How Brienne of Tarth Saved “Game of Thrones”

game-of-thrones-brienneI’ve been following the insanely popular—yet excruciatingly brutal—Game of Thrones for several seasons now. I must confess, partly because I don’t own or watch TV, that I am a little behind. I’m currently watching Season Four, while still metaphorically shaking in the violent wake of the shocking and brutal Red Wedding episode of Season Three. As the Internet buzz revealed, this was an extremely difficult show to watch for everyone. What was the purpose of its graphical brutality? Who needs to see that level of violence? I am reminded of an introductory scene in the show in which character John Snow counsels his little brother Bran to not avert his eyes when his father executes a deserter, by chopping off his head—an act that foreshadows his own decapitation later in the series. It is as though the producers of the show are counselling us in the same way as they subject us to grisly scene after grisly scene. Many cheap and gratuitous, as far as I am concerned.

The Red Wedding scene, in which several beloved characters are brutally slaughtered set into play a new set of rules for audience engagement: that of total distrust. Distrust in the storytellers (primarily in the producers of the show, whose scripts, I’m told, have deviated from the novels in some important ways). Distrust that creates an uneasy tension. Distrust that precipitates a panicked wish for clairvoyance. This is because we have no concept of fairness in the story; yet we’ve so invested in the characters. That is the storyteller’s worst act of cruelty: to hold us hostage to the characters. The rules of fair play in story have been broken. We’re stuck in a kind of free fall, desperately hoping that our beloved characters will make it through the night intact, if not unscathed. And when they don’t, its like watching our children die, as we stand powerless by.

Good fiction—as opposed to reality—tells a purposeful story. A story with fictional characters, who play a purposeful role. All good stories make a promise in the beginning; a promise they keep in the end. They create a covenant with their audience to participate in a fulfilling journey. This doesn’t have to mean a happy ending, but it does include meaning and fulfillment—even if only for its audience. And that must involve victory of sorts—and hope—whether it is through redemption, acceptance, enlightenment, or some change that gives us “more”—not less; something that allows us to prevail alongside.

If I feel that I am simply witnessing a cesspool of meaningless chaos and brutality, dominated by ruthless and insane people, in which heroes are equally powerless victims as they are true agents of change—with no rhyme or reason to tell the difference—then I must ask myself the question: why am I watching this? What does this story mean to me? I start to feel like a misanthropic voyeur, as perverse as Joffrey or Littlefinger as I watch people get tortured, flayed alive, dismembered, and worse… with no recourse. This is NOT entertainment and it certainly isn’t of any value to me. For such an offence to the senses to have value, there must be an element of—or at least a grain of hope of—prevailing and movement.

By Season Three end, both the series and I are feeling a little tired. And for good reason; most of the characters—the women particularly—are trapped in an incessant pattern of simple endurance. That seems to be all they are able to do: endure. Certainly they manage to act and create within their limited sphere of influence; but mostly to colour their position, not change it. So, we endure alongside; and we can endure only so much.

Then enter Brienne of Tarth. Also known as Maid of Truth.

And with her, a breath of much needed fresh air.brienne of tarth-close

When Brienne was first introduced in “What is Dead May Never Die” in Season Two, she brought with her the anachronistic romanticism of a true knight. We first see her besting favored champion Ser Loras Tyrell (Knight of Flowers) in a tournament. When she presents herself to King Renly Baratheon and removes her helm, the crowd hushes in surprise. To his offer of prize, Brienne requests a place in his Kingsguard, which he gladly grants, despite her gender and lack of formal stature as a knight.

Brienne is the iconic knight of the chivalric sagas: noble, virtuous, compassionate and brave. Singularly honest and loyal. So much so that her contemporaries deride her as simple, naïve and stupid. As though embracing such virtues is outmoded, foolish and weak. That she is a woman—albeit tall, ungainly and considered unfeminine—makes her virtues all the more powerful and refreshing.

BrienneoftarthWhen King Renly is assassinated, Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn Stark and becomes her sworn sword. Catelyn charges Brienne to return her captive Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing to exchange him for her two daughters held hostage there. Their journey provides some of the best scenes of the TV series and some of the most fulfilling interactions. Throughout Jaime’s insufferable taunts about her appearance and likely dismal history with the opposite sex, Brienne remains stoically silent. Except when she speaks:

“All my life men like you’ve sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”—Brienne to Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones

Essayist Brent Hartinger suggests that Brienne’s character is a well-written departure from fantasy novels where the main characters are commonly “the slender… average-heighted, the conventionally abled and traditionally gendered.”

Essayist Caroline Spector describes Brienne as a “study in heartbreaking contradictions. She embraces the romantic ideals of her culture, both emotionally and through her actions, but is continually betrayed by the real world simply because she cannot turn herself into the woman the Westerosi legends tell her she should be.”

By upholding her ideals of integrity, Brienne refuses to conform to the established cultural expectations. Her very nature—from physique to comportment to idealism—defies the notion in Westeros that women are to be taken or coerced, and meant to endure their lot; not be agents of their own change. Spector describes Brienne as a woman who has “taken for herself most of the attributes of male power.” She embodies “how women who dare to take male power for their own are judged and treated not only in Westeros but in all conventionally patriarchal societies.”brienne-jaime-GoT

The journey of Brienne and Jaime is a fine tale of initial antagonism, discovery, surprising tenderness and ultimate friendship, based on honour and mutual respect. Throughout, Brienne defends and encourages a flagging Jaime and he, in turn, saves her on several occasions, culminating in his return to rescue her from a brutal death in the bearpit.

What makes “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”—or any other scene in which Brienne and Jaime appear—so pleasing? We witness in the interactions between them an evolution in character, great opportunities for learning and redemption, and finally the development of an iconic friendship based on respect and equality—something normally reserved for individuals of the same sex—that neither had previously enjoyed. Like two souls missing something, each is a gift to the other. And though delivered differently, it is the same for both: honour, self-respect and faith in humanity. And neither is the same for their interaction.

brienne-jaime-swords“The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god.”—George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Brienne is the catalyst hero. She gives us hope. She gives us hope to save the world. She does this through her influence on others. By shear strength of her genuine goodness, Brienne transforms, challenges, and supports. She is über-strong, yet vulnerable; which Jaime recognizes and appreciates as something truly beautiful. The reason he returns to save her in the bear pit.

“I am grateful, but… you were well away. Why come back?”

A dozen quips came to mind, each crueler than the one before, but Jaime only shrugged. “I dreamed of you,” he said.—George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

Jaime slides back to his scoundrel-self once returned safely to King’s Landing and out of Brienne’s sphere of influence—and beneath the shadow of his overbearing father. He is a chameleon, a shape shifter, who struggles to lift himself out from the shadow of his soulless father. Despite some continued reprehensible behavior (particularly to do with his sister, with whom he had formed a perverse relationship), Brienne’s light of honour appears to burn inside him in some form. His actions—tasking her to find and secure Sansa’s safety and giving her his own sword—maintains their honour-bond. When he gives her his longsword, forged of Valyrian steel, he asks her to name it; showing the cooperative respect between the two. She chooses the name Oathkeeper, fulfilling again her role in their story.

In fact, Brienne’s story follows a more traditionally male narrative. Her quest is to save the beautiful maiden (Sansa), but not to marry her or benefit from the quest; it is simply to secure her safety. Feminist writer Rihannon tells us that this is a storyline that “the mother, the young girl and the shieldmaiden are all given equal weight and worth…She uses her strength and her skill to respect and help other women in ways that most men in Westeros would never even think to attempt, because she understands, more than any other knight, that women are truly worth something as individuals.”

Are other women of Westeros poised to rise as true agents of change and takebrienne-of-tarth command not only of their lives but to save the world? Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon mother, liberates slaves; courage and a sense of justice animates the independent Arya. And we’ll see what becomes of Brienne…and Jaime.

I will continue to watch this series with uneasy anticipation.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

 

Advertisements

“Orphan Black” Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

orphanblack-EWCanadian science fiction thriller Orphan Black, written by Graeme Manson and directed by John Fawcett—now in Season Two—stars the extraordinary multi-talented Tatiana Maslany in multiple roles of herself—really.

Shot in and around Toronto, Ontario, the series focuses on Sarah Manning, a fringe-dweller with questionable friends, who assumes the identity of her clone, cop Elizabeth (Beth) Childs, after witnessing her suicide. In Season 1 alone, seven clones are revealed. Those still alive include suburban housewife Alison, university evolutionary biologist Cosima, corporate mogul Rachel, and crazed sociopath Helena. So far, two more have been revealed in Season 2.

Orphan Black is a slick, sophisticated and edgy exploration of human evolution that raises issues about the moral and ethical implications of bio-engineering and genetic tampering—specifically human cloning, personal identity and intellectual property.

Toronto is filmed brilliantly in a vague every-city pastiche that combines the look of London’s eastside, NYC and northern Europe all in one. Like its characters, the show is both sparsely existentialist and baroque funk. Besides Sarah’s own diverse clones there is foster brother Felix and his various friends or cronies who add significant colour to this film-noir set. Unsavory antagonists not only add intrigue but provide significant texture from sophisticated and subtle to the banal and truly terrifying. And like biology itself—perhaps the true main character here—all the characters are shape-shifters; looking for balance in a shifting world where “normal” keeps chasing itself.

helena-sestra on the go
Helena (Tatiani Maslany)

The metaphoric and allegorical nature of science fiction positions itself as a major commentary art form on our nature and evolution. With its emphasis on identity, rights and intellectual property, Orphan Black has positioned itself at the forefront of evolving science fiction.

“While other stories, including Jurassic Park and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, could certainly be categorized as biopunk science fiction, very few television shows and movies today delve into the idea of biology,” says Isabella Kapur in her article “Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black.”

Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

Orphan Black

Human cloning recently made a media comeback when three different research groups created embryonic stem cells out of embryos cloned from adult cells.

designer genesIssues, brought on by GMO foods and medical genetic research, have propelled a major debate in gene patenting. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled against patenting sequences of the human genome in Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al., reports Isabella Kapur in her article: Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black. “Myriad Genetics had patented two genes they had isolated that were identified as genes involved in increased ovarian and breast cancer risks,” said Kapur. “Companies, like Myriad, that spend money to identify nucleotide sequences want to be able to patent those discoveries. However, the patenting allows for monopolies on illness treatments and allows companies to have exclusive access to portions of human DNA. As of June [2013], companies like Myriad Genetics can’t legally copyright portions of DNA they have isolated in the human genome, but they are, according to the Supreme Court, allowed to patent synthetically created sequences of complementary DNA.”

leekie talk
Transhumanist Aldous Leekie promotes “self-directed evolution”

In Orphan Black, the ownership of the clones’ genomes by The Dyad Institute would be lawful if all the clones’ DNA was entirely synthetically made. The company would also have exclusive rights to study the clones’ genome, effectively placing the clone Cosima under copyright infringement if she decided to study and apply her research (on herself) outside of the Dyad Institute. If the clones were synthetic, like the DNA created by scientist Dr. Craig Venter, then the Dyad Institute would be in a unique situation with regards to ethics and newly emerging considerations of human rights yet to be determined. For instance, how much of the clones really belong to company that made them? What even constitutes a person?

Felix-neolutions
Felix (Jordan Gavaris) at a Neolution club

The series unravels a frightening panoply of stakeholders in this biological transhumanist game, spanning from the ultra-sophisticated to the deranged fanatic. Proletheans are religious extremists, who seek to systematically eliminate clones as “abominations” against the natural order of things. Pastor Henrick, a Waco-style cult “prophet” who quotes Einstein, conducts Mengele-style “breeding” experiments to recast humanity in his version of “perfection”.

eugenics-propaganda GermanyThe Dyad Institute, a biotech corporation with arcane connections to invisible powers and eugenics, patented the clones as theirs to do with as they please—which might be anything. The Neolutionists, a transhumanist movement pursuing “self-directed evolution” evokes social Darwinism and the Übermensch. All bring to mind the early American eugenics programs that inspired the fascist sonderweg and Hitler’s aggressive application of eugenics in the Holocaust. All are frightening.

For instance, why were the clones made? Who exactly is the Dyad Institute and who is behind them? In the latest episode (2.8: Variable and Full of Perturbation), we discover that not only are the clones female prototypes (of what?) but that they were purposefully created to be sterile.

Conditions of Existence…From Perfect Human to Perfect Society

Cosima
Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818—often regarded as the first science fiction story written—the “mad scientist” has endured and evolved as an archetype in literature. Literary works from science fiction to thriller, mystery, action adventure and even literary fiction have often portrayed scientists as sociopathic, and so consumed with their experiments that they are either oblivious to or outright disregard their social consequence. Most stereotypes and cliché derive from a realizable archetype based on social experience. In reality, ambition and political motive are dangerous bedfellows in the pursuit of science (to use another cliché). A recent book jacket introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, shares the following examples: “the brains behind the nuclear arms race, scientists who create super bacteria, and laboratories that experiment with artificial black holes. But most notably is the area of science devoted to gene manipulation, both in genetically modified foods and human cloning. Frankenstein has much to teach us in a world where we constantly test the limits of science and human ambition.”

Eugenics congress logoWhere do we draw the line in our tightrope walk across the sea of chaos to find the Holy Grail? When does a Transhumanist’s individual expression of “transcendence” become a movement toward the Singularity? When does a singular powerful thought encompass an entire society?

The political ambitions that wish to use science to “enhance” humanity, based on someone’s idea of “perfect” carry great social implications. Enter the pseudoscience of eugenics, a concept as old as Plato, and one that has haunted humanity since the biblical portrayal of Adam and Eve. Simply put, eugenics uses science and/or breeding techniques to produce individuals with preferred or “better” characteristics. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, eugenic strategies flourished in the USA in the early 20th Century when thousands of people underwent forced sterilization. Ultimately, these same principles inspired the Nazis to exterminate people with disabilities and those considered to have “lessor” ethnic or philosophical backgrounds.

orphan-black
Tatiana Maslany as several clones

“Perhaps more than any other science, biology has consistently been employed as an accomplice to moral claims because it has tremendous social utility in translating scientific findings into political imperatives,” says Cosima Herter, science consultant for Orphan Black. “Deeply embedded in the public consciousness is the hope that social problems can be solved with ‘scientific panaceas’,” Herter adds. “…Science can as easily act as an ally to existing institutions and justify pernicious prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparity to name a few – as it can produce wondrous, beautiful, and beneficial fruits in the service of a better world.”

What is perfect and how do we measure it? What is the risk of even suggesting a recipe for such a thing? A perfect society? Isn’t a Utopia an oxymoron of unresolvable paradox? Science fiction literature has given us many visions of where so-called utopias may descend (e.g., Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451A Stranger in a Strange LandThe Handmaid’s TaleThe MatrixThe Hunger GamesElysiumDivergentClockwork OrangeDeliriumAlways Coming Home, and so many more). The very act of being an individual provides complexity and diversity that promotes stability in change. Stable chaos.

Perhaps, what Orphan Black demonstrates the best is that even clones—who are exactly the same genetically—can differ significantly, given free reign in a diverse environment.

What Orphan Black does exceptionally well is ask those hard questions. OK. It’s not asking the questions so much as presenting the “then” scenario to some pretty important “what if” premises. It’s doing what all good art—versus polemic—does: it’s providing the seeds for viewers to engage in intelligent conversation on emerging social issues via Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media.

Join in.

The Unexpected Protocol of “I, Robot”

irobot-coverI reread Dr. Isaac Asimov’s 50+ year old masterpiece, I, Robot, in preparation for the 2004 Twentieth Century Fox motion picture of the same name, knowing fully well that to appeal to today’s action-thriller rollercoaster-addicted audience there was no way the movie and the book could even come close. I was right. But not the way, I thought I would be.

The movie, directed by Alex Proyas, begins with the three laws of robotics: that robots must not harm a human being; they must obey human orders, so long as this does not violate the first law; and they must protect their own existence, so long as that doesn’t violate laws one and two. Apart from these three laws and the use of the same title and some of the character names, the motion picture appears to radically depart from Asimov’s book, first published by Doubleday in 1950. To give Twentieth Century Fox credit, the film does not pretend to be the same as the book; I noticed that in the credits the movie was “suggested by,” rather than “based on” Asimov’s work. But how different was it, really? I submit that the two are much more similar than they first appear.

Surficial differences between book and motion picture are nevertheless glaring. First off, Asimov’s, I, Robot, is essentially a string of short stories that evolve along a theme; much in the vein of the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The book is told largely from the point of view of Dr. Susan Calvin, a plain and stern robo-psychologist, who gets along better with robots than with humans. Dr. Asimov uses this cold and colorless character as a vehicle to stir undercurrents of poignant thought on the human condition through a series of deceptively mundane tales. I, Robot offers a treatise both of humanity’s ingenuity and its foibles and how these two are inexorably intertwined in paradoxes that speak to the ultimate truth of what it is to be human. Each of his nine stories discloses a metaphoric piece of his clever puzzle. The puzzle pieces successively tease us through the three laws of robotics, as ever more sophisticated robots toil with their conflicts when dealing with perceived logical contradictions of the laws. For instance, there is “Robbie,” the endearing nursemaid robot. Cutie (QT-1) is a robot Descartes in “Reason.” In “Liar,” Herbie has problems coping with the three laws as a mind-reading robot. And in “Little Lost Robot,” Susan Calvin must out-smart Nestors — or the NS-2 — model robots, whose positronic brains were not impressioned with the entire First Law of Robotics. The larger question and ultimate paradox posed by the three laws culminate in Asimov’s final story, “The Evitable Conflict,” which subtly explores the role of “free will” and “faith” in our definition of what it means to be human.

The book jacket aptly describes I, Robot this way: “…humans and robots struggle to survive together — and sometimes against each other … and both are asking the same questions: what is human? And is humanity obsolete?” Interestingly, the latter part of the book jacket quote, which accompanied the 1991 Bantam mass-market edition, can be interpreted in several ways.

Asimov’s stories span fifty years of robot evolution, which play out mostly in space from Mercury to beyond our own galaxy. Proyas’s movie is set in Chicago in 2035 and condenses the time frame into a short few weeks with some flashbacks from several years prior. This serves the film well but at some cost. What is gained in tension and focus is lost in scope and erudition, two qualities often best left to the literary field. Asimov’s tales are quirky, contemplative, and thoughtful. The film version is more direct, trading these for a faster pace, pretty much a prerequisite in the film industry toda

The original screenplay, entitled “Hardwired” by Jeff Vinter, was reworked by Akiva Goldsman into a techno-thriller/murder mystery directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City) with its requisite hard-boiled detective cop (Will Smith) and a ‘suicide’ that looks suspiciously like murder. Smith’s character (a Hollywood invention, so don’t go looking for him in the book) is a 20th century anachronism: a Luddite who wears retro clothes and sets his computer car on manual. The story centers on Spooner’s investigation of a so-called suicide by Dr. Alfred Lanning, robot pioneer and the originator of the three laws of robotics. Lanning was an employee of U.S. Robotics, a mega-corporation run by Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood). Robertson relies on the real brains, V.I.K.I, the corporation’s super-intelligent virtual computer.

i robot end
Where abandoned robots congregate

With a “simple-minded” plot (according to Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) and a lead character who is little more than a “wisecracking … guns-a-blazin’… action-hero cliché” (Rob Blackwelder, Splicedwire), the motion picture rendition of Asimov’s ground-breaking book promises little but disappointment for the literate science fiction fan according to many critics. I disagree. I was not disappointed. This is both despite and because of director Alex Proyas’s interpretation of Asimov’s book and his three laws. Several critics focused on the surficial plot at the expense of the subtle multi-layered thematic sub-plots contrived by a director not known for creating superficial action-figure fluff. I think this critical myopia was generated from critics admittedly not having read Asimov’s masterpiece. Familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is a prerequisite to recognizing the subtle intelligence Proyas wove into his otherwise playful and glitzy Hollywood techno-thriller.

While literate science fiction fans will certainly recognize the names of Lanning, Calvin and Robertson, these movie characters in no way resemble their book counterparts. Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is a robo-psychologist, but in the movie she is far from plain and her wooden performance fails to disguise that she is clearly ruled by her feelings, unlike the coldly logical book character. The lead character in the film, Del Spooner (Will Smith) is, of course, a Hollywood fabrication, along with an entourage of requisite techno-thriller components: spectacular chase and battle scenes, explosions, lots of shooting, and some romantic tension. The film is also fraught with Hollywood clichés: for instance, repressed psychologist (Moynahan), who typically speaks in three-syllabic words, encounters cynical anti-hero beefy cop (Smith) whose rude attentions help transform her into a gun-slinging kick-ass warrior.

And: ‘evil’ machine turns against its masters to rule the world. But Proyas also treats us to some of the most convincing portrayals of a futuristic metropolis, complete with seamlessly incorporated CGI-generated robots and an evocative score by Peter Anthony. Dr. Asimov fans will, of course, also recognize certain aspects of the book in the movie, such as a scene and concepts borrowed from “Little Lost Robot.”

Despite the clichés and comic-action razzle-dazzle, Proyas manages to preserve the soul and spirit of Dr. Asimov’s great creation. He does this by allowing us to glimpse some of Asimov’s elevated theme, if not his more complex questions. Indeed the most poignant scenes in the movie are those, which involve the ‘humanity’ of the robot called Sonny (Alan Tudyk). A unique NS-5 model with a secondary processing system that clashes with his positronic brain, Sonny is capable of rejecting any of the three laws and hence provides us ironically with the most complex (and interesting) character in the movie. Sonny is both humble and feisty, a robot who dreams and questions. For me, this was not unlike the several stirring scenes in Asimov’s “Liar,” where the mind-reading robot, Herbie, when dealing with the complex nature of humans, unintentionally caused its own destruction (with the help of a bitter Dr. Calvin) by trying to please everyone by telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. Sonny’s complex character (like any character with depth) keeps you guessing. Sonny asks the right questions and at the end of the film we are left wondering about his destiny and what he will make of it. This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in “The Evitable Conflict.”

I-Robot-Sonny
Sonny hides among his own

Which brings me back to the foundation shared by both book and movie: the three laws of robotics, the infinite ways that they can be interpreted, and how they may be equally applied to robot or human. The laws may apply physically or emotionally; individually or toward the whole of humanity; long-term or short-term … the list is potentially endless. Asimov’s collection of stories centers on these questions by showing how robots deal with the conflicts the perceived contradictions present by the laws. Asimov’s last story describes a world run by a network of powerful but benevolent machines, who guide humankind through strict adherence to the three laws (their interpretation, of course!). Taking his cue from this, Proyas cleverly takes an old cliché—that of ‘evil’ machine with designs to rule the world—and turns it upside down according to the first law of robotics. His ‘evil’ machine turns out not to be evil, but misguided. V.I.K.Y acts not out of its own interests, like the self-preserving HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the best interests of humankind (at least according to the machine). Citing humanity’s self-destructive proclivity to pollute and make war, V.I.K.Y decides to treat us as children and pull the plug on free-will. Viewed from the perspective of the first law, this is simply a logical, though erroneous, extrapolation of ‘good will’; and far more interesting than the workings of simple ‘evil,’ which I feel is much overdone and overrated in films these days. The well-meaning dictator possessed of the hubristic notion that he holds all the keys to the happiness and well-being of others smacks of a reality and a humanity all too prevalent in well-meaning governments today. It is when the line between ‘good-intentions’ and ‘wrong-doing’ blur that things get really interesting. Both Asimov and Proyas explore this chiaroscuro in I, Robot, though in different ways. The challenge is still the same: If given the choice of ending war and all conflict at the expense of ‘free will,’ would we permit benevolent machines to run our world? Or is it our destiny—and requirement for the transcendence of our souls—to continue to make those mistakes at the expense of a life free of self-destruction and violence?

On the surface, Proyas offers the obvious answer. He likens the benevolent machine to an overprotective parent, who in the interests of a child’s safety, prevents the enrichment of that child’s heart, soul, and spirit otherwise provided by that very conflict. Asimov is far more subtle in “The Evitable Conflict” and while these questions are discussed at length, they remain largely unanswered.

In one of his most clever stories, “Evidence,” near the end of his book, Dr. Asimov expounds on the three laws to describe the ultimate dilemma: of defining and differentiating a human-looking robot with common sense from a genuine human on the basis of psychology. Asimov’s Dr. Calvin says: “The three Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems.  Every human being is supposed to have the instinct of self-preservation. That’s Rule Three to a robot. Also every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and a sense of responsibility, is supposed to defer to proper authority. That’s Rule Two to a robot. Also, every ‘good’ human being is supposed to love others as himself, protect his fellow man, risk his life to save another. That’s Rule One to a robot. To put it simply, if [an individual] follows all the Rules of Robotics, he may be a robot, and may simply be a very good man.” Proyas metaphorically (if not literally) explores the question of “what is human” with his robotic character, Sonny.

In a stirring scene of the motion picture where Sonny is prepared for permanent shut down, Dr. Lanning expounds on his belief that robots could evolve naturally: “There have always been ghosts in the machine… random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul… Why is it that when some robots are left in the dark they will seek the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space they will group together rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter moat of the soul?” Near the end of the film, Sonny, having fulfilled his initial purpose (i.e., stopping V.I.K.Y.), asks Spooner, “What about the others [NS-5s, recalled for servicing and storage]? Can I help them? Now that I have fulfilled my purpose I don’t know what to do.” To this, an enlightened Spooner answers: “I guess you’ll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny… That’s what it means to be free.”

Proyas gives us a strong indication of what his film was really about by ending not with Spooner—his lead action-figure character who has just saved humanity from the misguided robot army—but with Sonny, the enigmatic robot just embarking on his uncertain journey. The motion picture closes with a final scene of Sonny, resembling a messianic figure on the precipice of a bluff, overlooking row upon row of his lesser robotic counterparts.

sonny leading
Sonny finds a following…

We are left with an ambiguous ending of hope and mystery. What will Sonny do with his abilities, his dreams, and his potential “following”? Will his actions be for the betterment of humankind and/or robots? Will society trust him and let him seek and find his destiny or, like Asimov’s fearful “Society for Humanity,” will we squash them all before they get so complex and powerful that not only do we fail to understand them but we have no hope of controlling them? This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in his book. In it, Stephen Byers (a humanoid AI), and robo-psychologist, Susan Calvin, discuss the fate of robots and humanity. Ironically, it is through her interaction with robots that Susan discovers a human trait that may be more valuable to humanity than exercising “free will”: that of faith. It is she who confronts the coordinator with these words: “…How do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its.” Then to his challenge that human kind has lost its own say in its future, she further responds with: “It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand … at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war…Now the Machines understand them…for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable.” This quote in Asimov’s final story may horrify or anger some, even as it may inspire and reassure others. But, if true “free will” is largely a self-perpetuated myth of the Western pioneer movement, then we are effectively left with respect and faith in oneself and in others. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what both Asimov and Proyas had in mind.

It is interesting to note that Harlan Ellison and Asimov collaborated on a screenplay of I, Robot in the 1970s, which Asimov said would provide “the first really adult, complex worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.” Am I disappointed that this earlier rendition, most likely truer to the original book, did not come to fruition? No. That is because we already have that story. You can still read the book (and I strongly urge you to, if you have not). Proyas’s film I, Robot is a different story, with a different interpretation. And like the robot’s own varying interpretation of the three laws, it is refreshing to see a different human’s interpretation expressed.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, IROSF, and Europa SF. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published byEditura Paralela 45. Her latest release is La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), a story about water and climate change.

The Paradoxes of “Aeon Flux”

When I was first tantalized by the high-speed head-smashing trailer for the Paramount motion picture, Aeon Flux, directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and released in late 2005 (now on DVD), I was blissfully unaware of its history: that it was based on the darkly irreverent and raunchy 1995 MTV Liquid Television animated SF series created by Korean American animator, Peter Chung. The series achieved cult status among a select audience of insoniacs (it played at midnight on MTV, if that tells you anything). This may have worked in my favour. I had no expectations or preconceptions, except for a hair-flying ride. As a result, when the content (written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay) had merit as social commentary, I counted it as a bonus. But, then there was the matter of the reviews that emerged between the trailers airing and my seeing the film.

Unfortunately for the motion picture, Paramount’s lack of press-screenings (and subsequent press reaction because of those lack of screenings) may have predisposed critics to dislike it. And many provided negative, though conflicting, reviews; as if they couldn’t all agree on why they didn’t like the film. Kieth Breese (Filmcritic.com) found the film “gorgeously surreal and vacuously arty.” According to Jami Bernard (New York Daily News), “in the dystopian future [of Aeon Flux], apparently, women will be bendable Barbies in leather scanties, and everyone will speak like brain-dead robots…a silly live-action movie.” Justin Chung (Variety.com) decided that Aeon Flux protrayed “the future [as] alternatively grim and hysterical…a spectacularly silly sci-fier.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said that Aeon Flux was “flooded with colors and chilly effects [but was] drained of emotional interest, to say nothing of narrative coherence.” And, finally, William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it “too somber and cerebral for the young action crowd.” Silly or too cerebral? In truth, this disappointment is because the Aeon Flux movie was wrongly perceived (and wrongly marketed) as an action thriller; it is more aptly described as a dystopian political thriller—not the brazen cry of V for Vendetta—but a subtle cautionary tale of the consequences of complacency, greed and living in absense of—and trying to cheat—nature.

In typical dystopian fashion, we join the Aeon Flux story roughly four hundred years after an industrial-related virus has killed 99% of the world’s population. Scientist, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) has developed a cure and the Goodchild dynasty secures a home for the five million survivors in the last city on Earth, Bregna, a paradise walled off from the unrestrained wilderness that ever-threatens them. Dystopias, like Bregna, often appear utopian on the surface, exhibiting a world free of poverty, hardship and conflict, but with some fatal flaw at their core. A dystopia (“dys”=bad; “topos”=place) is a fictional society that is the antithesis of utopia. It is usually characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government or some kind of oppressive, often insiduous, social control. Other examples that depict a range of distopian societies in literature and film include: 1984Brave New WorldFahrenheit 451The Handmaid’s TaleMetropolisTHX-1138Blade Runner, and V for Vendetta. Built from scientific premise and intended only as a temporary measure, the technocratic society of Bregna continues long after its intended span as the Goodchilds attempt to deal with an internal and enduring glitch (infertility) of the “cure”. Like most imposed provisional governments, this one’s solution to a problem (cloning) has created yet another problem (fugitive memories from the previous clone’s life).

It is now 2415 and the walled society of Bregna appears utopian—clean and organized, beautiful, rich and spatious; but beneath the laughter and contentment, stirs an uneasy disquiet. Bregnans are losing sleep, having bad dreams, and are plagued by memories that don’t belong to them. Rebels challenge the Goodchild regime, run by Trevor and his brother Oren, and among the rebels is a highly competent and ruthless assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), whose tools include whistle-controlled ball-bearing bombs, drugs that allow her to meet people on higher planes of existence, and interchangeable eyeballs. She is aptly named, as she serves a true agent of discord to Goodchild, the guardian of order and all that he naïvely believes is good.

“Some call Bregna the perfect society,” Aeon tells us in the opening scenes of the motion picture, “Some call it the height of human civilization…but others know better…We are haunted by sorrows we cannot name. People disappear and our government denies these crimes…But there are rebels who…fight for the disappeared. They call themselves the Monicans. I am one of them.” Several critics disliked the narrative introduction. I found that it particularly worked, by adding a reflective literary quality to the motion picture. It is noteworthy that in the original animated series, Trevor Goodchild often frames each episode with his reflections; only fitting that Aeon gets her chance in the film version. The reflective narrative of the motion picture is meant to enlighten its audience that this is not your ordinary action thriller. What follows is a fast-paced yet thoughtful story, with elements of romance, that explores notions of longevity, social structure and connection, faith and greed to a satisfying end.

Twitchfilm.net aptly called the motion picture “biological science fiction”. Says Oren, Trevor’s treacherous brother who betrays him: “We’ve beaten death. We’ve beaten nature.” The film’s clean organic high-tech look faithfully captures the “sense of biotech gone wild” of the TV series by exploring several paradigms inherent in a society that lives deliberately in the absense of nature’s chaos. Indeed, the lack of connectivity resonates throughout the motion picture in its exploration of friendship, family, loyalty, and purpose. When her sister is murdered in the beginning of the film supposedly by Trevor’s men (but in actuality by his scheming brother, Oren), Aeon’s mission becomes personal: “I had a family once. I had a life; now all I have is a mission.” We never learn what the animated Aeon’s motives are.

The film truly launches into stylish action and intrigue when Aeon gladly accepts a mission to assassinate Trevor, thinking that this violent act will make it all better. Instead, it unravels her, beginning with when she confronts him; finding him uncomfortably familiar and alluring, she hesitates and decides not to kill him. “What do you want?” Trevor asks her. “I want my sister back. I want to remember what it’s like to be a person.” It is indeed he—or rather what he knows—that holds the key to who she is. The key is that she, like he and all those in Bregna, is a 400 year-old copy of someone before the virus. Four hundred years ago she was the original Trevor’s wife.

Filmed in Berlin, the movie is visually stunning, from the opening shot on the steps of Sans Souci to the labrinthine wind canal used by the Nazis. Displaying an eclectic mixture of spareness and mid-century design the film is acted out in a fluid dance to Graeme Revell’s (Sin City) haunting score. The action is rivetting and seamless with both plot and underlying theme of bio-tech gone awry. Early on we are treated to a thrilling sequence of Aeon and her biotech-altered rebel colleague negotiating the security of Goodchild’s sanctuary that consists of a beautiful but deadly garden, guarded by patches of knife-sharp blades of grass and poison dart-spitting fruit trees.

Aeon champions moral ethics and single-handedly destroys the relicor, the supposetory of the clone DNA, pursuing honour at the expense of loyalty (to Goodchild) and heralding in a new age of “mortality”. The movie ends as it begins, with Aeon’s narrative: “Now we can move forward. To live once for real and then give way to people who might do it better…to live only once but with hope.” This is truly what Aeon Flux represents and what her very name embodies.

The term Aeon comes from the Gnostic notion of “Aeons” as emanations of God. Aeon also means an immeasurably long period of time; the Suntelia Aeon in Greek mythos symbolizes the catastrophic end of one age and the beginning of a new one. This is apt for our heroine, who, at least in the movie version, pretty well single-handedly destroys an old corrupt world, and heralds in a new age. Aeon was “emanated” back after four hundred years by the gentle oracular Keeper of the relicor, whose original version saved her DNA and kept it hidden and safe until the right moment.

Fans of Peter Chung’s baroquely violent animated Aeon Flux will recognize some similarities between Kusama’s 2005 film adaptation and the original MTV cartoon. While admitting that the motion picture version was only based on Peter Chung’s characters (check the credits), Karyn Kusama intended to “honor [the cartoon version’s] wierdness in spirit and…pay homage to its esoteric boldness and…strange energy.” Homages to the animated series include: Aeon’s signature fly-catching with her eyelashes, demonstrating a woman extremely in tune with her body; Monican anarchists (though in the film they are subversives within Bregna rather than from an adjacent society); a virus that kills off most of the population and assassination attempt on Goodchild (Pilot); the harness worn on the torso that transports the wearer to another dimension (Utopia or Deuteranopia?); passing secret messages through a french kiss (Gravity); issues of cloning and two colleagues crossing a weaponized no-man’s land together (A Last Time for Everything). Original and movie adaptation also share at their core the exploration of the consequences and ambiguities of choices in life and the role that nature plays, subversive or otherwise.

Although they share recognizable motifs and characters, the 2005 movie adaptation contrasts in some important ways from the six 5-minute shorts of 1991 and 10 half-hour episode TV series that aired in 1995. Chung’s avante garde series is set mostly in a surrealistic dark future Earth (presumably) where two communities, Bregna and Monica, are juxtaposed but separated by a wall (not unlike East and West Berlin). Bregna is a centralized scientific-planned society and Monica is Bregna’s ‘evil twin’, an anarchistic society. Chung’s innovative use of “camera angles” reminiscient of cinematography, together with a spare, graphic choreography, portrays a sprawling Orwellian industrial world. Peopled with mutant creatures, clones, and robots, it features disturbing images of dismemberment, mutilation, violent deaths and human experimentation as Chung explores post-modern notions of cloning, mind and body manipulation, and evolution through a series of subversive aggressively non-narrative pieces. On the subject of his cloning experiments (A Last Time for Everything) Goodchild says to Aeon: “My work offends you. Why? Human beings aren’t so unique, just a random arrangement of amino acids.” To which Aeon retorts, “These people you’re copying are already superfluous. You’re trafficking in excess.”

The title character in the animated version is a tall, scantily-clad anarchist (featuring the sultry voice of Denise Poirier) skilled in assassination and acrobatics, who infiltrates technocratic Bregna from the neighbouring revolutionary society of Monica. As with the movie character (elegantly portrayed by Theron), the animated Aeon is a stylish dance; completely in tune with her body. Says Chung of his creation: “The way she’s dressed, the way she looks, the way she moves was tailored to seduce the viewer to watch more, even though they may not understand at every moment what was happening.” Despite their similar intelligence, physicality and drive, the two Aeons depart as characters. For instance, one of the major differences between original animation and adapted film is the ongoing relationship between Aeon and her nemesis/lover, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). The sexual and intellectual tension between Flux and Goodchild is far more palpable in the TV series and does not explain itself or resolve itself like it does in the movie. The opening of the animated series describes their odd relationship, which suggests that their destinies are bound together: Aeon: “You’re out of control.” Trevor: “I take control. Who’s side are you on?” Aeon: “I take no side.” Trevor: “You’re skating the edge.” Aeon: “I am the edge.” Trevor: “What you truly want only I can give.” Aeon: “You can’t give it, you can’t even buy it and you just don’t get it.”

The Gnostic “Aeons”, emanations of God, come in male/female pairs (aptly represented by Flux and Goodchild). As with the Gnostic “Aeon pairs”, Flux and Goodchild make up inseperable parts, the yin/yang (complementary opposites) of a whole, and represent the paraxical oxymoron of chaos in order. Long-limbed and continually in fluid motion, Flux dances through Goodchild’s rigid scientific world of order with an ease that stirs both his fascination and his fury. He, in turn, enthralls her and ensnares her with his intellectual hubris. The Gnostic “Aeon” male/female pair (called syzygies) of Caen(Power) and Akhana (e.g., Love) closely parallel Goodchild and Flux as they flirt with each other in a complex dance of power and love. Their attraction/antagonism mimics the characterizations of Eris(Greek goddess of discord) and Greyface (a man who taught that life is serious and play is a sin) in the Discordian mythos. Like Eris and her golden apple, Aeon Flux stirs up trouble for Goodchild’s complacent technocratic regime, constantly challenging his hubristic notions of human evolution, perfection and even love.

The cartoon Aeon Flux—and Trevor Goodchild, for that matter—are also far more compelling than those depicted in the movie. Headstrong, foolish and selfish but also dedicated and deeply compassionate and honourable, Chung’s Aeon Flux is a paradox. She scintilates with passionate self-defined notions against an industrial tyranny, while nurturing a naïve desire for personal love; the target of both being found in one man, Trevor Goodchild. Often cruel at times, she shows moments of selfless consideration, compassion and humour. Despite her violence, perverted fetishes and lustful obsessions, she is as appealing as she is strange; a discordant rock tune, which often enough hits a resonating note that draws out one’s interest and captures one’s empathy. In contrast to the super-hero competence and aloofness of the two-dimensional movie Aeon, the animated Aeon is wonderfully flawed; she is a complex paradoxical character, who makes mistakes, blundering often due to over-confidence and poor decisions (usually connected with her feelings for Trevor). Chung’s Goodchild is equally complex, and is, unlike the naïve feckless scientist of the movie, a true equal to Flux’s energetic and often misplaced heroics. Kusama’s Goodchild is neither menacing nor diabolical; rather, he is a well-intentioned and watered-down version of the Machiavelian scientist that Chung created. And, though quite appealing, he is also uncompelling as a result. Chung’s Goodchild is a visionary pedant, who often spouts twisted Orwellian diatribe: “That which does not kill us makes us stranger.” “The unobserved state is a fog of probabilities…” “There can be no justice without truth. But what is truth? Tell me, if you know, and I will not believe you.” Flux cuts through Goodchild’s dogma with her own one-liners—“Trevor, don’t trouble me with your thin smile”—and usually shuts him up with either a smack or a kiss.

The animated series is far more gritty and edgy than the movie version, featuring twisted eroticism and dark humor amid scenes of graphic violence. It oozes with a delicious perversity that the movie version abandoned in favour of cohesive narrative (and a PG-13 rating). Showing a healthy and irreverent disregard for that very narrative continuity, Chung’s animated series successfully makes commentary on various societal notions and behaviours through his uniquely disjointed and liberating form. Chung asserts that this plot ambiguity and disregard for continuity were meant to satirize mainstream film narratives. I think it does far more than this as art form, by providing a journalistic style of reporting the nuances and filigrees of life that gives it an immediacy hard to overlook. Chung’s apparent intention was to emphasize the futility of violence and the ambiguity of personal morality. This is best shown in his six 5-minute shorts and pilot, created in 1991. The shorts commonly featured a violent death for the title character, sometimes caused by fate, but more often due to her own incompetence.

The TV Aeon Flux flows like a subversive movement; punctuated by a series of abstract, often garrish, statements on various themes of souless biotechnology. Each episode is a vignette that explores singular questions of integrity, honour, loyalty, belief and love using the clever platform of the kiss/kill dynamic of Aeon and Trevor. Their interactions scintilate with clever wordplay, often amid physical-play that usually involves a pointed weapon: Aeon: “You’re psychotic. You no longer have a common conscience with your fellow man.” Trevor: “I understand the will of evil…[it] is like an iron in a forge…conscience is the fire.” Aeon: “you’ve lost the substance by grasping at the shadow.” The underlying question of connectivity and what it is to be human filter through his discordant series primarily through the twining of his two main characters, both loners with little connection to anything except to one another (which they both seek and abhor). The motion picture version pursues through a more structured and lengthy narrative, the same theme of connectivity (with nature, with others of our society, with family, and our beliefs) and the consequence of living a life with out meaning, though on a far more simple level. At the end of Kusama’s movie, Aeon challenges Trevor’s assertion that cloning is their only answer for survival: “We’re meant to die. That’s what makes anything about us matter…[otherwise] we’re ghosts.” In contrast, at the end of Chung’s episode, Reraizure, Trevor closes with these words of reflection: “We are not what we remember of ourselves. We can undo only what others have already forgotten. Learn from your mistakes so that one day you can repeat them precisely.”

Kusama’s film version chose narrative coherence to make its statements by sacrificing character for story and challenging its audience cerebrally. Chung’s cartoon version challenges us more deeply, at a visceral level, through the interplay of his characters where cohesive narrative doesn’t matter. In the final analysis, the motion picture version pursues the same questions posed by Chung’s original animated version. Only, Chung isn’t so eager to provide answers, leaving both interpretation and conclusions to the individual. Both versions are mind-provoking and a celebration of excellent art. While the film’s moralistic tale resonated and lingered like a muse’s long forgotten poem, the subversive kick of the comic series (which I thankfully saw later) struck deep chords and left me breathless with questions.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange HorizonsIROSFEuropa SF, and Amazing Stories. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. Nina teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

“Farscape” (Season One)

farscapecover1Okay, I’m a late bloomer, or so I’ve been told by many of my relatives. And they’re probably right: I got married later than most and had my son even later. I didn’t join the 21st Century tecky scene with Internet service, websites, and cell phones until recently (yeah, really!). We still don’t have cable or satellite TV (and don’t plan on it soon either). And I still don’t have a cell phone, much to the chagrin of my teenage son. So, it’s no surprise that I discovered “Farscape” for the first time through an enthusiastic fan demo to re-instate the already cancelled show after four seasons!

Upon seeing a montage of scenes at a “Save Farscape” panel at V-Con, I knew I wanted to see more and out of sheer faith bought the first season on DVD (at no small sum, I might add!). I was totally vindicated, beyond my highest expectations.

This is an intelligent, edgy, subversively imaginative series that can be perceived on many levels. Crafted as a “hero’s journey” in its truest sense, the show’s title speaks of the yearning for home. And this is, on its most obvious level, what the series is all about: finding home. The theme is most literally portrayed by the lead character, John Crichton (played by the consistently attractive Ben Browder), the human scientist/astronaut who is accidentally propelled through a wormhole into a galaxy far far away, peopled with strange and awesome aliens of all manner and shape. On another level, one could equally apply “Farscape”, the name of Crichton’s ship, to his longing for a figurative “home” — a place or state of being he can not find on Earth, where he withers beneath the imposing shadow of his celebrated heroic father.

farscape6
Moya’s crew in early Season 1

When Crichton stumbles into this awesome “farscape”, he plunges into the mayhem of a raging space battle of Peacekeeper fighters (called Prowlers) with an immense biomechanoid ship (called a Leviathan). He is captured and brought on board Moya, a living ship linked symbiotically to its Pilot and manned by a rag-tag clutch of escaped convicts, D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel.

John Crichton-Season1
John Crichton (Ben Browder)

Crichton finds himself imprisoned on Moya, along with one of the Peacekeeper Prowler pilots who has managed to get caught in the stream of Moya’s starburst (the equivalent to hyperdrive in other SF stories), as the homeless convicts flee into uncharted territory. Crichton struggles to grasp this very strange world and its alien beings who consider him “higher brain function deficient” (D’Argo in Premiere). Upon glimpsing his attractive female cellmate, Crichton thinks he’s found an ally in the human-looking Sebacean Peacekeeper pilot — only to find her hostile and contemptuous (he is, after all, a lowly non-Sebacean).  Crichton’s “Wizard of Oz” journey through this “farscape”, bursting with aliens who think him weak and useless, provides him with many opportunities to prove himself — not as the brawny shoot-em up action-man but as the cerebral, problem-solving diplomat — a different kind of hero. Crichton is a gentle soul, a man of integrity and given rather to humor and silly references to pop-culture to disarm his antagonists. Together, whether they like it or not (and the Peacekeeper certainly doesn’t – at least in the beginning) they must all find a way to work together as they are pursued through the uncharted territories. One of the greatest qualities and gifts Crichton brings to this group is his intrepid explorer’s willingness to see the best of a new and alien situation or phenomenon (e.g., Through the Looking Glass). This is because John Crichton is driven not by fear but by wonder.

aeryn sun gun earth
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)

The hidden protagonist of the series, the one who carries the deeper and more resonating metaphor of yearning for “home”, and ultimately the most interesting character, is the Sebacean Peacekeeper, Officer Aeryn Sun (played by Claudia Black) who is brought on board and, as a result irreversibly “contaminated”.

Unlike John Crichton, Aeryn Sun is in her home; but circumstances (of which she is more responsible than she’d like to admit) swiftly render it as hostile and “alien” to her as her homeworld is to John Crichton. While Crichton’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” discovery of the far universe draws our empathy, Aeryn’s struggling journey through her somtimes tortured inner universe is far more compelling. Her plight resonates more universally with us as she is forced to seek her identity and to become more than she was. In this regard, John Crichton’s character serves as a catalyst to Aeryn’s evolution more so than she does to his. In the Premiere episode, shortly after she is declared a traitor by her superior officer, punishable by death, Aeryn fatalistically resists fleeing with Crichton from her Peacekeeper captors: “No. I will not come with you; it is my duty, my breeding since birth. It’s what I am.” To this Crichton simply replies: “You can be more.”

Aeryn shoots
Aeryn Sun wielding her weapon of choice

Aeryn’s “hero’s journey” is not unlike that of the other main characters she is thrown together with; each fighting their own demons to find their way to peace, their “home”. Hers is just more interesting. A Sebacean (human-looking but incapable of thermo-regulation), Aeryn was born and reared aboard a Peacekeeper Command Carrier, trained from infancy to be an elite soldier and to follow orders without question. Peacekeepers are proud mercenary soldiers, serving as a military force for planets that lack one. Tenacious and clever fighters with massive ships and weaponry, their society follows a harsh, unforgiving meritocracy, with success greatly rewarded and failure mercilessly and brutally punished. Here’s an example: Aeryn’s only transgression was that she spent too much time with non-Sebacean “alien lifeforms” while onboard Moya. Her commander, Captain Crais, declared her “irreversibly contaminated” through her unauthorized contact with these “lower life forms” and sentenced her to death. His true reason for throwing her in with the others was that she brazenly — and foolishly — defended one of them (John Crichton).

fs122_090a
Sun and Crichton work out a plan … or not…

Aeryn Sun’s private struggle to reconcile her former Peacekeeper life with her life in exile resonates through the other characters, with each episode of the series providing its own individual element to the overarching theme. For instance, in the episode Exodus from Genesis, when the ship becomes infested by insect-like creatures (Draks), both Crichton and Aeryn must re-evaluate their notions of lesser creatures’s role in the universe; only Aeryn’s vision of a lesser creature isn’t the “bugs” but — you guessed it — humans.

zhaan1
Zhaan, a plant-like being

In Throne for a Loss, Zhaan attempts to enlighten a warlike Tavlek about choices, as D’Argo, Aeryn and even Crichton take their turns at donning the powerful device/weapon that removes the very need for choice.  As a Peacekeeper, Aeryn is trained to be extremely independent and self-reliant. In Exodus from Genesis, Crichton tells her, “You’re not in this alone. Everyone on board has had their lives derailed from what they thought they should be. We’re stuck together. And as long as we are, we might as well be . . .” Aeryn finishes for him, almost sneering,“What? Family? Friends? I want neither.” Of which she both learns to value (e.g., DNA Mad Scientist) and cultivate by the end of the first season (e.g., Nerve, Family Ties). In the very episode where she claims no use for such ties, she finds herself relying on Crichton when she succumbs to Sebacean Heat Delerium (which leads to the Living Death).

rygel1
Rygel, a banished royal

In PK Tech Girl, both Aeryn and Rygel are forced to come to terms with their vision of the past and of themselves (Aeryn of her status as a traitor banished from the home she loved: “I hate being ambushed.”). Crichton’s vision of her culture (and implicity of her) provides Aeryn’s first challenge. Remarking on the incredible derelict Peacekeeper ship they are investigating, Crichton says, “If you guys only used your know-how to–” Aeryn cuts him off with her own challenge: “To what? To fulfill your vision of who we should be?” Then reveals her idealism: “We are Peacekeepers. Other cultures hire us to keep order, to keep harmony–” What she leaves out — and Rygel is quick to point out — is that in many cases this is achieved through assassination, brutal torture, and kidnapping.

AerynSun-shooting
Aeryn Sun, warrior

In DNA Mad Scientist the crew (namely D’Argo, Zhaan and Rygel) lapse into selfish bickering when a mysterious scientist, Namtar, offers them the chance to find their homeworlds at the expense of Pilot (whose arm is sacrificed) and Aeryn Sun, whom they abandon to Namtar’s unnatural genetic butchery. This is a pivotal event for Aeryn, who begins the discarding of her outer shell of Peacekeeping rhetoric to learn to trust her inner feelings. Emerging from this abomination done to her, Aeryn finds herself: “I always thought of myself in terms of survival, life and death … What Namtar did to me … It was me, inside. The real me.”

AerynSun-season1
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) Season 1

At the outset, Aeryn “has the most to lose and the most to learn” (Rockne O’Bannon, Creator/Executive Producer) when she gets caught up in the escaped ship’s rebellion and her consequent banishment. Despite her growing rejection of the Peacekeeper’s brutal totalitatianism and a society that has already rejected her, Aeryn maintains an affinity for its culture and the status she lost. But as she learns to embrace humility and tolerance (something unheard of for the proud facsist-like Sebaceans) through her interactions with Moya’s crew, specially with John Crichton, Aeryn grows as a person and begins to think in broader terms. She grows to a point where, despite her training “to survive” as a Peacekeeper (Aeryn in PK Tech Girl: “In our world showing pain is a sign of weakness…”), she permits herself the “weakness” of falling in love and chooses to sacrifice her life rather than survive at the expense of another’s (The Flax).

John Crichton-S1
John Crichton (Ben Browder)

Gradually she discovers, often with John Crichton’s help, that her true strengths lie not in the display of might or stoicism but in the gift of honor, loyalty, and compassion — traits she has always possessed. In fact, it was her sense of honor and her compassion (for which she claimed to have no use) in initially defending John from the fate of a tortuous death at the hands of Crais, that condemned her as a traitor in the first place. This single act of compassion — in itself counter to how Peacekeepers and Sebaceans deal with “lower life forms” — seals her destiny and sets in motion her journey of self-discovery: a journey of slow but inexhorable peeling away of layer upon imposed layer of Peacekeeper rhetoric to release the light burning inside her.

pilot
Pilot of bio-mechanoid ship Moya

Farscape is an elegantly crafted work of art created by Rockne O’Bannon (Alien Nation) and produced by the Jim Henson Company and Nine Network Australia (in association with Hallmark Entertainment). Edged by a haunting evokative score (by Subvision), seamless CGI, and other special effects, Farscape achieves a truly remarkable universe, often of cruel and bizarre beauty peopled by powerfully complex characters who’s journeys of mind, soul and body resonate with what it is to be human and of humanity.  Displaying moments of clever humor, and incredibly sensual interaction, “Farscape” entertains like no SF TV serial I have seen to date. Farscape is both an intellectual feast of imaginary worlds with thought-provoking concepts and a love story told on a grand scale upon a tapestry of elevated themes such as honor, loyalty and sacrifice. The program has won widespread acclaim among both genre and mainstream press and was nominated for an Emmy when news of its cancellation broke out. Matt Roush of TV Guide described Farscape as “the most irreverent, unpredictable, sexy, intelligent and exciting sci fi show on TV.” Says Clare Sainsbury in her article “Who killed Farscape?” in Strange Horizons (Oct. 14, 2002): “Often baroque, visually spectacular and pyrotechnic … [Farscape is] strange, smart, sexy, psychologically rich, superbly acted, and apparently hell-bent on breaking every rule in the book, including its own — as one fan summed it up, Farscape is ‘not your father’s sci-fi’.”Aeryn-John

I recommend this series to anyone who appreciates intelligent science fiction in the vein of Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. USA Today proclaims that, “Farscape is more than just TV’s best space show.” This “simply spectacular” (Desert News) series is “exotic … impressive…” (San Francisco Chronicle), “Eye-catching and energetic … lotsa fun” (Dalas Morning News) and “One of those rare outer-space adventure series that deserve to be called fantastic.” (Reader’s Digest). Farscape has generated an incredible fan-base, many of whom remain commited to bringing the show (e.g., mini-series, and feature films) back on the air or on the silver screen since its cancellation in 2003 (e.g., www.watchfarscape.com; www.savefarscape.com). Google Farscape for more fan sites. DVDs of seasons 1 through 4 as well as the most recent mini-series, “The Peacekeeper Wars”, which had a limited airing in October 2004 are available.  Enjoy it. I certainly still am!

 

 

Love story:

john-aeryn first kissFrom the very first scenes between these two very different people (in PK Tech Girl, John mutters: “I’m not like you,” and Aeryn hisses back: “Not even remotely.”) they have struggled with conflict and attraction. In PK Tech Girl, Aeryn blurts out, “In the beginning I found you interesting,” then quickly qualifies to Crichton’s puzzled half-pleased look, “But only for a moment.” The evolving relationship of John and Aeryn toward their first kiss was wonderfully constructed over several episodes. And when it happened (in The Flax) it combined pathos, explosive passion and humor in a complex and vivid scene that left me panting for more. Whether it is in conflict or in love and passion, or simply working cooperatively to solve a problem, Aeryn and John sizzle on screen, lighting each other on fire. Pivotal episodes of their growing (and struggling) relationship in the first season include: the Premiere; PK Tech Girl; DNA Mad Scientist; The Flax; A Human Reaction.

Ben Browder plays John Crichton with a natural, understated style, portraying a man with an appealing mixture of high moral ethics, weird humor, and innovative intellect and proving that a hero need not be the dark, arrogant loner so common on the screen these days. He’s a nice guy, a scientist and pacifist, who prefers to use his brain and humor over brute force and an arsenal of weapons to solve a conflict. “Ben is an all-American guy. There’s always something going on behind his eyes. He’s got a certain spark that’s necessary for Crichton.” (Brian Henson, President of Jim Henson Co.). As John Crichton, Browder is both very male yet soft, sweet and boyishly vulnerable: “Come on, Aeryn, you bash me all the time for being soft, but the fact of the matter is sometimes it’s an advantage and this is one of them.” (Crichton in PK Tech Girl).

John Crichton-episode 1
John Crichton (Ben Browder) in Episode 1 of Farscape

Says Browder of his character in Farscape, “John Crichton is a guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances … He spends a lot of time figuring out what’s going on around him and getting knocked down and dragged around and he pops back up and comes up with an idea to save his butt…” Browder shares a philosophical fascination for the genre of SF: “The thing about doing science fiction is it allows you to explore different ideas , different avenues, in a way you can’t do in standard drama. It allows you to raise very hard and interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it is to be moral and ethical … and also you get to tell really interesting stories and there’s fabulous alien chicks.”

During a quiet moment in The Human Factor, when John and Aeryn are hiding out, he sits beside her glum form and simply leans his head like a great big puppy dog on her shoulder. It is a move both so endearing and sweet that it’s no wonder she reacts the way she does.

aeryn-season1
Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)

Claudia Black is Aeryn Sun: “She’s this beautiful vicious killer who is at the same time a very innocent vulnerable girl deep down that was never allowed out.” (Brian Henson, President of the Jim Henson Co.). “When we first saw [Black’s] audition, we thought: that’s not what we imagined, that’s not really what we saw. Then you watch her for ten seconds and you can’t stop. There’s something so appealing about her; she’s like a magnet. There’s life experience in her. She’s very fit, she can be strong as a person and at the same time , underneath there’s a real vulnerability that you can see through the eyes. That’s pretty much Aeryn. Her energy inside is a pulling energy. We sort of thought we knew what Aeryn was; then we met Claudia and we realized we were wrong . . . Claudia was exactly what Aeryn was.”

Black manages in her facial expressions, voice, body movements and expressive eyes to deliver the subtle nuances of a complex, often paradoxical character: one that is both strong and vulnerable; courageous and crusty yet soft inside; ruthless yet compassionate; confident and intelligent yet often uncertain of her capabilities (particularly her intellect). Black considers Aeryn “a contemporary Emma Peel” (of the original Avengers). Says Black: “When the audience first finds Aeryn Sun they’ll be a little bit surprised by how harsh she is. She’s very tough. I don’t know if she’s very likeable but gradually she’ll find her smile.”

A good example of her complex character can be found in PK Tech Girl.  Soon after Aeryn’s awkward interaction with Crichton when she catches him kissing the PK Tech Girl and blurts out her own confession of being attracted to him, Crichton (and the PK Tech Girl) get trapped by a fire-breathing Cheyang. Aeryn stages a dramatic rescue by leaping down several stories along a hanging chain, to blow away the Cheyang about to fry them. After a swift appraisal of the situation, and without so much as a look at Crichton, she coolly strides off, tapping the chain out of her way with her hand and a glib line, “Sorry about the mess.”

Supporting Cast:

Farscape-season 1D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Zhaan (Virginia Hey), Rygel (Jim Henson Creature; voice by Jonathan Hardy), Pilot (Jim Henson Creature; voice by Lani John Tupu), Crais (Lani Tupu) and even Moya (the ship) provide a rich tapestry of imaginative setting whose filigree of characters provide humor (mostly Rygel), spirituality, conflict and drama to a show willing to take risks. D’Argo is the fierce Luxan warrior whose reaction to conflict is to attack first and ask questions never. Zhaan is a Delvian priest, whose dignified gentle demeanor provide a much needed level of balance and spiritual strength to the disparate group. In contrast, Rygel is a Hynerian, formerly royal sovereign of more than 600 billion subjects. His excessive concern with his own self-interest is barely eleviated by his small size and although he appears rather cute, this alien is far from sweet. He often serves the role of comic relief in the show. Lastly, there is the mild-mannered Pilot, who is symbiotically linked to the leviathan. Later in the season, other strange characters join Moya’s rag-tag group, adding spice, grit and confusion to the already careering homeless group (e.g., the wild bratty Nebari, Chiana, played by Gigi Edgley; and the Banik healer, Stark played by Paul Goddard).

farscape cast

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada