Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation

Since we are in a science-fictional mood around here lately, I thought it might be an appropriate time to share an idea I have been pondering ever since I finished the most recent season of Mr. Robot. I have mixed feelings about Mr. Robot‘s entertainment value, but I am intrigued by the conceptual corner they wrote themselves into. The first season was basically an extended homage to Fight Club, complete with a big reveal that two apparently separate characters were split personalities and a massive terrorist attack that should change the world in unpredictable ways. When season 2 started, you began to realize why there isn’t a Fight Club 2: the burden of world-building required by the consequences of the hack were too much for the show to bear. By the end of season 3, they had more or less resolved the damage done by the hack and returned us to a halfway recognizable version of our own world, where our heroes can use their unique abilities to pursue personal vengeance against a small group of individuals who have personally wronged them.

While Mr. Robot is not literally either a superhero or a science fiction show, I think this narrative dilemma is an interesting way of thinking about the difference between the two. Continue reading “Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation”

Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism

I am a Star Trek fan, and I’m here today to talk to you about canon. But I will warn all the hardcore fans who are relieved to be on safe territory: my fandom has taken a strange form. When I was a kid, I was a loyal Next Generation viewer, and I even read a couple of the novels. But I only seriously dug into Star Trek as an adult, when The Girlfriend suggested we try a Next Generation rewatch—which inevitably turned into an epic journey through all the Trek series and movies. By that time, of course, I had been thoroughly trained in cultural analysis and critical theory, and I tended to read Star Trek “as literature.”

So when I talk about canon, I am talking about the strange claim that all of these different stories, written across the last fifty years by dozens of different people, are somehow all “the same” story, that they all fit together as a portrait of a consistent “universe” with its own history. I have already compared the Star Trek canon to scriptural canons in a scholarly article (paywalled journal issue link), and here I would like to pick up on a point that I briefly address there: namely, the tendency for sprawling scriptural canons to develop a “canon within the canon” that guides the interpretation of the rest. In Judaism, for example, the “canon within the canon” is the Torah, while Christians privilege the New Testament as the standard by which their hybrid canon is to be unified. And in Star Trek, of course, the “canon within the canon” for the vast majority of fans is Next Generation. Continue reading Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism”

“Can you bury your heart”? Having feelings about Discovery

[Editor’s note: This contribution is by Sarah Jaffe]
 

I am not a Star Trek fan.

This is not supposed to be an insult to anyone who is, it’s just to say that if your response to what I write here has anything to do with canon, I will neither understand what you’re saying nor care.

Like most people my age, I have some treasured memories of watching “The Trouble with Tribbles” as a child with my dad, and since my partner is a big enough Trek fan to make it central to his work, I’ve watched more of TNG and all the rest in the last couple of years than I ever had before. (I’ve seen the J.J. Abrams movies; he refuses to.) That’s why, in fact, we ponied up the cash to watch Discovery when it began.

It’s also why I liked it better than he did, at first.

I’m not interested in whether it is appropriately Star Trekky or whether the aesthetic is too dark or what Roddenberry would say (no offense, Gene). I’m interested in good storytelling, good characters, good worldbuilding, good acting. I am, frankly, bored by a lot of “prestige TV,” which tends to be men telling stories about men and their manly manly man-things. And Discovery was a gift on that front.

Particularly, Michael Burnham was a gift.

(Here is where I should say: there will be spoilers)

Continue reading ““Can you bury your heart”? Having feelings about Discovery”

Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us

Early in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, in a moment that establishes the basic setup for the rest of the series, a black woman is sent to prison for life. Standing in the center of a dark room, the only obvious source of light glares down onto her head. She is separated from a row of superior officers both by the staging of the scene and by its dialogue. Where she is bathed in cold, unflattering light, they are silhouetted, faces obscured. Where she stands, far from any physical support, her tribunal is seated, restful. The long desk they share forms a visual barrier separating her from their figures in the frame, which from the camera’s angle of view she almost appears to be displayed upon, like an object under examination.

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“To all these charges,” they ask, “how do you plead?”
“Guilty,” she whispers.
“The accused cannot be heard.”

Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us”

Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

At the time that Westworld first aired, I wasn’t interested. I partly blame the marketing, which presented it as an anchor-style show on the scale of Game of Thrones — and the premise made it sound like it would be just as nihilistically exploitative as Game of Thrones as well. The whole thing sounded exhausting, all the moreso given that the show would surely attract a high level of attention from online critical culture.

Mark this day on your calendar, because it could very well be the first time someone on the internet has openly admited he was wrong. Westworld is absolutely excellent. I think it would have been fun to participate in speculation about where the plot was heading as it happened, and meanwhile I probably could have ignored most of the articles worrying about whether each individual character was given the exactly correct level of agency in every single scene, etc.

The marketing really is to blame, though, because Westworld is not like Game of Thrones. It is more of a niche-market piece, on the scale of Leftovers. And it is the opposite of exploitative or nihilistic. Many shows try to have their cake and eat it too, shaming the audience members who wish that women were not fully human, for example, while still satiating their lusts. Westworld refuses that gambit. There is plenty of nudity, but not of the sensual or tittilating kind — it is the nudity of the slave ship or the concentration camp, the nudity of the morgue. Its violence is at times impressively choreographed, but it is all the more horrifying in that its victims can never escape or effectively fight back.

Westworld already preempts the horrifically ill-conceived Confederate by showing us an unromanticized picture of slavery — and allowing us to understand how such a regime could be tempting and could even seem self-evident. Continue reading “Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld”

Why remake the Handmaid’s Tale now? Gilead as ISIS

I posted this briefly and then pulled it, with the idea of expanding it into a proper article somewhere. But weirdly, a piece about how a show that (1) is over turns out to be (2) not as topical as people think was a hard sell. So here you go!

The Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale is a curious cultural document. It is very well-produced and well-acted and makes the dystopian world feel eerily plausible — and yet the big question that was always lingering for me was, “What exactly is the point of all this?” People like to say that under Trump, we are now living in The Handmaid’s Tale. But even if that were true — which I don’t think it actually is yet, thankfully — that can’t be the motive behind making the series. After all, such decisions had to have been made long before Trump was even a serious candidate, and certainly before his shocking Electoral College technicality.

After watching the finale, I think I know what they were thinking: it’s actually about ISIS, and the political goal is to make American viewers feel sympathetic to refugees. The transposition into American conservative Christianity makes it clear that we’re dealing with a group that is very selective in reading Scripture in ways that feed their political agenda, with no real relation to tradition — making central to their practice obscure stories that even most Christians aren’t familiar with, for example, and taking clearly metaphorical or hyperbolic language (“if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”) to justify brutal violence. The fact that they added the trial of the Commander, resulting in the amputation of his left hand, only reinforces this connection, given that the amputations mandated in the Qur’an (and almost always avoided in traditional Islamic law) are a signature move of ISIS, apparently due to the fact that they offend Western sensibilities. The only way they could have made it clearer would be to have the guy beheaded on camera.

This helps us understand why they included black characters, which don’t make sense in Atwood’s original universe. Isn’t it a weird coincidence that both of the main POV characters who make it to Canada are precisely black? They need the refugees to be racially different from their destination, so that they can implicitly shame the American viewer for racial prejudice against people who are victims of a horrible system. We, too, should be providing refugees with a cell phone, insurance, walking-around money, etc., without even mentioning their race or forcing them to go through a heavy screening process. If you show up and you’re from Gilead, you’re taken care of — and that’s what we should be doing for victims fleeing ISIS.

I am so confident that this is the real motivation that I don’t even care if no one involved in the show admits to it. Naturally, they are going to run with the narrative that their show has in fact prompted — no one wants to say that they made a political allegory that so badly misjudged the political terrain. The shame is that the reading of the show as anti-Trump leads Americans to focus on their own victimhood, completely ignoring the people that the show (somewhat heavy-handedly) wanted us to think about.

The work of literature in the age of Netflix

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The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.