Is Black Mirror Actually Good Now?

For years, I’ve held an unpopular opinion about this Science Fiction show. With “USS Callister,” maybe that’s over

 

I’ve disliked Black Mirror since season 1, but there’s so much positive buzz around it each time a new season rolls around that I’m dragged back in to watching an episode or two and being disappointed all over again. The problem is that it casts itself as a serious show filled with original ideas that like, really make you think, maaaan, but it’s more boring than thought-provoking. “Fifteen Million Merits” (S01E02) is the episode where most of society is basically enslaved and a gameshow with absurdly high stakes is used as a method of control. That is not very original at all. There’s also “Nosedive” (S03E01), where your social standing is entirely based on other peoples’ Yelp-like reviews of you, personally. Not as big a sin as the gameshow thing, but still a concept I found about as interesting as yet another “Are iPhones ruining Millennials?” thinkpiece. And then there’s “San Junipero,” whose central concept was uploading your mind after death. This is such a tired and well-tread SF concept that it’s easier to direct you to the TV Tropes page about it instead of giving examples.

There’s nothing wrong with using what came before. There’s nothing new under the sun, and the cultural chiasmata that results from widespread borrowing is part of the fun of Science Fiction. There are two main issues though with Black Mirror‘s lifting of ideas from the ether: one, many reviewers praise it specifically for its imagination, and two, it’s marketed as one hour of self-contained, high-concept television. When you build a show specifically to explore ideas, and people praise your show for how fresh and new those ideas are, the originality of your concepts is important. Season 5 of Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D. had a great brain-upload virtual universe storyline, and it didn’t land as hackneyed because it was just one element of a character-driven action drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Black Mirror‘s multiple in-episode rants about the State of Society, its completely on-the-nose moralizing, and its self-seriousness disqualify it from the relaxed critical standards that something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. enjoys. Also, much of the dialogue is flabby, a lot of the episodes are either under- or over-acted, and the actual execution of each show is boring. It’s like eating at a white-tie restaurant where the waiter judges you, except all they serve is Quaker Peaches and Cream oatmeal. It does not live up to its mystique. Nothing wrong with oatmeal, it’s just not an interesting food.

 

The first episode of season 4 is good though, I promise

 

OK. Wow. Got carried away there, because it’s easier to talk about hating something than it is to talk about something being good. With all the preceding off of my chest, I can cover how “USS Callister” gives me hope for the new season.

The concept, in which the boss makes virtual, fully sentient copies of his underlings to do his bidding, may have been directly lifted from Vernor Vinge’s 2003 Hugo-award-winning novella. Again, unoriginal concepts are only show-ruining if they’re the only leg on your stool. What this episode does, in contrast to the handful of previous ones I’ve watched, is take that concept as a foundation and build something on it aside from self-important moralizing.

The CTO of a virtual gaming company runs a bootleg, offline version of his game, in which he’s trapped sentient copies of people he feels have wronged him. They know who and where they are, but they are forced to participate smilingly in a game-universe Star Trek retread, and they face terrible consequences if they don’t play along.

The Star Trek retread is entertaining. The actors involved in this one are more interesting (especially Jimmi Simpson, whom I love in everything he does). I felt real horror while watching the antagonist exercise absolute control over the people he’d trapped in his own personal world. While watching “USS Callister,” I enjoyed an engrossing TV show. During every previous episode of Black Mirror, I was constantly aware that Art was being Practiced Upon Me for my Edification, obviously and tiresomely.

I have high hopes for the rest of Season 4 if this trend continues. Sorry this ended up being mostly about me hating previous seasons of Black Mirror — you can leave a comment with your favorite episodes if you feel I need to educate myself.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an incredible movie. But…

Led by Mark Hamill, the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise delivers science fiction fun and excitement, but there are some problems

Despite everything that will follow this first paragraph, you should go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson understands what fun is — he effortlessly recaptures the excitement and wonder of the original trilogy. The opening space battle in particular is gripping. In contrast to prequels infested with bad CGI, every shot is visually stunning, well-constructed, and immediately evokes a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. If you go see The Last Jedi, you will enjoy it, because it is a good, fun movie. If you think about it too much, you might not, since it’s also a lazy one.

General Badness. No spoilers.

 

The Last Jedi’s biggest problem is one it shares with most other modern blockbuster entertainment: everything is constantly hectic and exciting, so there’s almost no space for anything to grow organically. A lack of originality is still apparent in this film. It’s not nearly as bad as in Episode VII, but there are still scenes and beats lifted from the original trilogy with only a slight twist or a different color scheme to set them off. The dominant plot thread is an unbelievably boring framing device (more details later), and it takes up about a third of the total screentime. There’s also a 30-minute side jaunt that could have been cut completely from the film without it losing anything at all (again, more later).

General Goodness. Getting slightly more spoilery.

 

I would watch Old Man Luke on an island for its own spinoff trilogy. Mark Hamill is hands-down the best thing in this movie: the tension created by an old, jaded Master Skywalker playing counterpoint to everyone’s memories of the naive and exceedingly optimistic young Luke is delicious, and Hamill’s gravelly, tired voice really sells it. Everything we learn about the island, why Luke’s there, and what his current philosophy on the Force is is wonderful — Star Wars’ focus on mythos is what sets it apart from more straight-up sci-fi like Star Trek (another movie series that is extremely entertaining but, like this trilogy, suffering from actionitis). Every shot in the movie is well-put-together — it does a lot for a film when each frame is just fun to look at, regardless of what’s happening in it. Finally, the space battles, when they happen, create the exact same lift and thrill as the originals did. Rian Johnson understands action and how to make sure viewers have a good time. The choreography is a huge improvement over the original trilogy, in which people with vast supernatural powers and laser swords made the same four strikes over and over again, and over the prequels, in which everything was insanely baroque (seriously — in Revenge of the Sith, there was a two-second period in the final fight where all they did was twirl lightsabers in the other’s general direction). The problem is not with any individual scene, but the slapdash quality of the overarching narrative itself.

Specific Badness. Definite spoilers.

 

Grand Admiral Thrawn is so good
If Disney is going to slaughter the entire Expanded Universe by corporate fiat, they need to be able to produce stories at least as good as those they’ve nuked

The two main plot threads are Rey on the island with Luke and the Resistance fleeing a New Order fleet attempting to wipe them out. The first one is fine, but the flight for survival among the Resistance? It’s not an assault, it’s not a pitched battle — literally all that happens for the majority of the movies’ central narrative is that three Resistance cruisers fly slightly faster than their New Order pursuers. It’s an absurd way to spend movie time. There’s a 30-minute sidequest in which Finn and Rose (new generic engineer character) go to a casino planet to get a “master codebreaker” to infiltrate and disable the tracking system of the main enemy ship. Since they basically just walked into the New Order’s top-secret superweapon in the previous film, this looks and feels like narrative padding, or at best a cheap solution to past criticism. The film would have lost nothing had it been completely removed. The movie still struggles with originality. The final battle is of the rebels holed up in a cave base on a desert salt planet as AT-ATs close in. Salt looks a lot like snow. A conflicted but mostly evil Ren brings Rey to his master. After watching her fight ineffectually against him for a bit, Kylo Ren kills the Emperor. I mean the Supreme Leader, sorry.

The biggest creative sin of the movie, however, is that no one involved has any patience to build anything. Two and a half hours of instant gratification leaves a movie that feels cheap, whose slick look and explosive action are stretched over a hollow core. The writing behind the characters and love stories, the training and development of Force powers, and the direction of the trilogy itself is a rushed afterthought, always taking a backseat to (very well done) action and (less well done) comradely quips.

  1. Han/Leia vs. Rey/Finn — in the original trilogy, Han and Leia cordially dislike each other in Ep IV, have a snarky and increasingly sexually tense relationship in Ep V, ending with the immortal “I know,” and even in Ep. VI, until Leia sets him straight, Han thinks she’s pining for Luke. Their relationship unfurls slowly, and the result is solid and believable because it has been built over the course of years. In the new movies, Finn and Rey become buds after an initial misunderstanding, and now are yearning for each other throughout because hey, the male and female leads love each other because it’s a movie. 
  2. Jedi Training — Luke received a few days of training from Obi-Wan and could barely even access the force. Rey has a three-minute conversation with Luke about the Force (and maybe a few days, few weeks of training?) and is suddenly the equal of Kylo Ren. She didn’t work for it. It’s not as fun watching her use those powers because she didn’t earn them — Luke sweated in Dagobah, went into self-training exile between Eps V and VI, and finally, after four years of in-movie time, is kinda-sorta-halfway prepared to face Vader. “She’s just that powerful” doesn’t excuse it. First off, that doesn’t keep it from being bad narrative. Secondly, it doesn’t matter if you are the strongest, fastest human on the planet — if you’ve never seen a basketball before in your life, you are not going to be schooling LeBron in a week. Also, an undertrained, overpowered Force sensitive is, throughout the entire history of Star Wars, the single biggest threat to the balance of the universe. So that’s just being ignored now, since she’s so incredibly powerful? That just makes her more dangerous. 
  3. The Overall Trilogy — Where are these movies going? What is their point? In the originals, there was a clearly delineated if simple hero’s quest: farmboy discovers inner strength, develops it, suffers setbacks, but eventually rises to defeat the Empire. In contrast, the new trilogy goes back and forth so often it becomes muddled — we’re the Resistance but actually we’re funded by the New Republic but oh whoops the splinter terrorist group the New Order killed the entire Republic in two minutes and now they’re the Empire and we’re the Rebels lol! This is happening because no one on this project cares about delivering consistency as much as they care about delivering thrills.

 

Specific Good. Still spoilers.

 

One of the greatest moments in all of Star Wars is when Kylo and Rey defeat Snoke, Rey is ecstatic about having saved “Ben” from the Dark Side, and then he’s all like, “Join me, we’ll rule together. Have you not been listening this whole time? I’m evil!” A+ Rian, great job.

Also, because it can’t be said enough, angry Luke wandering around an island. Would watch forever. His entire redemption arc is the best thing in the movie.

 

On sandwiches.

 

Does nostalgia play a role in my higher estimation of the original trilogy? Absolutely. I can’t deny that Ewoks happened. Neither can I defend a desert planet rube being cleared as a fighter pilot for an assault on the most advanced battle station in the Galaxy. The difference is that the original trilogy took its time and actually paid attention to narrative structure and character development. The trilogy-long arc of Luke’s struggle to become savior of the galaxy is believable. I cared what happened to Han, Luke, and Leia. I knew them well. The main character traits of this new crop are how powerful they are, how good they are at flying X-wings, or how quippy they are — they don’t have time to be anything else. The new trilogy has done so much so well. If they slowed down and actually put in the writing work to get the story to where they needed it to be (instead of just declaring THINGS ARE LIKE THIS NOW and expecting the audience to follow along), they could be truly great.

I do not have a monopoly on movie opinions (unlike Disney now has on movie making). Feel free to tell me how I’m wrong and I might even agree with you. The only problematic take I see is the idea that those who didn’t love The Last Jedi are hidebound purists, clinging to their original trilogy with gnarled fingers, terrified of change. Look, I didn’t dislike The Last Jedi because it was different. Hell, I didn’t even dislike The Last Jedi. I’m not mad. I’m disappointed in how much better the film could have been. If I’m eating a pulled pork sandwich and you replace it with bologna, I’m not disappointed because I fear change. I’m disappointed because now I have to eat a fucking bologna sandwich.

Hulu’s Sci-Fi Comedy Future Man is a refreshing surprise

Original and fearless, it answers the question “What would happen if we mixed Terminator with Pineapple Express?”

Future Man is, without a doubt, the greatest janitor-centered time travel comedy of 2017. The concept is straightforward: Josh Futterman, a custodial worker at a biolab, lives with his parents and spends his free time playing Biotic Wars under the moniker Future Man. When he beats the game (the first person to do so), he discovers that it’s actually a recruitment/training simulation. Two future warriors straight out of an 80s B-movie materialize in his bedroom and tell him the Biotic Wars are real and he’s humanity’s savior.

Here it is: https://www.hulu.com/grid/future-man. It’s unfortunately only available with a Hulu account, but you need to be watching A Handmaid’s Tale anyway, so it shouldn’t be that painful.

The show takes a little time to get off the ground. The first couple of episodes are rough because it’s so clearly wish fulfillment — the loser with a dead-end job gets to hang out with Time Marines. As it becomes more and more clear that any easy tropes Future Man uses are there to be subverted, the narrative becomes more interesting. By episode 5, the rightness of the war against the Biotics is called into question, and what was a goofy, fun sci-fi romp becomes a goofy, fun, sci-fi romp filled with moral ambiguity and existential doubt. It’s an amazing turn — one minute you’re laughing at Rogenesque (Seth is a producer) dick jokes, and the next you’re asking what reality is. The skeleton of this show is a time-travel comedy, but it’s fleshed out with writing that trusts the audience, true character development, and really careful attention to plot.

Entertainment is the defining feature of each episode — every one is laugh-out-loud funny. This ranges from dumb, crude jokes (the instant the soldiers materialize in Josh’s bedroom, he’s masturbating) to extremely complex and rewarding long-arc humor — grizzled warrior Wolf discovers a hidden talent for cuisine and spends the rest of the show conflicted between his persona as a Michelin-level talent and a man who can rip someone’s head off with his bare hands.

Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is to become a super soldier or die

The attention to character is a big part of what gives the show real substance. Tiger and Wolf are parodies of 80s action heroes, and they absolutely are everything you’d expect as a result: trained killers, strong, direct, and unversed in 21st century niceties. Unlike the 80s movies that inspired these two, Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is become a super soldier or die. At one point, Josh attempts to kiss Tiger, and she almost throws up. She asks why he would want to put “ratholes” together (“What else would you call the hole you stuff rats into?”), revealing the deep intimacy issues created in a kill-or-be-killed world. In addition to a realistic portrayal of the dark side of being a badass future soldier, the show shepherds each of the leading characters through personal development. Josh becomes more dedicated, more confident, and more able to work towards his goals. Tiger becomes more willing to express emotions, and Wolf (in what is possibly the best episode of the series) moves from being an unquestioning grunt into pursuing personal fulfillment to the hilt. It’s a goofy comedy, but its serious attention to true human emotion keeps it from being only that.

[E]ach change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results

The time travel in Future Man is the most painstaking exploration of the concept to make it to any type of screen in the last few years. The central conflict involves going back in time to assassinate the inventor of the super serum that creates the genocidal Biotics. The show is mainly a catalogue of how the multiple attempts and failures of the main trio shred the timeline more and more irreparably. Actions have consequences, and that is such an important quality of good narrative. For example, the most disappointing thing about Doctor Who’s decline in the post-Tennant years is its creeping but inexorable movement away from time travel having rules. In Doctor Who, if something is broken beyond repair, the Doctor can literally just scream I’M THE DOCTOR, completely ignore all rules of internal narrative consistency, and change everything to suit him. The writers make no reference to previously unbreakable rules, to commonly accepted time travel tropes, or even a decent explanation of exactly what it is the Doctor is doing. The absolute lack of consequences has transformed Doctor Who from a show written with kids in mind to a kids’ show. Future Man is on the other end of the spectrum — each change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results (the funniest and most trivial of which is Josh accidentally making his parents name him “Joosh”). The explanations for how time travel works don’t necessarily make sense because time travel itself doesn’t make sense, but the writers never insult the audience with hand-waving — they stick to their internally-consistent guns and explore consequences rationally.

While the show doesn’t get its feet under it until about episode four, it is impressive once it gets going. The writers chose what they wanted this show to be with no consideration for who would want to follow, no focus-group simplification — they just went for it, and the resulting joy of creation translates into a palpable energy in every scene. The contrast at the center of the show is constantly stimulating — it’s very much a goofy bro sci-fi show, but it explores its morals and characters with the utmost seriousness. Even if this show had no other saving graces, the montage where Wolf falls in love with the 80s is, by itself, worth the Hulu subscription.

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is all about one thing — killing Nazis

The newest entry in the anti-fascist franchise brings the fight to America

 

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is about one thing — killing every lowdown, dirty Nazi you see. It really doesn’t need a plot — the momentum of that overwhelming prime directive is enough to carry the game. The gameplay is basic point-and-shoot, but the customizability of weapons loadouts lends engaging variety to the simplicity. The character-level plot is pretty fuzzy and choppy, but the creepy, believably-crafted alternate history setting is strong enough to power the overarching plot: Nazis won World War II, they’ve annexed the United States, and your job is to set off a revolution that will burn Nazism out of America forever.

This is somehow a controversial political stance in today’s America. I wasn’t in the market for a shooter, but I picked up this game because there was an alt-right backlash, an actual backlash, against this tweet: https://twitter.com/wolfenstein/status/916075551382585344. It’s a basic promotional tweet, but the phrase “Make America Nazi-Free Again” ruffled some feathers on the internet. This ridiculous outrage, plus Bethesda’s response to it (uh, guys — we thought the “Are Nazis Bad” question was settled 70 years ago) made me decide to pick up the game, in which I spent 20 hours Making America Nazi-Free Again.

 

Everyone rips off The Man in the High Castle

 

Nazism is one of the great universally agreed evils (or at least it was) in the world. The USA built its modern mythos off of our actions to help topple a genocidal maniac and our assistance to a war-ravaged Europe in the postwar years, but the world of Wolfenstein takes that from us. We didn’t win. We don’t get to claim we helped save the world — the Nazis get to claim they own it. The proofs of this throughout the game are so visceral — from a nuked and crumbling Manhattan to a prison-city New Orleans, with Nazi machines of war patrolling to keep undesirables in check. The destruction of a major metropolis and the systematic genocide of American citizens, the construction of concentration camps on American soil, the colonization of the United States by the Reich — all of it feels real, constructed out of the surreal yet solid plausibility of nightmares.

 

Nazi parades and prison cities

 

The plot really is just to kill all Nazis, to systematically eliminate high-ranking targets in order to advance the interests of the rebellion, but the world of The New Colossus gives more than enough weight to the story. The artistic interest in the game isn’t so much what you do, but where you’re doing it. The vision of an America complicit in the Reich is stomach-churning, and supplies all the narrative impetus necessary to get you through the game. It’s in the details, like when you go to a Nazi parade down the streets of a small American town and overhear a German soldier berating a fawning Klansman for his atrocious pronunciation of the German he’s learning. It’s in the reaction of the propagandized citizenry to who you are — you’re not B.J. Blazkowicz, Polish-American hero of the ill-fated World War II, you’re Terror-Billy, indiscriminate killer and scourge to all upstanding American citizens. It’s in the casual complicity of those American citizens who are powerful — stand with the Reich, and the Reich will stand with you.

 

Bullets, bullets, and more bullets

 

This being a Wolfenstein game, the solution to this problem is to find all the bullets you can and fire them as quickly as you can. The enjoyment of the actual weapons use was a welcome surprise here. Bethesda treads a careful line between simplicity and variety — the choices aren’t overwhelming, but the customizability of each weapon and the ability to dual-wield mixed types makes it easy to match your exact loadout to how you want to play. I went with a LaserKraftWerk in my left hand, and a fully-optimized shotgun in my right. The first is a one-shot kill laser gun that’s a little bit touchy to aim, and the second is, well, a shotgun. The laser cut through all the distant opponents and all the heavily armored ones, and the shotgun obliterated close enemies and took care of cleanup in case of my poor aim with the laser. One issue with the game is, if you want to really buy in to the mythos of Terror-Billy, you might want to play on an easier setting. I eventually got the hang of things, but I spent a good half of the game getting absolutely brutalized by grunt soldiers, which really didn’t fit with the idea of B.J. Blazkowicz as an unstoppable killing machine.

The game is not a must-play, but it’s fun as hell. If you’re craving a shooter, I strongly recommend picking this one up. The horror of its alternate reality is plausible enough to hit you in the pit of your stomach, the gunplay is fast and engaging, and the game is a good reminder that yes, Nazis always have and always will be a Very Bad Thing.

Three essential features Blade Runner 2049 inherited from the original science-fiction classic

God, Philip K. Dick. You're the greatest

Visual style, an ethical dilemma, and great casting made the original Blade Runner incredible, and Denis Villeneuve built the sequel the same way

The science fiction neo-noir classic Blade Runner is the single greatest book adaptation ever made. It’s laughably divergent from its source material — it picked up Philip K. Dick’s concept of androids and that the world was screwed and didn’t run with much else. Usually, this ends poorly for everyone involved, and the result is less like Lord of the Rings and more like The Hobbit. The film worked because androids, the idea it cuts out of the book like a painting out of a gilt frame, is morally and intellectually the most interesting part, and because it filled in all the holes around that idea with a style so distinct and clear that every frame of the film is a work of art. Also, Harrison Ford’s star wattage doesn’t hurt.

The gulf between an original movie and a 35-years-late sequel is similar to the distance between a book and its movie. Blade Runner 2049 took a different direction with its source material — a direct and respectful homage to its original. The difference between it and something like The Force Awakens is that it stakes out enough of its own turf not to be an artistic failure. Hate to be a buzzkill, and I loved seeing it in theaters, but The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope without a single new idea of its own. So, why is Blade Runner 2049 a success?

Well, before you go any further, take a gander at what you can see in theaters this weekend:

The strengths of the original Blade Runner

The success of the first Blade Runner comes down to its visuals, the stimulating central problem of replicants, and Harrison Ford. Its worldbuilding is the greatest artistic achievement of that decade, and it builds its world with visuals. Everything is gritty, wet, and cramped, either too bright or too dark, except for the Tyrell corporation building which is a soft-lit, wide temple to wealth and power. Rick Deckard’s job in the movie is “retiring” rogue replicants, androids who have begun acting anomalously. The movie spins around the moral core of killing sentient beings just because they’re acting like sentient beings, i.e. seeking freedom. Deckard never seems thrilled to be doing it, and towards the end of the film he not only falls in love with a replicant, but begins doubting whether he is one. Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard is the final style piece of the film — no one has a better put-upon-why-me face, and he’s also Harrison freaking Ford.

The movie’s plot is well-constructed, but it’s not the central component of the movie’s watchability. The action in Blade Runner is understated, almost ponderous, but what keeps the film going is that every single frame is beautiful, is art. It’s easy to watch because the literal act of viewing each frame is rewarding.

Blade Runner 2049, genetics, and inheritance

Blade Runner 2049 is definitely its father’s son. Denis Villeneuve tries to rebuild the same world Ridley Scott constructed in 1982, just adding in three more decades of we’re-screwed. There’ve been several bloody replicant revolutions and a complete ecological collapse. The first bankrupted the Tyrell Corporation (original manufacturer of replicants) and the second was solved by the agri-tech of Blade Runner 2049’s main antagonist, Niander Wallace (who bought up Tyrell’s assets and started making “safer” replicants).

Denis Villeneuve pays the same attention to visual worldbuilding as Ridley Scott did, only it’s a world 30 years more bleak. Urban areas are an industrial wasteland filled with scavengers, rust, and death, and natural spaces are an ecological wasteland filled with cracked earth, dust storms, and dead trees. People live in the middle of these extremes, in a cityscape filled with ever-advancing technology. The interplay of light and dark, the picture-perfect artistry of each frame of the movie is still there, paying perfect homage to the original.

The ethics of the sequel have shifted. Not only has the replicant-as-slave trope been made explicit, with Niander Wallace (tech magnate and the current manufacturer of replicants) stating that “[e]very civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce” and regretting that he couldn’t breed replicants (as slaves were bred), but the main character, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, starts the movie as an indisputable replicant, the property of the L.A.P.D. Blade Runner’s morality was ambiguous — the inventor of replicants, Eldon Tyrell, was a benevolent creator, and Rick Deckard’s attitude was “I’m killing replicants, ain’t it a shame, but hey, what else can we do?” In Blade Runner 2049, a definite replicant is struggling with issues of identity and morality. An unambiguous member of an oppressed class is at the center of the sequel, which changes the ethical landscape significantly. Not to mention Jared Leto’s amazingly creepy Niander Wallace is, unlike Eldon Tyrell, undoubtedly a Bad Guy (murder, torture, etc.).

Blade Runner 2049 has the same approach to plot as its progenitor — make it good, but don’t make it the center of the movie. The sheer beauty of the world that’s built is what makes the film. Its approach to action is a bit different — in the original, it’s a few short bursts of gunplay and chasing. In 2049, the fight scenes might be rare, but they’re definitely modern. Officer K is literally, as he was built, a killing machine, and it’s impressive to watch when he gets in a corner where the only way out is violence.

Ryan Gosling vs Harrison Ford

How cruel to put any actor up against living legend Harrison Ford, but Gosling does a really great job. Same balance of grim but emotional right underneath, same ratio of acting chops versus sheer ability to look cool. Ryan Gosling might be Harrison Ford for Millennials — good actor, attractive, with the ability to fill out an action movie without being typecast as an action star. Harrison Ford is part of what made Blade Runner great, and Ryan Gosling definitely adds style and charm to 2049. Ford is a legend, but Gosling is a worthy inheritor.

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel every great movie deserves

Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor are both primarily visual experiences. The plot of each is clear and strong, but the center of each film is just seeing the world it builds. Each frame, as a still photo, is interesting enough to make you want to see the next one. Preserving and intensifying the central moral quandary of the original and adding Gosling’s star power to the mix just adds more to love.

Blade Runner 2049 is heavily indebted to the original, but that’s by design. What’s important is that Villeneuve had the courage to use everything important about the original film — the stunning visual style and the central moral question of replicants — but still carve out his own original space. It might not be taught in film classes like Blade Runner is (yet), but the beauty of a director making an intellectual property his own is that one-to-one comparisons are no longer relevant. Villeneuve and Gosling made their own thing here, and it stands alone, and it stands strong.

Three Pillars That Make Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti So Incredible

Her inventiveness, her attention to emotion, and her information-dense, fast-paced style build a rock-solid science-fiction story

I have a bad habit of only finding amazing books/series/authors right as they’re about to explode into the mainstream. For example, I devoured A Song of Ice and Fire when the television show was already in production but not released. I did it again with Nnedi Okorafor. She’s been writing award-winning stories for years and years, and only a few days ago, in the midst of all the buzz about her work becoming an HBO show, did I pick up my first one, Binti.

Kindle Binti novella manual picture
So I only have this on Kindle…this seemed like the best way to take a picture of the book.

You can get the whole series (3rd novella pending release) here: https://www.amazon.com/Binti-3-Book-Series/dp/B06XSRMZ72. Trust me, you’ll want to if you read the first one.

The first pillar is the author’s sheer creativity. This is the most inventive and fresh thing I’ve read in months. Nnedi Okorafor’s novella (the first of a set of three) is not really a happy story, but there’s a lightness and a joy in her creation, from biological interstellar ships that are basically giant star-shrimp, to the main character’s tech, based around “harmonizing,” which is a form of mathematical comprehension of the world so deep it may as well be sorcery. Binti uses harmonizing to optimize the astrolabes her family makes their living on. Astrolabes fit the same cultural niche as our smartphones but are much more powerful and beautiful. All this takes place in an afro-futurist world, where tech is extraordinarily advanced and cultural roots run deep. The conflict between the traditional expectations Binti’s family levies on her and her ambition of studying at the galaxy’s most prestigious university planet is the central emotional conceit of the novella.

The second pillar is Okorafor’s realistic attention to emotion. A general flaw of a lot of classic SFF is its treatment of emotion. It’s either overweeningly mawkish or nearly nonexistent. This is why rereads of Heinlein and Asimov just don’t grab me — the emotion that’s there is either too robotic or too overwrought. In Binti, Okorafor gives emotion its due — presents the concerns and internal torments of her characters in a clear and matter-of-fact manner — and then lets their actions as they navigate their problems do the rest of the explaining. Binti neither denies nor overfocuses on emotion. Okorafor plants the internal lives of her characters firmly, then builds the story around them without letting it get weighed down by them.

The third pillar of Binti’s greatness is the “chunk of meat” storytelling style. There’s a chunk of meat on your dinner plate that you don’t recognize. You ask what it is, but the chef shrugs her shoulders and walks away from your table. You are confused, but the presentation is interesting, and the aroma rising from it is irresistible, so you eat it, still lost but enjoying it immensely. “Oh, the main character can use math to generate an advanced meditative state, cool, great…oh ok, the ship she’s taking to university is a giant shrimp with titanium-hard skin. Cool, sure. Huh. Pass the gravy, this is delicious.” Okorafor’s chunk of meat style puts discrete and not-fully-explained pieces of the world in front of you, and the time she saves not info-dumping everything gives an immediacy to the story that carries you on a great wave, like how the Meduse…well, you’ll find out what that species does when you read the novella.

Binti is fresh and strong, from its powerfully-described world to its extremely relatable, loveable main character. Part of the freshness is its afro-futurism, and the impact of reading about an African spacefaring culture is every bit as refreshing as reading fantasy that’s not chock full of ogres and elves. It’s also a vital piece in building diversity in SFF — this triumphal entry in the field makes it a more inclusive and interesting place.

Why Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is perfect Science Fiction

Butler's Science Fiction Masterpiece

She hits the big three of SF: detailed world-building, great characters, and compelling plot

Octavia Butler needs no further praise, but she definitely deserves it, so here we go. Parable of the Sower is just one present under a very well-stocked Christmas tree of literary achievement. Her oeuvre is filled throughout with characters who struggle with believable problems in relatable ways, and with powerful new ideas that are not only appealing in an oh-that’s-cool way, but because they go right to the core of how people do live, and how they should live. Butler delivers all of these gifts in a direct, conversational prose that makes opening and enjoying them a deep and simple pleasure. The only person that competes with her for simplicity and clarity of writing is Ursula K. Le Guin.

Pick up the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Parable-Sower-Earthseed-Octavia-Butler/dp/0446675504

Where are we when we enter Octavia Butler’s world?

Octavia Butler's fallen California
Pretty much everywhere is this. It’s not great. Credit: TheschmallfellaCC BY-SA 3.0

The most striking accomplishment of Parable of the Sower is how believable its world is. Butler makes such small, but ultimately such significant changes to our world. The book opens in 2024, centering around a walled community 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.

The opening has all the shapes of normal life. Children doing chores. A sermon. A minister’s daughter getting baptized. Except the chores include picking fruit and vegetables from the family’s extensive home garden because store-bought food is prohibitively expensive, the sermon happens in the minister’s front room because his church, outside the neighborhood walls, was burned down, and the baptism, which takes place in a friend’s church across town, is preceded by a harrowing bike ride accompanied by armed adults through burned-out streets strewn with the starving and desperate. These details are ubiquitous — the forms of normal life linked with the changes that have already taken place, and those that are coming. Another couple of details: five kids are getting baptized together because all of their families went in together to share the debilitating expense of the gallons of potable water necessary for the ritual, and almost everyone works from home with weekly or monthly in-person check-ins because a daily commute is just too dangerous.

I could keep listing these for another ten pages, but I’m not Octavia Butler, so it would be extremely boring. Butler weaves all of these in so inseparably from the narrative impulsion of the story that each individual one passes notice, but their collective impact builds a world that seems kind of normal but is in constant flux and danger. Any of the trappings of normalcy are willfully imposed by the older generation. The protagonist lives in a gated community, completely normal! The tops of its walls are covered in crushed glass, and the keys to the front gate are jealously guarded by the heads of household. Oh…

Characters are at the center of any good fiction

The key to Octavia Butler’s work is her understanding of how people actually function, how they are. All writers, when they construct characters, are building facsimiles that readers are willing to accept if they’re done well enough. There’s no way to actually capture everything people are in a handful of words, but Butler comes close.

Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, is a young black girl, old enough to have some responsibility in the world, but young enough not to view responsibility as clinging to the structures of a dying past. Her father is a powerful presence, the neighborhood minister, a sensibly-acting and deep-thinking man who is the main personality actually holding the community together. The central conflict of the early book, aside from survival, is the clash between this strong-willed daughter and her stubborn father. They love each other deeply, but see the world in fundamentally different ways:

“Do you think our world is coming to an end?” Dad asked, and with no warning at all, I almost started crying. I had all I could do to hold it back. What I thought was, “No, I think your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it.” That was terrible. I hadn’t thought about it in such a personal way before. I turned and looked out the window until I felt calmer.

Butler is so good at people. They can fight and yell and disagree and love each other deeply. Lauren is in the midst of a big fight with her dad, and almost loses control and cries because she contemplates the death of the person being so antagonistic to her.

The most rewarding part of the early book is this relationship: strong, intelligent Lauren Olamina clashing with the man who raised her to be strong and intelligent. She recognizes her debt to him even as she hopes for an escape from his strictures:

I love him. He’s the best person I know, and I care what he thinks. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

Earthseed: the world’s going to hell, why not start a new religion?

Olamina's religion journal
This is all Lauren Oya Olamina needed to begin her own religion. What have you done lately?

As Lauren navigates this conflict, she logs everything in her journal. In fact, that’s the book. The Parable of the Sower is a series of Lauren’s journal entries, sometimes with a day between them, sometimes a month. The confessional style matches well with Butler’s vivid and conversational prose — the accessibility of the writing mixes with the emotional immediacy of the journal to cook a completely satisfying, easy-to-consume meal. As easy and fun to eat as McDonald’s, as nutritious as a kale salad. Another key function of the journal is it’s where Lauren starts building her new religion — Earthseed. Again, the entire world of the book is built on the linking of the completely normal (teenage girl journaling) with the new and strange (she’s journaling about her homegrown religion). Here’s verses 1 and 3 of Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina’s religious text:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

———————-

We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change.

This is what drives Lauren through the story. God is change, and it’s humanity’s job to shape God, to accept, anticipate and influence change. It weaves over and around all that happens in the story: Lauren’s acceptance of and attempted control of change, from growing up in a civilized island in a sea of lawlessness, to surviving the fall of her neighborhood (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this has to happen), to traveling coastal California attempting to find a better life. God is Change.

The Big Three of Science Fiction

The Parable of the Sower is everything that’s great in SF. All the science fiction I love shares three traits: well-built characters, a detailed world, and narrative impulsion. Without believable, relatable characters, what is there to care about (ahem, Asimov)? Without a detailed exploration of the world, how the world came about, the anthropology of the society, then the otherworldiness of the SF is just a gimmick. And without narrative impulsion, where each page gives you a reason to turn to the next one, what you have is a boring book. The characters and world of Butler are built with a loving attentiveness to detail, and once you care about the characters and how they move through the world, that’s half the narrative impulsion right there. What provides the rest is the suspense Butler creates in describing Lauren moving through increasing danger towards her goal: is she going to get there? Oh no that was close! I have to find out! Octavia Butler is a champion, and reading her is a privilege.