Sunday 29 January 2023

All Words In All Languages Are Metaphors

(image via Goodreads)
Canadian media theorist and pop cultural icon Marshall McLuhan once described art as “a distant early warning system that can always be relied upon to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

Babel — the latest novel from Astounding Award-winner R.F. Kuang — seems to fit this definition. It may also be the most McLuhanesque fantasy novel ever written.

Set in 1830s England, Babel follows a Cantonese orphan Robin Swift who is recruited to work for Oxford’s translation department in a world in which the translation of words from one language to another can have mystical consequences. The enchantment of translation has become crucial to England’s ability to colonize and exploit much of the globe, as silver bars inscribed with words in multiple languages can manifest the meaning that is ‘lost’ in translation. The United Kingdom has a near monopoly on this magical technology, and Oxford is at the heart of the Empire’s power.

There’s a long tradition in genre literature of the British historical fantasy as a particularly escapist work. Stories during the Napoleonic War, or the Victorian Era, can provide a cozy and comfortable setting that’s often insulated from vital questions of equity between those of differing racial groups, social classes, and genders. This is not to dismiss these works — as escapism has its place — but this peculiar form of nostalgia can conveniently edit or omit important issues of social justice. Babel, however, does not shy away from any of the injustices of the timeframe it is set in, but rather confronts them head-on. It would take more than magic, the book seems to suggest, to make a fairer, more just world.

This is a novel that uses the form of Regency-era historical fantasy to tackle themes of social justice that are at the forefront of today’s cultural vanguard in science fiction and fantasy. In short, it uses the cultural precepts of England at the peak of its colonial power to disclose and critique the social impacts of those systems.

It’s worth noting that although many American authors have attempted to mimic the style of period British prose, the vast majority have failed, often sounding affected, or pompous, or leaden. But instead of clumsy pastiche, Babel feels like a fantasy that William Makepeace Thackeray might have written. Kuang evokes era-appropriate ambiance and regionally-believable prose and dialogue so skillfully that we double-checked to see if she was born and raised in Hertfordshire or Dorset. (We strongly encourage everyone to read the “Author’s Note on Her Representations of Historical England, and of the University of Oxford in Particular,” which precedes the text of the novel.) It is especially gratifying that a book that is deeply concerned with language as a concept uses it so skillfully.
“All words, in all languages are metaphors,” wrote
Marshall McLuhan — a sentiment that might 
resonate with the protagonists of Babel.
(Image via University of Toronto)

Central to the themes in the book are the three close friends that Swift makes at Oxford. Victoire Desgraves, Letitia (Letty) Price, and Ramiz (Ramy) Mirza are — like Swift — translation students who are alienated from their peers for reasons related to race, class, gender, or a combination of these. Calcutta-born Ramy and Haitian-born Victoire keenly feel the animosity directed towards them by racist and classist rich white students, though Letty, who is white herself, never seems to understand or to see what her friends are going through.

About a decade ago, psychological researchers in Texas examined how the grammatical patterns that individuals use are a strong predictor of romantic attraction and relationship stability. The possible explanation they offered was that similar patterns and order of functional words (prepositions, articles, quantifiers, high-frequency adverbs, etc.) probably reflect similar patterns of thought … and can therefore be a signifier of the potential for meaningful relationships. Interestingly, this seems to be true across languages. Rami and Robin — whose life stories parallel each other in myriad ways — speak the same language of love and of friendship, and reminded some of us of this research. Their attraction, though never explicitly spelled out, is an emotional backbone of the novel. As much as many readers (us included) would love for their romance to play out more happily, there is a certain degree of integrity to depicting the characters as being prisoners of the heteronormative homophobia of the 19ᵗʰ century.

Language can also act as a barrier, even among those who speak the same one. For much of the novel, working-class characters are given short shrift. Striking labourers are depicted as speaking incoherently, and their concerns are dismissed by Robin, Rami, Victoire and Letty. But then the novel pulls a nice piece of narrative revelation; showing that even the protagonists can be unaware of matters of social justice, and that allyship can be found in less-expected places. Labour unions — including the Oxford Translators Union — become vehicles for solidarity and for bridging cultural divides.

After three excellent novels, R.F. Kuang had already established herself as one of the best young writers in genre fiction. With Babel, she has taken her work to a new level.

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
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.