Uncategorized Vint_SF

Journal of the Plague Season

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ALTHOUGH THIS MAY seem counterintuitive, science fiction is often one of the most realistic of genres. It may set its stories in future times or among weird alien species, but the best science fiction can often express political and social anxieties more openly than can realist drama. Sometimes this is a matter of escaping the notice of censors who don’t take the genre seriously, but it can also be an example of what television critic John Ellis describes as the capacity of the medium to help us “work through” the slings and arrows of contemporary life. Working through, a concept Ellis takes from psychoanalysis, allows us to analyze, repeat, interpret and otherwise engage with difficult experience in the displaced form of fiction, facilitating the process of coming to terms with disturbing thoughts and experiences.

A repeated pattern in this year’s science fiction television is plotlines about epidemics, suggesting that we are culturally working through some anxieties about our biological vulnerability. As early as 1995 Laurie Garrett published The Coming Plague, arguing that things such as overuse of antibiotics, lack of access to clean drinking water for much of the world’s population, the overcrowded conditions of urban poverty in the Global South, and massive refugee migration caused by warfare were producing conditions in which viruses and microbes would thrive. She anticipated that in the near future we would see new and devastating disease outbreaks as the microbial world travelled and mutated as never before. Recent outbreaks of diseases such as Sars and H1N1 have made us aware of the looming threat of a viral pandemic, and indeed it now seems as if we are sufficiently educated about such matters that this week’s episode of Helix could drop the term “zoonotic transfer” into the dialogue without even pausing to gloss. Dracula, too, includes an outbreak of sorts – although it is a deliberately caused by those evil oil barons – and even The Walking Dead supplemented their zombie infection with an outbreak of quotidian cholera for part of this season, a hint that contagion anxiety is about more than biological health. In our harsh economic times, zombies emerge more and more as our possible selves, expelled parts of the body politic – just as labor is expendable to global capital and migrant laborers are unwanted by many nation states. Indeed, this pattern is so prevalent that in 2009 Lev Grossman declared zombies “the official monster of the recession” in Time.

Revolution has added a viral contagion to its exploration of the sinister machinations of the Patriots in the post-electricity world. As one might expect, this is not a naturally occurring contagion – although, of course, by this I mean “expect in the conspiracy-thriller narrative,” because of course one might expect reasonably expect biological outbreaks in this frontier setting. The Patriots are using their engineered strain of typhus as a method for culling populations, deliberating infecting those who are physically or mentally ill and thus eliminating their non-productive drain on the community. There are no zombies on Revolution and its infected do not become zombie-like – they merely sicken and die. And yet there is something in this plot of viral eugenics that is reminiscent of the recent zombie theme about lives that matter vs. those that do not.

Helix is premised on a viral outbreak with its CDC characters, remote research station setting, and plotlines that are something of a cross between Steven Soderberg’s Contagion and The Walking Dead. Now in its fourth episode, Helix remains compelling, although not without its frustrations. The mysterious back-story is unfolding at a respectable pace and enough happens within an episode to avoid boredom, and yet the full picture is still only dimly lit and out of focus. Yet, while I understand the need to have secrets and competing agendas to keep some tension in the plot, I am finding the fact that a core CDC team member would hide both her own illness and that another person is infected (to protect this secret) strains credulity, particularly because the series went to so much trouble to make its CDC protocols seems “real” and not science fictional.

While I was initially impressed with the diversity represented by casting in Helix, such diversity is being stripped away as the season unfolds: their non-stereotypically-attractive female character is dead, the Asian scientist is becoming more straightforwardly evil, it seems, and the remaining person of color is an infected, animal-like “vector,” which is basically Helix’s term for the zombie-like dangerous infected. When asked if he is just going to “abandon the sick and the dying” in order to restore order to the facility, the sinister Dr. Hatake says “yes” without pause, but he later also peremptorily executes some inconvenient non-infected, and so I hope that Helix is avoiding the binary logic of “humans” and “infected” that animates the zombie genre.

Despite these quibbles, I still find Helix to be among the best science fiction shows I have seen in a while. I acknowledge the appropriateness of the zombie as the monster of choice to express contemporary anxieties: zombies are hungry, relentless, flesh that we no longer want to consider human, that we see only ever as a threatening mass, and that serve no purpose other than to consume. As many critics have argued, zombies exemplify the poor as seen by the logic of neoliberalism. Yet I’ve become tired of the ubiquity of zombies and the quite literal dead end they seem to offer for thinking about global crisis. Helix promises to transform its vector-zombies into something else, posthumans made by the virus inserting new DNA into their genome, a new species simultaneously human and animal and other. This new strand of DNA, we are told, will force the infected to “express a new trait.” This is an apt metaphor for the hope I hold out for series overall, that it might enable science fiction television to express a new metaphor for anxieties about viral contagion and precarious human health, and thus we finally might escape the ubiquity of zombies.

¤


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The China Blog A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

India in China

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By Tong Lam

The relative absence of India in Chinese public discourse is an interesting curiosity. Indeed, while there has been a growing public interest in China among the Indian public in recent years, there is no similar level of reciprocal fascination flowing across the Himalayas in the other direction. Instead, most members of the Chinese public seem more eager to learn about and travel to the United States, Japan, and Europe. Similarly, within the Asian context, Chinese often care more about happenings in other parts of East Asia or Southeast Asia than in South Asia.

In addition to the perceived cultural and historical differences, a major reason for the absence of enthusiasm about India is China’s relentless desire to catch up with nations that are thought of as more advanced — and India is not one of those.  In addition, whereas Pakistan is a longtime ally, India is not widely viewed as either a “friend of China” or a significant threat, something that can also inspire intense interest, in spite of the fact that the two nations fought a brief war in 1962 over a still unresolved border dispute. China is more preoccupied at present with the challenges from neighboring countries that line the Pacific coast.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

A visitor photographing the Indian Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the largest international exposition ever held.

Meanwhile, the Indian public is keenly aware that China’s economic development has significantly outpaced that of India in the past two decades, and that China’s rise could pose a threat to their country. At the same time, Indian elite commentators and officials alike have been awed by China’s vast investment in infrastructure, and there has been a swirling debate among them about the pros and cons of the so-called “Chinese model” of governance, which prioritizes state-guided economic growth rather than political liberalization and social justice.

Still, in spite of their asymmetrical interests in each other, as well as their historical enmity, the world’s two most populous nations have a long history of economic and cultural contacts. Furthermore, both China and India are highly conscious of their long civilizations, and both are imbued with a strong sense of cultural and national pride. Significantly as well, their senses of history are still very much shaped by their shared experience of colonialism and imperialism, and by something less often noted by Westerners as a common trait: the fact that both were heavily influenced by the Soviet Union in their immediately post-WWII modernizing projects. Likewise, the two Asian giants are both nuclear powers and now have ambitious space programs. The list of commonalities goes on and on. One way or another, these two ethnically and linguistically diverse nations are going through rapid economic development and urbanization, as they are also grappling with serious disparities and widespread corruptions. And their actions today will have important consequences, within Asia and in every corner of the planet.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.

A Bollywood film crew shooting an action thriller in a small village in Anhui Province in 2012.


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Dear Television mcconnaissance

The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading

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Dear Television,

IN EPISODE TWO of HBO’s stunning new series True Detective, the laconic Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, spends a significant amount of car time with his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), trading quips and offer the audience veiled truths about themselves. It’s a trope of the procedural: cops, even female ones, are aspiring towards a masculine ideal of hard laconicism. The only time it’s safe to talk about feelings, therefore, is within the bounds of the car, heads faced forward, and even then, those feelings are hidden beneath a heavy layer of insult.

But in True Detective, the trope gets revised: you have one traditional cop who doesn’t like asking or answering personal questions and another who not only speaks freely about himself, but the area, the universe, our fates as man, etc. etc. He’s like a one-man Cormac McCarthy novel, dropping poetic, sparse observations the way most of us talk about the traffic or the weather. It’s a hypnotic performance, and anything Rust Cohle lacks in realism he makes up for in gravitas… [READ MORE]


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20 Minutes into the Future Revolution

The Future, As Seen on TV

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In 1982, cultural critic Fredric Jameson published “Progress verses Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future” which argued against the commonplace belief that science fiction was about the future. Instead, he suggested, the role of science fiction is “not to give us ‘images’ of the future” but “rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.” Moreover, he suggested, what science fiction frequently demonstrated was “our incapacity to imagine the future,” or rather, a future that was very different from the present, a future of radical alternatives and utopian promise. So how do we see this dialectic between future and present play out in this week’s science fiction television?

Fox’s new cop drama Almost Human opens with a voiceover explaining its premise (all humans cops are now teamed with a MRX android cop) and announces that this is because “evolving technologies can no longer be regulated.” Hence, they can only be policed. Hence, a science fiction police drama. The technologies investigated in each episode are futuristic (this week it is bullets that can target you by the tracking devices we all carry around with us), but they are also obviously clear extensions of existing social practices and the crimes that go with them.

SyFy’s new Helix introduces its key characters not in the Biosystems Arctic research base but rather in the CDC, taking great pains to establish continuity between business-as-usual for the CDC and the world of this series, in which research on a pan-viral vaccine has resulted in a medical catastrophe with hints of posthuman genome manipulation. Such care with establishing plausible premises is reminiscent of publicity surrounding Ron Moore’s acclaimed Battlestar Galactica and claims that it was more political drama than science fiction.

CBS’s Person of Interest has only gradually moved into clear science fiction territory in this, its third season, with the open discussion of The Machine as artificial intelligence, building on previous seasons whose plots seemed closer to the thriller genre. Since the Patriot Act, Wikileaks and more, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to believe that the government is spying on you all the time, or to accept the fantasies of ubiquitous information via surveillance technology. The network’s short-lived Hostages (2013) had a similar computer system lurking in the background, and its conspiracy to kill the president was in part motivated by the military’s desire to unleash more of this machine’s potential.

And finally ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reorients this super-hero universe away from otherworldly heroes and toward the ordinary agents trained in special ops and high tech that are able to battle threats to national security, natural and supernatural. This week’s “Seeds” featured a visit to the science division of SHIELD’s training academy, which has its roots in the post-WWI Strategic Scientific Reserve, in which science and technology are imagined as key weapons in the fight against evil.

What all of these series seem to have in common is a vision of the power of science and technology in daily life, its ability to change the world we live in, and even ourselves, and a clear sense that the future – as once presented in the ‘images’ of science fiction – is already here. Do these shows defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present? I suspect they no longer do so in the ways that Jameson had in mind, in which science fiction encouraged us to experience our present as the history of a possible future and thus perhaps to think more critically about what this future might be as we actively make it.

Yet the new temporality of the science-fiction-present seems more likely to familiarize than defamiliarize our experience of technoscientific modernity. Almost Human concedes that new and sinister technologies will inevitably emerge and the best we can do is react to them. Person of Interest and Hostages barely seem science fictional at all, and instead ask us to question the very real fact that information technology monitors and shapes us in often invisible ways.

Partway through watching “Seeds” I had the excited anticipation that now, finally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was finding its stride, that it had quelled network exec anxieties sufficiently that an authentic Joss Whedon vision – suspicious of centralized authority – was about to emerge. Following revelations that Coulson was revived despite begging SHIELD doctors to let him die, and that at least one of these doctors felt medical ethics were violated in this resurrection, the institutions of SHIELD began to look more like those of its enemies this week. For example, a lecture at the Academy by Agents Fitz and Simmons to the next crop of scientific geniuses – about how important it is to use their intellectual powers for good, since others were using them for bad and putting untested biology and technology in the wrong hands – was interrupted by an attack emerging from within these hallowed halls. Later, when details of Skye’s past emerge (spoiler: she is a 0-8-4, more to follow), Coulson decides to tell her the bloody history of the village destroyed to protect her rather than continue lying to her about her connection to SHIELD. Commenting on the venture capitalist who funded the technology used to attack the Academy, Coulson observes, “Quinn is not the only one who’s been manipulating people. We do it all the time. … We teach it at the Academy.”

Yet the conclusion of the episode was disappointing. Despite these hints that even those with “good” agendas manipulate and mislead, that SHIELD perhaps has no more right to be creating and controlling these technologies than do their antagonists, the episode’s conclusion shies away from these insights and returns to a reiteration of SHIELD as family and their vision of the future of technology as both non-democratic but also just. Praising Skye’s response to his revelations, Coulson insists she showed strength of character by refusing to be devastated by the knowledge that many people died to protect her, and instead to feel embraced by and fully a part of SHIELD, the family that was “always there” even when she thought she had none. John Reece’s recent return to the fold on Person of Interest – after a couple of episodes of cynicism during which he held The Machine did as much harm as good – follows a similar logic.

Jameson’s essay was written from a Marxist perspective, and a lot of social and political thinkers recently have noted the difficulty of imagining a future, any future, in these harsh economic times. No more for us the wondrous visions of World’s Fairs and Disney’s Tomorrowland. Our version of Tomorrowland would be a theme part of ecological crisis, absolute gaps between the rich and the poor along the lines of Elysium (Blomkamp 2013), and drone warfare over dwindling resources.

So, has the future become a thing of the past? Can we dream of a better tomorrow or do we simply imagine better technology to stave off the inevitable collapse of the present, but only for some?

One answer, it seems to me, is NBC’s Revolution. Revolution begins with the end of technology as we know it when the electricity goes out. Yet it quickly turns to the reinvention of technology, but a new and unanticipated kind of technology, the nanobots who are programmed but also have minds of their own. Like the rebels resisting the Patriot’s vision of faux democracy, a privileged elite, and programmed child-soldiers, the nanobots suggest the open possibilities of another future, a world that could be made completely otherwise.

The near-future sensibility of all these programs suggests a widely shared sensibility that America in its current configuration does not offer much of a future for many of its citizens. Whether science fiction can help us imagine better ones – as well as help us see more clearly the dystopian trends of our science-fictional present – remains to be seen.

¤

Uncategorized LARB-FictionCVR-PRINTREADY-1

The LARB Fiction Issue is Here!

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The Los Angeles Review of Books presents a collection of original fiction from some of the most exciting contemporary authors working today. From short stories to excerpts of upcoming novels, the LARB Special Edition: Fiction Issue features pieces from Hawa Allan, Nick Antosca, Steph Cha, g c cunningham, Jim Gavin, Etgar Keret, Grace Krilanovich, Ben Loory, TaraShea Nesbit, Mary Otis, Mark Haskell Smith, Matthew Specktor, and Alejandro Zambra.

This latest issue of the magazine represents our first foray into original fiction — a unique issue with all previously unpublished, original fiction from some of the most talented fiction writers in letters today. While “source fiction” is a departure from the content that you are accustomed to finding in LARB, we hope that you will consider it a little year-end gift — a thank you for your continued support. Keeping our broad audience in mind, we tried to provide a diverse array of stories and voices. The theme of the issue, “Multiple Choice,” should come as no surprise. Constructing a narrative and creating character is all about making choices from an infinite amount of possibilities. It is also what makes this issue so remarkable: the scope of the pieces is wide-ranging, with contributions coming from leading writers in Chile, Israel, and all over the United States.

– Olivia Taylor Smith and C.P. Heiser, Fiction Issue Editors

Get the Fiction Issue in print when you join our sustaining membership program. Look for it in fine bookstores and cafes throughout Los Angeles. And check back for the eBook version, available shortly from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


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Girls Natalia

Your Urine-Soaked Life

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Dear Television,

DEAR TV superfans may remember that I really liked the Natalia arc from last season. I liked the actress — Shiri Appleby — who played Natalia. I liked the challenge this apparently “together” character posed to the group, and I liked that this challenge felt organic and real. (Given the show’s aspiration to some kind of realism, it never felt like Natalia was a contrivance.) I liked the way Natalia challenged Adam’s grody proclivities and potentially even represented a generative splintering of the tunnel vision that is this show’s subject. I liked how her plotline brought the show to a really genuinely engaged discussion of sexual assault, aesthetics, and television in the critical sphere. It was a good move, I thought. But she got left behind.

One of the possible trajectories of this show — and one still alive to some extent or another — is the slow or catastrophic dissolution of the hermetic core that has so frequently been criticized as too insular, too privileged, too much… [READ MORE]


The China Blog IMG_4886

Missing the Harmony Express

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

“There is NOTHING,” I typed, “that makes me miss China more than dealing with @Amtrak. Our rail system is ridiculous.” A quick click on “Tweet” and I sat back in my chair in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, content that I had fully conveyed my frustration with American mass transit — at least, to the thousand or so people who follow me on Twitter.

Like all tweets written in a fit of anger, this is one that I probably shouldn’t have sent, or that I should at least have thought about more carefully before posting. No one from Amtrak responded to my whining, so I had done nothing more than scream into a void. But having traveled the length of the Northeast Corridor (Boston to D.C.) in the past two weeks, my patience for rattling old Amtrak trains has been exhausted, and I long for the quiet, even glide of Chinese high-speed rail. I miss trains that run on time, clear announcements at each station arrival, inexpensive tickets, and free hot water for my instant coffee (though Amtrak’s $2 brew is surprisingly good, I’ve found). Amtrak definitely has the advantage in seat size (roomy in every dimension) and ease of ticket purchase (done online in only a few minutes, a move that China hasn’t been able to make), but otherwise — God, do I miss Chinese trains.

And who would have ever thought that I’d say that?

I certainly wouldn’t have predicted it nine years ago, when I stepped onto a sleeper train to travel from Beijing to Xi’an, my first time riding the Chinese rails. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but was still taken aback by the thin beds and poorly maintained bathrooms, to say nothing of the trash that seemed to bloom on the floor of the car as soon as passengers settled in with snacks whose wrappings they discarded freely. I slept poorly and spent much of the 12-hour trip trying to deter curious fellow passengers from starting conversations that my introverted self cowered at (I’ve mostly gotten past that — a freckled redhead in China can’t also be an introvert).

For several years following that initial journey, I regarded train travel in China as something to be endured in the service of getting from one cool destination to the next. But around 2007 or so, I realized something: the trains between Nanjing, where I lived, and Shanghai, where I liked to be, were getting faster. The interiors were getting nicer. People were cleaning up their trash and spending most of their time listening to iPods or texting on their cell phones, not asking me questions about my life in China. (The bathrooms were still kind of gross, but so are Amtrak’s.) Absorbed in the drama of my mid-twenties life, I had barely noticed the arrival of high-speed rail, one of the most important developments in Chinese infrastructure over the past decade.

China has finally accomplished what Mao Zedong set out to do in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 — surpassed the United States in something big and ambitious. High-speed rail lines spiderweb across the country, from Harbin in the north to Guangzhou in the south. New lines are being built to reach Kunming in the southwest and Urumqi in the northwest. In the U.S., on the other hand, plans for a high-speed line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and another one in the Northeast Corridor, have repeatedly gotten tangled up in political maneuverings and concerns about building costs — two things that China’s Railway Ministry hasn’t had to worry about as it has embarked on its massive construction spree. We might eventually get a few lines built here, but it will be a long, slow project, measured in terms of decades, not years. Speaking at a panel titled “Will China Rule the World?” at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which I attended in D.C. the first weekend in January, Yale professor Peter Perdue joked that “China’s GDP will surpass [that of] the U.S. before America has high-speed rail.”

Of course, China-watchers know that the country’s switch from the “Iron Rooster,” as older trains are known, to the sleek new Hexie Hao, or “Harmony Express,” hasn’t gone completely smoothly by any means. The July 2011 collision between two high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou, which killed 40 people, sounded a note of alarm, and many Chinese asked whether the country needed to slow down as it surged ahead. The arrest and conviction of Liu Zhijun, former Minister of Railways, for bribery and abuse of power signaled that the days of unbridled rail growth with no questions asked were over, though the leadership still plans to double the current high-speed network. Amtrak has a long way to go before it catches up.

The high-speed rail lines that radiate out from Shanghai enable me to travel easily and frequently — even Beijing is only five hours away — and I’ll trade a ride on the Harmony Express for a trip on Amtrak pretty much any day of the week. But as much as I wish that the U.S. were a little more like China in its rail infrastructure, I have to admit that China is also losing something in its switch to high-speed trains. Overnight trips on the “Iron Rooster” were once the quintessential getting-to-know-China experience for foreign students and backpackers, and though I always had to steel myself for those trips before they began, they also comprise some of my most vivid early memories of China. Journeys on the Harmony Express, on the other hand, tend to be so quiet and routine that one blurs into the next, as indistinguishable as the landscape rushing past the window at 300 kilometers an hour.

For a glimpse into China’s railway past, check out Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China, Paul Theroux’s account of his travels across the country in the 1980s. 


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Dear Television, Girls GIRLS_car

Space Invaders

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THE THIRD SEASON of Girls opens with Hannah and Ray discussing the aftermath of a breakup in the show’s version of New York. At stake in their chat, which is partly about pessimism, optimism, and what constitutes (to use Ray’s phrase), “real life,” is what kind of fictional NYC is. Hannah says it’s inevitable that Ray will run into Shoshanna again. Ray counters that it isn’t: New York is big, there’s no reason for their paths to cross. When Adam walks in, it’s clear this conversation about exes was a setup for Adam to run into his ex (and possible rape victim), Natalia, and her pal played by Amy Schumer. In an exchange laced with hypothetical babies (“she’s pregnant!” Schumer says of Natalia, who admits she isn’t but casts aspersions on Hannah’s ability to feed a baby), Natalia excoriates Adam while Schumer (who’d been egging her on) says “you’re better than this.” Adam may not like confrontation, but it turns out the show’s Big Apple is exactly as small as Hannah says it is.

It’s fitting, then, that almost every shot in the first two episodes of Girls feels slightly overcrowded… [READ MORE]


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Dear Television, Girls AHP_DearTV_11414 MG Original

Truthers and Darers

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WHEN I WAS A KID, every girl I know played Truth or Dare. It’s a girl sleepover rite of passage, after all, which is part of the reason that, in the second episode of Girls Season Three (released in tandem with the first), Adam has no idea how to respond when a Shoshanna, operating in full vapid teenage mode, asks him if he wants to play.

When posed the question “Truth or Dare?,” however, I almost always chose the same thing: Truth. Always truth. The idea of knocking on someone’s parents door or eating 50 Oreos was always terrifying to my shy, goody-two-shoes self; plus, no 10-year-old is devious enough to come up with a “truth” question that’s that embarrassing. But I wasn’t the only “truth” girl: there were always others, just like there were always “dare” girls. Some people like to talk (and confess); others like to do (and transgress).

If you’re a Truth person, it’s not that you don’t have Dare moments — they just make you uncomfortable, and then you need to process them endlessly.  Same for Dare people: moments of Truth make them itchy and, usually, make them want to go do Dare things. It’s an imperfect way to think about personalities and what animates them, but it just might work.

Or, at the very least, it might explain some of what’s happening in Girls, which, at the beginning of its third season, has reached the point where characters seem to be reifying themselves — taking a concept and making it flesh — even more intensely than before. While talking to Shoshanna about the post-grad world, Hannah claims that college is the best because “your only job is to be yourself.” But she’s forgetting about narrative television, where a character’s only task is, really, performing character — being “themselves.”

And as seasons progress, barring dramatic soap opera-like shifts, each character settles more into his/her identity: Don Draper becomes more Don-ish; Rachel Green becomes more Rachel-ish. As viewers, we generally find it annoying, but that’s probably because it’s too similar to our own life and understanding of what’s happened to our friends and family. Part of why we watch television, after all, is to meet new people.

So when we return to Girls in these two new episodes, it’s not surprising that Hannah has become more Hannah, Shosh has become more Shosh, Jessa has become more Jessa, and so on. The charismatic attributes that drew us to them in Season One and, to a slightly lesser extent, Season Two, have crystallized into something harder, blunter, more repulsive. When Shosh tells Hannah that Jessa has a great life because “she’s beautiful and guys love her and she doesn’t even really want a job,” it’s the same insecurity that blanketed her when Jessa arrived on her apartment doorstep, but there’s something sharper, more bitter about it. Same for Jessa’s frankness in “Group” and her dismissiveness of others’ trauma. Given Jessa’s behavior over the last two seasons, it shouldn’t be surprising when she dismisses the trauma of a sexual abuse victim, but there’s something so much more cruel and unforgivable about it than mouthing off to her then-husband’s snobby parents.

In the classic three-act narrative structure, characters grow. We meet them, they face a challenge, and they surmount it; the good people become better, the confused people realize their potential, and the bad people become worse. That’s not how life works, but that’s how narrative works, and when it doesn’t — when characters remain static — that’s when we start using words like “boring” and “annoying” to describe the show.

But that static can also be enormously generative, even if it’s not as pleasurable as first encounters or triumphant character arcs. In these two episodes, our characters are more “themselves,” which makes it even easier to slot them into positions as Truthers or Darers. Hannah and Marnie are both fundamental Truthers: Hannah basically lives her life so that she can write about it, and since Marnie can’t write and doesn’t have good taste, she channels her confessions into boyfriend talk (“I want to have brown babies with you”) and unfortunate (but, for her, therapeutic) singing. She loves it when Adam tells her the story about the “Columbian” who dumped him because that sort of confession is a language she can understand. We might also call them overly cerebral, or verbal, but they’d always rather talk than do, think than change. It’s also why they’re best friends whose relationship is characterized by passive aggressiveness and jealousy: they’re too alike, which is just another way of saying that their modes of being the world unite and repel them from each other.

Adam and Jessa are, of course, Darers. Hannah explains that Jessa was that girl in college who was always dancing on the quad in rain boots in a bikini, and we all know that girl — she’s also the girl who hooks up with a random guy in a bar when she’s late for her abortion, or elopes with a dude she met two weeks ago. She’s completely reckless and the most fun at the party, and the only reason she hasn’t spiraled completely out of control is the net of privilege holding her up. Adam’s no different: he hates computers and television and “Facespace” because they’re all conduits of personal confession. As he tells Shoshanna, “I don’t catalog my mind,” which is precisely the sort of thing that Shoshanna (and Hannah and Marnie) spend all day doing. His most destructive daringness was fueled by alcohol, which he’s given up, but the impulse to be constantly doing remains. When Shosh explains just how remarkable it is that he’s been able to take good care of Hannah, it’s clear that he’s never even thought of it in terms of “sacrifice,” or really even thought of it at all — it’s just what he does. Adam and Jessa are both oppositional but necessary to Hannah: they infuriate and complete her.

Shoshanna’s the only one still in college, which is why it’s appropriate that she’s figuring out if she’s a Truth or a Dare person. Two years ago, she was all Truth: her “baggage,” her sorting into various Sex in the City characters, her spontaneous word vomit. But Ray’s devotion turned her into something daresome — the type of girl who wakes up on the top bunk of a random guy’s dorm room. Her plan for senior year (hook up one night, study hard the next) is classic senior year of college, but it’s also classic identity crisis.

I could have made some, but certainly not all, of these claims at the end of Season One, but ten episodes in, those characterizations would still be too hollow to hold weight. But after three seasons, we not only know and can make claims about these characters, but feel like we know more about them than the narrative enacts. In her post-episode HBO chat, Dunham claims that there are girls on Twitter that “know more” about Shoshanna than she does, which is another way of saying that we, as viewers, ascribe characters with meaning outside of what’s offered. Given the illusion that we know the character, we fill in the blanks with our own understanding of that type.

I do this; we all do this. I’ve always felt confident predicting Adam’s actions because I knew “that guy,” and while the four girls are less easily boxed as the four protagonists of Sex and the City, there are Marnies and Jessas, in various iterations of class and race and sexuality, all over our lives. As the maxim goes, the more specific the narrative world, the more universal it becomes.

We’ve now seen a fifth of the season, and very little has happened. Table setting; reminding us of what has happened and who these characters remain. But just as it’s wrong to expect too much change or redemption or growth from these characters, it’s probably equally wrong to be as pessimistic as to their development, however subtle, and what it might communicate to those who identify with the show. The characters of Girls might not alter their fundamental natures as Truthers or Darers — but their struggles to mature, even within those modes, might be tethered to our inability to conceive of them, or any 25-year-old, as capable of meaningful change.


20 Minutes into the Future SF_column_11214 MG Original

The New Posthuman: SyFy’s Helix

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THE BIG NEWS in sf television this week is the premiere of SyFy’s Helix, from producer Ronald Moore whose reboot of Battlestar Galactica did more than any other series to convince mainstream audiences that science fiction can be relevant to contemporary experience. The premiere event was organized to gain a mass audience as quickly as possible for this new series: the first two episodes aired back-to-back with “limited commercial interruption” – which translates basically to most commercials being pushed into the second episode once audiences were already hooked – and a third episode could be viewed online immediately after the first two aired. Devoted fans could thus be three “days” into the planned thirteen day-per-episode narrative of season 1. These first three episodes cover a lot of ground in terms of understanding the pathogen outbreak on the remote arctic base and also plant a lot of seeds for mysteries to unfold throught the season at the level of both conspiracy plot and interpersonal back-story. The SyFy site also contains additional short clips and “documents” that hint at more conspiracy to come involving sinister pharmaceutical company Arctic Biosystems, including an advertisement for an antidepressant that is “hacked” to show images of missing children, several redacted purchase orders, a promotional brochure for contact lenses that takes on menacing tones in this context, and – most intriguing – shadowy Board of Director members sipping scotch and watching the horror unfold via remote satellite uplink.

Helix is reminiscent of a lot of sf that has come before, but if Battlestar Galactica proved anything it was that Ron Moore knows how to revitalize familiar material by connecting it to contemporary political and social issues. The careful attention to virology and the epidemiology of outbreak is reminiscent of now-classic The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise 1971), based on a novel by Michael Crichton, whose name has become almost synonymous with medical conspiracy thrillers. The isolated arctic setting, the test for infection that proves unreliable, and hints that the virus is not only killing but also transforming the infected into a new species reminds us of The Thing (John Carpenter 1982), a much-loved film based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” and adapted to screen two other times (in 1951 and 2011), although Carpenter’s remains the fan favorite. Scenes of searching for dangerous infected through narrow ventilation conduits evoke the claustrophobic tension of Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), although the series itself opts to reference John McClane’s travels through Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988). And finally the drama feels most like watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), at least for these first three episodes, marking Helix as another sf series about how much the present resembles science fiction.

Science is front and center in Helix, both the virology of the outbreak and the conspiracy plot regarding Arctic Biosystems’ real agenda. This is a welcome return to a near-future that feels convincing and real, and to science fiction rather than the supernatural as the engine of a series.  Great care is taken with the details of the CDC personnel and the team’s background, and the characters feel like complete people with complex motivations, not merely cutout figures filling specific narrative roles. The head of research, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada,) is the only somewhat disappointing character, not because he lacks interest but because he is, at least thus far, the most unambiguous character, whose motivations are entirely sinister and whose Japanese ancestry makes him thus fall uncomfortably into the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype. Yet perhaps there is hope for how his character will be developed, because other characterizations are complex and avoid clichés, such as Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), previously married to the head CDC investigator Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who avoids being either entirely committed to reunion with her estranged husband or entirely reconciled to their split. Dedicated sf fans may welcome the return of Billy Campbell, previously seen as cult leader Jordan on The 4400 (2004-2007), to sf television, and his Alan Farragut is a compelling lead, challenged by his ambiguous feelings about his ex-wife, his infatuated intern Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), and his brother Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), one of the first infected and estranged from Alan since his affair with Julia. All of this back-story allows for emotional investment in the interactions among characters, but never overwhelms the sf drama elements of the series with cloying melodrama. Like BSG, with which it will inevitably be compared, Helix gives us interesting human beings in a tense situation and has developed a sufficiently intricate set of interpersonal and corporate-conspiracy dynamics to sustain its pace for the full season.

Helix also has plenty of action that seems designed to draw in fans of The Walking Dead and similar series. Its infected are split into two kinds and those called “vectors” are compelled to try to infect others, vomiting black goo and rushing humans they encounter along the lines of the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002). Yet set within a narrative that also has elements of corporate cover-up, mysterious army factions who believe the infection was intentional, and emerging posthuman characters, not all of whom are changed by the virus, the action is Helix is linked to an engrossing narrative. The Walking Dead was fun for a while, but its ongoing carnage has long since become tedious in the absence of much else going on in the series. Helix delivers a similar adrenaline rush, but promises a lot more, especially in its slowly unfolding exploration of the dark side of better living through pharmacotherapy. Perhaps this is a sign that the zombie craze is finally winding down. And perhaps this will offer some critical commentary on one of the key sites of the collapse of sf and reality into one another, the utopian fantasies of posthuman existence promoted by organizations such as humanity+ that often fail to take note of the role of corporate medicine in these brave new worlds.

If nothing else, Helix is one of the best science fiction television shows to emerge in a long time, one that offers complex narrative, absorbing characters, and reflective engagement with the science and technology of our everyday world. Really, my only complaint is that I hate its theme song, taken from “Do You Know the Way to San José” (1968), which worked well enough as ironic counterpoint to the action when used as diegetic music in the opening sequence, but is quickly growing tiresome. Helix embodies the promises of all that sf television can be, and I hope it can find the audience that will allow it to stay on the air and deliver on this promise over the multiple season arcs clearly planned for the story.

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