Raised by Wolves
Raised by Wolves is one of those TV series that I sort of knew I was going to like, before I even watched it. It’s Ridley Scott directing the first two episodes, and they’re remarkable, pure storytelling mastery. There’s a lot to like here, the visual look of the series, intriguing ideas, great special effects, world building, really impressive performances by all the actors.
On the slight downside for me, it veered from science fiction into fantasy towards the end, and the promise of one plot outcome was nullified and turned into something else, which as shocking as it was, still felt like the original promise might have been more intriguing. There’s a little too much in the way of the horror trope ‘ghost’ character and mysterious inner voices for my liking, which we’ve seen before in Lost and the Battlestar Galactica reboot. What will season two bring?
In Omar El Akkad’s sweltering, dust ridden future, the post second civil war America has entered into a major role reversal where it’s become a failed state and foreign nations are sending it charitable aid. The nation’s energy and capacity to improve the lives of its citizens has been diminished by its lack of unity and the meddling of overseas powers who are keen to keep America down. Among these enemies is a Middle Eastern empire that can’t help tinkering with internal US politics, all in the name of altruism.
Central to the novel is a core irony, and a warning – you don’t want your grandchildren to live in this version of America.
Doggerland is a literary science fiction novel by Ben Smith. It takes place in a future where the oceans have risen and the two main characters (one older, one younger), do their best to maintain an offshore wind farm. The novel is really focused on tone. There’s not much to go on in terms of the characters, an involved plot, or world building outside of the wind farm. This deliberate limitation reduces the scope in some ways, but it also simplifies the story, freeing it up to take on a parable-like quality.
- The Faculty is a time capsule from 1998. When, it seems, everything had to be a cross-genre teen-movie, set in a high school campus and featuring loads of comedy gags and bloody gore. And yes The Faculty is a science fiction horror film… that’s set in a high school campus and it does feature comedy and gore. These teen and twenty-something films often had an obligatory 90s rock/pop/indie soundtrack. They were populated by pretty, disillusioned teenagers unable to ‘be themselves’, and fighting the bullshit and hypocrisy of the adult world. The Faculty incorporates every possible genre cliché – a parasitical alien life-form invades a high school, first taking over the faculty and then the students. A bunch of disgruntled kids, who previously hated one another, are forced to work together to defeat the alien being.
- Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, is set in a real American town and it’s written in the first person. The story happens through the eyes and experience of the protagonist. There’s a slightly gothic tone to the narrator’s voice. The 1956 adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, feels like a metaphor for Communism and Cold War paranoia. The 1978 adaptation is more science fiction horror addressing issues around the creepiness of social conformity and retaining independent thought, but it can also be interpreted within a domestic US political context. It’s also a great example of a film with a shock ending. Science fiction stories that feature aliens mimicking humans, virtual worlds, or stories that incorporate synthetic human-like characters, provoke audiences to ask, what does it mean to be human? They also present us with the fear of losing our humanity, and they pose questions about authenticity – real versus simulation. What is real? The body snatcher stories are sometimes referred to as ‘paranoid conspiracy’ stories. They express powerful fears and anxieties about the uncanny, reality and illusion. They are also classic mystery stories, where the protagonist must uncover the truth. In the case of the 1978 film, the ‘pod people’ are metaphors for social programming and a widespread fear in the US of government duplicity in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
- The Expanse is a hugely watchable, binge-worthy science fiction series. It offers plenty of action, world building, and exciting characters. It’s easy to see why the series has built up such an enthusiastic following. The technology always feels believable. It’s more Alien cargo ship than shiny Star Trek interior. The first two seasons are addictive viewing, but in-spite of this the show was cancelled. When it was picked up again, after episode seven of season three it falls off a cliff edge. The main story arc gets to a place where the narrative feels like it’s reached a point of completion.
- The Midnight Sky is something of a mixed offering. In it, there are two parallel stories that don’t quite merge together. In one, an old scientist contemplates his life at the end of the world. He finds a girl at the polar research station where he was alone and takes her to the relative safety that lies further north. The other story involves a spaceship that’s returning from its cosmic exploration with news that it has discovered a planet that can sustain human life. The problem is, the earth that they they are returning to is about to become a radioactive wilderness (presumably after a Nuclear conflict). And, it just happens that a pregnant woman in this returning spaceship is revealed to be the old man's (real, non-imagined) daughter.
- Based on the book of the same name by Thomas Piketty, the documentary film, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes a whistle stop tour of inequalities in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries in an attempt to figure out the implications for the 21st Century. The use of interesting film footage combined with cleverly chosen background music and interview soundbites keeps the argument moving. And while it might not really say anything particularly new, it does combine a number of ideas into a single argument.
- New in Town is cheesy, schmaltzy, and entirely formulaic – and that’s why I like it. We all need some ‘crap entertainment’ to cheer us up, especially in 2020. The story manages to pack in every rom-com cliché and include all the Christmas film tropes possible. She’s a city girl (Renee Zellweger), an arrogant, impatient, selfish, self-obsessed, image conscious, judgemental, and ambitious executive who’s desperate to climb the corporate ladder. He’s (Harry Connick Jr) a laid back, chilled out, easy going, union leader, country boy, who is always ready to help others. The Scrooge-like city character embraces change and learns to be a less selfish, kinder, and a more generous person.
- Stephen R Platt’s non-fiction book, Imperial Twilight, chronicles the arrival of British traders on the Chinese coast. It also presents an account of Imperial China’s decline and the Opium War (1839-1842). It took a long time for British traders to win unfettered access to the Chinese market. The Chinese managed to control trade with foreigners, who were forbidden from learning the Chinese language and were only permitted to live in small trading posts called ‘factories’, where women were not allowed. And they were only permitted to trade with a select and pre-approved group of merchants. Platt paints a detailed picture of Imperial China, which was wealthy and highly civilised, but constantly struggling with peasant rebellions. The Communist Revolution should not have been a surprise, it was a hundred years in the making. These sporadic uprisings became a financial burden on the state, forcing it to raise armies in order to maintain control. Also fascinating is the whole Opium War saga. While most people deplore the notion of pushing drugs today, Opium was legal in Britain at that time and it was not considered socially harmful, in the way it is now. Having said this, the British were divided about the Opium trade and the political fights in parliament make the Brexit debate look like nothing. It’s sobering to think that the British have always had a pugnacious public debate about political matters. It’s slightly weird how notions about ‘free trade’ were so visceral and ideological. And it was free trade in the most literal sense. There was also the issue of dealing with the East India Company which was almost a nation state in itself – it had its own army. There was also a bizarre situation where the British government was dependent on tea taxation, and the Chinese state was dependent on the money it received from selling tea to Britain. Along the way, the Chinese made some huge miscalculations. They had a patronising view about Europeans and their technology, and they completely failed to understand how powerful the Royal Navy had become. The truth about Imperial China’s decline is that, like all empires, although they may face numerous external threats, they all tend to fall apart from within. In China’s case, no one was able to reform its chronic corruption. This led to organisational ossification, which exacerbated its ability to change. At some point there’s no longer a willingness to maintain an empire, complacency sets in, and they implode – the upkeep doesn’t seem worth it. This happened to the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and to the Soviet Union.
- Christopher Nolan, space, and time. Christopher Nolan’s films revolve around concepts of space and time with time operating a spacial construct, as an aesthetic representation of time. To be honest, I have no idea what’s going on. There’s something about the future… reverse entropy, and being able to change the present by going backwards through time. Nolan is a sort of cinematic Cubist. If there can be multiple viewpoints of time and space in a single painting, surely there can be reverse entropy in a film? Unfortunately, in the same way that Cubism became a style and an aesthetic spectacle, Tenet feels much the same. I didn't find the concept convincing and whenever the actors attempted to explain what was going on, it felt ridiculous. Tenet is a weird cocktail with amazing ingredients, but conflicting flavours. I wasn’t sure what I was tasting, or if I liked the drink.
- James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father is a short work on non fiction by Len Deighton. In it he discusses his lunchtime encounters with Ian Fleming, the novel writing process, writing screenplays (the gap between the audience and what the protagonist knows), film production, artistic credit, creative rivalries, ownership of rights… and Kevin McClory. James Bond came into being through multiple creative processes that were often in conflict with one another.
- Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 science fiction novel, Simulacron-3, is considered to be one of the earliest examples of fiction that describes a virtual world (in the way that we would understand it today, a computer rendered, digital simulation). The novel’s been adapted into World on a Wire (a 1973, German, two part mini-TV-series), and The Thirteenth Floor (which came out in 1999, the same year as The Matrix). Today the idea of ‘conscious’ characters living within an artificially rendered environment is mainstream, commonplace even, and, depending on how it’s used, you might even call it a cliché. The novel is subtle and thoughtful, demonstrating the philosophical implications of virtual reality but, perhaps deliberately, it lacks a sufficient sense that it’s inhabited by real human warmth.
- Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science novel. It starts off with an interaction between two people in the desert and it grows in scale from that encounter. It’s a strangely timeless novel. Although it was published in 1959, but it could have been written in 1929 or 2009. The monastic order that it depicts feels more like historical fiction than science fiction.
- The Lighthouse is a gloriously bonkers film directed by Robert Eggers. It’s almost like a metaphor for the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are incredible. The story is basically two lighthouse keepers going crazy while living on an isolated island and maintaining the lighthouse lamp. The lamp takes on a weird, almost paranormal, omnipotence. There’s humour, magic, great dialogue, and plenty of surreal strangeness. If this wasn’t enough there’s also tenderness, treachery and paranoia.
- Sometimes the more you wait in anticipation for a movie sequel, or a follow-up novel, the more it fails to meet your soaring expectations. Then you get annoyed with yourself for being suckered into feeling that way. That sums up my thoughts about Ready Player Two. Ready Player Two is clearly that second rock album that somehow didn’t quite work. It’s the novel that takes us to what will inevitably be Ready Player Three and that’s about it.