Thursday, January 07, 2016

Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 1

I didn't write anything about the fall TV season this (last) year, because frankly, it was too dismal and boring to write anything about, and anything I could have said would have just joined the chorus of thinkpieces lamenting the networks' inability to produce anything resembling worthwhile new shows.  But here we are in winter, with the network shows on break or just coming out of it, and suddenly we've been inundated with a whole gaggle of interesting, ambitious projects that remind us of what the medium is capable of.  I didn't love all of the works I'm about to review--in fact I genuinely disliked some of them--but at least they gave me something to write about, which is more than can be said for the raft of samey procedurals and unfunny comedies we were slogging through in the fall.
  • And Then There Were None - My first reaction when I heard that the BBC was planning a new adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel was to wonder why anyone would bother.  I read the novel as a teenager, and I remember it being clever but mechanical, and rather awkward in delivering a final twist that, I felt certain, everyone must know by now (as this highly scientific poll reveals, it's actually more like a 50/50 split).  Once you knew the twist, I thought, going through the motions of watching the ten strangers gathered together on Soldier Island get picked off one by one by an unknown assailant seemed rather pointless, and not a little bit mean-spirited.  As it turns out, the problem must have been in Christie's writing, and in her Fair Play obsession with laying out the precise details of every murder so that the reader could work out the killer on their own.  The BBC version is a lot less interested in the whodunnit of the story, and more focused on the psychological effects of its gruesome events.  It very effectively captures the breakdown of the rigid social conventions that govern the type of 30s house party the characters think they've been invited to, and which they initially try to cling to before the reality of being trapped with a killer sinks in.  As the cast is whittled down, the claustrophobia and paranoia rise, and the characters begin to let go of their pretense of civility--including, eventually, their insistence that they are innocent of the crimes of which they've been accused by their tormentor, and for which they've been sentenced to death.

    The entire cast is strong, but Maeve Dermody and Aidan Turner are particularly good as a clever, capable young woman concealing a terrible capacity for evil, and the only member of the party willing to admit to his own moral depravity.  The miniseries also makes some changes to some of the characters' backstories and the crimes they've been accused of, which taken together suggest that despite the killer's proclamations, what's on trial in this story is actually the pre-War British way of life, and its thoughtless assumptions about class and racial superiority.  My only problem with this adaptation is that if you watch it knowing who the killer is, and observing their interactions with the other characters, it becomes easier to see that they are a cruel psychopath, and that for all their pretenses to be seeking justice, the fact that they've constructed such an elaborate, sadistic game suggests that they're much more interested in bringing more suffering and pain into the world.  The mini tries to address this in several scenes that obliquely hint at the killer's depravity before they are revealed, but the structure of the story--in which they only get a short scene to explain themselves--means that this thread is inevitably shortchanged.  Even with all the welcome alterations that it makes to Christie's original, it's hard to finish And Then There Were None and not feel at least a little unsatisfied.  It's not that we want any of these, for the most part unrepentant, murderers to survive, but by the end of their torment we don't really want their killer to win either.  For all the changes that this version of the story makes, and despite its overall success at making something more resonant than the novel it's based on, it doesn't find a way to deprive the killer of the last word.

  • Sherlock: The Abominable Bride - A few weeks ago, while reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Overture, it occurred to me that, slowly but surely, Gaiman's Sandman and Steven Moffat's Doctor had become the same type of character, a protean trickster figure who exists in many forms, but who is always fundamentally the same, and essential to the proper running of the universe.  Inevitably, both of these authors return to a story about their characters' multifarious existence, about the many types of stories told about them and the many guises they take, all of which have the same heart (Gaiman has also told this type of story about Batman, with the rather forgettable Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?).  About halfway into "The Abominable Bride"--the one-off/special/standalone episode that stands in for this year's season of Sherlock--we realize that Moffat is now telling this kind of story about Sherlock Holmes.  What initially seems like a rather pointless, tail-swallowing trip back to the 19th century (which only throws into sharper relief how much Sherlock, and Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in particular, owe to Granada's magnificent adaptation of Doyle's stories, with the incomparable Jeremy Brett as Holmes) turns out to be a reflection on Holmes's many facets, leading us to ask: is this a story about Sherlock, in the 21st century, imagining how his life might be like as a Victorian detective, or is it about Holmes, in the 19th century, imagining his life in a future that has flying machines and mobile phones?

    On the face of it, this makes a certain amount of sense.  Holmes has been reimagined and reinvented dozens of times since his creation more than a century ago, and the best of these variations retain a certain essential Holmes-ishness no matter how much they change the character.  So why not tell a story in which these different versions meet and comment on each other? Especially one that also reminds us how much Holmes, even within his own story, is mediated by his chronicler?  The problem, unfortunately, is that by calling attention to Holmes's many facets, Moffat and co-creator Mark Gatiss (who is also credited as writer on this episode) remind us how little they understand the character.  Or rather, how much they want him to be something he was never meant to be.  No matter how badly Moffat wants it, Sherlock Holmes is not a superhero.  He is not an elemental force binding the universe together, and he is definitely not The Doctor.  What makes Holmes such an evergreen and resilient character is, on the contrary, his humanity--his kindness, his decency, his appreciation of human folly and weirdness--and this is something that Sherlock has never been able to accept.  "The Abominable Bride," like so many Sherlock stories before it, tries to tell us that we need Sherlock to save the world, when this has never been Holmes's function, and has always been the least interesting and least convincing use to which the show has put its title character.

    Along the way, there are several ideas that must have looked good on paper but really don't work on screen.  Andrew Scott's Moriarty returns not as Sherlock's nemesis (which he was never any good at) but as a representative of his fears, his self-loathing, and most of all his addiction to drugs.  In principle, this is a good way of walking back Moriarty's return at the end of the last season (in the face of fandom's uniformly negative reaction to that development), but it runs aground on Sherlock's consistent failure to engage with its title character's addiction on any but the most simplistic terms, and even then, only when it suits it.  Even more dangerously, there's an attempt to address the show's history of misogyny that goes so spectacularly wrong that it's almost amazing to watch.  For one thing, this element corralled into the 19th century story strand--thus implying that misogyny was a problem of the Victorians, despite the fact that Conan Doyle's original stories are much better than Sherlock has ever been at featuring interesting female characters who are treated with respect and are allowed to move the plot in their own right.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, the show delivers a twist on "The Five Orange Pips" in which the secret society hounding Holmes's client is a group of feminist avengers who hunt down and kill cheaters and abusers--an already problematic plot development that is made even more so when you remember that in the original story, the secret society in question was the KKK.  That's right, in Steven Moffat's universe, feminism takes its cues from the Klan, and criticizing Sherlock on the internet is akin to stabbing philandering husbands in the heart while dressed as an avenging, ghostly bride.

    Somewhat strangely, the only character who still works and still feels human is Gatiss's Mycroft--all the more impressive when you consider that his screen time in the 19th century strand is devoted to an unpleasant, offensive fat joke.  In the 21st century strand, however, Gatiss is very good at conveying the anguish of loving someone who is incapable of recognizing or returning that love, and of having to stand by and watch as they destroy themselves.  If the rest of Sherlock were as human and real as the few moments in which we see Mycroft laments his inability to save his brother from himself, it would be something to watch.  Instead, all we get is Moffat's increasingly desperate attempts to make the show, and the character, into something they could never be.

  • Childhood's End - In principle, you have to respect what SyFy was trying to do with this miniseries.  After nearly a decade of relying almost exclusively on schlock, pulp, and shows that have nothing to do with science fiction for their bread and butter, the channel seems genuinely to be trying to get back to its roots.  And how better to do that than with a handsome, serious, expensive-looking adaptation of one of the core works of Golden Age science fiction?  Going into the miniseries, one's knowledge of SyFy's proclivities (and of what tends to happen to SF when it gets adapted by just about anyone) leads you to expect the familiar corner-cutting and standardization.  You expect the whole story to be turned into the heroic saga of one ruggedly handsome white man who saves the world through the sheer force of his virility while an adoring, stick-thin and perfectly-coiffed woman looks on.  And, to be fair, there is some of that here--the character who in the novel was the Secretary-General of the UN is transformed into a Midwestern farmer who dresses in nothing but jeans and leather jackets, and three of the five main female characters are defined purely as love interests and mothers.  But on the whole Childhood's End is a meditative and rather bleak story that avoids the temptation to veer into pulp.  No one here is going to save the day.  When the aliens who dub themselves The Overlords arrive on Earth and announce that they are going to save us from ourselves, it very quickly becomes clear that there's nothing we can do about that except hope that they are truly as benevolent as they claim to be.  And the answer to that question turns out to be both "yes" and "no"--the aliens' benevolence is a means to an end, and that end is, when viewed in a certain light, extremely sinister.  But the aliens themselves are not sinister at all, and the miniseries works hard (perhaps a little too hard) to present them as kind, compassionate beings who are doing what they think is right, and who have a compelling (if, to me, not really convincing) argument that this is, in fact, the right thing to do.

    The problem is that none of this is very interesting to watch, and certainly not over six nearly interminable hours.  I haven't read the Arthur C. Clarke novel on which the miniseries is based, so I have no idea where Childhood's End's faults are rooted, but the script (by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creator Matthew Graham, which honestly surprised me quite a bit when I learned it) has hardly a single interesting or surprising moment, hardly a single line of dialogue that doesn't feel canned and predictable.  Childhood's End is clearly trying to be somber, but what it ends up landing on, most of the time, is underpowered, and even boring.  And that, in turn, makes it easier to notice the flaws in its basic concept, and in how Graham develops it.  The methods that the Overlords use to solve the problems of war, poverty, and inequality are, well, childish--in one scene, we're told that hunger is going to be solved because the US will use the ships of its recently decommissioned Navy to send America's leftovers to Africa, which is literally the sort of idea that a bright sixth-grader might come up with, but not something we can be expected to take seriously in a production aimed at adults.  Neither was I particularly convinced by the miniseries's contention that, without the pressures of necessity and scarcity, humanity will cease to care about work, art, or scientific pursuit.  (What's missing from the entire discussion--and here I suspect that the fault lies with the novel--is capitalism, and the idea that it too is a problem that the Overlords need to solve, perhaps the root of all other problems.  Without addressing that, all the solutions the miniseries suggests to our woes feel incomplete and meaningless.)  By the time the end comes around, and with it the expectation that we will buy into the idea that humanity needs to die so that God can come into existence, I was completely checked out.  Without reading the novel, it's hard to know whether Childhood's End could have worked with a better script, or whether its concept is irrevocably flawed, but either way it remains a well-intentioned bid for respectability, not a worthwhile work in its own right.

  • Dickensian - Five episodes in, I still find myself puzzled by the core concept of this series, which imagines that the background and supporting characters of some half dozen Dickens novels (and a few of the leads) all live on the same street and interact with each other.  I don't consider myself a Dickens fan (though I know enough about his novels, from general knowledge and watching adaptations, to have recognized all the main characters in Dickensian, and to know what's in store for most of them) and maybe that means that this show simply isn't for me.  But it's hard not to see the show as a sort of theme park selling the Dickens Experience--lots of quirky characters with odd names, even odder habits of speech, and hard-knock lives, all bouncing against each other at Christmastime.  The obvious point of comparison, Penny Dreadful, works because it quickly finds its own tone and builds its own world from its borrowed materials, but Dickensian still feels like little more than pastiche.  Of the three main storylines, one is an elaboration--the investigation of the murder of Jacob Marley (of A Christmas Carol fame)--while the other two are prequels describing the downfall of two young women, Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle), whose engagement to a young officer is endangered by her embittered sister (thus setting up the main plotline of Bleak House), and Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton), who becomes romantically entangled with a scoundrel after her brother hires him to get at her inheritance (which will presumably lead her to wander around in a wedding dress plotting vengeance on all men, as she does in Great Expectations).  Unless creator Tony Jordan is planning to do something a little more bold than the show, so far, seems to promise, that means that we're watching a slow-motion trainwreck, the exact opposite of what Dickens's novels tend to deliver.  (But then, maybe I'm giving Jordan too little credit--the first episode, after all, ends with Little Nell miraculously recovering from her seemingly fatal illness.)

    For all that, I've found Dickensian unexpectedly enjoyable and compelling.  Largely, this is the execution--the writing is sharp, the actors are all solid, and the pacing is impeccable (on that last point, it really helps that the show's episodes are only half an hour long; it's still too rare for the writers of dramas to recognize that their running time isn't a function of their genre, but should reflect the needs of their story).  You end up wanting to know what happens next even if the project as a whole still feels a little dodgy.  But it also helps that the show has constructed some clever and moving family drama in the chinks of Dickens's stories.  Honoria's sister Frances (Alexandra Moen), who is judgmental, priggish, and actively working to destroy her sister's happiness, also has extremely sympathetic moments.  We see how she has trapped herself (and been trapped, by social expectations and her domineering father) in the responsible, caretaking role, while her younger, prettier sister gets to dream of romance, and is protected from the family's financial problems.  Her bitterness over this understandable, even as it corrodes her soul.  Similarly, the triangle that develops between Miss Havisham, her whiny brother, and the soulless adventurer he hires to destroy her, is fascinating, constantly shifting to expose parallel currents of love and hate between all three of them.  Middleton is particularly good at conveying both Amelia's determination and her vulnerability.  We can imagine how this woman could be destroyed by the act of betrayal being perpetrated upon her, but we also really want her to find a way to overcome it (or maybe just to take her revenge on the right people, and thoroughly trounce her brother and his partner).

    I suspect that I won't know what I actually think about Dickensian until it concludes and I have a clearer sense of what Jordan's project is (for one thing, I'm a lot less interested in the murder mystery than, I suspect, the show wants me to be).  The show has been so well-made so far, though, that it's hard not to root for it to find a justification for its existence--something that makes it its own story, or even a meaningful commentary on Dickens and his work, not just an imitation filling in his margins.


CP said...

I've never read Childhood's End, but when it was explained to me, I got the idea. I've seen "PSYCH! Benevolent aliens solving poverty, disease and war REALLY HAVE A HIDDEN AGENDA! Bet you didn't see THAT coming!" before on The Twilight Zone, Stargate and the reimagined V miniseries. That's one reason I didn't watch C's E (yes, I realize it was probably the trope codifier that inspired all of these, but that's not how my viewing order went).

The other reason is... kind of related to your "the aliens would need to solve capitalism" point. I live in a country where a very mild, seventy-years-overdue attempt to make health care affordable has half my countrymen running around like chicken with their heads cut off screaming that this is all concealing a sinister plot not unlike that of these aliens. So, "benevolent aliens are secretly bad!" stories are already going to have me rolling my eyes for reasons of my own. But more importantly, it means I just find their basic premise really, really bizarre. In what universe would humanity greet an alien species with "oh sure, we'd LOVE to throw the doors wide open to you and let you guide us to utopia?" Look at the kind of backlash that already exists to any attempts to solve war or world hunger or global warming, for crying out loud, and that's before you count the shock and existential crisis of discovering an alien species.

If these stories are just supposed to be entertaining and nothing more, that's cool. If (as I always assumed) they want to be a rebuttal to the more utopian trends in sci-fi ("you want a better world? Beware! There will be a cost!"), that's... fair enough, I suppose. But they're hampered by the fact that I don't recognize the version of humanity that's on display here at all.

(Yes, I'm aware that all of the above refers to the general trend C's E is a part of and not this particular series, which I haven't seen. Apologies if this judges it unfairly, but by the sound of it, not so much).

Brett said...

You've spared me the need to watch Childhood's End, something I was already on the fence about because I didn't care too much for the book. Anyone else get the impression that the Overmind was playing the Overlords for chumps, stringing them along and blocking them from joining it because they're just too useful as they are?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I definitely got a strong "To Serve Man" sense off Childhood's End (though as you say, the Clarke novel probably predates all these stories). In fairness to the mini (and the book), what the aliens are doing isn't as straightforwardly sinister as wanting to enslave us or eat us. It's the destruction of humanity, but in a good cause, as it were. I actually think the whole story would have been a lot stronger if there had more discussion of this point, and of whether the aliens were really right to act as they did.

One thing the mini does which I think isn't in the book is depict a level of resistance to the aliens, in the form of propaganda and underground paramilitary organization, which I think is deliberately coded to recall right wing rhetoric in the US today. But the point the story makes is that none of this matters. There is nothing humanity could do to frustrate the plans of aliens, and while I think more could have been made of the potentially despairing reaction some people would have to this, I also appreciated the story avoiding the "plucky resistance" trope. (Late in the mini, we find out that some humans have settled in a city that rejects the aliens' influence, which is from the book. But it's never made clear what this actually means.)


Yeah, as I said to CP, there's not enough questioning of the aliens' core assumptions. I certainly thought The Overmind seemed more sinister than awesome, and certainly not like something I'd be willing to condemn whole species to extinction for.

Janet Nussbaum said...

What's not totally clear in the mini-series, but is expressed in the book is that humanity [or at least the children] become part of the Overmind along with all the other sentient races that came before. So it's not the extinction of the human race, but rather the extinction of human culture.
Of course, the big question, as Abigail asks, is why didn't they consult us first?
In any case, Clarke goes on to express the same idea in "2001," but more in the sense of mankind growing, evolving.

Frankly, I find "Childhood's End" altogether depressing.

zahrawithaz said...

I very much enjoyed this post, though I haven't seen any of these and am unlikely to do so.

I can't recall much of the novel Childhood's End, other than the end, which has stayed with me, and that it was a strikingly un-novel-like novel, more of a thought experiment. "Meditative," "bleak," and "uninteresting" all feel accurate to Clarke's story, which is interesting and important in the history of sf but very far away from our tastes today in literature, never mind entertainment.

But it's fascinating to me that the discussion here centers on media since Clarke, and how we watch the story today filtered through those lenses; I think there is something interesting in the investigation of whether the trope originator became dated because those who followed Clarke did more interesting things with his ideas.

Also I have to say the encounter of Earthlings with aliens who are powerful enough to do whatever they want feels dated to me because of political changes in our world now; I feel like the most interesting alien encounter stories we tell now tend to involve situations where humans are powerful enough to harm aliens, or the potential for mutual misunderstanding and damage looms large.

Finally, I have to add that your description of Dickensian makes the show sound like Gotham (another show I don't watch), with many of the inherent structural flaws such prequel shows have. But your description of its execution makes me wish I could see it!

Unknown said...

It's interesting that you begin the article by lamenting the lack of anything new in last year's television and then proceed to review a remake of an Agatha Christie story, a remake of a Arthur C. Clarke Golden Age Scifi story, a remake/fanfic of Arthur Conan Doyle works (or whatever Sherlock is), and then a hodge podge of Dickens characters. These are hardly great exemplars of "new" tv and yet it's what's on!

I also found C'sE to be predictable, but I'm wondering if that's not just a function of how Golden Age scifi in the 21st century looks to scifi fans. We know the tropes and the beats and the reveals and they don't hold a lot for us anymore. When played straight those classic scifi moments feel tired or out of touch (as was the problem with Disney's Tomorrowland). Our fandom has "to serve man" as part of its cultural consciousness. And yet rather than go onto something like a remake of Iain M. Banks' Culture series, which understands the issues with Golden Age scifi and builds on them, we get C'sE, where the visuals are updated, but not really the content (and to be fair, even the Culture series has been out for awhile and Banks himself dead, so it's hardly "new" either). I guess SyFy is trying to grab new fans and thus has to presuppose as little scifi cultural knowledge as possible?

CP said...

"One thing the mini does which I think isn't in the book is depict a level of resistance to the aliens, in the form of propaganda and underground paramilitary organization, which I think is deliberately coded to recall right wing rhetoric in the US today. But the point the story makes is that none of this matters. There is nothing humanity could do to frustrate the plans of aliens, and while I think more could have been made of the potentially despairing reaction some people would have to this, I also appreciated the story avoiding the "plucky resistance" trope."

I don't want a plucky resistance trope, exactly, more like mass hysteria. This may be related to another gripe I have with sci-fi, that I still haven't seen a story, that really acknowledges the kind of existential crisis that humanity would experience if it ever met an alien species. "Contact" did it to some extent, it's the best I've seen so far.

"Of course, the big question, as Abigail asks, is why didn't they consult us first?"

Presumably because they knew we wouldn't go along with it - plenty of people would probably find death preferable to "life" in something as alien as an immortal hive mind. Which is good. I just feel like the initial alien arrival and attempts to change our society would've met that kind of resistance too.

"But it's fascinating to me that the discussion here centers on media since Clarke, and how we watch the story today filtered through those lenses; I think there is something interesting in the investigation of whether the trope originator became dated because those who followed Clarke did more interesting things with his ideas."

I don't know if "interesting" is the word for it, but maybe "effective." As near as I can tell, "To Serve Man" basically distilled the story down to its basic point ("these angels are really demons") and turned it into an even simpler but scarier horror story by turning "we will ascend to a higher plane of existence and lose your humanity" into "we will be eaten."

The subsequent sci-fi stories, in turn, were copying "To Serve Man."

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I think there is something interesting in the investigation of whether the trope originator became dated because those who followed Clarke did more interesting things with his ideas.

Which is interesting because, in theory, "the aliens want to accelerate our evolution which will have the side effect of ending human culture and history" should be a much more complex and multifaceted story than "the aliens want to eat us." Perhaps the problem is, as my mother said, that the story presents the aliens' plan as a fait accompli, without allowing the humans in it to debate whether they want to be a part of it.

Dickensian vs. Gotham: yes, I suppose the core question here is whether the sole pleasure of the show is intended to be its prequel-ness. Especially given what a sad ending all the characters I've come to care about are destined for, I hope there's more to it than that. At least, in the meantime, the execution is a lot better than Gotham's.


My complaint about fall TV had more to do with execution than the originality of the source material. And anyway, straight-up literary adaptations (or even playful ones like Sherlock and Dickensian) are still more original, in today's TV landscape, than most network shows, which, if they base themselves on a book, usually do so only if they can twist and contort it into a procedural that'll run seven seasons.

I think SyFy is probably assuming that most viewers (and certainly most American viewers) will be more familiar with Clarke's name than Banks's. It's very likely that they were trying to draw connections to 2001 in their promotion of Childhood's End. Not to mention that they've already got a space opera show right now, with The Expanse.

baeraad said...

What's missing from the entire discussion--and here I suspect that the fault lies with the novel--is capitalism, and the idea that it too is a problem that the Overlords need to solve, perhaps the root of all other problems. Without addressing that, all the solutions the miniseries suggests to our woes feel incomplete and meaningless.


... have you ever considered writing a political/psychological manifesto and keeping a link to it somewhere?

The reason why I ask is, you keep blurting out things like "a political culture of modesty gives us leaders that are either deceitful or easily manipulated" and "anger and the desire for power are necessary for true personhood" and "all aspects of masculinity, including the supposedly positive ones, are harmful to women" and, indeed, "capitalism is a problem to be solved"... and treating them as complete asides, just reminders of things that everyone but a few stubborn blockheads surely understand already, and then just plowing on while I'm left sputtering, "... wait, what?"

Some sort of master list of Things Abigail Nussbaum Hold To Be Self-Evident (Even Though 90% Of The Human Race Refuse To Admit That She's Right) would be useful to the casual reader, is what I'm saying. And it would certainly make... interesting reading, I'll admit that much.

Now, for reference? I am no friend of capitalism. I'd love to live in a functioning socialist state, and, inevitably, I have some personal ideas about what the first practical steps towards such a state should be. It's just that I consider that one of my extremist opinions that I don't expect to find much traction for, so I'm caught blindsided by the existence of someone who appears to treat the need to completely alter the way human society has worked ever since we stopped living in isolated tribes as a given.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I... honestly have no idea what you want from me. Or, indeed, what your problem is.

Like, to begin with, three of the four statements you ascribe to me aren't things that I remember saying, and the second one appears to be something you wrote, claiming to be paraphrasing me in the comments of an older post. That doesn't mean that I've never said these things or things like them - I've been keeping this blog for ten years, so I've written a lot of stuff, including things I probably don't agree with anymore. But some context, and some actual quotes of my own writing, would have been nice.

Second, if you want a statement of my politics, hi, may I introduce you to Asking the Wrong Questions? My politics are all over this blog. Sometimes I also read things by people who assume political views that I don't share or understand, but I've found that it's usually possible to figure out their views by reading more of their writing, or reading people they recommend.

Third, I can't possibly be the first person you've seen to say that capitalism is a problem that needs to be solved. Let's be honest here: I am nowhere near that radical. In most of the left-wing circles I read in, that statement is thoroughly uncontroversial. Hell, just a few years ago there was a bestselling book discussing just this issue. And since this blog focuses on genre (and since that particular review was of a miniseries that tries to imagine the future) let's not forget that science fiction has a rich history of imagining what a non-capitalist future might look like. I don't think it's strange to ask why a story that posits a utopia on Earth doesn't even try to do the same.

Chris said...

I've read Childhood's End a couple of times but not watched the series, so I don't know how relevant this will be because I don't know what was left out or glossed over - for example, it's made clear in the book that there is no alternative to what the Overlords do because the ascension is going to happen either way, and if it's not guided it will result in chaos, destruction and the complete loss of any form of humanity, ascended or not. But I think there's two things that the book does that are interesting. Neither of them are the 'Aliens come in peace... or do they?' stuff which is fun as an exercise, and has a nice twist in the revelation as to why we find the idea of all powerful 12-foot tall crimson demons with goat eyes, horns, pointy tails and pitchforks so alarming, but seems clichéd now even if it was one of the first.

First, it uses the SF aspects to deal with two types of – well, I suppose existential angst, but I'd prefer to call it joyful sorrow, not in some kind of schadenfreude sense but in finding joy because of, rather than in spite of, something unbearably sad. It deals with the fact that as a parent you want your children to grow up, but in doing so you know you'll lose them, they will become something you can't understand, and the best case scenario is that you'll die before them. And it deals with the fact that, even though we can only recognise it years after rather than as it happens, that our own childhoods were an innocent and carefree existence and even as we are hopefully glad they ended and expanded our world, and also remember all the bad things about being a child, the powerlessness, the unfairness, the pain, we still miss them even if, again hopefully, we would never really want to go back. It uses SF to take these to extremes – there is something nicely ambitious in suggesting that the Fall of Troy, the Roman Empire, the House of Wisdom, Galileo looking at the moon, the American Revolution, Charles Dickens, Dadaism, two World Wars and the Royal Society Christmas lectures were just minor moments in one big, long period of pre-adolescence. But the SF part isn't really essential to these themes. Your mileage may vary, of course, especially if you are not a parent, but I find these things in the second half of the book quite affecting.

The other thing, that is more about SF is the suggestion that whatever our future as a species is, it will be completely unrecognisable as human to those who currently think of themselves as human. That's a very modern SF concern I think – even Iain M Banks, aside from a few references to sublimation, was more interested in the socioeconomics of Utopia rather than the possibilities involved in not being a good-looking, long-lived sexual tyrannosaur. Again, maybe time has made this clichéd – it has less impact once you've seen Daniel Jackson, Benjamin Sisko, Cordelia Chase and Daniel Jackson again disappear in a puff of special effects.

Adam said...

I haven't seen the BBC series, but I think you may be selling the Christie novel short. To be sure, it's at best functionally written, and you can definitely hear the machinery clank. But Christie is also less interested in the whodunit than in the "psychological effects," which are the same in the novel as in the mini, going by what you've said. And in the book, the murderer explicitly admits their sadism.

(I'm also wondering what the "twist" is that you expected everyone to know. If it's who the murderer was and how they covered their tracks, I wouldn't expect anybody who hadn't read the book or seen one of the adaptations to know that.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I suppose part of my problem with the issues you raise is that no work has SF has ever managed to convinced me that disappearing in a puff of special effects is actually an improvement, or even desirable. "Ascended" life always seems so dull and samey, the product of a lack of imagination, not the leap forward we keep being told it is. As you say, part of the point is that we're not supposed to be able to grasp the awesomeness of post-human life, but I often feel as if writers who insist on that awesomeness are cheating by taking that approach. And in the absence of any meaningful argument that what humanity is being transformed into is something worthwhile, it's hard to accept the loss of all human history, culture, and memory (and it certainly doesn't feel analogous to how parents might feel when they see their children outstripping them, because both the parents and the children are still part of human society).


It's been about twenty years since I read the novel, so perhaps I'm misremembering it. But to me, the mechanical aspect of it felt a lot more significant than the emotional one, and a lot of the things that the miniseries did with the characters - getting at their humanity and the ugliness of the things they'd done - felt like going well beyond the novel.

(When I said "the twist," I meant (spoilers, obviously) the fact that the murderer is pretending to be one of the earlier victims. Throughout the story the characters take it as a given that anyone who has been killed can be eliminated from the list of suspects. The ending reveals that this "rule" was actually nothing of the sort.)

Tim Ward said...

Sherlock drives me up the bloody wall. It quite capable of being one of the best things on television, but Moffat is just determined, absolutely determined, to waste all the of the talent involved, including his own, by indulging in every form of TV Writerism possible. At this point I think I'd just like it to stop.

What a shocking waste.

Chris said...

Abigail: I agree that throughout SF, Becoming One With Everything is never really explained as a Good Thing just presented as it. But in the book at least ascension is something that will happen like it or not, so while I don't remember any particular attempts to make it seem positive I do remember that the negative results of it happening without proper guidance are presented as incredibly catastrophic.

I also don't think that good SF deals with post-human life as automatically awesome (and this might be a miniseries/book issue, and by the way I just think you might enjoy reading the book rather than that you should rethink the miniseries) as much as different in ways we can't understand, and that Childhood's End is in that tradition. Maybe it helps to watch your children watch Minecraft videos on YouTube, puzzling over why they don't just play Minecraft themselves.

But the idea that they are still part of human society is something I meant to reference in regards to the way that Clarke uses SF to take us to the extreme version - he is doing a universal theme, but also not one in which our ascended children write once in a while. Because we're dead and they are part of a hive mind. Which is a good excuse, except excuses aren't really necessary any more because we're dead and they are part of a hive mind.

CP said...

"throughout SF, Becoming One With Everything is never really explained as a Good Thing just presented as it."

You think so?

Cordelia from Angel tried it, was bored out of her goddamn mind, and eventually quit to return to the lower planes of existence.

Daniel Jackson seemed to get something out of it, but the Prime Directive burden of watching the lower planes suffer while being unable to help was too much, so he quit too. (The Ancient he left behind seemed to have an even less enviable fate).

The Q from Star Trek were overgrown brats, and, while I haven't seen these episodes, I believe there's a story arc that shows that they, too, are stagnant and bored out of their minds, such that one of them actually decides he wants to die.

Off the top of my head, the only "higher beings" who seem to have it good are the Force ghosts from Star Wars. (Though we can't even be sure of that, since we never get their point of view - their only function is to be guides for the living).

John Thacker said...

Totally disagree about the changes in And Then There Were None, and your characterization of it. In the original, quite a few of the murders that the victims had done were explained as being either not technically crimes, with plausible deniability, or just something that the society of the time wouldn't care about. Stealing supplies from natives and leaving them to die (justified because you have to let yourself survive first), sending your wife's lover off on a suicide mission, letting someone drown, turning a girl out on the street to starve because she got pregnant, etc. Even running someone over with a motorcar was a class issue in pre War Britain. (Remember Christie's famous statement about when she was younger, never believing that she would be so rich as to afford a motorcar, nor so poor as to not be able to afford servants?)

The BBC version changed several of those to more straightforward directly killing someone, or strongly implied. I actually feel that the original novel has a much stronger critique of society, by arguing that these crimes that could never been proven or accepted are just as bad as the more typical ones. It also provides the justification for the main perpetrator, rather than simply being a case where people committed murders that weren't caught, he's punishing them for murders that the law and society would never be able to punish them for-- most of which because of societal notions of race and class. I'm confused as to why you wouldn't think that the original novel wasn't accusing pre-War notions of race and class superiority.

Chris said...

Sorry, CP, I should have been clearer - I was just trying to agree that it's, of necessity, always (probably not always, I just can't think of any counterexamples right now) a tell don't show situation, not that it's always agreed that it's good - twinkly lights, look of wonder, being told they are one with everything, yadda yadda yadda. And certainly it's possible to read the opposite even when you are told that it's a good thing, just as it's always possible to find holes in non-ironic utopias. None of which matters in Childhood's End because it's not avoidable. The Overlords seem sad that they will never do it, or be allowed to do it, and are stuck where they are but after reading about the end of the world as we know it we might be less than charitable to their problems.

zahrawithaz said...

Abigail and Chris,

I'm not thinking of "To Serve Man" so much as Tiptree's short story "A Momentary Taste of Being," which has always been the most haunting incarnation of the trope for me. And yes, the "ascension," if you want to call it that, is a fait accompli, but there's still a great deal of struggling with the loss of all human history, culture, and memory--even though, or perhaps because, the aliens are us and their is no choice, only a biological imperative. It's a very Tiptree-like story.


I am a sucker for stories that use sf metaphors to explore the sadness and dislocation of parents watching their children grow up; I wish there were more of them! But Clarke seems to be still wedded to older ideas of evolution and progress that are less chaotic and messy than the ones we now hold.

Post a Comment