Friday, 22 March 2019

Labour on screen in science fiction: Fritz to Boots

This is the third of a three-part blog post about the historical invisibility of organized labour in science fiction, as well as recent works that address this absence. In the first two parts, we examined prose works both negative and positive. An additional post includes a list of all labour unions we are aware of in science fiction works

Film is a medium that can help construct a tolerant, diverse, and informed society. It’s no surprise, then, that the first shots of the first movie camera were focused on workers and on work. For 45 seconds, director Louis Lumière documented the comings and goings of factory workers in his 1895 movie “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.”
Workers and labour are recurring themes
in early movies, including the 1927
Fritz Lang classic Metropolis.
(Image via IMDB.com)

Employment has been a ubiquitous subject in film — and in science fiction film — but worker organizing has again been neglected.

Some of the earliest science fiction movies feature clashes between workers and automation. From the now-lost 1895 short movie The Mechanical Butcher to Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis, filmmakers reflected the concerns of an era that was experiencing rapid industrialization as well as violent actions taken against the working class.

Possibly because of political sensitivities, many of these films made no overt mention of a labour union, but in Metropolis, the workers assert their rights through something similar to anarcho-syndicalist collective action, which may make it the IWW of labour movies.

This treatment of labour and labour unions as a source of strife continues in cinema over the next several decades, though overt union representation is rare. Workers might revolt in a chaotic manner in a science fiction film (as in Stargate, Planet of the Apes or Solo: A Star Wars Story), but they are rarely organized — or effective — in their actions.

The first unmistakable labour union in science fiction cinema that we were able to find is the Textile
The Man In The White Suit may be the
first science fiction movie to have been
nominated for an Academy Award in a
major category, earning a nod for
adapted screenplay.
(Image via Guardian.co.uk)
and Garment Workers Union depicted in the 1951 Ealing Studios comedy The Man In The White Suit. The film revolves around the invention of an indestructible fabric by a mild-mannered chemist played by Sir Alec Guinness, and the subsequent attempts by business and labour unions to suppress the invention. The depiction of unions in this movie is broad and largely inaccurate, depicting them as collaborating with management and encouraging industrial sabotage.

Despite these inaccuracies about how unions operate, we will be endorsing The Man In The White Suit for 1952 Retro Hugos, . It is in most ways a superb and thoughtful piece of science fiction about the introduction of a new technology, and is elevated by witty dialogue and star-worthy performances (Guinness was nominated for an Academy Award that year for a different comedy from the same studio).

Most other labour unions depicted on screen in science fiction up until the 1990s relegate the labour conflict to a tertiary storyline. In Robocop, the government’s decision to deploy the title character is driven by a police union strike. In the real world, in most North American jurisdictions, police officers are unable to strike because they are deemed to be ‘essential services,’ but in the dystopian future depicted in Robocop, police services have been privatized and are now run by the corporation Omni Consumer Products. Because the police are no longer public servants, they are able to (legally) walk off the job.

One aspect of Robocop that is worth noting is that the strike has been engineered by the corporation, the CEO of which deliberately withholds adequate resources (police vehicles and equipment) and acts in bad faith when it comes to pensions and wages. The strike is therefore shown as justified, but when push comes to shove, the most heroic police officers Anne Lewis, Alex Murphy, and Warren Reid all cross the picket line.

During the climactic scenes of the movie, the striking workers come to the rescue of Robocop,
To quote the CEO of OCP, "This strike
can be useful to us." Robocop may
not entirely woke to labour rights,
but it does have thoughtful satire
about privatization of public services.
(Image via Youtube.com)
showing that they are more concerned with doing their jobs than they are their own livelihoods. It is unsatisfying that workers’ rights questions remain unresolved in the movie — the strike is ended but wages, pensions, and funding are all unaddressed.

Robocop
presents us with a prescient warning about the low-wage agenda that is marketed under the term ‘privatization,’ but its depiction of worker organizing and worker solidarity is sadly lacking.

There are at least two prominent portrayals of labour organizing in mid-1990s science fiction television series: Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. They offered very different — but equally unsatisfying — portrayals of labour organizing.

Babylon 5’s episode 'By Any Means Necessary' shows a labour movement that is belligerent and badly led into a violent dockworkers’ strike — only the unconventional thinking of the station’s military governor prevents the situation’s violence from escalating. 

Two years later, in Deep Space Nine’s episode 'Bar Association,' we are shown an example of solidarity organizing to address the plight of underpaid waiters and waitresses in Quark’s Bar. Once the employer has compromised on wages, however, it is suggested that a union is ‘no longer needed.’ In both of these examples, the labour movement is shown as being an unruly rabble whose actions need to be kept in check.

The low point in televised science fiction’s portrayal of labour may have been 'Dirty Hands,' a third season episode of Battlestar Galactica. The ‘villains’ of the episode are workers who conduct a work
There's a term for workers whose right
to stop working has been taken away
through state-sanctioned violence.
(Image via IMDB.com) 
slowdown in an attempt to negotiate safer working conditions. The episode’s resolution features the ‘protagonist’ Admiral Adama arresting the union leader and threatening execution of non-compliant workers. This protagonist specifically promises that the union leader's wife will be the first one to be 'put against the bulkhead and shot.'

In the labour movement, this behaviour might be described as unfair bargaining practices.

As the product of a collaborative and corporatized structure, television might be a compromised medium when it comes to offering nuanced depictions of class struggle. Published text narratives — though subject to some editorial controls — are usually credited to a single author with a greater level of intellectual freedom and interest in a personal brand. Because a single author is better able to take personal responsibility for their ideas and their words, they are less likely to be constrained in what they say.

Last year, two very different examples of labour union depictions in science fiction hit the screens, and were surprisingly positive portrayals. The last two episodes of South Park’s most recent season 'Unfulfilled / Bike Parade' features a storyline about employees at an Amazon warehouse who decide to assert their right to a safe workplace in the wake of an accident. Although South Park is as irreverent in this episode as you’d expect it to be, the plight of the workers — and the tensions between picketers and picket-line crossers — are handled surprisingly well.

A very different example — but even more satisfying — was Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry
Boots Riley's Sorry To Bother You
shows the tensions and conundrums
faced by union members and organizers
while trying to assert their workplace rights.
 (Image via WorkingClassPerspectives)
To Bother You
. A surreal workplace comedy with science fictional elements, Sorry To Bother You uses a story about the unionization of a call centre to explore larger themes about worker solidarity, the erosion of middle-class incomes, and the hyper-competitiveness encouraged by corporate culture and capitalism more broadly, pitting one worker against another. This may be one of the finest examples of labour union depiction in science fiction to date.

Overall, society’s (and science fiction’s) failure to imagine new forms of economic organization reinforces the neoliberal paradigm. Given science fiction’s speculative mandate, this is even more pronounced in the genre and especially its cinema and television (which reach a wider audience than literary forms). The marginalization of unions in science fiction is significant — and symptomatic. As Mark McCutcheon and Bob Barnetson argue in their paper Resistance Is Futile, themes that are omitted from popular culture are often consigned to not merely to impossibility, but to unthinkability.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Open Discussion — What's worth considering for the ballot in 2020?

The following list will be updated over the next few months as we read, watch, and listen to Hugo-eligible works for 2020. These are not necessarily what we plan to nominate, but rather works that at least one member of the Edmonton Hugo Book Club has enjoyed and believes to be worth consideration. We appreciate any additional suggestions in the comments.

Items that are controversial amongst our club are marked with an asterisk (*)


(List last updated on December 3, 2019). 


Novel
The Light Brigade — Kameron Hurley
Future Of Another Timeline — Annalee Newitz
The Ruin Of Kings — Jenn Lyons
Lent — Jo Walton*
Famous Men Who Never Lived — K Chess
Stealing Worlds — Karl Schroeder*
Magic For Liars — Sarah Gailey*

Novella
Unauthorized Bread — Cory Doctorow
Waterlines — Suzanne Palmer
At The Fall — Alec Nevala-Lee
This Is How You Lose The Time War — Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Vigilance — Robert Jackson Bennett

Short Story
Articulated Restraint — Mary Robinette Kowal
Any Way The Wind Blows — Seanan McGuire
Miles and Miles and Miles — Andrew Romine
A Place to Stand On — Marie Vibbert
Emergency Skin — N.K. Jemisin

Series
Wormwood Trilogy — Tade Thompson

John W. Campbell Jr.  Astounding Award For Best New Writer
Sean Grigsby

Best Related Work
Op-Eds From The Future — Susan Fowler
The Pleasant Profession Of Robert A. Heinlein — Farrah Mendelson
The Dark Fantastic — Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
Becoming Superman — J. Michael Straczynski

Best Professional Artist

Dramatic Presentation - Long Form
Captive State — Written and directed by Rupert Wyatt
Fast Color — Written and directed by Julia Hart
Years & Years — Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Simon Cellan Jones and Lisa Mulcahy
Prospect — Written and directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell [Eligible in 2020 due to WSFS motion]
The Colour Out Of Space — Directed by Richard Stanley

Dramatic Presentation - Short Form
Counterpart Season 2, Episode 6, "Twin Cities" — Written and directed by Justin Marks
The Magicians Season 4, Episode 13, "The Seam"  
Good Omens, Season 1, Episode 3, Written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Watchmen Season 1, Episode 1 "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice," Written by Damon Lindelof, directed by Nicole Kassell

Graphic Story
Invisible Kingdom — G. Willow Wilson & Christian Ward
Coda — Simon Spurrier & Matias Bergara
The Archangels of Vinea — Roger LeLoup
Wasted Space — Michael Moreci & Hayden Sherman
Outer Darkness — Afu Chan & John Layman

Semiprozine
Black Nerd Problems
Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine
Galactic Journey

Fanzine
Nerds Of A Feather

Fancast
Androids & Assets

Fan Artist
Richard Man

Fan Writer

Friday, 15 March 2019

Will Staehle and the joy of minimalism

While the Law of Parsimony (aka Occam’s razor aka “the simplest solution is often best”) isn’t a
Will Staehle designs
minimalist covers that
convey a lot with clean
lines and balanced art.
(Image via Amazon.com)
perfect analogy for the joy that can found from a simple, elegant piece of artwork, it’s what got us thinking about the highly technical and complex nature of visual arts that are admired by most science fiction fans.

At least, that’s what a review of the past 30 years of works by Hugo-shortlisted artists indicates. For example, it would be hard to describe the efforts of Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme, Julie Dillon, Donato Giancola or Michael Whelan (to name a few) as simple or lacking in detail.

This is not to throw shade on any of these artists (whose work we admire), but rather to note that pretty much universally, the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist category has a bias towards complexity. This unfortunately seems to crowd out certain other styles of art, particularly the work of artists who deftly convey meaning with minimalist constructions.

A prime example is the fact that Will Staehle has yet to receive so much as a nomination, despite more than a dozen years creating lucid book covers for an impressive list of of high-profile science fiction authors including Annalee Newitz, Michael Crichton, Sarah Gailey, Terry Goodkind, Charlie Jane Anders, Stephen King, Sam J. Miller, Ernest
Cline, and more. Both Robert Jackson Bennett and Adam Christopher have called Staehle’s work ‘genius.’ Cory Doctorow has praised him as ‘brilliant.’

Staehle has become the
go-to guy for several
big-name authors.
(Image via Amazon.com)
But unlike those working in more ornate – and occasionally rococo – styles that seem to dominate the Hugo Awards, Staehle hews towards the minimalist. He often works in high-contrast blocks of colour that all fall within a select palette – sometimes employing as few as two or three hues. Communicating effectively through art is a high skill, regardless of the piece’s complexity.

Consider the cover for Cory Doctorow’s new four-story collection Radicalized, which takes Staehle’s iconographic approach to its current apotheosis. Creating an iconic representation of themes in each of the stories, he creates a memorable image unassailable in its simplicity and refinement. Staehle’s produced new covers for all of Doctorow’s novels, including an ingenious die-cut dust-jacket for the hardcover of Walkaway (a design which works best if you are looking at a physical copy of the book).

Possibly Staehle’s most iconic cover in recent years was his illustration for V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade Of Magic, which he has written about. Again working with a very small palette, Staehle conveys the dynamism and panache of the story in a balanced and evocative image that easily communicates both the character of the book’s protagonist Kell, and the world-hopping premise of the narrative. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but in this case Staehle’s art is a large part of why we read it (and we’re glad we did.)

In terms of eligibility for the Hugo Awards to be presented in Dublin this summer, Staehle designed the covers to 2018 releases such as Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Boneless Mercies
(Image via Amazon.com)
by April Genevieve Tucholke
, The Outsider by Stephen King, the U.S. edition of Circe by Madeline Miller, the cover of State Tectonics by Malka Older, and the cover of The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander.

Only one quarter of the way into 2019, and this year he’s already crafted covers for Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, The Institute by Stephen King, and Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey. We are almost certainly going to have him on our nominating ballots again next year.

Like all of the creative arts, interpretation and appreciation of visual art is subjective. However, it would be very difficult to deny the talent and inventiveness that Staehle brings to the elements of line, colour, space, light, and shape. We would suggest that he should receive serious consideration for the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A Requiem To Counterpart

Three weeks ago with very little fanfare, the finest television show you weren’t watching went off the
J.K. Simmons absolutely crushes it
playing double roles in Counterpart.
(Image via theringer.com)
air for good.

Beautifully filmed, perfectly acted, and tightly written, Counterpart was a weird alternate history spy show that never found its audience — possibly in part because it was hidden away on a channel known more for historical dramas and classic movies. One hopes that like previous gone-too-soon shows like Firefly and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Counterpart will find an afterlife as a cult classic. 

There Are Two Of Everything


The set-up for Counterpart is deceptively simple: 35 years ago, German scientists accidentally opened a doorway to a parallel universe. When they discovered this alternate world, it was exactly the same as our own, but over the subsequent decades the histories of these two worlds have diverged in unexpected and chaotic ways. 

Today, there is a bureaucratic government organization that guards the doorway and regulates the transfer of information and people between the two worlds. Our protagonist, Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) exists as a low-level, mild-mannered functionary for the organization in our universe, while his mirror universe counterpart is a deadly spy. 

Mirror universes are a frequently visited trope in science fiction television, from Star Trek to Doctor Who to Futurama. What is often lacking in these alternates is nuance — Star Trek’s mirror universe is Manichean with evil bad guys and good heroes. Counterpart revels in the grey. 

The wall between worlds allows the show runners to tell a modern-day version of the classic Berlin Wall spy story. And on its surface, this is a first-rate spy thriller that would be comparable to some of Robert Ludlum’s best work. You’ve got secret agents, double-crossings, mole hunts, and moral quandaries, all delivered with a satisfying panache. 

But Counterpart also works in other ways. Beneath the spy surface, it’s a Philip K. Dick-style science fiction story about how fragile our socially constructed understandings of self actually are. Narrative framework is employed to explore how the decisions we make don’t just affect what happens to us, they fundamentally affect who we are. 

Berlin Reflections


Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons gives what may be the finest performance of his career as the twin versions of Howard Silk, making both characters believable, relatable, and distinct from one another. Given no other clues but how Simmons is acting, it’s possible to discern Silk Prime from his mirror universe counterpart. More interestingly, one can discern how the inner workings of these two people serve different motivations. 

Beyond Simmons as Howard Silk, there’s a deep bench of acting talent. Harry Lloyd (Viserys
Emily Silk (Olivia Williams) meets
Emily Howard (Olivia Williams).
(Image via TVLine.Com)
Targaryen on Game of Thrones) plays his conflicted boss, and sells the character’s growing sense of dread. Olivia Williams is impeccable as both Silk’s wife in the regular universe, and his ex-wife in the mirror universe. In the second season, Academy Award-winner James Cromwell joins the cast.

It is also worth noting that the show has a unique — and well executed — sense of visual style. First-episode director and co-producer Morten Tyldum (who was Academy Award-nominated for The Imitation Game) uses the looming brutalist architecture of the city to create the intended sense of place (either claustrophobia or intimacy, depending on scene) while numerous symmetrical shots suggest balance.

Unlike many shows that were cancelled too soon, Counterpart was given the chance to end things properly with a series two finale that wraps up every narrative thread nicely, and to sum up the primary themes and the thesis of the series. While some viewers might find the pay-off episodes slow to materialize, the conclusion is satisfying enough to be worthy of the journey.

Having aired on February 28, 2018, Season 1 Episode 6 "Act Like You've Been Here Before" will be at the top of our Hugo Nominations Ballots this year. It is also almost certain that next year, we will be using our nominating ballots on Season 2 Episode 6, "Twin Cities.”

Having lasted only two seasons of ten episodes each, Counterpart does not take an enormous burden of time, and provides far more intellectual grist than most shows that last ten times as long.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Fleet of Knives: Pacifism Gets Its Due

Overt pacifism is often given short shrift in science fiction, so it is refreshing to see it represented by
(Image Via Amazon.com)
the House of Reclamation that is the central focus of Gareth Powell’s novel Embers of War and its recently released sequel Fleet of Knives.

The House of Reclamation, which operates like a benevolent version of the French Foreign Legion, accepts all those who wish to leave their pasts behind them in order to serve the greater good. The organization operates a network of rescue ships, and dispatches them to various crises with a humanitarian mission to save lives and provide medical support.

This mission and set-up provide an excellent framework in which to tell engaging and personal stories about characters who are atoning for past crimes. One could imagine Powell continuing to mine this premise for numerous novels, much as James White did with his superb Sector General novels.

Much like the Sector General novels, this series seems to be building and strengthening over time.

One of the aspects of the first book that we enjoyed was the way that the universe bled off the edge of the pages. Only those portions of the world that were directly important to the story were fully explained, but there was clearly enough thought given to the setting that there was room in this universe for many stories.

Many have praised Embers of War and its sequel by comparing them to Firefly. However, we think it’s more apt to compare these novels to a different cult television classic: Babylon 5, Much like J. Michael Straczynski’s masterpiece, these novels are set in the wake of a galaxy wide conflict, explore
"Some time ago, Keffer saw or
thought he saw something in hyperspace,
 a ship of some kind." — Lt. Ivanova
(Image via Babylon5.fandom.com) 
how peace is achieved, and feature elder races and ancient interstellar mysteries. In Fleet of Knives, Powell invites this comparison by directly quoting Babylon 5’s tagline “The Last Best Chance For Peace.”

If the first novel was comparable to the first season of B5, then Fleet of Knives offers the narrative bridge of the second and third seasons in which the premise is reinvented, and true dangers are revealed.

There are shadows in hyperspace, and tensions between more established and newer Human settlements. There’s also the question of who created the Marble Armada and what happened to them. Several of those tantalizing hints receive more focus in Fleet of Knives — though to say too much about this would spoil half of the fun.

The character of Trouble Dog — a sentient warship that resigned from the military — continues to be one of the real highlights of the series. Designed and bred to be efficient and task-focused, Trouble Dog’s personality does not correspond to what we would describe as a neurotypical human, and in this she reminds us somewhat of another recent popular SF creation: Murderbot.

Powell clearly knows the genre inside and out, and this deep knowledge helps the work become more than a sum of its parts.

More problematic is the narrative arc of war criminal turned poet Ona Sudak, which almost serves to undermine her character development in the previous novel. The inconsistency of Sudak’s reform and lack of self-awareness did not sit well with us. She might have better served readers if her story had ended.

That being said, the strong narrative arc, the pacing and engaging prose all add up to one heck of an adventure novel. Given our strong penchant for avoiding sequels on our Hugo ballots, we likely won’t have this work on our 2020 nominations list. However, it is almost guaranteed that we’ll be advocating strongly for this to be recognized in the series category in 2021.