Thursday, 16 January 2020

"Autonomous" by Annalee Newitz

Review:

A pretty straight forwards and compelling sci-fi read that I liked. I enjoyed the female central protagonist - James Bond age, scared and entering a tryst with a hapless but permissive younger man, along the way. And the high (i.e. balanced) number of other strong female characters. Perhaps merely realistic, given the bio-science setting.

Its 2144 setting seems extremely conservative, to someone like myself. Quite possibly aimed at a more mainstream audience - it was, indeed optioned by AMC for a TV adaptation (admittedly what brought it to be on my read list). In terms of personal freedoms and distopia it even seems a little quaint, naive, compared to the (rapidly deteriorating) contemporary political situations in many countries.

I didn't really feel like the cover tag-line was justified, calling it the Neuromancer of biotech and AI. But that William Gibbson story is a little over-hyped itself (and outdated, now). The fictional science and technology felt pretty prosaic - under-ambitious in scope and impact. Except for a use of viruses (at the end) that seemed to jump the shark in implausibility. The AI are all human equivalent robots, with no hint at the influence of trans-(or even sub-)human AI. Let alone why there's been no Singularity, etc.

Specifics [SPOILERS]:

I don't necessarily want to assert that the military robot main character (Paladin) represented a metaphor for (present day) non-binary gender individuals. But its narrative certainly focused a lot on society and individual's compulsion to gender individuals and assert spurious traits, one way or the other. Perhaps stemming  from excessive focus on one minor technical observation. E.g. the gender of the 'donor', who's brain is being used (as somewhat of a gimmick) for facial and emotional recognition, by said robot.

I've no idea how said brain was supposed to be maintained (in a healthy functional state), within the robot... Brains famously take about 20% of a human's metabolic energy to sustain (compared to 2% of body mass) and need a very carefully controlled physiological state. But no mention of the hardware needed to provide for these needs. Similar with the human-like robots with human flesh exteriors - how is Med even getting her motive power? Some solar generating capability is mentioned, but that's a small fraction of what would be needed.

Presumably Paladin has an entire brain in there, too. Not just the visual cortex (and emotional regions). Supposedly we can interface seamlessly between that and the AI mind architecture, but not access the memories of the deceased person. Hence not give humans robotic immortality, boringly. And no brain gates or data connections for regular humans.

Plot wise, I was kind of disappointed that Paladin apparently chose to stay 'in love' with the male human agent (Eliasz) who had apparently implanted a mess of control programs to create these motivations in 'her' in the first place. Massively abusing his administrator rights over her mind and exploiting her initial inability to perceive or question such directives. I mean, he was an enthusiastically vicious antagonist throughout, too. But then she was programmed for such brutality too, against humans, anyway.

Eliasz's flashbacks fleshed out his personality, rending him as more morally ambiguous, contradictory. But still unlikable. And his ultimate decision not to shoot Jack felt unbelievable. Especially in the context of the forced cliche trope of a time constraint forced decision between doing that and 'helping' his robot paramour. When shooting would take but a moment and he'd seemingly felt nothing more than sociopathic righteousness with all his previous killings and vicious beatings.

One exchange between Threezed and Med (driving up to help Jack, towards the end) felt comically emotionally overblown in it's sudden emotionality. Like the book suddenly tuned David Lynch for a moment. The end felt a little rushed in it's writing, too - it seemed to favour more exposition about characters actions and thoughts than previously. Only mildly disappointing, at worst. So overall still a good read.




Sunday, 12 January 2020

"The Calculating Stars" & "The Fated Sky" by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review:

Two fairly short, well paced sci-fi novels that tell of an an alternate history branching from 1952, when the Eastern seaboard of the USA is hit by a large meteorite.



The story follows a female protagonist who is a scientist, 'computer' and ace pilot, as she, and her refreshingly supportive lead space engineer husband, face the trials and tribulations of fast tracking a space program to ensure against the consequences of this catastrophic event.

The first novel of this duology could stand entirely on its own, but I enjoyed it enough to buy into the continuation and be entirely please I read them both. Even though it's not the kind of hard sci-fi I'd generally go for. There's great technical adherence to the practical realities of spaceflight (and American life) in that era. But no attempt at predicting on technological or societal changes in our own future. And its not really a space opera in the usual sense.

In shines in its feminist tilt, looking at struggles against counterproductive sexism, and racism, in the space program setting. From the perspective of an unlikely heroine, who's main problem is crippling physiological anxiety stemming from physiological mistreatment by the male establishment. Rather than the rigours of spaceflight itself.

The main male characters are interesting constructions, too. The husband appears to be almost an idealised reference for how a feminist might specify best practice male behaviour (towards women). Perhaps a little artificial, but refreshingly non 'rough around the edges'/interestingly imperfect. I found their, more subtly written, physical romance scenes heartwarming.

The most interesting character arc is that of a more senior male antagonist. He's initially a somewhat 2D male chauvinist, borderline(?) rapist, who our protagonist is forced to deal with and get to know better, in halting steps forwards and back. Ultimately not ending up going quite where I expected.


Issues [Spoilers]:

It was a clever concept, to marry a thought experiment of pre-microprocessor spaceflight to a feminist protagonist/story - back in the 50s, most mathematical computation work was done by human 'computers', essentially grinding the numbers by hand. And this numerical drudgery was often (usually) done by women. So, when it's too early in the history of miniaturisation to take a sufficiently powerful electronic computer into space, it might not be unreasonable to need female astronauts on certain missions. Despite an unreasonable institutional aversion to it.

However, the axiomatic concept of pouring insane amounts of capital and resources into a massively more ambitious interplanetary colonisation effort, to save the human race from unstoppable meteorite driven global warming, is clearly not plausible.

(1) For a start, the main efforts of the space program take place in (central) USA, after it's main population centres and all Eastern ports, etc (up to 100 miles inland or more) have been obliterated. The economic impact would be civilisationally devastating. At any time. But especially when the US was still financing the restoration of the rest of the world, after WW2. At the least the US would be crippled worst than any war in its history. But we only see the effects of this devastation in human terms - of grieving and injured refugees (and racism in this context).

(2) Putting men on the moon over a decade early would likely be extremely costly, in terms of having failures for the sake of expediency, with so little time to figure entirely new things out. But vaguely plausible in terms of spaceflight. Less so the process of assembling spacious space stations and moon bases in only a couple years thereafter. Something that's entirely glossed over, between books.

That's orders of magnitude more mass to lift and from the extremely clumsy and dangerous spacewalk scenes, that we do see, there's no way big structures could be fabricated in situe. And no massive launch vehicles mentioned that might be capable of lifting pre-made structures. Anyone who's played Kerbal Space Program a fair bit should really appreciate the scale of these issues.

(3) In 2020, we'll definitely have the capability, very soon (via SpaceX), to put dozens of people on Mars. But any civilisation there is going to be utterly dependant upon Earth for supplies and about as capable of self sustaining as a 1 week old human zygote!

Our level of technological capability requires hundreds of millions of people in economically coordinated  activity, just to stay afloat. Tens of thousands of different, niche, technical roles are involved. To replicate that on another planet (before trans-human AI and robotics, etc) would require even more population, with massive overheads like needing a spacesuit to work outside, all accommodation being radiation hardened and making your own soil from scratch, etc.

With upcoming 3D printing technology, hydroponics, etc, etc, some of this become more tractable. But back before integrated circuits...? Just no.

(4) The "Earth First-ers" in the book are dead right. The novel's Mars colonisation hopes are temporary salvation for the 1%, at best (although there was massively less wealth inequality after WW2, when so much capital had been destroyed, resetting society through 96% plus upper tax rates, etc). And also a doomed effort, for any who did actually reach another planet.

Geo-engineering is always going to be the only option. Massive scale cloud seeding, etc. De-carbonising of energy supply would actually have been fairly viable too, via nuclear reactors, hydroelectic, etc (rather than solar PV). Maybe we'd have even seen an alternate history where thorium reactors dominated over the more costly, military oriented uranium type, out of necessity for better options. Although I don't *think* that anthropogenic global warming was really a blip on anyone's radar 7 decades ago. It's enough of a struggle, now...

Sunday, 23 June 2019

"Years and Years" - BBC's answer to Black Mirror?


If that's what it's meant to be, it's a very pale comparison. I found this 6 episode mini-series hard to watch, with ridiculously stilted writing. It takes a very non-subtle approach to futurism, with awkward exposition of technology and societal changes.

I'm not sure if these failings were primarily due to aiming at a broader, older, BBC audience, or just harsh budget and time limitations. Its pacing dragged and felt rushed, in turn; totally unbelievable character behaviour in the opening episodes was blatantly there to move us between plot points.

The artistic value was bargain basement, in terms of the repeated, cacophonous drum music theme, like a mangling of the BBC news beats designed to be absolutely certain that the viewer should to terrified of the future. The culmination of the first episode bringing that to a cringingly awful crescendo, with the central family shouting incoherently at each other cut with pound land apocalypse scenes of asylum seekers rioting, or something, around a bonfire.

Which brings us to the actual main topic of the show - (illegal) immigrants and xenophobia. "Years and Years" is essentially a family drama smashed into the depressing main-stream news reporting of the last few years, dramatised in a semi-sterile BBC fashion, and sprinkled with hard lumps of cliche transhumanist tropes.


If sci-fi is valuable (in my opinion) for preparing society for major changes to it's norms, this series seems determined to prepare the UK for Farage as prime minister, via an unsubtle female equivalent character. It could be argued as a cautionary tale, but I think that (like all his press coverage) it's as much softening the blow, familiarising us.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Game of Thrones - In Conclusion

The biggest show on TV ever...? Certainly a notable part of 2010's popular culture. The concluding season had a whole lot of viewer hopes and expectations riding on it and there was no way it wouldn't be sad for most to see an end to it, any which way things went down.

But winter did finally come and it delivered in terms of epic battles and convincing CGI dragons, recapturing the awesome feeling of seeing the Lanister troop caravan getting napalmed in the previous season. Each of the 6 episodes was a 75 minute film in it's own right; the best of television now truly drawn level, or even surpassing cinema, for my liking.

But yeah, of course the writing wasn't great, in terms of plot and dialogue. The show runners had been left the unenviable task of rounding off GRRM's epic fantasy garden of characters, with only rough notes from him about where he has been aiming to take things.

The natural expectation is that the original author will finish the book series properly. But it sounds likely there's a good chance he'll struggle just as much. if he ever gets there at all: GRRM describes himself as a 'gardener', merely tending the seeds of the characters he's planned. Giving them so much agency that he's struggled to get them where they need to go for the plot - Daenerys being waylaid in Meereen a symptom of this.

D&D certainly made substantial compromises to bring things to a deliberate ending. Even with many minor characters and huge elements of the world entirely ignored (like religion and the whole of Essos), season 8 still feels very rushed. Major turning points are so compressed as to be frustratingly unbelievable and stepping stones in key character development are skipped over, making the shape of their arc unrecognisable and actions unconvincing.

Writing quality as seasons progressed (popular meme).

I felt they could have done with about 2 additional series, in place of the last 3 episodes, to have everything make sense. I guess they felt this would have stretched their weak writing even thinner, viewer figures doping off as a result and hurting the appetite for the spin-off shows.

Having watched a few videos and read a few articles about the this last season, here's a regurgitation of their most salient points, mixed in with the biggest issues I had. Huge spoilers ahead, of course!

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Why the Thanos plot is dangerous in real life (Infinity War)

Review:

I liked the movie. It did a really great job of bringing together all the accumulated characters and story arcs in a meaningful and satisfying way. Great fight scenes. Implausibility only becoming physically painful in the scene with stellar re-ignition via elbow grease.

The movie's most notable success was subverting expectations by making the genocidal big-bad into an empathetic and rational protagonist. In fact, the central protagonist of the movie.



The problem:

Thanos' plan, through the whole Avengers timeline, is to wield the combined potency of all the 'infinity stones' to wipe out half the population of the universe in an instant.

His motivation for this is to save all civilisations from implosion via resource depletion, brought on by over-population. As happened to his home world, after he personally failed to convince them to randomly cull themselves.

It doesn't really matter that this is a stupid plot mechanism, in that...

(a) Caveman or medieval civilisations, elsewhere, aren't in any danger of exhausting planetary resources. Maybe we should assume he only culled human level, globalised civilisations. (But then also, what about the various, seemingly stable societies we see in Guardians and Thor?)

(b) Clearly a one-time cull is only going to delay the inevitable by a couple of generations (if it is inevitable).

... It's made to work in the movie. There is suspension of disbelief.

The dangerous part is that the only reason this plan is presented as undesirable is the killing itself. "Murder = evil" is such a universally evocative idea that no one can avoid making that the main counter-argument.

But that's not enough in reality, where the ends tend to justify the means: we have large, expensive organisations dedicated to making and utilising weapons to kill potential threats to our civilians and nations.

When we, as humans, feel our lives are threatened, we tend to acquiesce to amoral measures. In the last decade, nationalist xenophobia has been fuelled by increasing financial and physical hardships on individuals. (Not mattering that this is primarily from unrelated, rising wealth inequality.) This collective sentiment has already enabled callous right-wing/authoritarian politicians to implement horrible policies that would normally have been seen as too inhumane.

With further, deeper economic crashes seeming ever more pressing (in the West), the tale of woe so far could easily be eclipsed, in terms of increased suffering catalysing far further reaching humanitarian disasters, even war, etc.

Add to this ferment the popular notion of global over-population, with such bastions of scientific authority as Sir David Attenborough pushing discussion of the need for population reduction.

When bellies are empty and people are terrified, maybe a little genocide can slide, if it's helpful in the grand scheme of things...



Why it's wrong headed - because it won't work!:

Morality, even in the extreme, is malleable. Practicalities, not so much.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

"Avogadro Corp" by William Hertling

From the cover's tag line "The Singularity is closer than it appears" I expected this book would be a bit pat - aimed perfectly at my interests, as per this blog's focus. It certainly was very pat. Entirely straight forwards and linear in it's plot structure, with overly plain language and cardboard characters prone to converse in totally unrealistic exposition.

This book is basically a long form best guess at how a very early technological Singularity might be kicked off, via the accidental creation of AI. "Avogadro" would probably have read "Google" if not for the trademark issue - that is literally the company described, in every detail. As such the story is unimaginative. Yet it is still unbelievable in the amount of contrivances it throws in, to start the plot rolling.

The behaviour of characters is often uncanny, too - although this may be down to writing for brevity, without the author having the deft wordsmith skills of the likes of Charles Stross (let alone Banks).

To be fair, it was easy reading, for me, with short chapters and good pacing - I actually finished it (first one this year!). I'm considering going forwards onto his sequels, except the first chapter excerpt name drops both "Gibson" and "Stross" (as future phone handset models). Ick; clearly the author's influences are near perfectly aligned with my own, here, but his hat  tips are ugly AF.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Great sci-fi TV: "The Expanse" and "Altered Carbon"

I thought it would make a change of pace to break my run of rant reviews on bad/terrible sci-fi (despite having a couple more of those in hand *cough* "Lost in Space" *cough*). These two shows were great entertainment and gave me hope of more to come!

The Expanse - Season 3:

I really wasn't very fussed about the previous season of The Expanse (be the my own fault or bad pacing or direction on their part, I'm not sure). But this one was a joy to watch, even more so than I remember of S1. So I'm actually really glad that Amazon are picking it up after SyFy cancelled it.

The first half of S3 was very compelling and rolled along so smoothly, wrapping up all the character threads and solar political tensions from S2 very satisfyingly, it was pretty much perfect. Then rebounding into a new chapter (presumably a different book of source material) for the second half.

This felt a little more rushed and rough in places, but the plot finally graduated from pure solar system politics to grander scale space opera, albeit with those 3 established factions (and characters) along for the ride. Thematic echos of Clarke's later "2001" series novels (with dead character(s) re-incarnated as tool in a mysterious alien artefact), Reynold's "Revelation Space" (in the tense run up to the encounter inside the 'station') and maybe Baxter's "Raft", at a push (modified physical limits in a pocket universe).

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Two mediocre new anime series: "A.I.C.O. Incarnation" and "B - The Beginning"

I watched these simultaneously on Netflix, an episode of each a day, narrowly avoiding getting too bored of either to continue. So I thought I throw them together in a blog review, seeing as neither is quite worth a whole post.

Don't get me wrong, both have some unique styling and appeal. But A.I.C.O. was overly strung out -  if you find it's outro-sequence dull, then don't expect to be riveted by the pace and direction the remaining episodes. While both were less clever than they wanted to be.


A.I.C.O. Incarnation [Spoilers]:

It wins points for having a female lead, for a change, instead of the usual generic young male foil. But she's horrendously demure and half soaked. Plus, there's an utterly excessive amount of sharp intakes of breath from the voice acting: So much shock, so many little embarrassments, so STOP! PLEASE!


The "burst" concept has a cool ring of singularity (or the "spike" in Quantum Thief trilogy). And this has a cool opening sequence, with retrieval agents in trim spacesuits that utilise roller blades for nippy traversal of a futuristic built environment, apparently overrun by Tetsuo's overgrown arm (my little Akira reference, there). The upright palanquin style APCs with two wheeled legs are chic, as is the bigger tank. But these elements all get terribly overused, as the episodes grind their way linearly up the river of nano-engineered flesh run awry.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Why Ghost in the Shell 2017 was terrible

I was a big fan of the 1995 movie and two anime series (Stand Alone Complex), and I previously made a whole big post speculating about the casting for the major in this live action version. I had my concerns for putting Scarlet in the roll, but was somewhat hopeful. However, the issues ending up being more all-encompassing than these...

The movie aped as many superficial elements as possible, names and visuals, from the previous works, to collage a compelling trailer for fans. But it ended up just parading them around somewhat like a psychopathic stalker in the clothes of your significant other (having kidnapped you both), expecting you to love them.

None of the meaning carried over, just generic Hollywood twaddle underneath. The original movies and series were all about complex, subtle thinky material. Not female Robocop - to which it was much closer to that in substance.

The major's characterisation was totally antithetical - from being an impossibly strong, stoic, super-intelligent woman, so much so in the 1995 movie that it's ambiguous as to weather she may be entirely artificial. To this 2017 version where she's an emotional murder machine, socially isolated, with no real agency, who just tumbles along as a victim, rather than always being step ahead of everyone else.

Also, in the original her origin story is important. Important for always being mysterious and barley ever alluded too, building her mystique (explored more in the 2nd Gig, although never entirely explicit). Whereas in this movie we see Johanson's clearly biological brain, in the opening shot.


Thursday, 24 May 2018

"Ascension" [2014]

This mini-series starts out somewhat like "Twin Peaks" [1990] on a generation ship in space: a revered dead girl, with a dark secret and mystical overtones.

There's problematic child acting and an exploitation of Cylon lady's apparently nudity contract. But it was the sheer unbelievably of the setting which almost stopped me at the first episode. (But I was bored and struggling for Netflix inspiration.)

To imagine that a 600 soul ship, complete with farm animals, was launched into deep space concurrently with the first moon missions is orders of magnitude more ridiculous than conspiracy theories denying the landings.

Putting that much mass into orbit would take hundreds of Elon's BFRs (so still decades away), before you even figure out a means of propulsion that has apparently given them 1g acceleration 'gravity' for 50 years... (We're no where near even theoretical solution for that, to this day.)


But there's a twist, come episode 2 that turns all that on it's head, and makes the show even dumber...
[Spoilers below.]


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

UK Election 2017 - Why we need Corbyn's Labour (but won't get it)


Blog Post Contexts Index:

➤ Setting the Scene

...WHY CORBYN'S LABOUR NEEDS TO WIN:
➤ Inequality
➤ Xenophobia
➤ Economic stimulus
➤ Housing
➤ Shift focus towards environmental issues
➤ Stabilising financial markets
➤ Towards a Universal Basic Income (UBI)
➤ Positive Money (creation)
➤ Brexit
➤ Voting Conservative doesn't even benefit *anyone's* financial self interest
➤ Ill gotten gains
➤ Ironic hypocrisy
➤ The UK's Sanders
➤ Gentler kinder politics
➤ Think of the children
➤ Life or death (or exacerbated disability)
➤ Terrorist Attacks
➤ "1984" isn't an instruction manual!

WHY CORBYN WON'T WIN:
➤ Not enough time!
➤ Biased press (the right wing legacy filter bubble)
➤ Memetics
➤ Thought free
➤ Personal appearances
➤ Lies and dirty tricks
➤ Censorship
➤ Gagging
➤ Gerrymandering
➤ Voter suppression
➤ Non-voters (in general)
➤ Party funding
➤ Dark money
➤ Dark ads and big data (I.e. the Facebook factor)
➤ Polls
➤ Committed to the big lie
➤ Terrorism
➤ Rained off
➤ Not mentioned, but not overlooked

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT (SPECULATION):
➤ Tory majority
➤ Hung parliament

➤ Setting the Scene:

I've never voted Labour. Historically I have decried the traditional right vs left (Conservative vs Socialist) tug of war, in UK politics. It has ignored the liberal axis of debate - the need to protect the individual, our liberties (which have been ignored or actively trampled) and democracy itself. Hence railing for the Liberal Democrats in many previous elections (including back in 2010). But our politics has drifted so dangerously far to the right, now, that I feel a sizeable socialist swing is currently what's most desperately needed.

Also, the national Lib Dem party currently still resembles a smoking crater in the ground, having (unfairly) received all the blame and none of the credit for 5 years of relatively stable, but austere, government in coalition with  the dominant Tories. While the Greens (for whom I voted in 2015), are in no position to swing things (due to our hopeless electoral system), resorting to valiant tactical efforts, stepping aside to support other progressive parties, regardless.

Condensed summary of the Labour manifesto (by @LabourEoin, also here). 

Under Ed Miliband's lukewarm leadership in the 2015 election, the Labour manifesto promised an uninspiring flavour of austerity-lite, having been painted into a corner by our right-wing press and their pet government's dominant (though bogus) 'paying off the national credit card' narrative.

Thankfully, this time, there's a very stark difference between team red and blue. Labour finally crawling out from the shadow of Thatcherism, after the pleasantly surprising result of their internal leadership election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. It was pretty miraculous, given the many interventions from high profile 'Blairite' party members (and the media), branding him as unelectable. Who were bizarrely proposing that the party failed to prevent David Cameron's Tories gaining a full majority due to Labour not being 'centrist' enough.

The 2 years since has seen almost non-stop infighting, with the legacy 'New Labour' guard, refusing to back their new leader, attempting a coop and forcing a second leadership election that Corbyn subsequently won, again, with a large majority of votes. This, despite internal manoeuvres aiming to shut out his ground swell of supports from voting (by banning new members from recent months and, perversely, levying a new fee).

This mirrored the frustratingly outrageous shenanigans in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, within the democratic party, when Bernie Sanders was stupidly shut out of the running by the party establishment in favour Hillary Clinton. Despite him polling far better against Trump. Of course this lead to the death of real hope (for me anyway) and, of course, the disastrous result.

So anyway, we're very lucky to have a candidate, here, who seems prepared to genuinely push back against some of the worst excesses of the neo-liberal consensus. Although, years of devastating press bias against him, fuelled by suicidal party infighting, means he has started from a massive disadvantage. But with Labour having shrunk the Tory's 25 percentage point head-start, in the polls, down to (perhaps) as little as 3%, there is now arguably hope for change. And this is...

...WHY CORBYN'S LABOUR NEEDS TO WIN:

➤ Inequality:

Despite the global 'occupy' protests of 2011 being a distant memory, wealth inequality has only worsened here since. Ongoing cuts and pay freezes have held the majority back, while quantitative easing (QE) has pumped huge amounts of money upwards, inflating the assets of the already wealthy. (In addition to the usual factors still ticking along.)

In 2015 Greece's radical left alliance, the 'Syriza' government, bravely attempted to battle the brutally crushing austerity handed down to them by the EU (ultimately capitulating), as their central banks effectively laundered the Eurozone debts through the country. I blogged at length about this, siting the writings of Yanis Varoufakis, and tying in many other aspects of global macro-economics, finance, debt, etc.

Must of the Western world seems to have, in fact, exacerbated inequality, rather than redressing it. Obama's initially hopeful stimulus went some distance, but he was thoroughly shut down by endless dirty tricks by the Republican dominated congress for the rest of his 6 years.


➤ Xenophobia:

I think the rise of right-wing, anti-immigration sentiment (that fuelled Brexit, for example) is a direct result of this economic squeeze on the population's living standards. At risk of being overly reductive, I imagine this link stemming from an evolutionary instinct for tribes of hunter-gathers to disperse into smaller groups when the pickings are lean (ensuring that at least some survive).

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Black Mirror - Season 3 - Episode Reviews and Discussion

I really like Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror anthologies. It seems exceptionally rare to get high concept sci-fi TV shows these days (good old Star Trek and X-Files long gone). Sure, the sci-fi setting is the Hollywood big budget movie genre default, but those are entirely different beasts: all explosions, or at least relatively little risk in terms of imagination. While space sci-fi TV series are generally quite campy, fairly low concept or very strung out with filler.

Series 3 has been up exclusively on Netflix since 21 Oct 2016.
All the Black Mirror episodes are near future fiction, explicitly examining technologies that might well soon exist and how that could change societal realities. So are generally 'hard sci-fi'. Many can also be taken as commentary on present day phenomena, particularly social media, examining our new normals via the safety of satire. As such I consider the show to be really valuable for potentially catalysing public discourse and personal comprehension of our rapidly changing world.

So I'm gratified that the show has been a success. In fact the performance of the first 2 series on Netflix was so good it convinced the new (self styled) global TV channel/network to steal the show entirely away from it's Channel 4 home (in the UK), commissioning this new season as one of their first directly funded projects.

This season perhaps wasn't quite plumb the depths of distaste or bleakness previously achieved. There episodes range greatly in overall mood, as well as themes. Humor also sometimes interjected with the grim. So overall very entertaining.

Episodic breakdowns below: me opinions and discussion on themes and related issues, with some spoilers further through...


Episode 1 - "Nosedive"

In 2016 we already quantify how much we like everything online. Amazon and Ebay sellers don't make sales unless they the top ranked seller, so they plead for customer reviews and quirm painfully under any non 5-star feedback. We seek approval from others on social media, or at least measure the worth of our creative output by how many likes, +1s, or upvotes it gets. The prestige alone is very motivating. But then we've long had more substantial metrics attached to our person: credit worthiness ratings, and the biggest one of all - bank balance.

So it shouldn't take much imagination to consider the marginal step in technology and society that would create a reality where everyone has a rating floating next to them in augmented reality, such that one need not even evaluate their physical appearance, accent, etc, to get a precise read on their place in society. Then why not have these rankings determined by each other? After all it should encourage and reward being an upstanding member of society...

This piece explores some downsides of that hypothetical development, while lampooning familiar idiosyncrasies of our current time. Like sharing photos of carefully presented, supposedly casual little meals, with twee tag lines. The millions who follow the fake, staged, perfect life styles portrayed by Instagram gurus.
"You have got a solid popularity arc here..." - Screenshot montage.
But really, it stays quite safe, offsetting the dystopian nightmare of this menace by sticking with a surreally clean, modernist, pastel coloured theme throughout. The walled off area guarded by private police, accessible only to high rated individuals (seen towards the end), is a little nod to how dark our present already is. Arguably worst, with the great popularity of gated communities (for example, in the US); society is divided broadly by race and neighbourhood of upbringing.

The story arc spells out how easy it might be to lose this sci-fi social ranking, with little hiccups easily magnified and snowballing into potential disaster. The impossible difficulty of climbing back up only gently referencing our horrendous problems with low and falling social mobility - unprivileged virtually doomed from birth.