H+ trailer: a post-McLuhanist reading

Paul Raven @ 25-07-2011

So, this has been doing the rounds since its release at SDCC (which – given by what I’ve seen of it from blogs, Twitter and elsewhere – is less a convention and more some sort of fundamental rupture of reality that lets a million weird facets of pop culture manifest in the material world for a weekend); my first spot of it was at SF Signal, so they get the hat-tip. It’s the trailer for a forthcoming web-native series called H+

And here’s the blurb for those of you who can’t or won’t watch videos:

H+: The Digital Series takes viewers on a journey into an apocalyptic future where technology has begun to spiral out of control…a future where 33% of the world’s population has retired its cell phones and laptops in favor of a stunning new device – an implanted computer system called H+.

This tiny tool allows the user’s own mind and nervous system to be connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. But something else is coming… something dark and vicious… and within seconds, billions of people will be dead… opening the door to radical changes in the political and social landscape of the planet — prompting survivors to make sense of what went wrong.

Hmmm. So, what can we take from this? First off, “H+” or human augmentation as a cultural meme is strong enough on the geek fringes that someone thinks it’s a marketable theme for popular drama; this in itself is a very interesting development from the perspective of someone who chronicles and observes the transhumanist movement(s), because it’s a sign that traditionally science fictional or cyberpunkish ideas are being presented as both plausible and imminent*. Meme’s gonna go mainstream, yo.

Secondly, and less surprisingly, the underlying premise appears to be The Hubris Of Technology Will All But Annihilate Our Species, with a sideserving/undercurrent of Moral Panic. Handwringing over the potentially corrosive-to-civilisation properties of social media is common currency (as regular readers will be only too aware already), which means the soil is well-tilled for the seed of Singer’s series; it’s a contemporary twist on the age-old apocalypse riff, and that never gets old. Too early to tell whether the Hairshirt Back-To-The-Earth philosophy is going to be used as solution paradigm, but I’d be willing to put money on it making a significant showing. This is disappointing, but inevitable; as Kyle Munkittrick points out in his brief overview of the new Captain America movie, comics and Hollywood default to the portrayal of human augmentation as either an accident born of scientific hubris or the tainted product of a Frankensteinian corporation:

In what seems like every other superhero origin story, powers are acquired through scientific hubris. Be it the unintended consequences of splitting the atom, tinkering with genetics, or trying to access some heretofore unknown dimension, comic book heroes invariably arise by accident.

[…]

Normally, those who seek superpowers are unworthy because they believe they deserve to be better than others, thus, the experiments go wrong.

Yeah, that’s about right. And the choice of series title is very fortuitous; the avalanche of early responses drawing analogies to Google+ has probably already started on the basis of that trailer alone, which is going to annoy me just as much as Googlephobia does. I’ve been rereading Marshall McLuhan lately (in part so I could write a piece for his 100th birthday at Wired UK), and was struck by how calmly and persistently he insisted that making moral judgements of technologies was futile; indeed, he took the position that by spending less effort on judging our technologies, we might clear the moral fog that exists around our actual lives. In McLuhan’s thought, media are extensions of ourselves into time and space; it seems to me that the biggest problem they cause isn’t a moral degradation of humanity, but the provision of a convenient proxy to blame our human problems on: it woz the intertubes wot dun it.

There is an inevitability to the technological moral panic as popular narrative, though, and that’s underlined by its admirable persistence over time – as TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick reminds us, they’re at least as old as Gutenburg’s printing press (and we’re still here, as yet untoppled by our technological revolutions). Masnick also links to a WSJ blog piece that bounces off the research of one Genevieve Bell, director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, who reiterates the persistence of the technological moral panic over time, and points out that it tends to locate itself in the bodies of women and children:

There was, she says, an initial pushback about electrifying homes in the U.S.: “If you electrify homes you will make women and children and vulnerable. Predators will be able to tell if they are home because the light will be on, and you will be able to see them. So electricity is going to make women vulnerable. Oh and children will be visible too and it will be predators, who seem to be lurking everywhere, who will attack.

“There was some wonderful stuff about [railway trains] too in the U.S., that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour. Our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”

She has a sort of work-in-progress theory to work out which technologies will trigger panic, and which will not.

  • It has to change your relationship to time.
  • It has to change your relationship to space.
  • It has to change your relationship to other people.

And, says Ms. Bell, it has to hit all three, or at least have the potential to hit them.

Interesting stuff, including a riff on comedy as a feedback loop in culture that enables us to control and mitigate the boundaries of what is acceptable with a new technology or medium. But as Bell points out, the march of technological change won’t wait for us to catch up with it; this state of technological angst has persisted for centuries, and will likely persist for as long as we remain a technologised species. Which means the doomsayers (and doomsayer media like H+) ain’t going anywhere… but going on past form, I’m going to assume we’ll find a way to ride it out and roll with the punches.

And just in case you were expecting a more standard blogger response to a television series trailer: yeah, I’ll probably watch H+, at least for long enough to see if it’s a good story well told; it looks like it might well be, regardless of the source of the narrative hook.

What about you?

[ * Which isn’t to say that the plot device in H+ will necessarily be scientifically plausible as it gets presented. Indeed, I rather suspect there’ll be some Unified Quantum Handwave Theory and/or Unobtainium involved… but the portrayal of social media as an internalised technology in the human body within a contemporary fictional milieu? That’s something I’ve not seen anywhere other than text media (books, stories, comics) thus far. ]


Lost the plot: has the television serial run out of creative lebensraum?

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

This week, I’ve mostly been feeling like the only person in the world who’s never seen an episode of Lost. That said, observing the reactions to the final episode has been an enjoyable people-watching spectacle; as an outsider, I can only conclude that, while Lost‘s ending has annoyed quite a few people, it satisfied many others, and compared to the scathing vitriol directed against the closing episode of Battlestar Galactica, the whole business has been fairly civilised.

As a writer and critic who doesn’t watch much television (I don’t actually own one, and haven’t for over a decade), it’s interesting to watch the debate around popular serials for emerging commonalities… and in the more science fictional franchises especially, much discussion is given to the matter of endings, and their frequent failure to fully satisfy the logical and sf-nal mechanics of the plot as well as the need for emotional closure. (It’s worth noting that these complaints are rarely heard outside the sf community, at least in my experience; this is presumably because the genre field has a canon of works which obey the unwritten rules of extrapolation and explanation to draw on for comparison, and because sf tropes are now seen as a convenient toolkit for adding weirdness to TV serials – a toolkit with which the average watcher isn’t yet sufficiently familiar to be able to call cliche or deus ex machina when they see it.*)

But enough of my hypotheses; n+1 Magazine has an interesting and timely article about “how the television serial achieved the status of art“… and how that achievement may mark the end of its creative trajectory [via MetaFilter]. To put it another way: the format may have run out of ways to raise its game and wow the viewers.

It’s quite a long piece, so I’m just going to pull two quotes – though it’s well worth taking the time to read the whole thing. The first makes the point that serial storytelling is actually an old and very successful format from the era before television, and one that helped define what we think of as the canon of classic novels:

Today, we study nineteenth century novels as whole texts, and as a result we don’t think about how they were originally read and written. Novelists, for one thing, wrote on deadline. When Dickens produced The Pickwick Papers in thirty-two page installments, it wasn’t because he preferred thirty-two pages to thirty-one or thirty-three, but because that’s how many pages the Fourdrinier cylindrical paper-making machine could impress at once. Serialization also came to shape plot itself: the end of chapter cliff-hanger (which could be called the “to be continued” effect) was invented to ensure that today’s readers would be tomorrow’s readers as well.

Hold that thought. Now, skip to near the end of the article:

This is the final season of Lost, and while new dramas will continue to find both enthusiastic fans and critical acclaim, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something important is winding down. After all, the great dramas of the last decade are great precisely because they found certain limits of the form, because they figured out what it was possible to do with the available tools. That leaves future shows with few places to go, even when they are excellent (Breaking Bad) or promising (Treme). There just isn’t much new ground available. Mad Men is our current would-be aspirant to television greatness, but that show looks to me like a Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together from bits of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, dressed up and staggering around in a Banana Republic suit. We will someday be embarrassed by the amount of attention paid to that show during its run; perhaps we already are.

Now I’m going to bring on Peter Watts, a man renowned for calling it how he sees it; here, he repeats something that I (and doubtless many others) have been saying for years about television serials.

You know what the creators of epic, multiyear-arc television shows need? They need a novelist or two on staff. Or a playwright. Somebody who understands that an epic tale needs to be planned in advance, that plot is not something you work out after you’ve already written 90% of the story, that you can’t just throw a bunch of kicks and clues into individual chapters unless you have some idea what they fucking mean. It doesn’t matter how gobsmacking your twists are, or how effectively they entice your viewers to tune in next week: the reason we come back is because we want to see how all these intrigues fit together, what the payoff is. These guys can be absolute geniuses when it comes to microwriting: why haven’t they figured out that you gotta use that arsenal you’ve assembled on the mantelpiece, sometime before the end of the tale?

My guess is that they’ve never learned to because there’s never been a need for them to do so. And I find it interesting that the two TV serials I’ve enjoyed enough to really engage with in recent years were not written in response to the production schedule: Dexter, for instance, was based on the novels of Jeff Lindsay, and – despite its initially ridiculous premise – blew me away with its narrative tightness, and Sons Of Anarchy – which has some lumpy moments and clunky cliches, but otherwise moves very smoothly – is on many levels a retelling of Hamlet.

Of course, this could just be me grafting my own preference (for novel-like plots that tie everything up neatly) onto a market where that preference isn’t a prime factor in audience satisfaction. But I think it’s fair to suggest that the microwriting approach to serial television makes the unsatisfying or cop-out ending an inevitability; a novelist can wrap up the tale and then go back an make sure everything fits before the audience sees it, but if you start releasing the story before you know how it’s going to end (or even how long it’s going to run), you’re forced to do things by the seat of your narrative pants.

We keep being told the novel is dying, and that the television networks are struggling to fund good serials. Maybe it’s time the two forms started to meet in the middle?

[ * Though it may sound like it, this isn’t meant as special pleading for sf readers; rather than describing genre fans as an elite, I’m trying to describe them as veterans from the early stages of a culture war that has started to conscript a much wider and less experienced audience. ]


Science fiction series that suck

Paul Raven @ 15-05-2008

Complete series of Nero Wolfe booksOver at io9, Charlie Jane Anders digs for the root cause of an accepted truism of genre (and, I think, all) writing: the longer a series gets, the more it starts to suck.

I guess you could put it down to the law of diminishing returns, which is far from being exclusive to media and entertainment. But whatever the cause, there are a number of cases where all but the most ardent uncritical fanboy starts thinking “you should have let it be”. [image by deadeyebart]

Anders uses the obvious (but extremely valid) example of the seemingly endless Dune saga; while I’ll agree that Frank Herbert‘s sequels were less than brilliant, their level of suck completely pales when held up against the Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson continuations.

Personally, as much as I’d jump in front of a speeding train for Douglas Adams it was plain to see by the last few Hitchhikers books that he should have moved on and focussed on some of his other ideas. Also, dreadful sequels and series in general are the main reason I gave up television completely eight years ago.

And if you want uncompromising sequel-rage, you should try asking Jonathan McCalmont about Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake books …

What are the sequels you love to hate? And which ones have you continued with – despite the suck?