science fiction

Part time critic

Six weeks at home (recovering from surgery) in the middle of a Kiwi summer (which at any minute could be winter) I’ve been trying to manage having a foggy brain with pain management and keeping myself occupied (hence the sudden splurge of ranty blogs). Now it is 99% humidity and I am missing my air-conditioned office at work – but not the work yet.

So after finally reading Brave New World so that I could actually say ‘I had read it’ (was glad I had read under a cloud of opiates – amazing but seriously depressing) I returned to Netflix to catch up on some sci-fi. Lying at home, trying to ‘be good’ (the idea of not being able to ride my single speed for nearly 3months is torture) I’m going to entertain you with my amateur attempt at being a critic.

Yet again – a disclaimer. I do not see myself as an expert, or even someone who has read and seen everything in the sci-fi genre. I’m a bit fussy and hard to please and I have a tendency to change my mind after viewing or reading things multiple times. I will limit myself to those shows/movies where I have some clarity about my position. I also do not want to be negative, as I think all writers and producers have a particular vision they are bringing to life and my lack of connection with something does not detract from this.

First up – Star Trek Discovery

I am first and foremost NOT a Trekkie. That should immediately disqualify me from commenting. But I love this series. Some fans lament the detour from what they see as they heart of the ST stories. I see it as a refreshing ‘posthumanism’ exploration of deeper philosophical concepts. I like the break from traditional scientific models of life, where quantum physics and biology are not separate entities. STD (unfortunate acronym) pushes scientific concepts to the edge rather than reproducing the ‘same old’. There are the familiar players – Clingons, Vulcans, Humans and The Federation. So much is familiar and also different. Leading women, gay characters and cultural diversity are not there for cannon fodder (red shirt syndrome). And if it’s ‘too PC’ for some – just load up on the original series and JJ Abrams reboots.

Second – Altered Carbon

Initially, I was swept away by this series. But once the honeymoon was over (probably after the 4th episode) it started to feel a bit like a Marvel series; Man has traumatic past – loses parents and sister – loves a woman – loses woman – tortured man has new identity – has a mission. It’s sexy, slick, and again pushes posthuman ideas (an area I am particularly interested in). The key concept of AC centers on technology (‘stack’) that enables consciousness to be moved to another body with ease means there can be a lot of room to ‘play’ with concepts of identity, connection, love, intimacy. To be ‘spun up’ into the body of the opposite sex is seen through mainly through the experience of women becoming men, it’s pretty phallocentric. There is a lot of nudity, violence and sexual violence in AC. So whilst I appreciate some of the ideas I’m left with an uneasy sense of misogyny masquerading as equality. There is no genuine shift in gendered relationships in AC – but it is still a great ride.

Third – The Cloverfield Movies

Confession – I HATED the first Cloverfield movie. The shaky camera work (yes I know it was intentional) and the ending had me wanting a refund on my time. So I was really hesitant to see 10Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox. I gave Paradox a go first and because it was more about quantum physics I got excited. It worked well and there was enough humour in it to smooth out some of the familiar sci-fi limits. Bit of a spoiler – but I loved the amputation scene and the hand continuing to live as a separate entity trying to send a message. This movie makes the original plausible by opening up the idea that rips in dimensions and space/time could occur. 10Cloverfield Lane therefore sits somewhere in the middle of all this more as a psychological thriller. And here comes the ‘BUT’ – why the monsters. It’s like kids telling a scary story but they get lost on how to finish it so they say ‘and then A MONSTER’. I guess I am wondering how that adds to the tension, for me it was a huge deflation.

Next up – Legion

If you were to smash The Twighlight Zone, XMen, and Inception together you have Legion. It is full on, like a darker, creepier XMen. In fact it is part of the XMen universe. Definitely do not let your kids see this – it is more horror than sci-fi and while I’m looking forward to season 2 I hope they can dial back on some of the surges between layers of reality. If you like Twilight Zone and mutant stuff – this is great. Just sleep with the light on after.

Finally – Dark

Not all sci-fi needs a space backdrop. Actually, I struggle to classify some series (The OA in a similar vein). Dark has been a shining light for me and is more a time travel, esoteric drama than sci-fi. Comparisons to Stranger Things seem inevitable but it is nothing like ST except for some of the story settings (small town and young people with mysterious things going on). Brilliant acting is undone by terrible dubbing into English and at times it’s like watching English dubbing of Kungfu movies. I did watch it a second time in German with subtitles. If you can focus on the eyes rather than the mouths it works – but I hope they can rectify it before season 2.

Dark is an aesthetic series. It is beautifully shot and the sound track creates right tone throughout – you feel Dark as it spans three timelines (with a 4th being touched on – no spoilers). The characters are not over cooked, there is a lovely balance of diversity and a genuine sense that these characters are there not just to ‘fill the diversity quotient’ as many others feel. This is a good vrs evil story as well but it is much more subtle and mysterious, the simplicity of the story does not do justice to the complexity of the plot. There is so much going on you need a second go at it as some characters span 3-4 timelines and there is an economy of dialogue that means every line potentially hides a clue. Another way to think about it is to see Stranger Things as a ‘half-strength soy latte’ compared to Dark – an espresso (short black), it’s possible to like both flavours but most people will have a preference.

I’m also really excited about Annihilation. This isn’t being released in on the big screen in NZ, the studio was concerned it was ‘too intellectual’ for the masses. Netflix scored it and I don’t think they’ll regret it.

Well – that was fun, I don’t envy people who do this for a living, knowing regardless of your opinion people will shred you. There are a bunch of other shows I could comment on…save it for another rainy day, there seem to be enough of them at the moment.

 

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Sigh-Fi

Well I just binge watched Ascension on Netflix. Now I have been looking for a sci-fi series to follow for a while, something has to fill the gap until season two of Sense 8 starts, and this was shaping up to be it. There was even a hint at some queer characters, ok, one character was openly gay but she didn’t get to lock lips with anyone and drinking at a gay bar while reading conspiracy theories on her ipad was about as risqué as it got. But what I enjoyed was the plausible story line, unlike The 100 which drove me crazy – I made myself finish season two then wanted a refund on the time I’d wasted. At the end of the first series I had that look on my face after you watch The Matrix for the first time – like WTF just happened. I immediately went searching for the next series….nothing. I searched the internet…despair…anger….frustration mounting as I realised it probably didn’t match the mass consumption formula – apocalypse-youth-sex-dystopia-more sex.

It reminded me of The Truman Show but with a darker edge, maybe with a hint of Lost but without the drawn out back stories and left hanging in the same way you are at the end of The Quiet Earth (now there’s a Kiwi Sci-Fi classic). This had the ingredients for mixing a whole range of ethical dilemmas with a social, political and scientific realism that is sorely missing from the sci-fi genre at the moment. Maybe I’m expecting too much from the mainstream media however it should be a place where ideas are expanded and explored in more complex ways, particularly in relations to diversity and our concepts of relationships.

Yet the record seems stuck on the same track – white, heterosexual, common morphology (body shapes), military industrial complex saves the day. There is some dabbling in gender relationships but while women sometimes occupy powerful positions generally they seem to still need a male by their side to accomplish whatever ‘save the day’ mission is at the core of the story line. And while functionality is richly explored often through technology or enhanced neural capacity it is not generally open to diverse morphologies, the ‘perfect’ body is replicated more often even with technical enhancements. One of my favourite examples is The Borg queen from Star Trek First Contact, she is just a head and a spine that gets dropped into a custom made body – they clearly had done their homework.

I dunno, a whole universe of possibilities and the same old boring representations of human diversity. Sigh-fi indeed, maybe it is time to write my own script and send it to the Wachowski sisters.

Shapeshifting – its morphi-fying

I remember dressing up as a kid, I was convinced my red skellerup gumboots were magic but feeling incredibly disappointed that I couldn’t fly and didn’t have super strength no matter what towel I tied around my neck. That was the 70’s and curiously enough superman has had more reboots than my old 486. The interesting thing is the embodiment of superman from Christopher Reeves slightly androgynous but not so muscular to the mesomorphic Henry Cavill who might easily have passed for the Hulk in the 1970’s. Everyone at some point has a fantasy about superpowers – not necessarily involving masks and capes or other stuff.

My favourite game is choosing an X-Men character. So many options and cool amazing abilities but there is one I overlooked for ages – Mystique. She is a shapeshifter and has the ability to alter her physique to be either gender. But she was always either or – never both/and. So although every other character seems to push the limits of physicality, the one person who could ultimately explore and represent alternative gendered embodiments gets stuck in polarity! The irony is in her ‘natural state’ aside from the deep indigo skin, scales and yellow eyes she has a ‘perfect body’.

So while X-Men push the idea of fear of difference, needing to control, eliminate or assimilate expressions of otherness there are some subtle messages that reinforce usual gendered stereotypes and mystique is a very good example. She is also told people should ‘love her in her natural state’ that she should not alter herself. On one level I agree however why on earth would you stick with one experience of your body if you have the ability to be anyone! Containing her fluidity to me is the ultimate act of disempowerment.

There are probably some other as yet unimagined benefits of shapeshifting. Just imagine how easy it would make shopping for jeans! You could choose any style and morph on into them. Then there is travelling! Gosh you could navigate all sorts of tricky culturally bound gendered norms, or other stereotypes that are currently a barrier to suspicion free international travel. Caught in a fight and someone goes to kick you between the legs – it’s probably going to hurt either way but maybe less in one body.

The only other downer about super heroes is they all so self-absorbed, tragic, angsty and tortured. No amount of shapeshifting is going to make that attractive.

Becoming the meaning of life

The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy is classic science fiction comedy. One of my favourite parts is when the answer to the ultimate question is finally answered by a super computer (masquerading as a planet) with the number 42, the twist that most people forget is that this answer didn’t make sense because the beings who asked it didin’t actually understand what they were asking, love the irony. But It has since become part of pop culture, whenever someone is angsting about the meaning of life, someone inevitable smirks and sardonically says ‘well don’t you know? Its 42’. I celebrate my 42nd birthday tomorrow and I wonder if I will wake up with an epiphany. I’m not s super computer but I won’t let that stop me giving it a crack. Problem is there are so many choices of meaning!

So I am drawn back to the idea of where we get meaning from. Who is the loudest when proclaiming to know the answer? How do we become aware of the edges of this meaning? What meanings have been recycled, re-mastered, concealed, reviled, rendered invisible? Why is our meaning any more important than the meaning for other species on the planet? If it is not about my own life but the life of all humanity would that shift the meaning? Why do we continue to use extremes of fear to define TMOL? If humanity was one entity/consciousness – how old would we be and as such are we really ‘old enough’ to understand the question?

Well, let’s just hope I wake up tomorrow with an answer other than 42 because that really is just a number and I don’t know what it means anyway. And besides, I’ve never been fond of acting my age.