Tuesday, 10 January 2023

The Evil of Choosing Among Lessers

This blog post is a part of the Hugo Book Club Blog’s cinema club, which has been working its way year by year through all the Hugo-finalist movies and television episodes

In the early 1970s, NBC executive Paul L. Klein explained how the major networks created television programming. The then-dominant Big Three American networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) believed that people didn’t watch specific programs, they watched television, and therefore the successful strategy was not to make high-quality shows, but rather to make the shows that would cause the fewest viewers to change the channel.
The L.O.P. model of entertainment incentivizes
corporations to produce banal and derivative
television series that provide little intellectual heft.
(Image via TV Tropes)

Viewers aren’t choosing the show they like, Klein said. They’re choosing to watch television, and selecting the least-objectionable option. It was a strategy that introduced television viewers to the evil of choosing among lessers, if you will.

He called this the “least-objectionable programming” (L.O.P.) theory, and it’s a view of mass media that dominated the television landscape for several decades (from roughly 1958 to 1992), and continues to inform the choices made by media executives.

As our cinema club has been working its way through Hugo-finalist television shows from the heyday of L.O.P., there’s often been uncomfortable parallels between the trends that led to Holmes & Yo Yo, and the direction that our present-day streaming services are going.

In fact, the legacy of L.O.P. can be seen today and is essential to understanding why certain shows get canceled, why others continue to be produced, and what to expect in the coming decades.

Many in the media have expressed confusion in the past week over Netflix’ decision to cancel German science fiction series 1899 after only eight episodes, despite generally positive critical reviews and reportedly high viewership numbers. The decision has been pointed to as emblematic of the streamer’s habit of canceling shows after only one season, and described as part of their growing graveyard of unfinished stories and a slash-and-burn approach to TV making.
The show 1899 inspired passion in fans,
but confused others. Under the completion
rate-driven paradigm Netflix is pursuing,
mediocre but unchallenging is preferable
to that which might be great. 
(Image via Netflix.)

Because it got out of the gate first, and therefore is the biggest player in the streaming landscape in terms of subscriber numbers, Netflix has an incentive first and foremost to keep people just engaged enough not to stop watching — which is a very different task than convincing people to sign up in the first place.

This incentive manifests itself as a focus on completion rates. What Netflix doesn’t want is a front-page show that people turn on, then decide they don’t want to watch anymore. The Midnight Club was one of the top shows on this streamer, racking up more than 90 million hours viewed when it debuted in October. The Mike Flanagan YA horror was praised by critics, but reportedly had a completion rate of just above 34 per cent, meaning that 65 per cent of viewers decided they had better things to do than watch the ending. The aim is to persuade people not to change the channel, which makes unobjectionable programming a top priority for Netflix.

L.O.P. is still alive and well at Netflix. This can be seen in their approach to colour grading and to cinematography. The streamer maintains a house style of editing that appears to be designed not to challenge viewers; there’s a flat and depthless feel based on their rigid rules for camera specifications. If you fall asleep watching the Netflix movie Adam Project, and wake up watching Red Notice, you might not notice that it’s a different movie. The cinematic language is always easy to parse: establishing shot followed by over-the-shoulder back and forths for dialogue. It’s all very comfortable, and makes it easy to go from one fungible Netflix Movie to the next without stopping between. This is a remarkably similar phenomenon to NBC’s TV shows of the 1970s, which recycled the same action beats, the same framing, and even the same typefaces. The L.O.P. model relies on fungibility. This makes a vast swath of Netflix content ideal for a demographic that doesn't care what they're watching.

This wasn’t always the case for Netflix; back when it was the scrappy upstart competing against legacy television, the streamer swung for the fences, took risks, and created some content of enduring value. But sometime around 2018 Netflix reinvented L.O.P. from first principles. And it makes sense for them in the short term; the financially comfortable court complacency when there’s a reward in stasis.

In the 1980s, the death grip that L.O.P. had on television networks started to be eroded by emerging technologies like pay-per-view and narrow-cast cable networks. Ironically, Paul L. Klein was instrumental in launching both. The Cambrian Explosion of television that followed produced new forms as well; the appointment viewing prestige channel; the direct marketing machine; the niche interest network. Each of these upended the assumptions of L.O.P., and the resulting market habitats can still be seen today.
From his cynical view of TV
viewers, it should be no surprise
that Paul L. Klein was also
a racist purveyor of fascist porn.
(Image via Twitter)

Now, before we talk about how each streamer is different, we should note the obvious: Neither Netflix,nor Paramount+, nor Apple+, nor Amazon Prime, nor HBO Max is your friend. They are each appendages of multinational corporations whose agendas are only to make profit for shareholders. If any of these corporations could boost their margins by a fraction of a per cent by paying Hunter Moore and Andrew Tate to direct pornographic snuff films, they would do so without thinking twice.

The most obvious counterexample to the L.O.P. model of television is HBO, the pay network whose service model from 1992 onwards was to focus on a few anchor shows that drew in viewers. The content didn’t need to appeal to every viewer, and could be objectionable to many, as long as it was something that drew in a sufficient number of paid subscribers. We would wager that if they had launched on HBO Max in 2020, 1899 would have received a second season, while Emily In Paris would have been quickly forgotten. Until recently, the appointment viewing service model governed HBO’s approach to streaming, though with the chaos that has engulfed Warner Media over the past six months the approach they take now remains to be seen.

But the product differentiation that governed narrow-interest cable networks like SYFY, Legend, and Nick, is fundamentally different from both the L.O.P. or Appointment Viewing approach. Narrow-interest networks create products that are designed to check boxes; not necessarily to avoid offending, nor to cause water cooler conversations, but rather to fulfill a mandate. Obviously, Shudder and Crunchyroll are among the most prominent examples of this corporate entertainment paradigm in the streaming landscape of 2023.

There are two final models of streaming service to talk about, both of which are deeply problematic.

Jeff Bezos knows which scenes from The Boys
that viewers pause on for long periods of time,
so don’t be surprised if you get targeted ads
selling you farm-fresh milk.
(Image screen captured from Amazon Prime)
The first is video entertainment as a tool for data mining; the notable example of this is Amazon Prime, which in some ways operates as a loss-leader. The television service doesn’t actually turn a profit, but rather incentivizes consumers to sign up to Amazon’s free shipping program and consequently (hopefully) order more from the online retailer. But more insidiously, the retail giant is able to create more and more accurate profiles of its streaming service users by recording the details of what they watch, how much they watch, and when they stop. We would suggest that one of the key reasons that Prime has shows geared to as wildly different political constituencies as The Boys and The Handmaid’s Tale is as part of a subtle psychological testing experiment. The Venn Diagram of people who watch Reacher and Ms. Maisel has little overlap; and now their algorithms know which data bucket you fall into.

The final model of streaming service may seem the most innocuous, but it’s the one that causes us the most concern: Identity as a subscription service. This model is typified by Disney+ and by Paramount+, and is fairly obvious in the ways in which they’ve built their content libraries around specific, organized media-franchise fandoms. There’s no ‘anchor show’ for either of these streamers, but rather an identity as a fan that one is subscribing to. It is difficult to be a “true Star Wars fan,” without paying an $11.99 monthly fee to Disney+ to be a part of that fandom. Likewise, it is difficult to be a “true Star Trek fan” without paying $9.99 to Paramount+ each month.

While individual shows on these services might come and go, these services are among the most likely to appear rational in their choices to an outside observer, and they are unlikely ever to abandon any of their cash-cow multimedia properties. Expect intellectually low-risk offerings that don’t rock the boat, and don’t threaten the long-term value of the IP owners or shareholders.
Noted anti-union activist
Walt Disney has a
problematic legacy of
promoting patriarchy. 
(Image via USA Today)

Self-identity as a key selling point of a subscription service may not seem like a problem, but it’s relatively easy to imagine a scenario in which a major streaming service leans into culture war divisions in an attempt to build a walled-garden identity streamer that appeals to the increasingly extreme right wing political identity. Given the company’s long history of encouraging heteronormativity and white supremacy, one would suspect that Disney+ is the likeliest streamer to follow the Fox News organizational radicalization highway. The consequences of this to the broader culture could be disastrous.

When discussing the purveyors of video entertainment, viewers and critics should always ask what each company is selling, how they are selling it, and to whom they are selling. The answers to these questions are vital for understanding the current media landscape, the future of streaming, and consequently the future of culture.

Sunday, 8 January 2023

God Never Talks. But the Devil Keeps Advertising. — Hugo Cinema 1974

This blog post is the seventeenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

If you looked only at the Hugo shortlist for 1974, you might be excused for assuming that it was just a bad year for screen science fiction and fantasy. But there were, in fact, excellent movies and even television shows to be found. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation had missed the mark before, but never this substantially.

Rather than dwell on the uninspiring shortlist, the frankly abysmal winner, or the at-best controversial celebrity who created it, let’s start by talking about the works that deserved to be celebrated instead.
The Exorcist is an iconic and enduring movie, but
somehow was not honoured by the Hugo Awards.
(Image via Bloody Disgusting.)

For starters, the absence of The Exorcist on the 1974 Hugo ballot for best dramatic presentation is one of the most glaring omissions in the history of the award.

Reportedly, viewers fainted in the cinema and experienced nightmares for weeks after. To this day, it routinely tops lists of the greatest horror movies ever made. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, The Exorcist won two Oscars including Best Screenplay. It was the highest-grossing movie of the year.

And considering that Rosemary’s Baby had earned a Hugo nomination just five years previously, it was obviously clear to WSFS members that supernatural horror movies were eligible for the award.

But … it appears not to have been well liked by fandom at the time. Writing in the WSFA Journal, Richard Delap describes it as a “shallow, poorly-written jumble of religious assertions and flaky characters.” Writing his own review a few months later in Son of the WSFA Journal, Don Miller was dismissive of the movie, suggesting that despite the hype, it would be quickly forgotten.

But for those of us watching The Exorcist with 50 years of hindsight, the movie holds up remarkably well — and better than most of its contemporaries. We can see why this movie was instantly hailed by most in the mainstream press as a classic. It straddles the line between high-art and pulp entertainment, combining superb filmmaking with well-paced dialogue and narrative momentum. The Exorcist stands out among supernatural horror by playing with the boundary between what is known and what is unknowable. From the perspective of science fiction and fantasy fandom, a surprising amount of the movie involves characters attempting to solve the problem scientifically before they turn to a supernatural solution.

We would suggest that the early dismissiveness that many in fandom had towards The Exorcist shows some of the difficulties of providing quick assessments of the enduring value of art. Or maybe the film just made them uncomfortable.

Don't Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg,
is an unsettling movie that remains a classic of
supernatural horror. 
(Image via The New Yorker)
Another horror-fantasy that would have been a creditable Hugo finalist is Don’t Look Now, a subtle and carefully constructed British ghost story based on a novelette by The Birds author Daphne du Maurier. The movie follows a couple after the accidental death of their daughter, as they start to explore supernatural options to regain contact with her. Director Nicolas Roeg approaches the subject with a Kubrickian attention to detail, alluding to themes and portents with carefully constructed visual elements. Interestingly, writing in the fanzine Starling in early 1974, Jim Turner highlighted the quality of Don’t Look Now, and noted that the movie was Hugo-eligible.

George Romero’s The Crazies received some attention from contemporaneous fanzines, with Christopher Fowler writing in Vector that it might make a credible Hugo finalist. Using the premise of a biological weapon being accidentally unleashed in an American small town, The Crazies paints a picture of organizational dysfunction and of government incompetence. It is worth noting that this is one of the few movies of the era to cast a BIPOC actor in a role of authority, with Lloyd Hollar playing Colonel Peckham, one of the few competent government officials trying to keep the disease contained. In the decades since its release, it has become a cult classic, and has been interpreted by libertarians as a condemnation of big government, and interpreted by leftists as a takedown of right-wing military thinking. It’s a rich text that continues to inspire conversations, but was overlooked.

Imagine if The Matrix had
been made in Germany during
the 1970s by an art-house genius,
that's World On A Wire.
(Image via Criterion)
Though any foreign-language movie is always unlikely to make the Hugo ballot, World On A Wire (AKA Welt am Draht) needs to be highlighted as an option, as it is possibly the first depiction of virtual reality in screen science fiction. A German-television adaptation of Daniel F. Galoye’s book Simulacron-3, the show follows a scientist who takes over a computing project after the mysterious death of his boss. As it turns out, the project is a simulation of the real world used for market research, and within the simulation, there are thousands of artificial intelligences who think they are in the real world. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this might be the best-looking television production of the decade, stylish, moody, and thoughtful. Although slow at points, this philosophical masterpiece would have topped the Hugo ballot for at least one member of our viewing group.

French animated sci-fi fantasy Fantastic Planet (AKA La Planète sauvage) received some discussion in that year’s fanzines, and would have been a worthy contender for the Hugo. An epic parable about colonization and the rights of sentient beings, the movie depicts humanity being enslaved by giant aliens who keep us as pets. It’s an odd and beautiful movie at times, because of the animation, with the visuals serving to hammer home the horrific nature of being treated as less than human. Similarly, The Belladonna of Sadness, a Japanese animated movie about a woman who makes a pact with the devil to enact revenge against men who assaulted her, uses innovative artwork to underscore the inhumanity of the villains. These have both stood the test of time far better than anything that actually made the ballot.

We might also highlight Alejandro Jodorowski’s sophomore effort The Holy Mountain, which was released in 1973, and would have been eligible for the Hugo. The surreal and poetically weird movie presents a parable about searching for meaning, and about the sins of humanity. The protagonist — who is either a thief or Jesus — must team up with human avatars of the planets of the solar system to journey to the top of a mountain in order to replace the magicians who live at the summit. It’s at turns self-indulgent and thoughtful, philosophical and crass, entertaining and ponderous, and is one of the high points of 1970s cinema overall.

Playful, beautiful, kaleidoscopic, The Holy
 plays with the sacred and the profane.
One of the high points of 1970s cinema.
(Image via IMDB.com)
So given all these excellent options in terms of science fiction and fantasy on screen, what did make the ballot? Soylent Green, Sleeper, Westworld, Genesis II, and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Of these, only Soylent Green would have ranked slightly above ‘No Award’ for us. Though it has lines that are often quoted today, this adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room did not age as well as many other movies. There are some scenes that work; in particular the suicide machine, and the depiction of fresh fruit as something extraordinary. But more often than not, this movie fails. The sexism is pervasive, and stands out even among the contemporaneous movies we have watched. Live-in prostitutes are referred to as ‘furniture,’ and almost every female character is treated as little more than a sex object. Although the premise of a society that treats women as ‘furniture’ could have been a satire of real-world sexism, director Richard Fleischer seems unable to bring a critical lens to the behaviour. Even contemporaneous (and cis-male) critics found the sexism of Soylent Green objectionable — In the WSFA Journal, Richard Delap noted the uncritical and misogynist depiction of prostitution in a scathing review and concluded “It’s easy to complain about a film that aborts the fine material on which it was based; but Soylent Green is much worse than that.” 

Given that the movie Westworld — written and directed by Michael Chrichton — would go on to spawn a sequel and two television series, it clearly connected with audiences. With a great premise — an amusement park filled with robots that descends into chaos — this could have been a first-rate film. But it quickly devolves into a monster movie as robot Yul Brenner tries to kill the two protagonists. It’s light on dialogue, light on character, and mostly pretty wooden in direction. Some contemporaneous fans agreed; “The good moments are much too infrequent, and the remainder much too trite. Any SF fan is bound to be saddened to see such workable potential by bad editing to throw-away trivia.” Richard Delap wrote in the WSFS Journal. The narrative premise would be better implemented forty years later in an HBO adaptation, which deserved a Hugo nod far more than the original.
The Belladonna of Sadness is a weird, problematic
movie with some incredible artwork and themes.
Those planning to watch it should probably read
this essay from The Anime Feminist, which 
highlights both the movie's strengths and 
flaws. (Image via Anime Feminist).

Genesis II, one in a long line of Gene Roddenberry failed pilot episodes, is a jumbled mess of a show about Dylan Hunt, a scientist from the present who is frozen in time and wakes up in 2133. Finding himself in a post-apocalyptic world, Hunt joins up with pacifist scientists and fights against evil mutants. Laden with excessive narration, weak characters, and ethnic stereotypes, there’s little to recommend Genesis II. One can only suspect that leftover goodwill from Star Trek earned Roddenberry this Hugo nomination.

Conversely, The Six Million Dollar Man pilot episode did get picked up to series, going on to last five seasons, a spin-off series, and several TV movies. The character of Steve Austin, introduced in this Hugo-finalist TV movie, would grace screens for more than two decades and produce several excellent outings (The Seven Million Dollar Man and Death Probe come to mind.) But the pilot episode is clunky at best; there’s little narrative arc for the first two thirds of the episode, and the terrorism plot seems tacked on. The nominated episode is simply not Hugo worthy.

Woody Allen’s listless, puerile, Hugo-winning comedy Sleeper is self-indulgent to the point of onanism. Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a jazz clarinetist who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up 200 years later in a Brave New World-style dystopia. (To be clear, this is not an Orwellian dictatorship, but rather one that controls people through hedonism.) After various pratfalls and masturbation jokes, Miller is then caught up in a revolution to overthrow the oppressive society. It’s a fairly banal science fiction story whose plot is often twisted out of shape just to force one more joke about self-pleasure into the script. The movie still has fans today, but to us, most of the slapstick jokes fell relatively flat — though your mileage may vary. In retrospect, and in light of Allen’s later conduct, we feel deeply uncomfortable with him being honoured with a Hugo.

It is a shame — but not surprising — that in a year that offered cinema with such strong themes of rejection of authority, female empowerment and social activism, the Hugos went with some of the whitest, most regressive picks available. All-too-often, nerd culture has reproduced the exclusionary aspects of mainstream culture, and such was the case with the 1974 Hugos.

Having now watched almost two decades worth of Hugo-eligible movies and television, it’s clear that the Best Dramatic Presentation category has a poor track record of selecting works that would enjoy enduring value. But even by those standards, the 1974 shortlist is a low point. It is particularly galling considering the quality of cinematic and televised SFF that was available to viewers in the preceding year. The Exorcist should have won, and for it to be denied even a nomination must have been a bad look for the award itself, even in 1974.

Saturday, 31 December 2022

Anthropocene Ruminations

In 1933, Lawrence Manning — the first great Canadian science fiction author — wrote The Man Who Awoke. From the perspective of historians thousands of years in the future, the novel describes our present day as the ‘age of waste’ and paints a picture of a climate irreversibly damaged by human activity.

It could be argued that this is the beginning of climate fiction — of cli-fi — as a recognizable subgenre. Interestingly, the novel predates the scientific discovery of climate change by almost five years.
Guy Stewart Callendar was the first
scientist to show that the planet
was warming due to increasing
atmospheric CO2 levels.
(Image via Wikipedia.) 

It’s a subgenre that has produced lasting classics like Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, biting satires like Ben Elton’s This Other Eden, pulpy action thrillers like Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp, cyberpunk adventures like Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Climate change is all around us, in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink … so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it’s also in almost every book we read.

This autumn, we had the opportunity to work with artists and creators who volunteered their time and effort to look at a few different facets of climate change fiction for an issue of Journey Planet we guest edited. We called it Anthropocene Ruminations, and we hope you will check it out

This is our small contribution to the broader discussion of cli-fi. 

There’s so much more to say, and so many voices we’d urge you to consider. Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland’s anthology Sunvault. Arizona State University’s anthology Everything Change.

Although climate change was primarily caused by the people and corporations of the industrialized West, many of its worst impacts are being perpetrated against people in the Global South. This is a global problem, and we must therefore seek a global understanding of it by reading works from non-Western perspectives. Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Zelda Knight’s recent anthology Africa Risen includes some excellent cli-fi.

Climate change is the defining crisis of our time, and we’d suggest that cli-fi is the defining subgenre.

Tuesday, 13 December 2022

The Tentacle of Empathy

One of the most interesting evolutions within science fiction over the past two decades has been the ways in which non-human consciousnesses are depicted.

(image via Hachette UK)
From the dawn of the genre, there has been a commendable attempt by many authors to expand the definition of what beings are worthy of human-level rights. However, in earlier decades many have struggled to imagine something truly alien; Klingon, Wookie, Kzinti, Gallifreyan, and Melmacian are all only differentiated from humans by body shape and culture. Even the supposedly ancient and unknowable Vorlons of Babylon 5 and the omniscient and omnipotent Q of Star Trek seem to be governed by human emotions such as arrogance, wrath, and loneliness.

We would suggest that over the past quarter century, an increasing societal understanding of neurodiversity has been reflected in science fiction. Starting in the 1990s, the autistic self-advocacy movement (and the associated neurodiversity movement) have helped destigmatize behaviours and problem-solving practices often associated with those who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. In essence, this is broadening our understanding of the human experience, and thus promotes human dignity writ large. There is a line that could be drawn between the autistic self-advocacy movement and the broadly positive depiction of non-normative cognition among the Tines and the Focused in Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought novels, and the Portids and the Corvids of Adrian Tchiakovsky’s Children of Time books. In essence, science fiction has paralleled the neurodiverse movement in destigmatizing diverse cognition thanks to a small cadre of authors who have been making an effort to get into the heads of intelects that are alien to their own. Whether doing so was intentional or not, it has value, as showing the richness of different forms of cognition helps build empathy.

Ray Nayler’s debut novel The Mountain and the Sea, which hit shelves on October 4, puts this tradition into focus.

Set in the near future, the book weaves between the viewpoints of several characters who are each in their own ways tentatively and clumsily reaching towards a slippery understanding of the role compassion might play in their lives. It’s about trying to grasp a writhing and elusive tentacle of empathy.

The two primary narrative threads follow Dr. Ha Nyugen, a marine biologist making discoveries into the cognition and social behaviours of a newly-discovered species of octopus living near a remote island of Con Dao; and Eiko, an aspiring businessman who is enslaved on an automated fishing vessel.

These interspersed stories act as an emotional yin and yang within the book. Despite Eiko’s tale being one of despair and exploitation and Nyugen’s driven by the hope for discovery, both characters are forced to examine why their lives are lacking and, thus, both narrative threads share fundamentally similar emotional themes.

Eiko’s kidnapping and enslavement is
not fantasy, but rather a reflection
of real-world practices.
We’d recommend Ian Urbina’s
New York Times article series
The Outlaw Ocean, which has
photos from Times
photo editor Adam Dean.
(Image via New York Times.)
Drugged and kidnapped shortly before starting his first, coveted, job out of university, Eiko finds himself trapped on a fishing vessel in the middle of the Pacific ocean, forced to process fish carcasses for mind-numbing hours of back-breaking unpaid labour. This is a bleak setting, in which we slowly learn that there are hundreds of such vessels strip mining the oceans, extirpating all saleable life in the pursuit of short-term profits. Eiko’s personal voyage is mostly in his head, as he begins to analyze the role he had previously intended to play in this exploitative system, and with deliberate effort tries to teach himself empathy in the harshest of conditions. We particularly enjoyed the depiction of solidarity-based organizing among enslaved workers. Nayler explores both the ways in which technology insulates capitalists from the victims of their exploitation, and the ways in which workers are often forced into compliance through inhuman systems. Although Eiko’s chapters are some of the strongest and most affecting content of the novel, they might have been too emotionally exhausting for many readers, if the book hadn’t also been enriched by Nguyen’s story arc.

Her chapters follow a dogged attempt to bridge the gap in understanding and communication between humanity and the octopuses, while she simultaneously grapples with her own quiet isolation. The marine biologist, it turns out, accepted a remote job from the multinational corporation Dianima, which owns and fiercely guards the island of Con Dao. This leads to questions of why the corporation is so interested in the octopuses; and how they might be exploited. Much of Nguyen’s arc is put into sharp relief through the slow development of trust between her and the two people who are also bound to the island by their shared employer: Altantsetseg, a Mongolian security expert and Evrim, the world’s only truly human-level artificial intelligence.

The novel’s depiction of semi-functional future geopolitics and extreme forms of predatory capitalism are sadly believable, but written with interesting nuance. Nayler’s background working in the foreign service has given him a perspective and a knowledge that lends the story credibility.

But at its core, the strength of the novel is in how richly it explores the ways in which humans interpret experiences, how different sensoria and neurological architecture might construct individual understandings of the world, and how artificial intelligences might evolve and what that could mean for their sentience. It’s impossible to know what's going on in another being’s head, nor whether depicting these processes can ever be accomplished, but we suspect that Nayler has done this about as well as possible. The speculation on how octopus intelligence might have evolved, and how their form, abilities, and physical brain shape might perceive the world are meticulously explored. In this way, it could be interpreted as one of the most in-depth examples of the neurodiversity movement reflected in science fiction.

In essence, Nayler seems to be asking how humans might ever be able to build a bridge of understanding with an alien race, when we often can’t even do so amongst our own species. It’s often a heartbreaking novel, but one worth reading and one that’s laced with threads of hope.

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Battle of the Vonneguts - Hugo Cinema 1973

This blog post is the sixteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

The hotel’s aging air conditioning system wheezed and struggled as the temperatures soared above 100F (30C) outside the Royal York in Toronto in the beginning of September, 1973.

Almost three thousand fans had made their way to Canada’s largest city for the 31st World Science Fiction Convention; a crowd that far eclipsed any previous Worldcon.
The CN tower under construction in 1973
The stump of the CN Tower in August, 1973 as
seen from near the Worldcon convention hotel.
(Image via CBC)

Looming over the proceedings was “the stump” of the CN Tower. The first few hundred meters of what would one day be the tallest building on the planet was slowly reaching to the sky a few blocks from the convention.

In a frescoed ballroom where Queen Elizabeth II had danced only a few short weeks prior to the Worldcon during her tour of Canada, two thousand fans (two thirds of the convention) squeezed in to catch an early glimpse of a highly-anticipated new animated Star Trek series for which associate producer Dorothy Fontana had brought an advance copy.

Dramatic presentations themselves clearly held an appeal to Hugo voters, though the award itself remained somewhat scorned. At that year’s ceremony, Best Dramatic Presentation seemed somewhat of an afterthought. Which is a shame, as it was a fairly good year for science fiction and fantasy cinema. Even the worst entry on the ballot was generally tolerable.

Unusually, two movies shared at least some of the same source material; both the mainstream hit Slaughterhouse Five and the ultra-low-budget Between Time and Timbuktu are based in whole or in part on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 bestseller (also Slaughterhouse Five, though to be fair the latter uses very little of the novel). Despite this unique circumstance, it appears that neither Vonnegut nor anyone involved with either production was in attendance for the Hugo Awards ceremony.
Slaughterhouse Five is a beloved adaptation of 
Kurt Vonnegut's most famous work, but in some
ways it has aged poorly, particularly in terms of sexism.
(Image via Guardian.co.uk)

In fact, nobody from any of the finalist Dramatic Presentations were in attendance. Not The People author Zenna Henderson, not Silent Running script writer Steven Bochco, not even Silent Running director Douglas Trumbull who spent that week at the CFTO-TV Studios in Scarborough, barely 15 miles from the Worldcon.

In what may be one of the most eccentric selections in Hugo Award history, voters selected the television movie Between Time and Timbuktu. It is a chaotic and ultimately disappointing PBS television movie that stitches together various scenarios from essentially every major Vonnegut work up to that point including Cat’s Cradle, Harrison Bergeron, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, The Sirens of Titan, Welcome to the Monkeyhouse, and Slaughterhouse Five.

The overarching plot is that Stoney Stephenson (William Hickey) — a poet in modern-day America — wins a contest to travel into space, and on that trip he gets thrown into a dozen different parallel realities. In each of these realities, the viewer gets a brief glimpse of a better and more coherent movie that might have been.

Between Time and Timbuktu might be an obtuse and often irritating movie, but one has to admire the fannish exuberance that must have led a group of public broadcasting employees to create this. It’s clearly made by people who love every word typed by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but who have no budget to bring those words to life, and no discipline to bring coherence to the script.

A more successful Vonnegut adaptation is Slaughterhouse Five, based on the author’s semi-autobiographical anti-war novel that was shortlisted for the Hugo in 1970. Told in non-linear order, the movie chronicles Billy Pilgrim as he slips forwards and backwards in time to experiences in the fire bombing of Dresden, to his marriage and suburban post-war life, to his abduction by aliens in the 1960s. It’s a piece of speculative fiction that was important in its day, and it’s difficult to complain too bitterly about the fact that the movie won the Hugo Award; at least two members of our cinema club hold it in some reverence.

Non-linear storytelling is especially difficult in cinema, so the fact that director George Roy Hill manages to make it both comprehensible and engaging is commendable. Michael Sacks brings an abiding humanity to the lead role. Miroslav Ondříček’s cinematography is painterly and draws in the eye. And the soundtrack by Glenn Gould is extraordinary.

But in many ways, the film version of Slaughterhouse Five has aged poorly; the depiction of women is demeaning and unpleasant to watch. Most of all, the fat shaming of Billy Pilgrim’s wife, and Pilgrim getting ‘rewarded’ with a young woman upon his wife’s demise, are beyond objectionable.

Based on the short stories by Zenna Henderson, The People was the ABC TV movie of the week on January 22, 1972. It’s a somewhat ham-handed production about a school teacher (played by Kim Darby) who is sent to what appears to be an anabaptist community that eschews technology. Over the course of the movie, she discovers that the residents are in fact telepathic aliens who fled the destruction of their planet. The conflict in the story — such as it is — involves tension within the alien society about whether or not to continue hiding their true selves. William Shatner’s role as the community doctor is one of his least Shatnery performances, but it’s also among his least memorable. This is probably the weakest finalist of that year.

Silent Running is an innovative and oddball
classic that provides memorable characters
both human and robot. To be blunt, it rules.
(Image via IMDB) 
Of this shortlist, most of our cinema club would have voted for Silent Running. The directorial debut of special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull is a slow, weird little movie about Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), an ecologist on a spaceship who is tasked with preserving the planet’s last-remaining forests that have been launched into orbit for safekeeping. It’s a fairly flimsy set up, but it provides compelling drama based around moral dilemmas that occur when politicians order Lowell and his crewmates to scuttle the ship. There’s some grey area in these questions; is it appropriate for Lowell to murder his crewmates to preserve the lives of trees and wild animals? Is Lowell correct to disobey unjust orders in the first place?

The movie’s helper robots Huey, Dewey, and Louie, are among the most memorable robots in all of science fiction cinema; as actors Mark Persons, Steven Brown and Cheryl Sparks manage to imbue them with a subtle empathy and dignity.

Trumbull’s filmmaking is technically excellent, both on the interior shots, and the special effects. Compounded with good performances and an absolutely killer Joan Baez soundtrack, Silent Running is a movie that looks better with each passing year.

But there is one omission from the shortlist that is somewhat galling. One science fiction movie in 1972 towers above all the others: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Based on a novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem, the movie follows Kris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to investigate occurrences on a remote research station orbiting a planet that is the movie’s namesake. When he arrives on the station, he discovers that one of the three scientists posted there has died, and the other two are in turmoil. The movie slowly reveals that the planet they’re orbiting is alive, and is sending manifestations to the station, possibly in an attempt to understand humans.
Solaris was well-known to SFF fans
in the 1970s, but somehow it didn't
ever appear on a Hugo award ballot.
(Image via IMDB)

Many have argued that Solaris is one of the finest pieces of science fiction ever brought to the screen, so its complete absence from the Hugo ballot is somewhat baffling. It won awards at Cannes and at the Chicago International Film Festival. It was contemporaneously reviewed in Fanzines such as Norstrilian News and Zimri. Brian Aldis suggests that “it bids fair to stand as the best science fiction film so far.”

The movie is filled with nuance and emotional interiority, as layers of the characters are revealed through their pasts, through the psychological turmoil that the planet’s manifestations cause them, and through the difficult decisions they must make. There’s also an interesting tension between the protagonist’s rationalist worldview, and his desire to believe his deceased wife has been returned to him. It’s a compelling piece of cinema, and should have been a frontrunner for a Hugo Award in any year it was eligible.

The Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1973 had one of the more credible winners, and one of the better shortlists to date. But the omission of Solaris brings the whole enterprise of recognizing the “best” science fiction cinema into question.

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Space Nazis Must Die

Hitler’s goon squad casts a long shadow over science fiction.
 “We will fight them
on the beaches...”
(Image via IMDB.com)

It’s easy to see the outline of Nazi soldiers in the Impirial Military of Star Wars, Doctor Who’s Daleks, The Alliance in Firefly, or the Terran Federation shock troops in Blake’s 7.

Deliberate choices are made in films to offer the connotation of Nazi, often including immaculately tailored Hugo-Boss-style uniforms, Teutonic heel taps of the jackboots when marching, and Riefenstahllian visuals of parade grounds and iconic banners. Sometimes, there’s a suggestion that these fictional soldiers are motivated by some form of racist ideology, though the details of this are usually nebulous.

Let’s be clear here: Nazis are bad.

Nazis should be opposed wherever they exist: on the battlefield, at the ballot box, in the streets, and across the tenebrous depths of interstellar space. As such, depicting villains as Nazis — and therefore Nazism as villainous — has value.

But depiction without engaging with the premises of motivation is lacking. “Nazi” is such an easy signifier for evil, it often allows these narratives to avoid engaging with what evil actually means. Sure, Imperial Soldiers kill a lot of people in the Empire Strikes Back, but so do the zombies in Train to Busan, or the tornado in Twister, or the Xenomorphs in Alien. The faceless hordes provide little more than target practice for laser rays; there’s no interiority behind the mirrorshades and white perspex armour. 

Using the symbolic Nazi provides a type of worldbuilding and character shorthand for the viewer, or reader. It conveys a (false) dichotomy that provides comfort; a comfort in knowing that Nazi = bad and the other side = good. It gives the consumer a break from having to figure out bad from good for themselves.
Nazi-coded villains can be found in all kinds of SFF
from Star Wars to Planet of the Apes to Woody
Allen’s Sleeper. But do these movies invite the
viewer to consider what this iconography means?
(Image via Overture Magazine)

Science fiction’s depiction of fascism and of fascists is occasionally more pointed and valuable. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers plays a brilliant bit of sleight of hand, first building up the Terran Federation as a heroic force through propaganda techniques, then slowly revealing to the audience that they’ve been duped into cheering for Nazis. Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream explores how heroic fantasy narratives are rooted in similar assumptions to the mythologized history that underpin fascist mythmaking. And Vernor Vinge’s Deepness In The Sky explores new ways for human freedom to be subverted by Nazis.

But the predominant conception of Nazis in science fiction is little more than a costume.

Consider: there are overt and unrepentant real-world fascists who are die-hard Star Wars fans. But we wonder – do they see the linkage? The classic trilogy encourages such minimal critical engagement that it would be easy to imagine someone spending a day at a polling station with an assault rifle intimidating BIPOC voters and then go home and watch the Special Edition of A New Hope and cheer for the Rebellion. Likewise, it’s not uncommon to see left-wing pro-democracy activists involved in
The fascist tendency to view human beings as
tools, and the prison system as a source of 
expendable labour is depicted well in Andor.
Some fans didn’t get the message
(Image via Polygon)

their 501st Legion and dressing up as fascist Stormtroopers on a regular basis. This is not to play any false equivalence between these two groups; but rather to point out how vague and tenuous the depiction of fascism has traditionally been in Star Wars and how this leaves the viewer free to engage with its narratives at a superficial level.

And all of this is why the most recent iteration of Star Wars is so refreshing. Andor presents a multi-layered view at the Empire that explores the seductive power that authoritarian systems can have on their participants: the capitalist class that profits from oppression and is lulled by the illusion of security; the mid-level bureaucrats who fetishize order and see the opportunity for advancement; the ground-level workers who sell out their peers just to escape the butcher’s block for another day. At the risk of hyperbole, it sometimes feels as if the series is building a taxonomy of fascists; an Audubon Guide to the Nazis In Our Midst.

Andor suggests that there is no one type of fascist in the Star Wars universe, and in doing so makes the empire more believable, and the imperial system to be far scarier. The genre needs more of this. These may be stories that are often set in a galaxy far, far, away … but fascism is never as distant as it should be.