As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.
If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament.
Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way.Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”→
There was a lot to try to keep up with in 2019. As usual my attention was split between what was new, what I’d missed and what I revisited. As this is the regular review of the new, I’ll keep my attention squarely there — though I’ll confess to missing key releases that will doubtless prove to be among the best of the year.
As 2019 was also the end of a decade, this is a moment to note that over the last ten years we’ve seen a number of new writers establish themselves as major names in the genre.
To be honest, the last ten years have been such a blur I’d barely registered the fact that we have arrived at the threshold of a new decade. But here we are (or not, depending how pedantic you’re feeling – I’m happy to be guided by common usage), and it’s a useful moment for thinking about what I’ve read in that time. Or not, because, along with time passing at a speed that seems indecent, it turns out that this last decade was one in which I either didn’t read much (being a recovering postgraduate will do that to a person) or else a lot of what I did read somehow didn’t find its way into my long-term memory.
Except that, once I looked at a few lists, I realised that, actually, I had read quite a lot during that period but the effort of moving forward had somehow subsumed it into an amorphous space called ‘the recent past’. Also, I am hopeless at remembering dates of publication: last week, last month, last year, some time ago, whenever.
But I can tell you that in 2010 I was very excited about Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. I was and am a huge admirer of McDonald’s work, and at that point also deeply preoccupied with Orhan Pamuk’s writing (still am), so the Turkish setting intrigued me, as did the presence (or indeed, mostly, absence) of a mellified man, reflecting my interest in the strange, the offbeat, the peculiar. But I also appreciated the novel’s densely layered portrayal of a near-future society with a very complex cultural identity. Looking back I can see now that The Dervish House has set the tone for a lot of my reading since then.
What a long strange decade it has been. Ten years ago it looked as if social democracy was in the ascendant around the world; today, populist, nationalist, right-wing governments are in power in Britain, the USA, Australia, Israel, India, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. The world has become a scary, unwelcoming, unpleasant place to live. Politicians took the voters for granted, and voters became tired and disdainful of the politicians, so real life is coming more and more to resemble the dystopias we used to read. Which may be why there are no dystopias on my list of the ten books that I have chosen as representative of the last ten years in science fiction.
Which is not to suggest that politics is absent from the list. Far from it, in fact I begin with what is, I think, the most politically acute novel science fiction has produced this decade: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson (2014). Published two years before the Brexit referendum, it captures with uncanny prescience the mood of fragmentation and disintegration that Brexit embodies. Startlingly, the three subsequent volumes, which I don’t think Hutchinson had even conceived at the time he wrote the first book, maintain the awareness and the quality of the first. And in the final volume, Europe at Dawn (2018), there is a passage set among refugees on a Greek island that perfectly encapsulates the damage that fear of the other has done to Europe.
When the history of science fiction fandom in the 2010s is written, the key event to be discussed will doubtless be the Puppy War. That a group of right-wing fans should attempt to take over the Hugo Awards is perhaps not surprising. The 2010s are, after all, the decade in which it was conclusively proved that democratic systems are vulnerable to attack by malicious actors. That the attack failed is perhaps a testament to the strength of community sentiment within the SF&F community. But what is really surprising is what happened afterwards.
For the last three years of the decade, every single written fiction-related award in the Hugos was won by a woman.
Channel 4’s Humans was one of the big successes of the 2010s. It won many accolades across its three seasons, including a BAFTA. Based on a Swedish drama, Real Humans, it provided a timely reflection on the changes we are actually experiencing due to the rise of AI, but framed as a thriller set in a world of robots. In Humans, the robots look human but are machines with very Asimovian constraints on behaviours, constraints that sentience removes. Enter one group of robots who have moved beyond the programmed and are fully aware.
The essential story of season 1 is where I’d like to focus. The ingredients are a family strained by tensions, husband about to lose his job to a robot, a wife who is a busy, successful lawyer, and their three kids. Into their lives comes a robot with a buried sentience.
The first series inspires moral and legal questions. How fast does an artificial sentience grow relative to how we think of maturity in humans and when does it become responsible for its actions? Is there an equivalent period of ‘childhood’ for AI that should be reflected in the laws governing sexual consent? Who is developing a legal framework applicable to AI?
If this wasn’t ethically challenging enough, further themes explored in the series include whether it’s possible to love a robot (the conclusion being very much a ‘yes’) and an even deeper one: ‘is there a right to sentience?’.
Humans holds up a mirror to make us aware of how driven we are by appearances. The show is very deliberate with the blurring of boundaries when the robots look and behave as we think people do. While the cast went to synth school to learn how to not move like people, the plot depended on robots being able to pass for humans, sometimes in order to harm them.
The episode where Niska – one of the sentient robots – is on the run having murdered an abusive human, is a riff on the film Fight Club. She passes for human and is allowed to join in with a group (largely men) whose evening’s pleasure consists of beaten and destroying other robots. The robots look like people and are helpless. To all intents and purposes, the baying crowd were killing people they’d relabelled as objects. Sometimes it’s easy to despair of humanity.
It’s not clear we are anywhere close to answering any of the ethical questions raised by this show, while the rise of AI in the actual workplaces continues apace. Let’s hope we do a better job than Humans suggests we might.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to attend this year’s Worldcon in Dublin, and find myself surrounded by friendly, intelligent and well-informed people from across the globe, and in a European city which has clearly risen far above the sour heritage of its theocratic and colonial past. It was also great to meet the many Americans wearing I’m From The USA But I Didn’t Vote For Trump ribbons on their lanyards. What a shame so much of the rest of humanity doesn’t seem to be heading along the same path!
SF for me has always had its heart in the liberal values of the enlightenment, but perhaps right now, with truth seemingly regarded as a mere matter of opinion, and science as just another way of looking at the world, and with our planet heading toward ecological catastrophe as us humans stand passively by in a way which would never convince in any self-respecting novel or disaster movie, it’s time to speak to the future and the things that should matter with an even stronger and angrier voice. If this isn’t the signal for a new New Wave or Golden Age in the genre, I don’t know when we’ll ever get one.