Posts tagged living in the future
I was too young to watch/remember the original V miniseries/ongoing series, but I learned the basic premise growing up as a geek. I’ll be talking about stuff that constitutes as spoilers, but not really, as ABC is foregrounding the ‘Big Sekrit!’ of the V’s identity even in the previews. Most of what I’ll talk about is the not-hard-to-find Vs = Obama reading.
The leader of the Vs is played by Morena Baccarin, a Brazillian woman whose looks are easily pushed past beauty to the edge of the uncanny valley, her mixed-ethnicity background easily positioned as ‘exotic’ from a US-American gaze. All of the Vs who are seen in the public eye would count as attractive, and even in the pilot, the Vs are leveraging attractiveness into manipulation (one sub-plot features the FBI-Agent lead’s son being attracted to a female V played by Laura “Supergirl” Vandervoort).
The Pilot episode gets all the way to the ‘Vs are actually Lizards and trying to take over the world’ stage, with Elizabeth “LOST Juliette” Mitchell and Joel “4400″ Gretsch as FBI Agent and Pastor who are witness to a V attack on a word-of-mouth group spreading word of the Vs’ real agenda.
A note — unless you go in looking for the Obama = V reading, it may be rather easy to miss/not think of it. It’s not that the show pounds you over with it. The show’s pacing is strong (stronger than the original miniseries in the equivalent section that I watched), and goes quickly to the ‘The Vs are tricking people, time to fight back!’ stage of the story, where our two adult leads will develop a resistance, with assistance from another lead — how quickly he’ll connect with the group is hard to tell. Interpersonal conflict will come from the FBI Agent’s son getting deeper in bed (literally) with the Vs and refusing to accept mom’s warnings/explanations of the V’s villainy. This is exacerbated by the fact that until the resistance can get a V corpse to show the lizard under-parts, they don’t have a very strong case.
It was great to see Alan Tudyk in the show, though I don’t think he’s listed as a full series regular. He brought a great balance of seriousness and levity to the show, remind us how awesome an actor he is (as if we needed any more reminding after “Briar Rose/Alpha” in Dollhouse.
The new version of V seems to be written and executed in a way that invites an anti-Obama reading. The rhetoric of the pilot episode includes mentions of Hope! Change! Universal Health Care! and features a charismatic leader of mixed ethnicity. There’s an interesting degree to which this version of V is a dream come true for the Fox News Opinion Show crew. Many of the most outrageous fears about Obama are made manifest in the series — The Vs come with a message of hope and change, with people flocking to them, clamoring to be saved. The Vs insinuate themselves into people’s hearts, but are secretly not who they say they are and will take over and destroy the world.
Basically, the premise reads like an unused script from the Glenn Beck show with space-lizards instead of Chairman Mao. The show’s basic premise is much as it was in the 80s series (as far as I know/have read), but it just goes to show that as times change, a story can remain more or less the same but be read very differently. It seems that the new ABC version of V is specifically written to highlight the Vs as Obama reading (the rhetoric about hope and change and universal health care),
Overall, the Pilot isn’t magnificent, but it is a solid start and I’m interested to see how this version continues and develops like or unlike the original.
Now I leave review-land and go into ‘I’m a writer-land’ — I realize that I’d be as interested or possibly more interested in a series where the aliens really were trying to improve humanity’s lot, with conflict coming from paranoia and quibbling over cultural differences/expectations between the Vs and various US cultures. Basically, if it were a script from Keith Olbermann/Rachel Maddow instead of Glenn Beck. A story that highlights the tension between a well-meaning group with technological advantage and an ambivalent community that doesn’t want to bow to cultural demands but does want those technologies. This presents a different metaphor, more analogous to western humanitarian campaigns in the 3rd world/Global South — where cultural imperialism comes part-and-parcel (intentional or unintentional) with humanitarian aid.
Sadly, this would probably not work as a TV show — it would lend itself much less to explosions and gunfights and the like.
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
Last night, I had a highly amusing but rigorous discussion in bed. No, I actually mean a discussion, not discussion as a euphamism for something else.
I brought up a simple-but-not question to the woman I’m currently dating: “Should we tell Facebook that we’re dating?”
Given that she is a digital media scholar as well, this question was taken and considered for all its ideological social and digital cultural implications.
Facebook, like MySpace or other social networking tools, is a major way in which plugged-in people communicate with their social worlds and represent themselves in those worlds. I have friends I haven’t seen in person for several years, but maintain a level of ambient awareness about their lives due to Facebook. Facebook isn’t simply a translated/re-mediated version of my life and what’s happening in that life, though. It’s a platform for communication, canvas for expression, digital cocktail party for socializing and networking, and much more. The current version of Facebook is a Twitter-inspired giant crawl of activity, commentary, content, and dialogue, a centralized feed displaying the minutia of Facebook life which each person’s filters have chosen to display.
There are many levels of invovlement in social networking sites such as Facebook. Some people eschew them, and their existences are sketched out only by others, tagged in photos with names that don’t lead anywhere (as opposed to leading to active profiles for the Facebook-inclined), and they have little-to-no input on how they are represented in the social network. Some have profiles but barely use them. Some represent their lives using Facebook as a tool for ambient awareness, but don’t actively conduct their lives on Facebook. Others spend many hours on Facebook, using the built-in chat tool for communication, stay abreast of feeds, spread media through its tools, organize parties with the Events function and much more.
So what happens when you get two people who are very active on Facebook but are also very aware of the ideological interpersonal social implications of telling the entirety of Facebook (depending on privacy settings) that they’re In A Relationship?
Clearly, there’s a lot of talking about it, first. Making a relationship ‘Facebook official’ as my signifigant other called it communicates a level of commitment and seriousness in the relationship. It’s a parallel rhetorical shift to switching between calling someone ‘the guy/girl I’m seeing’ to ‘my boy/girlfriend.’ The rhetoric you use to discuss a romantic partner signals to your friends what is going on and how serious something is. The range goes from ‘booty call’ through ‘friend with benefits’ to ‘person I’m seeing,’ ‘girlfriend/boyfriend’, ‘partner’, all the way to the legally-significant ‘spouse’ or ‘(domestic) partner’
The option exists to not bother saying anything about one’s relationship status on Facebook, and many people chose that option. But when you go to the relationship settings and signal that you’re in a relationship, you’re doing the equivalent of calling all your friends to tell them about your new girl/boyfriend, and through the link to the partner’s profile, providing an opportunity for your friends to investigate this new partner. Privacy settings allow a certain amount of filtration of content, but if my friends send friend requests to a new partner looking for information, then it becomes a question to my partner of whether they want to let someone past that gate.
And if you tell Facebook that you’re In A Relationship, then there’s the chance that at some point, the relationship may end and then someone has to tell Facebook that the relationship is over, which is effectively a second/echo breakup, with its own round of condolences, surprise, and the other social fallout.
Since Facebook is likely to be one of the primary tools that my current paramour and I use once our relationship becomes long-distance, the representation of our relationship on Facebook is increasingly important. As my girlfriend said, a plus of making our relationship Facebook official is that it makes it easier for us to assert the existence and make clear the presence of/commitment to a partner when we are apart. The friends she makes at her new university program who friend her on Facebook will see the ‘In a Relationship with <Person>’ on the feed, and have that important piece of information, along with various other facets of self-representation which she has carefully chosen for her profile. It’s the ‘Canadian Girlfriend‘ issue on the internet, and having the explicit hypertextual link between our profiles is a digital representation of the social link and a proof of existence/validity.
There are a variety of other ideological issues surrounding the way that romantic relationships are represented on Facebook. The options exist to speak of being in an open relationship, but there is not (currently) an option to list multiple relationships, which limits the accuracy and efficacy of Facebook for communicating the relationship status of those who practice polyamory.
For those of us who live our lives increasingly online, the way that tools like Facebook control the flow of information and what options we have for mediating and representing ourselves becomes increasingly important. The internet is in total a very democratic place, but in digital sites of high information traffic, the gatekeepers and architects of places like Facebook weild great social and organizational as well as economic power.
On the other hand, we have seen already a number of times where the populace of Facebook rises up to make a strong opinion about how the site conducts its business (the recent reversed change about Terms of Service and photos, for example).
So now, my girlfriend and I are Facebook Official, with all the amusement and social intertwining that comes along with it. I have the feeling there will be more blog posts prompted by the role of digital communication technologies in our ongoing relationship. Probably because we’ve already started talking about them.