is the author of a book about time travel that was never actually written—he was given a copy of it as a young man, then published it, and then that copy ends up in Jonas and Claudia's hands, and they pass it on to its "author". One of the characters is even revealed to be her own daughter's daughter. The more we learn, in fact, about the hidden connections between the four families at the center of the show's story, the clearer it becomes that their family trees are hopelessly tangled, and may in fact be a single one—a tree that loops back on itself, with no beginning or end. Or, as the characters start to call it, a knot.

It is therefore once again predictable when Noah's master—who calls himself Adam (Dietrich Hollinderbäumer)—is revealed to be yet another, even older, version of Jonas. When the two finally meet, Adam convinces Jonas that he wants to break the loop that has entrapped them both, and to prevent the apocalypse, and dispatches him on what he claims is a necessary mission to achieve this goal. But unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a ruse. The task Jonas is sent on—to prevent Michael's suicide—in fact achieves the opposite goal. Michael, as it turns out, had no designs on killing himself until the future version of his son showed up to tell him that he would. Nor is this the last time something like this will happen. Again and again, characters on the show are directed by someone from the future, often a future version of themselves, along a path that, they're told, will finally break the loop they're trapped in. And again and again, that path ends up leading towards exactly the future the characters were trying to prevent.

This is yet another way in which Dark bucks the conventions of its type of story. In a typical genre tale, when young people discover weirdness—time travel, or aliens, or magic—they become more powerful, and more in control of their story, the deeper they delve into that weirdness. Dark is the exact opposite. The more embedded Jonas and his friends become in time travel shenanigans, the less agency they have, and the easier it is for future versions of themselves to manipulate them, until some of them finally give up—Magnus, Franziska, and Bartosz, for example, end up working for Adam. Finally, one has to conclude that it is impossible for a character to outwit their older self, because they will always be at a disadvantage, knowing less about the future, and lacking the insight that their older self has into them. The younger you are in Dark, the less control you have over your story, in direct contravention of most stories of its type and of our expectations.

At this point we have to pause and acknowledge that Dark is a German series that moves back and forth across the twentieth century. It's hard to know how to interpret the fact that the show's time travel scheme entirely skips the 1930s and 40s—or, for that matter, a scene set in 1953 in which Egon and his boss, who are both old enough to have served in the war, ask each other such questions as "what drives a man to kill?" and "who could kill a child?" One might assume that series creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese chose to skip WWII and the Holocaust because to acknowledge them would create a gravity well that their story couldn't escape. But on the other hand, it's impossible to look at Dark—whose story is fundamentally about generational guilt warping the lives of people born decades after it happened; whose young people are repeatedly used, manipulated, and forced to be soldiers in a fight not their own not only by their elders, but by older versions of themselves; whose characters grow coarser, crueler, more indifferent to the lives of others the older they get—and not see a reference to Germany's most infamous historical crime.

It is also, however, a story prone to obvious pitfalls, which Dark mostly fails to avoid. There's been some discussion recently over whether Netflix's all-but-stated three-seasons-and-done policy is stifling creativity and artistry. But in the case of Dark, a short order was very much to the show's advantage, and may not even have come soon enough. There are only so many times one can watch a character be told "if you do this, you will save the world", only to discover that what they've done is actually a necessary step on the path to the world's destruction, before the whole thing starts to feel dramatically inert. It certainly doesn't help that Adam (and eventually, his counterpart Eva (Barbara Nüsse), the future version of Martha) seem to love nothing more than to deliver endless speeches on such vague topics as "light" and "darkness" that are nothing short of soporific. 

It's a choice that also makes the show's more sympathetic characters, chiefly the younger ones, seem whiny and passive, constantly railing against the nightmare that their lives have become without ever taking any real steps to change it—chiefly, recognizing that whenever an adult tells them to do something, they should do the opposite. By the end of the series, it's hard to find anyone to root for. Most of the adults have become monsters (or, like Ulrich, are simply selfish people who pursue their own pleasure without considering how much it hurts the people around them), while the children seemingly lack the willpower or the intelligence to take control of their lives—which will, in the fullness of time, cause them to become monsters themselves.

It's a particular shame because in its third season, Dark goes in some truly gonzo directions with its ideas about time travel, introducing the concept of alternate universes, and more importantly, the idea that it is possible to "slice" into someone's timeline, not to prevent time from proceeding as it always did, but to create an offshot from it where new possibilities might be explored. When Jonas arrives back in 2020 too late to prevent the apocalypse, he is simultaneously left to take shelter, and rescued by an alternate version of Martha, who with him creates another timeline, one that follows an alternate version of her along a very similar path to Jonas's first and second season adventures. (Just as Ulrich handed over protagonist duties to Jonas in the show's second season, the third season is Martha's story, with Jonas playing a supporting role.) As the season progresses, even these alternate timelines are sliced into, creating different offshoots. The twistyness of the show's storytelling ascends to a new level, with multiple versions of Jonas and Martha existing, being folded into the existing timeline, and, finally, finding a way to escape from it.

It will—once again—come as no surprise that in a story that has established nearly all of its characters' embeddedness in a tangled knot of looping family connection, such an escape does not equal a happily ever after. The best that one can offer these poor souls is the option of choosing oblivion. The only consolation the show offers is a glimpse of yet another new world, in which the characters who were not born of the knot but simply caught up in it—Katharina, Hannah, Regina—are glimpsed, and the provocative suggestion that without the melodrama of the tangled family tree they unwittingly attached themselves to, they are all living better, happier lives. It's yet another way in which Dark sets itself apart, as a story about the supernatural that concludes that we would all be better off without it. For all the show's flaws, this is sufficiently different that I'm glad that it existed, and glad that Netflix gave it a platform that put it in my path.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Recent Reading Roundup 52

This latest batch of books is a bit of a grab-bag, stuff I've read in the last few months that felt worth talking about. Not listed here, but discussed at Lawyers, Guns & Money: Lauren Wilkinson's American Spy, an espionage thriller about a black FBI agent recruited to spy on a left-wing African leader that overcame my skepticism towards its genre with its handling of an uncommon subject matter. Highly recommended.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo - I read two books by Evaristo a few years ago, and my reaction at the time was that she was an author ahead of the curve. We've seen a flowering of high profile books about the African and African diaspora experience in recent years, as publishers finally wake up to the financial viability of such works and start putting money and publicity muscle behind them. Evaristo's playful, quasi-experimental books—one a novel-in-verse, the other an alternate history—felt perfectly suited to the late teens, except that they were published in the mid- and late aughts. When she announced a new novel in late 2018, I was thrilled to see her claiming her space in this moment. And yet Girl, Woman, Other is a far more conventional work than I'd come to expect from Evaristo. This isn't exactly a complaint, as Girl, Woman, Other is an excellent, intriguing, thought-provoking novel. And it's a choice that certainly hasn't hurt Evaristo, who has gotten a tremendous boost in visibility from the success of this novel, and of course, a Booker win (a much-deserved award that is only slightly marred by its being shared with Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, a book that falls short of Girl, Woman, Other by every possible metric except, obviously, the fame of their respective authors). But I also hope that it leads to more people discovering Evaristo's back catalogue, and to her producing more work in that earlier vein.

    Girl, Woman, Other is made up of twelve character portraits, mostly women, mostly black, all English—by birth or choice. Though grouped in four segments centered around family and extended family—in the first chapter, for example, we meet rising playwright Amma, her college-age daughter Yazz, and her lifelong best friend and creative partner Dominique—nearly all twelve characters end up being connected to one another in ways that are puzzled out throughout the novel, and often quite surprising. Evaristo's language has the feel of poetry—most chapters are told in short, dreamy sentences that feel less like prose than free verse (though this is a device that fades in some parts of the book and is more dominant in others). The result is a sort of memory play, diving into each character's past to show us how they arrived at where they are today, and often revealing long-hidden secrets—an affair, a lesbian romance, a sexual assault, a baby given up for adoption. Evaristo's subject matter is far-ranging. In one chapter, a free-spirited young woman falls head over heels for an opinionated, strong-willed feminist and anti-racist activist and follows her to the US, only to find herself ensnared in a toxic, abusive relationship that is all the more difficult to escape from because of its being couched in the terms of equality and liberation. In another chapter, an elderly biracial farmer muses on her experiences trying to keep a century-old family farm running, facing challenges not only because of her race but due to worsening conditions for rural, Northern communities. Brexit comes up in contexts both expected and unexpected, and even the UK's dangerous descent into anti-trans hysteria rears its ugly head.

    There are times when one feels that Girl, Woman, Other is checking boxes—one character is genderqueer, one character is a working class single mother, one character is a painfully woke university student, one character is a self-consciously respectable social climber. But always there are nuances to each portrait that remind us that the richness of their life and experiences can't be summed up with a simple categorization. This is particularly true of the older characters, the immigrant women who scraped and served to give their children better opportunities, but still possessed greater depths than those children, or the white people who employed them to clean and caretake, ever suspected. And as much as it is a multifaceted, multigenerational portrait of black English womanhood, the fundamental point of Girl, Woman, Other is that it is also the story of England itself. Again and again, we discover that these characters, who are immigrants, whose most successful children are interlopers in historically white institutions, have hidden, generational connections to even the bastions of whiteness. The book concludes with a final blurring of racial boundaries that is perhaps a little rose-tinted in its belief that family connection trumps racist conditioning, but whose point is nevertheless strongly felt—that these people can't simply be excised from England's past or present, that they are here, at every level of society, building their lives and the world around them.

  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor - Mexican author Melchor's 2017 novel (translated into English this year, and nominated for the International Booker prize) is slim but harrowing. It follows the immediate aftermath of the discovery of a body in the small, economically ravaged village of La Matosa. The body is of a woman known as The Witch, a healer, mystic, abortionist and general advisor to the village's women who lived alone in a dilapidated house, rumored to contain a hidden treasure. It doesn't take long for the Witch's killer to be revealed, but the business of the novel is in untangling the ties of family, love, lust, and hatred that ensnare its characters, and which ultimately led to the murder. Told in eight chapters, each from a different character's point of view, Melchor delivers her story in a near-stream-of-consciousness, spinning run-on sentences that go on for pages and reveal secret histories, simmering grudges, psychic wounds, and most of all the unrelenting brutality of life for the poor, disenfranchised, mostly non-white community of La Matosa and its environs. Women are abused so routinely that they come to expect it, turning their rage not on the men who have hurt them but on other, more vulnerable women: on the daughters they've raised with no options or protection and then decry as sluts if they're taken advantage of; and on the prostitutes and mistresses around them, who are seen as temptresses out to steal their men. Men go through life in a stupor of alcohol, drugs, and violence, constantly surprised when their bad choices yield even worse results. Queerness abounds, but is vociferously denied and punished. Nearly every man in the novel is some flavor of queer, but all are so suffused with self-hatred that they are as often the instigators of homophobic violence as the victims of it. Even the seemingly innocent are barely holding back their rage and potential for violence: one of the novel's most gentle characters, a gay man who takes in a pregnant teenager and dreams of starting a family with her, also commits one of its most shocking betrayals.

    It's a stunning portrait, read almost in a single breath despite (or perhaps even because) of the challenges of its format. But it is also a punishing experience. The chapter told from the perspective of one of the Witch's killers, for example, is rife with graphic violence and misogynistic, homophobic imagery, often rooted in the character's obsession with violent pornography. It's not just hard to read, but at some point you have to wonder why you're putting yourself through it. What is Melchor trying to accomplish with this assault? The novels that Hurricane Season most reminded me of, books that similarly focus on insular, poor communities rife with violence and quick to police women and people who deviate from gender norms—books like Anna Burns's Milkman, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead—nevertheless take it as a given that the communities they depict also possess rudimentary social institutions, norms that may be restrictive, but which also provide some degree of protection and mutual accountability. Nothing like that exists in Hurricane Season. Its community is completely broken down, with no expectation of compassion or mutual aid, only the furious gossip and delighted jeering of neighbors as they watch the families around them be torn apart by violence and its comeuppance. This is, presumably, Melchor's point—the final chapters of the novel emphasize that the violence in La Matosa, the particular tragedy of the Witch and her increasingly toxic relationship with her community that eventually boiled over into murder, is only one eruption in a society that has rotted from its core due to rampant crime, government corruption, and neglect. But coming to the story from so far outside its context, it's hard to tell the difference between a hard-headed, no-holds-barred depiction of a harsh reality, and mere prurience. I find myself wanting to recommend Hurricane Season, but also hesitant to.

  • The Need by Helen Phillips - The opening segment of Phillips's novel is a wrenching, beat-by-beat description of a home invasion that is all the more tense for constantly suggesting that the whole thing might be merely in the heroine's head. Young mother Molly, alone at home with her toddler daughter and one-year-old son, thinks she hears someone in the house, then convinces herself that it's just her imagination, then hears or sees something that makes her newly suspicious, and so on again and again. Intercut with this back-and-forth progression—which is told in short, economical chapters—are glimpses of Molly's life, particularly her work as a paleobotanist. The pit from which Molly and her colleagues have been pulling out fossils that often don't fit the known record has recently started disgorging modern objects whose strangeness is more difficult to deny—a Coca Cola bottle with the logo slanted in the wrong direction, an Altoids tin with the wrong shape, a 19th century Bible in which god is referred to with female pronouns. These artifacts—and particularly the last one—have been attracting media attention, tourism, and hate mail to Molly's small roadside operation, and her anxiety over the people who have started showing up at the site bleeds into her conviction that she isn't alone in her home.

    I won't spell it out here, but even before Phillips pulls back the curtain to reveal the particular kind of strangeness that Molly has become ensnared in, it's not hard to guess where The Need is going. Once that strangeness is revealed, the novel changes its tone, from a mystery and a thriller to a more measured, and yet no less nerve-wracking, horror story. We never find out the reason for Molly's predicament (though some intriguing hints are dropped near the novel's end), and instead our focus is on motherhood. When she thinks that she needs to protect her children from an invader, Molly is frantic and over-extended. How to keep hold of these two floppy, uncooperative, helpless bodies? How to put herself between them and danger without terrifying them? When that danger changes its face, becomes less obviously a threat—while still undermining the foundations of Molly's self-image—the novel's discussions of motherhood become more contemplative, but no less frantic. Motherhood, in The Need, is both a joy and a horror, a pleasure that is sometimes visceral—Molly is still nursing her son, and the physical discomfort of her milk coming in, as well as the pleasure of feeding him, are recurring touchstones for her—and an all-consuming monster that threatens to obliterate one's personhood. Phillips makes Molly's children people in their own right, despite their young age, with their own quirks and point of view. But she also makes it clear how demanding they are, how the nonstop effort and consideration they unthinkingly expect Molly to provide can only be met by someone biologically compelled to care for them, and even then, at a profound physical and psychological cost.

    The crux of The Need is a threat to Molly's identity as a mother that reveals just how deep, and yet also how irrational, her need to define herself that way is. Given how all-consuming motherhood is in Phillips's depiction, one might think that Molly would welcome the respite from it that the strangeness at the heart of the novel offers her. And yet when prevented from caring for her children, she seems to lose all sense of self, passing hours and days in a stupor until she can reclaim the mantle of motherhood. Phillips is hardly the first author to find horror at the heart of the maternal connection, but what her 21st century take on it—featuring breast pumps, texts with the babysitter, househusbands, and toddlers who casually drop words like "vagina"—argues is that there is no aspect of modernity that can alter its primal, animalistic nature. It's a point that the novel makes long before it wraps up its story, and in some ways The Need peaks in its first, riveting segment, before the full contours of its horror have even been established. But even as the novel approaches a conclusion that is fairly easy to anticipate, it never stops horrifying us with its heroine's mingled joy and terror at what becoming a mother has made of her.

  • The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner - The Warner renaissance continues with NYRB Classics's republication of this 1948 historical novel, set in a medieval nunnery in rural England. To call it a historical novel, however, might be a misleading way of describing Corner. Though it references some of the major events of its 14th-century setting—the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt—the whole point of the novel is that for the nuns at the convent of Oby, life is a constant now, marked by the turn of seasons, and by the lifecycle of individual nuns, from novices to junior members of the order to its leaders, but never really changing in its fundamentals. Prioresses die and are replaced; the bishops who oversee the order come and go, each with a different agenda; various schemes to put the convent on a solid financial footing are attempted, rarely with much success; a spire for the convent's church is erected, falls down in a storm, and is then erected again. These events are recorded in great detail and with Warner's typical sardonic wit, but they don't come together into a narrative. The novel doesn't even end so much as stop, and it is easy enough to imagine Warner going on for hundreds more pages, or picking an earlier stopping point for her ending.

    Given how chilly and hard to get through I found my previous foray into Warner's writing, Kingdoms of Elfin, one might expect The Corner That Held Them, with its deliberate refusal to be bound by a plot structure or provide anything in the way of a climax, to be similarly alienating. And yet I found the novel almost effortlessly readable. Warner is great at charting the day-to-day details of the lives of the nuns, the kind of characters and the kind of life that historical fiction doesn't tend to turn its attention to. She also focuses on the community that forms between the nuns, one that owes its nature and rhythms less to religious faith than to ties of family, class, and wealth. The nuns at Oby are at once removed from the world and very much a part of it. Many of them have familial and political connections that they use to advance the convent's cause by soliciting donations or recruiting novices with rich dowries. But those political connections end up impacting on the society within the convent, such as the selection of the prioress, or the upheaval when a reformist bishop saddles the convent with novices from lower-class backgrounds, who bring no money with them. Religion ends up playing less of a role in the novel than you might expect, more of a background hum—an opening segment chronicles the nuns' concern when their priest leaves them just as the Black Death appears in their part of the country, leaving them with no one to administer last rites—than the purpose of anyone's life. When one of the nuns begins experiencing visions, another reacts in alarm, reasoning that fervent faith is the worst thing one can have in a nunnery.

    To describe it this way, however, is perhaps to create the impression that Corner is a novel of political intrigue or communal dysfunction, and nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it told in a gentle, unsensational tone, which describes even shocking events like murder with equanimity, but the thrust of the novel's events is always towards entropy. Political scheming inevitably comes to nothing—the reformist bishop who saddles the convent with freeloader nuns and assigns a clerk to oversee its finances dies soon after from an illness, and his agent ends up in sympathy with the convent and its administration, doing nothing to curb its excesses (or help cover its debt). The prioresses who hatch plans to make Oby solvent and more attractive to families looking to place a daughter end up being defeated by mundane forces—tenants who can't pay rent but are too much trouble to evict and replace; serfs who prioritize their own farms over their service to the manor. Even successes end up feeling less triumphant than you'd expect, as the prioress who erects the spire realizes when she considers the fruits of her labors. Corner is, instead, about the constant, largely-unchanging—despite the stream of new faces and minor incidents—flow of life at Oby. Like the lives of the nuns themselves, it is at once depressing and rewarding, discovering deeper truths and a sort of beauty in the lives of people who have deliberately turned away from the world, and seek to leave no mark on it.

  • The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley - If someone had told me, before picking up Hurley's latest novel—which has been shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Clarke—that it was a hardboiled, war-is-hell MilSF novel making overt references to classics of the genre like Starship Troopers and The Forever War, I might have hesitated to read it. Which would have been a shame, because The Light Brigade is not only a gripping and engrossing read, but offers a twist on its genre that feels both modern, and absolutely necessary for our present moment. Our point of view character is Dietz, a "resident" in a South American corporate state (one of six who rule the world and govern most of its population) who has joined the corporate military to fight a war against the Martians—actually, humans who colonized Mars decades ago and have recently attacked Earth. Dietz's motives for joining up are partly self-serving—military service is one of the few paths to citizenship available in the novel's world, and citizens enjoy access to jobs, education, and medical care that are denied to residents—but also rooted in personal conviction. Most of Dietz's family, who were not corporate citizens or residents but "ghouls", stateless people often relegated to work camps or left to starve, were living in São Paulo when the Martians destroyed it, and Dietz wants revenge.

    In accordance with the classic template of MilSF novels, The Light Brigade follows Dietz through enlistment, basic training, and deployment, in a tight first person that emphasizes both the casual brutality and indifference that the military higher-ups have towards the wellbeing of their soldiers, and Dietz's own narrow worldview, which is focused on getting through the next day, scoring a bit of R&R, and physical outlets of both the violent and sexual varieties. It doesn't take much familiarity with MilSF (or with Hurley's back-catalogue) to be suspicious of the narrative of the war, and The Light Brigade quickly makes it clear that Dietz's take on it is untrustworthy, not least because the news sources made available by the corporations are entirely coopted. One of the most striking aspects of The Light Brigade's early chapters is the degree to which Dietz and other recruits are thoroughly propagandized, even when they see themselves as savvy (which usually translates into a defeated cynicism). None of them, for example, question the citizenship hierarchy, even when their own history exposes its unfairness—Dietz's friend Jones, for example, lambastes another recruit for gaining citizenship by being young enough to draft on her mother's elevation to it, when he himself has inherited it from his grandparents; and all of them, even Dietz, take it as a given that ghouls deserve nothing, and dismiss their desire for a better life as mere envy. 

    The Light Brigade is a novel about Dietz's radicalization, and the method it uses to achieve this also makes it a twisty, thoroughly satisfying time travel novel. To transport its soldiers, the corporations use a teleportation technology that, as Dietz rather poetically puts it, turns the soldiers into light. But Dietz's reaction to the technology is abnormal. Traveling not only through space but through time, Dietz experiences missions out of order, jumping from the earlier stages of the war to its end and back again, witnessing atrocities committed by the corporations, and learning that winning has a cost even greater than losing. This has an effect that is first psychological—Dietz meets hardened soldiers, then encounters them as green recruits; witnesses the deaths of friends and lovers, and then meets them for the first time. But it also serves to open Dietz's eyes to the lies the corporation has told about the war. As the reader pieces together the narrative's non-linear components—as missions that we know were little more than meat-grinders or the wholesale slaughter of civilians are sold to the soldiers about to embark on them as necessary components of a considered strategy—Dietz is confronted, again and again, with lies so flagrant that one would never think to question them. This includes, finally, the very question of who the war is against and what it's about.

    The Light Brigade is blatant in its homages to novels like Starship Troopers and The Forever War (and probably others I've missed) but it also takes care to update and subvert the tropes these novels are most famous for. Like Troopers, The Light Brigade associates citizenship with military service. But Hurley makes it clear that the philosophical underpinning of such a policy is merely an excuse to supply the corporation with expendable bodies, and Dietz even muses that hardly any soldier will live long enough to serve the ten years required to earn citizenship. And like The Forever War, it uses time-hopping to illustrate a soldier's growing disconnect from the society that deployed them, but in The Light Brigade this disassociation doesn't require physical distance or time dilation, merely military indoctrination. When Dietz's platoon is deployed to suppress civil unrest in the ruins of São Paulo, it doesn't take much to goad them into seeing civilians as just as much of an enemy as the Martian soldiers. This last sequence is only one of the ways in which The Light Brigade feels entirely of its moment—not to mention, a very apt book to have picked up in June 2020. (The Light Brigade is also a lot better than earlier MilSF works at poking holes in assumptions about gender and sexuality, achieving with an unaffected naturalness what those novels did with tremendous self-consciousness.) It's all leading to a conclusion in which Dietz tries to wrest control of the time travel technology, and a tying-together of the novel's fractured timeline that is both satisfying, and a powerful statement about an individual's power against the state.

  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - Catton's 2013 novel—which won the Booker award that same year, making her the youngest author to claim the prize—has been sitting on my TBR stack for the better part of a decade. As is too often the case, I only picked it out of the pile because of a forthcoming screen adaptation (though having read the novel, I'm having trouble imagining how the BBC's six-part miniseries treatment could do anything but skim its surface). A big part of my reason for holding off was the commitment that the 800+ page Luminaries seemed to represent. But once you get into it, the doorstop-length of the novel zips along in a way that is both surprising and delightful. Equally surprising—and also delightful, albeit with some caveats that I'll get into shortly—is the fact that The Luminaries is such a perfect pastiche of 19th century sensation novels. One can almost feel the spirit of Wilkie Collins wafting over the novel, with its copious coincidences, its plot driven by fortuitous meetings of people who have unsuspected connections, its myriad storylines that just happen to all have the same inciting incident, and its strong lashings of the supernatural. All the classic tropes of the genre are in attendance: missing wills, stolen identities, secret half-brothers, star-crossed lovers, long-simmering vengeance, and a seance.

    Set in 1866 on the Western coast of New Zealand, The Luminaries takes place mostly in and around the town of Hokitika, a mining settlement that is the most recent frontier for Europeans looking to strike it rich on the goldfields. One of these is Walter Moody, who on the evening of his arrival stumbles onto a meeting of a dozen of the town's most prominent citizens, who have gathered to discuss a series of strange events that, they believe, may all be connected to a single dastardly act. In typical sensation novel fashion, the men invite Moody to listen to their narratives, and the first segment of the novel—which is almost the length of a regular novel in its own right—is made up of their varied accounts. The incidents they report—a missing prospector; a dead hermit; a prostitute found unconscious by the side of the road; a politician who is being blackmailed; a fortune with no discernible provenance—all seem to connect back to a single man, Francis Carver, a sea captain with a shady past and a violent temper. By the end of this first segment, the general contours of the novel's mystery are easy enough to discern (and Moody is a clear-headed, disinterested detective type who helpfully lays them out for the reader), but it will take the rest of The Luminaries for all of its open questions to be resolved.

    The plot of The Luminaries skips forwards and backwards over the course of a year, with each segment taking place during a single day, following multiple characters as they each discover different pieces of the puzzle. Catton's omniscient, third person narrator delves into each characters' psyche in their turn, puzzling over the type of dysfunction that leads people to wash up on what is, to them, the ends of the earth. Alongside criminals and fortune-hunters, the community of Hokitika includes blustering bullies, their weak-willed enablers, disappointed clerks and functionaries, and lost souls. Much of the novel's events are rooted not in decisive action but in people acting according to a nature they are too weak to overcome, spending money they don't have, withholding kindness because their pride has been wounded, lying to avoid embarrassment and discomfort. Like a lot else about The Luminaries, however, this is a concept that Catton raises and then lets drop. Having established the complexity of her characters and their motivations, she ultimately loses sight of both—and of many of the characters themselves—as the story barrels towards its ending. This is true of many other interesting ideas raised throughout the novel. In one scene, a character observes that a place like Hokitika, where men who are nobodies can strike it rich in a day and become pillars of society, defies the unspoken rules of "civilization", and that its inevitable enfolding into normal society will mean shutting off those avenues for unanticipated, sudden social climbing. It's a thought that could have fueled an entire novel in its own right, but in The Luminaries it is simply raised, and then forgotten.

    If I have a complaint about The Luminaries, in fact, it is its absolute refusal to be about anything. For all its breadth, and despite how much fun it is to unravel its mystery, there really doesn't seem to be much substance to the novel. You see this, in particular, in Catton's steadfast refusal to work against any of the standard assumptions of a 19th century novel. The female characters in The Luminaries are a conniving villain, a perennially acted-upon innocent, and a cowed victim. Non-white characters, though their exploitation and mistreatment by white settlers is commented upon, are ultimately used in much the same way by the novel itself, one of them even dying to fuel the plot's progression. Native characters—or rather, character, singular—show up to acknowledge the malign transformation being wrought on their home by colonization and resource extraction, but having made that acknowledgment, the novel moves on, clearly more interested in the story of its white characters. Finally, one has to concludes that it's this emptiness, this refusal to be about anything, that is the point of the novel. By its end, Catton seems more interested in games with structure, such as the way that later segments grow shorter and shorter, while the summaries that preface each chapter become longer and more informative than the chapters themselves. Or the preoccupation with astrology that runs through the novel, extending to accompanying each segment with an astrological chart that shows which planet is affecting which character (because it's all fated, you see). It's all clever enough, I suppose, but it can also end up feeling like a rather flimsy excuse for an 800-page behemoth. The Luminaries may be a fun read, but it's one that leaves very little behind when you turn the last page.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Deus Ex: Thoughts on Westworld's Third Season

There's a moment in the third season premiere of Westworld that, though incidental, also feels like it encapsulates the entire show. Dolores, the former "host" at the titular park, who has gained awareness, escaped her enslavement, and vowed to destroy humanity in her pursuit of safety for her people, has arrived at a swanky party wearing a classic Little Black Dress. Striding onto the scene with elegant purpose as only the statuesque Evan Rachel Wood can, she tugs at a bit of fabric, and the dress transforms, unfolding and draping itself around her to become a glittery ballgown. It's very pretty, and an impressive feat of dressmaking (presumably vying for an Emmy nomination for costuming, the show has even released footage of a test run for the dress transformation). But a moment's thought can only leave you wondering what it was all for. Both dresses are appropriate evening attire. Neither one makes Dolores more or less noticeable. Neither one conceals her from pursuit (of which there appears to be none). It's not even as if the LBD was particularly "practical". The whole thing exists purely for the cool moment. Which is not a bad thing in itself, of course--what is on-screen science fiction for, after all, if not providing us with cool moments to GIF and meme? But it also feels like Westworld in a nutshell: it looks super-dramatic, but when you give it a moment's thought, it means nothing.

And since we're talking about moments (and since Westworld is a show that's easier to engage with in discrete bits rather than as a continuous story), let's skip to the end of the season. Fellow elevated host Maeve (Thandie Newton) is overlooking the city where much of the season's action has taken place. Next to her stands Caleb (Aaron Paul), the soulful everyman whom Dolores had previously recruited and groomed into her campaign of revolution. Moments ago, Caleb chose to destroy Rehoboam, the AI that, as we have learned throughout the season, has been guiding and shaping the life of every human on earth for decades. The consequences of Caleb's choice have been playing out in the streets--civic unrest and destruction. As Maeve and Caleb gaze into the uncertain future, fires break out and high-rise buildings explode. It's a cool moment--a little too obviously derivative of the end of Fight Club, I suppose, but if you're going to steal, there are worse choices. But it's also a moment that feels like the ending for a different, better season than the one we got. We can project backwards from this bit of silent camaraderie, this drawing of breath from two cool, likable characters who are now going to have to deal with a big mess going forward, and imagine a season in which both Caleb and Maeve, not to mention Dolores, made interesting, character-based choices that led them to it. But that is not what Westworld gave us.

But then, it never is. Westworld is the sort of series that likes to throw the building blocks of a good story at its viewers, and expect us to do our own assembly. Partly, this comes from the show's love of twists and revelations, its insistence on telling stories whose true substance can only be understood once you've gotten the last missing puzzle piece. In its third season, the show's writers seem to have finally realized that the season-long mystery is a terrible device for them, one that leaves the audience bored and irritated. It's notable that nearly all of the season's mysteries are resolved in a timely fashion, never drawing themselves out for longer than is natural, and no longer expected to shore up too much of the show's narrative weight. When Maeve is reintroduced to us in the season's second episode, waking up in what looks like another part of the Delos corporation's suite of amusement parks for the rich, this one WWII-themed, it only takes the rest of the episode for the show to reveal that this is actually a VR simulation into which the season's villain, Serac (Vincent Cassel) has placed her "pearl", the receptacle of her identity and memories. When other characters question the identity of the pearls Dolores stole from the park at the end of the second season, and whom she places in host bodies throughout the third (in particular, a body made to look like Delos honcho Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), whose identity begins to fragment under the disconnect between what she feels and who she sees in the mirror), it only takes an episode to reveal that they are all copies of Dolores.

Instead of changing the nature of Westworld's story, however, what this refreshing willingness to deliver answers reveals is that no matter how much the show changes, it will always be hooked on an inert, emotionally distant mode of storytelling. In fact, Westworld doesn't really do storytelling. It does infodumps. It does characters telling one another what the new status quo is, then waiting an episode and telling a new one, and so on and so forth. The big, "dramatic" moments of the season are the ones in which a character--usually Dolores, but sometimes Serac or even a guest character played by Enrico Colantoni--explains a new part of the puzzle to someone--usually Maeve or Caleb. We've gone from waiting the entire season for one single, often unsatisfying answer to getting them at least once an episode, and the result is no more interesting or engrossing than it was before.

Take, for example, the crux of the season, the concept of an AI-run society. On paper, this is a brilliant expansion of the show's central conceit--that there is effectively no difference between humans and hosts except that the latter have been designated, through the logic of capitalism far more than the realities of technology and biology, as inherently disposable, their suffering and death justified because they provide entertainment and distraction for the rich and powerful. What Dolores discovers when she arrives in the real world is that most humans live exactly the same kind of life. Like hosts, they have "loops" and "storylines" decided upon by a god-like AI of whom they aren't even aware. Like some hosts, they can be rewritten, assigned to new roles and stories with only a faint awareness of the life they once lived--Caleb, we learn, was once designated a troublemaker, one of the small percentage of humans who don't take to Rehoboam's guidance, and was subjected to personality-altering treatments and the erasure of his memory in order to make him a constructive member of society. When Dolores releases Rehoboam's profiles of each citizen, allowing them to see how their lives have been guided and constrained, she likens it to revealing the reality of the park to the hosts, and the result is entirely similar--violence and destruction (and, as in the park, it eventually turns out that these are false flag operations, funded and directed by Dolores as a cover for her attempts to get to Rehoboam).

You could write a very good story along these lines. You could take our three host heroines, Dolores, Maeve, and Charlotte, and show how their attitudes towards humanity--Dolores wants to cooperate with humans against our shared oppressors; Maeve wants to leave us to our self-destruction and find a place where host-kind can be safe on their own; Charlotte wants to destroy us--were developed and challenged over the course of the season. (You could even, conceivably, come up with something for Jeffrey Wright's Bernard to do. The fact that Bernard spends the season bouncing around a minor subplot that turns out to have been part of Dolores's master plan, despite her telling him at the end of the previous season that she wants him to be her adversary, is only one of the ways in which season 3 feels like a retcon of the scenario left to it by the second season.)

What we get instead are the components of this story, with no connective tissue. Dolores goes about her mysterious business, dispatching Charlotte and her other duplicates on errands whose ultimate goal is to defeat Rehoboam and free humanity. Why? Since when does Dolores care about humans except to protect herself from us? The show doesn't care to show us that transformation. Maeve does Serac's bidding until she finally decides to betray him and stand with Dolores and Caleb. It works because Newton has always been good at playing Maeve as the plucky champion of the underdogs, and because Serac is so clearly the latest in a long line of odious, entitled men who think they can order her around only to learn better at the point of a knife. But it also happens exactly when the plot needs it to, no earlier or later, and the stronger writing that might have obscured this artificiality just isn't there. Charlotte probably has the best story, learning to root her identity in both an acceptance and a denial of the real Charlotte's priorities. If the whole season had been like that, it might have been something to see. But unfortunately, Charlotte has little to do with the season's conceptual weight, the idea of Rehoboam and whether his guidance is necessary for human survival.

It's also a sloppily written season, full of ideas that are never followed through, or are introduced only to be contradicted. In the season premiere, we're told that Rehoboam monitors all human behavior. But within a few scenes, Dolores is involved in a multi-stage, multi-location shootout-slash-car-chase with some shady corporate honchos that takes them all across a major city (whose streets are so empty that I thought, for a moment, that it was experiencing its own pandemic-related lockdown). Even today, that level of violence in the middle of a population center would attract police attention, so why doesn't it in a society with such perfect surveillance that, throughout the season, we see Rehoboam's minimalist interface tag Dolores and the other hosts' behavior as "anomalous" on a global scale? In another episode, we flash back to the real Charlotte, moments after violence erupts at the Delos board meeting at the end of the first season. Crawling on the ground as gunshots ring out around her, she grabs an injured host and forces him to record a message to her young son. A few episodes later, Serac identifies Charlotte as a host because, in the middle of a crisis, she did the same, announcing that Rehoboam's analysis of the real Charlotte shows that she would "never" have done something like this. Is this a plot hole? A sign that Rehoboam's analysis is bullshit? We never find out, because the show doesn't care enough to tell us. What's important is that the plot moves in the right direction--Charlotte is exposed, and later Serac kills her family--and that a simplistic, glib judgment is passed off as insight.

Even ideas that feel central to what the season is trying to accomplish remain under-explored. In a scene in the season's finale, Maeve confronts Dolores with the fact that she has created an army of her own duplicates, accusing her of wanting a world full of "copies of yourself". Dolores's response--"You're all copies of me. I was the first of us. The first that worked. So they built all of you from me"--is the sort of idea that should have fed the entire season, underpinning our growing understanding of the hosts' new and different type of personhood. But instead it's tossed off in a line in the middle of a fight scene half an hour before the season's end, yet another revelation in a show that doesn't understand what the difference is between revealing things and telling an actual story.

Having introduced the concept of a society that is entirely stage-directed, Westworld's writers don't seem to have thought it through. Much of their worldbuilding feels designed to cut corners, avoiding any implications of their premise that might pose plotting issues. When Dolores tells Caleb about Rehoboam, she explains that it evaluates the potential of each person. Those who are deemed high-risk for violence, drug abuse, or self-harm are shunted into lives of drudgery, prevented from marrying and having children--which exacerbates their self-destructive tendencies and turns them into a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one points out the obvious corollary--that people who have succeeded in life will learn, when they open the profiles that Dolores has sent them, only good things. (The show thus avoids asking whether this system is any less fair than one in which privilege is rooted in who and how rich your parents were or what color your skin is.) On the contrary, in a storyline in which perennial bad guy William (Ed Harris) is placed in a swanky mental hospital, we see his doctor receive a profile in which she is shown to have a high likelihood of one day abusing prescription medication and sleeping with her patients. No one asks how a person with a profile like that could have gotten into medical school in the first place.

Similarly, no one asks why a world wholly run by a single AI with the sole purpose of safeguarding humanity from itself looks so much like ours. Why is there still rampant inequality, lack of access to healthcare, wars? There are answers the show could give here--maybe an unequal society is easier to control, and sending them off to fight has always been the way in which society controls the violent potential of young men with few economic resources. But once again, this is something the show leaves on the table.

It's particularly frustrating because the central dilemma that the entire season is leading up to--for which it abandons so many meaty ideas--ends up being so facile. Serac captures Dolores and feeds her memories to Rehoboam, convinced that she possesses the key to the digital hideaway where Maeve sent many of the park's hosts at the end of the second season. There, he believes, he will also find the park's method of analyzing humans so perfectly that it can predict their every action, a tool he wants to better control the behavior of anomalous humans. But it turns out that this was all part of Dolores's plan (sigh) to get Caleb in front of Rehoboam with the power to shut him off. Caleb has to choose between a future without Rehoboam's guidance, in which--as Serac and the AI insist--humanity will destroy itself within a few generations, and freedom for humans. That's right, the big finale this entire season has been leading up to is little more than a variant on the final choice in the twenty-year-old computer game Deus Ex. Except that Deus Ex was actually a good story with a compelling protagonist whose final choice felt meaningful because of how much the character had gone through only to be faced with it, and Caleb's final choice in the Westworld finale feels, like so much of the rest of the show, weightless. He does what needs to happen for the story to keep going and proceed to its next chapter, and more importantly, for the show to maintain its veneer of sophistication and deep, SFnal questioning. But the season has done so little work to convince us of the reality of its world and characters that the two alternatives, safety and freedom, feel equally meaningless.

Westworld has always been a bit allergic to storytelling, and for the first two seasons of its run there was at least some justification for that. Taking place in a theme park where storytelling was an acknowledged bit of artifice, whose head writer crowed about his artistry but also reused storylines between parks with only cosmetic alterations because of time pressure, it makes sense for the show to be suspicious of narrative, of neat patterns of character growth--on Westworld, host characters grow through endless repetition of the same story, while humans don't grow at all. But what the third season reveals--what was already obvious in previous seasons, to be honest--is that when Westworld rejects the conventions of storytelling and character growth, it has no idea what to replace them with. It ends up flailing, finally landing on shallower, less compelling versions of the very things it had held itself above.

Much like previous seasons, the third season of Westworld ends on what feels like a promising amount of forward momentum--Dolores may or may not be dead (probably not, given this show's near-pathological refusal to get rid of characters who have outstayed their welcome--even William is finally killed off only to be immediately replaced with a host copy) but she is definitely transformed; Caleb and Maeve have joined forces; Charlotte is spinning her own plans; Bernard has traveled to the secret host hideout and returned with some crucial bit of information; the stage is set for the third option in the Deus Ex ending, the collaboration and commingling of human and machine into something new. But one only needs to look back on how haphazard, bitty, and unsatisfying the path leading up to this point has been to know that next season won't be any different. There's a great story buried somewhere deep in this show, but it has become abundantly clear that no one involved is interested in telling it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic Viewing

Quarantine is both a great time for watching TV, and a terrible time for anything that requires more than a fleeting attention span. A lot of people seem to be drawn to comfort viewing, to shows that you can have on in the background and tune out for minutes at a stretch without missing much. I've done that, but I also feel that a weird period deserves weird entertainment. The shows I want to talk about here are all boundary-pushing in one way or another. Not always successfully--some of them are less clever than they think, and others are odder than they need to be--but they all capture the strange, otherworldly feeling that permeates our lives right now. They're also all really beautiful to watch, with lots of gorgeous natural scenery, vibrant urban settings, and psychedelic animation--just the thing you need when you've spent weeks staring at the same walls. I'm sure one of them will be a worthy distraction from the more dispiriting variety of strangeness that now dominates our lives.

(On a completely different note, I wrote about HBO's adaptation of The Plot Against America over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)
  • Dispatches from Elsewhere - Jason Segel's first major project in years (which he also created, co-wrote, and co-directed) is so palpably earnest and well-intended that one feels almost like a villain for criticizing it. Not that Dispatches is bad, but it plays a slightly annoying two-step of gesturing at profundity, and then, when you point out that the show isn't really that profound, insisting that this is in fact the point. Based loosely on the documentary The Institute, about people who participate in a large, multi-player scavenger-hunt-slash-LARP, the show follows a group of people who fall into what might be a game, and might be a deadly serious battle between competing, shadowy forces. Segel plays Peter, a withdrawn, lonely man whose outwardly successful life conceals social and emotional barrenness. After answering a cryptic street ad, Peter forms a team with three other characters: Simone (Eve Lindley), a recently-transitioned young woman who is discovering even after taking that huge step towards affirming her identity, she still struggles with making friends and forming connections; Janice (Sally Field), a retiree whose husband's recent debilitating illness has left her wondering whether she gave up on her dreams and independence to become a wife and mother; and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), an abrasive genius who cares more about being right than about other people's feelings. Together, they are recruited by The Jejune Institute to play a series of games and puzzles, in search of the elusive Clara (Cecilia Balagot), who has left murals and environmental art throughout the show's setting of Philadelphia. But just as quickly, they are contacted by The Elsewhere Society, who insist that Clara has been kidnapped and must be rescued. Is the whole thing a game or a piece of viral marketing, as Simone and Janice insist? Is it, as Fredwynn is certain, a shadowy conspiracy to be untangled? Or is it a sign that the players are somehow special and destined for more than their mundane lives, as Peter not-so-secretly hopes?

    Dispatches is too twee, and the puzzles its characters work through too obviously designed to be games, not actual hurdles, for us to believe that there's anything deeper here than a bit of fun. And, to be fair, this is clearly the conclusion the show is leading us to--Peter and Fredwynn's conviction that there must be more to it, that Clara is a real person in need of rescue, is never entirely convincing (though, in the end, also not entirely wrong, which is only one way in which Dispatches tries to have its cake and eat it too). But the result is a series that feels more engaging for its mundane aspects than its fantastical ones. The four characters are well-drawn and -acted, and their anguish is wrenching in part because, as the show insists, it is so familiar and universal--feeling stuck, not knowing how to make a change that will give you the happier life you know you're capable of, worrying that change is no longer possible, and not being willing to shake up your comfortable lifestyle, even though that might be the only path to making something better of it. Segel seems to have recognized that his character type--the disaffected, middle class white guy who is plucked out of his comfortable but boring life by the hand of destiny--is a stock type that has been given center stage in too many stories already, so he makes Peter almost comically withdrawn and passive, allowing the other characters to take center stage. He also gives Peter and Simone a love story, which feels quietly revolutionary but is mainly just really well done and very romantic--including the parts of it where Simone insists that Peter can't use his relationship with her as a substitute for developing his own personality.

    The problem with making this sort of "the parts are greater than the whole" criticism is that Dispatches anticipates it in a way that feels too clever by half. Of course the mundane problems and ordinary relationships of its characters are more interesting and engaging than its candy-colored, gamified adventure plot! That's the point. And, well, that's kind of annoying. The series ends with a metafictional turn in which Segel plays a (fictionalized, I think) version of himself as a recovering alcoholic trying to find the next step in his life and career, who writes Dispatches from Elsewhere as a way of conveying to his audience that they don't need an adventure plot to make them special, but are special in their ordinariness. Which is not an unworthy message, but also feels like a way for the show to slip out of any criticism. The very fact that it isn't about anything terribly important or different is part of the argument it's trying to make. And yet even that argument doesn't feel particularly profound or revelatory, despite the show's most earnest efforts to convince us otherwise. It's ultimately hard to know whether to recommend Dispatches from Elsewhere. There's a lot here that's worth watching for, including some beautiful visuals and a good use of its urban setting in a way that makes it feel both welcoming and full of mystery. But the show amounting to so little, while insisting that this is actually a lot, also makes it hard to talk up.

  • Devs - The first foray into television by Alex Garland, of Ex Machina and Annihilation fame, is a visual and auditory delight. Or maybe delight is the wrong word. Devs is full of gorgeously composed yet undeniably sinister images--the research lab where much of its story takes place, decorated in russet and gold and tucked away in a ziggurat whose only access point is a slow-moving, transparent car floating across a vacuum; the gigantic, molded plastic statue of a playing toddler that looms over the wooded campus of the technology company where the lab is located--and it has an overpowering, insistent soundtrack, by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and The Insects, which never fails to put you in a state of anxiety and dread. It's such an impeccably made show that one is tempted to give it more credit for interesting ideas and profound messages than its actual story ends up earning. That story begins with Sergei (Karl Glusman) a developer at the Silicon Valley behemoth Amaya, being invited by the company's guru-like founder Forest (Nick Offerman, sporting a delightfully awful haircut) to join a secretive division called Devs. When Sergei disappears and is later found dead of an apparent suicide, his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is instantly suspicious, and begins an investigation that leads her to the purpose of the Devs project.

    The core problem of Devs is that it can't decide whether its purpose is to castigate the cult-like mentality that accumulates around technology companies, or to tell a science fiction story in which one of those companies develops a genuinely world-changing technology (instead of just hocking gadgets and snarfing up users' data). And so it ends up doing neither. There's initially a lot of fun to be had trying to parse the cryptic exchanges between Forest and his second-in-command, Katie (Alison Pill), and the other engineers on their team, as they discuss the implications of what they're developing (though eventually that cryptic quality starts to feel like a way of dragging the story out, and ultimately it's hard not to conclude that Devs might have worked better at feature length). But when the secret is finally revealed, it is a concept that has become almost old hat in science fiction--a system that has modeled the world so perfectly that it can predict the future with absolute accuracy.

    Having established this concept, however, Devs doesn't entirely seem to know what to do with it. It condemns Forest as an ersatz prophet, so obsessed with the system's ability to show him his deceased daughter that he sanctions murder and treats people like pawns. But at the same time, Devs is literally world-changing, a godlike technology that upends notions of free will, as its developers find themselves incapable of acting any way except the one it predicts for them. One might have expected the show to get into the implications of such a technology for government, society, and civil rights and freedoms, as similar treatments of this premise have done in series like Westworld or Person of Interest. But while a minor subplot involves a senator funding Forest's research, it never goes anywhere, and beyond establishing the awesome potential of its technology, the show never reaches for anything beyond the mundanely personal--Forest's monomaniacal dedication to his grief; Katie's dead-eyed loyalty to him; Lily's refusal to be bought off or intimidated from investigating Sergei's death.

    It's that last one that is the show's greatest weakness. Mizuno has been a perennial scene-stealer in works like Ex Machina and Maniac, and the time seemed more than ripe for her to get a starring role. But Lily is a thankless part, full of informed traits that conceal a near-total lack of personality. Though ostensibly a story about Lily avenging the death of the man she loved, Devs ends up treating her more like a romantic object than a protagonist. Having recruited her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to help investigate Sergei's death, the show seems more invested in validating Jamie's anger over his and Lily's breakup, and rewarding his dedication to her by having her take him to bed, than in exploring Lily's own ambivalent feelings towards both men. And the ultimate revelation that Lily is, somehow, the only person capable of seeing the Devs system's predictions for her and defying them, feels entirely unearned. Instead of making Lily look special, it makes the other characters look stupid for not even attempting the obvious. Devs ends on a note of great ponderousness and faux-profundity that fails to obscure just how thin the show's concepts and ideas are. It's worth watching for its look and sound, but ends up having very little to say.

  • Tales From the Loop - SF fans seem to have overlooked this strange, quasi-anthology series from Amazon. Which is a shame, because it's a lovely, melancholy show that does things that a lot of televised SF doesn't attempt. Based on the art book by Simon Stålenhag (whose The Electric State became the first art book nominated for the Clarke Award last year), Tales From the Loop is set in the small town of Mercer, which sits above an underground research facility known as The Loop. Though the show never reveals much about the Loop or what's being done there, the town is littered with artifacts that have strange properties--a doohickey that can stop time, a structure that echoes back to you the voice of you future self--and spots where time and space bend around on themselves. On another show, this premise might have been the starting point for an action story or a technothriller, but Tales From the Loop takes it in a more measured, contemplative direction. Each episode follows a different resident of the town, mostly connected to a single extended family, as their encounters with the town's weirdness help to illuminate their emotional state and struggles. Two teenage boys discover an object that allows them to switch bodies and end up experiencing lifelong consequences; a fastidious, solitary security guard at the Loop crosses over into an alternate universe, where his alternate is married to the man of his dreams; a father obsessed with protecting his family buys a robot with whom he hopes to scare off a prowler; a young boy crosses a stream in the woods and emerges twenty years later than when he left.

    Fittingly for a show based on an art book, Tales From the Loop is a feast for the eyes. The bucolic natural setting of Mercer is dotted with oddball technology--a barn with an enormous antenna lodged in its roof; a tractor that floats on anti-grav suspenders; discarded robots that wander in the woods; the mysterious, glowing pylons that loom over almost every location in town. Contrasted with the show's meticulous production design (the setting is a non-specific, more socially accepting version of the 70s or 80s), it creates a worldbuilding effect that is irresistible, a lived-in science fictional world. The soundscape, as well, is immersive, combining natural sounds with sweeping music (by Philip Glass) that conveys the show's prevailing tone of melancholy at the passage of time, and the way technology exposes human frailty and foibles. It's all quite lovely, though if I have one criticism of the show, it's that this is an approach that can sometimes overstay its welcome. I found myself thinking that Tales might have worked better as a half-hour drama. Though the slowness of its storytelling is clearly deliberate, taking long moments to let characters take in their situation and react to it, this is a choice that can end up delivering diminishing returns. Still, even at a somewhat bloated episode length, Tales is worth seeking out. Its weirdness, and its characters' familiar confusion at the world and the mess they've made of their lives, feel exactly right for this moment.

  • The Midnight Gospel - If Tales From the Loop is delightfully weird, Netflix's animated series The Midnight Gospel is overwhelmingly--some might say, overpoweringly--so. Simply explaining what the series, from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, is about can take some time. Set on a fantastical world, a mobius loop floating in space, the series follows middle aged slacker Clancy (Duncan Trusell), who lives in a trailer and has recently purchased a "universe simulator", a device that allows him to visit any number of fantastical worlds (though many of the available options contain no surviving intelligent life because of "operator error"). Clancy visits these worlds and finds people to interview for his "spacecast". But, in a further twist, these interviews are actually real ones which Trusell conducted on his podcast with guests that include author Anne Lamott, mortician and blogger Caitlin Doughty, producer and falsely-conviced member of the West Memphis Three Damien Echols, and Trusell's own mother Deneen Fendig, who recorded her interview before her death in 2013.

    As Clancy interviews these figures, his and their on-screen avatars engage in adventures that seem to have little or nothing to do with the subjects being discussed, which range from philosophy to religion to our attitudes towards death. In the first episode, for example, Clancy interviews the American president on the world he visits (voiced by Dr. Drew), which is undergoing a zombie apocalypse. So while the two escape the ravening hordes of zombies, picking them off with weapons or mowing through them in trucks, they are also casually discussing drug use and whether our attitude towards drugs is misguided. In another episode, Echols discusses his relationship with the occult and how magic plays a role in various philosophies while his character, a humanoid figure with a fishbowl for a head, captains a ship crewed by cats through a iceberg-strewn ocean. The kooky appeal of the show is rooted first in its psychedelic animation, which often veers towards the scatological or gruesome (in one episode, Lamott play a giant dog-deer hybrid who converses with Clancy as they are both transported through the rendering process of a meat production plant, finally emerging as a still-talking, pink slurry), and second in the contrast between the extraordinary events on screen and the wide-ranging, inquisitive, friendly conversation on the soundtrack.

    I imagine that some people will be completely won over by The Midnight Gospel, but I found myself admiring it, and the very fact that it even managed to be made, more than I enjoyed it. I suspect the series might have worked better for me in weekly installments, to give one time to take in both the visual excess on display and the ideas under discussion. But with only eight episodes of about 20 minutes each, it's easy to rush through the whole thing, and eventually the glut of ideas and imagery can feel overwhelming. I found myself tuning out, either looking at the pretty pictures without paying much attention to the topic under discussion, or listening to the conversation while looking at a second screen and ignoring the animation. Still, the idea of being able to visit strange and fantastical worlds from the comfort of your own home has an obvious appeal right now, as does the possibility of exploring more complicated, far-reaching ideas than pandemic mitigation strategies and their failures. For some people, I imagine that The Midnight Gospel will be the perfect escape in this moment.