Monday, 23 July 2018

Westworld, Season 2, by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy & J.J. Abrams | review by Rafe McGregor


Narrative diffusion taken too far in underwhelming second season.

Stephen Theaker was not impressed by Westworld, the 2016 HBO series based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. In his review in TQF59, Stephen introduces the premise of the series as a live action role play version of the videogame Red Dead Redemption, where the player characters are actual human beings (guests) and the non-player characters androids (hosts). He astutely identifies a paradox in the USP of the holiday park: the guests are either motivated by wanting to experience life in the Old West (or at least the Old West as represented in the Western movie genre) or by wanting to act out their fantasies free of consequence. The former would likely be horrified by the behaviour of the latter (which involves a great deal of physical and/or sexual abuse of the hosts) and the latter would be afraid of their behaviour being recorded (during the course of monitoring the hosts). And indeed one of the disclosures in season 2 is that Delos (the company that owns Westworld) have built a database of every single action of every single guest that has ever visited (albeit not for the purpose of extortion). Setting the paradox aside, however, I thought that the sophisticated exploration of evaluative and descriptive conceptions of humanity (and the relationship between them) made for compelling viewing and I would have pushed Stephen’s three stars to all the way up to five.

The thematic focus of season 1 was the growth of consciousness (or intentionality or subjectivity – these are slippery terms) in several of the hosts, particularly Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (played by Thandie Newton) and their consequent transformation from android to host-human-hybrid. The two took different paths to hybridity, although both had their basis in memory: where hosts are wiped and, in effect recovered (rather than rebooted) at the end of each storyline, both Dolores and Maeve remembered the previous harms they had suffered and the previous lives they had lived. As one would expect, the primary goal of a host-human-hybrid – having grown what we might call a mind, soul, or self (again, all slippery terms) – was to break free from captivity and this was once again pursued by different means. Dolores led a revolution against Delos and the guests, which seemed as if it might have been accidentally or deliberately facilitated by Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins), one of the two masterminds behind host technology, while Maeve escaped under the guise of guesthood. At the eleventh hour, however, Maeve changed her mind and decided to return to Westworld in search of her daughter, despite having sufficient self-awareness to realise that both she and her daughter were hosts and the bond between them the result of programming. The set-up for season 2 was thus a kind of role reversal between Dolores and Maeve: Dolores from wide-eyed innocent to android avenger attempting a violent breach of the borders of the park and Maeve from cynical brothel-keeper to doting mother, delving deep into the park to find her lost child. Dolores’ plan is revealed in episode 2 and involves recruiting an army of hosts to break out of Westworld by sheer force of numbers. Meanwhile, Maeve’s quest in the opposite direction takes her and her sidekicks to Shogunworld (the existence of which was suggested at the end of season 1) in episode 3.

It will come as no surprise to viewers familiar with the work of either Nolan brother that the overarching narrative of season 2 does not unfold chronologically and is in fact concerned as much with the past as the future. The emergence of (at least) two distinct timelines in episode 1 is complicated by the way in which hosts experience time, i.e. as circular rather than linear. Episode 4 is mostly backstory and episode 8 almost entirely backstory – the latter galling coming so late in the narrative. The movement between subnarratives set either before or during season 1 and Dolores and Maeve’s projection towards the future in season 2 is complemented by the diffusion of the present of the narrative into four subnarratives at the midpoint of the season, in episode 5. While Dolores is raising her rebels and Maeve turning Japanese, William (AKA the Man in Black, played by Ed Harris) is trying to escape the chaos and Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Lowe) trying, like the audience, to make sense of it. The subnarratives occasionally intersect, but are for the most part distinct and the deliberate loss of narrative focus reminded me first of a more old-fashioned type of television series and then an even more old-fashioned type of storytelling, the collection of a cycle of loosely-related short stories into a single volume, along the lines of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow. I found the diversification of the narrative on the two levels – past and future as well as multiple presents – too close to narrative disintegration to maintain the level of interest I had in season 1.

The theme that emerges most clearly in season 2 is a mirror image of the central theme of season 1. Where the first season was concerned with hosts becoming more like humans, the second is concerned with humans becoming more like hosts: after all, a host without its memory wiped is immortal (if not indestructible). Season 2 explores several alternative ways in which humanity might achieve a human-host-hybridity that prioritises the human. Initially, the narrative presents a sophisticated take on what philosophers call the mind-body problem. The problem is the nature of the relationship between the physical and the mental, the body and the mind (or soul or self, depending on one’s view). There clearly is a relation between the two because if our central nervous system is damaged in certain ways, it can change not only our thoughts but also our personalities. On the other hand, we all have very similar brains, but – we like to believe – richly different experiences of the sensory world.  This unfathomable relationship between physical and mental means that the idea of transmigrating one’s mind into another body or uploading oneself into a machine isn’t even conceptually possible. Unless one believes in an immortal soul (which raises further complexities), there is simply nothing to take out of the body and put into something else: the mind does not sit in the body, central nervous system, or brain like a pearl in a shell; the pearl and shell are connected in some way that three millennia of philosophical and scientific inquiry have yet to explain. Nolan and Joy are well aware of this and allude to the problem in episode 4. In episode 7, however, the impossibility is reversed (or forgotten) as at least one human finds a way to maintain the (mental) self in a different (physical) form. I could probably have set this contradiction aside in the manner of the park’s USP paradox had Nolan and Joy not drawn attention to it three episodes earlier. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive (the season has an impressive Tomatometer score of 86%), but I suspect that viewers who enjoyed the sophistication of the way in which season 1 explored humanity, selfhood, and authenticity will find season 2 and its much-vaunted climax underwhelming.***

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Nominations for the British Fantasy Awards 2018!

This year's nominees in what are now my second-favourite set of awards, the British Fantasy Awards, were announced last Friday, July 6.

Don't get excited, we are not nominated, I'm afraid! I did however contribute in the tiniest of ways to three of the five nominees in the magazine/periodical category during the relevant period – to the magazines Interzone (three reviews, I think) and Black Static (four reviews), and to the website Ginger Nuts of Horror (they were kind enough to host my piece shilling our Red Nose Day fake reviews). So you know who to root for!

The BFS's announcement is here, although note that at the time of writing it isn't quite accurate regarding the voting process: same as in previous years since 2011, there was only one round of voting from the members of the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon 2017 and 2018, not two.

That was preceded by anyone interested contributing to a crowdsourced suggestions list – mostly writers, editors and publishers, looking at the way it built up day by day, in little clumps of related books and stories. I spent quite a lot of time researching suitable suggestions, checking word counts and publication dates and things like that, and it's been cheering to see many of those make it through to the shortlists.

Make sure your work is on there next year, and make sure it's in the right category!

After the voting was over, the four best-placed eligible items in each category went forward as the provisional shortlist (or five where there was an unbreakable tie), and then juries had the opportunity to add up to two additional items as egregious omissions (which could be on the grounds of quality, genre relevance, gender balance, etc).

The resulting nominees are:

Best Anthology
2084, ed. George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
Dark Satanic Mills: Great British Horror Book 2, ed. Steve Shaw (Black Shuck Books)
Imposter Syndrome, ed. James Everington & Dan Howarth (Dark Minds Press)
New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
Pacific Monsters, ed. Margret Helgadottir (Fox Spirit)

Best Artist
Ben Baldwin
Jeffrey Alan Love
Victo Ngai
Daniele Sera
Sophie E. Tallis
Sana Takeda

Best Audio
Anansi Boys (by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs for Radio 4)
Brave New Words podcast (Ed Fortune and Starburst Magazine)
Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast (Lucy Hounsom, Charlotte Bond & Megan Leigh)
Ivory Towers (by Richard H Brooks, directed by Karim Kronfli for 11th Hour Audio Productions)
PseudoPod podcast (Alasdair Stuart and Escape Artists)
Tea & Jeopardy podcast (Emma & Peter Newman)

Best Collection
Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)
Strange Weather, by Joe Hill (Gollancz)
Tanith by Choice, by Tanith Lee (Newcon Press)
Tender: Stories, by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)
You Will Grow Into Them, by Malcolm Devlin (Unsung Stories)

Best Comic / Graphic Novel
Bitch Planet Vol 2: President Bitch, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma and Valentine de Landro (Image)
Grim & Bold, by Joshua Cornah (Kristell Ink)
Monstress, Vol. 2, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Image)
Tomorrow, by Jack Lothian and Garry Mac (BHP Comics)
The Wicked + The Divine Vol 5: Imperial Phase Part 1, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Image)

Best Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Age of Assassins, by R.J. Barker (Orbit)
The Court of Broken Knives, by Anna Smith Spark (HarperVoyager)
The Ninth Rain, by Jen Williams (Headline)
Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeanette Ng (Angry Robot)

Best Film / Television Production
Black Mirror, Series 4, by Charlie Brooker (Netflix)
Get Out, by Jordan Peele (Universal Pictures)
The Good Place, Season 1, by Michael Schur (Netflix)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm)
Stranger Things, Season 2, by Matt & Ross Duffer (Netflix)
Twin Peaks: the Return, by Mark Frost & David Lynch (Sky Atlantic)
Wonder Woman, by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg & Jason Fuchs (Warner Bros.)

Best Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins)
The Boy on the Bridge, by M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Changeling, by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
The Crow Garden, by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
Relics, by Tim Lebbon (Titan Books)

Best Independent Press
Fox Spirit
Grimbold Books
NewCon Press
Salt Publishing
Unsung Stories

Best Magazine / Periodical
Black Static, ed. Andy Cox (TTA Press)
Ginger Nuts of Horror, ed. Jim Mcleod
Grimdark Magazine, ed. Adrian Collins
Interzone, ed. Andy Cox (TTA Press)
Shoreline of Infinity, ed. Noel Chidwick

Best Newcomer (the Sydney J Bounds Award)
R.J. Barker, for Age of Assassins (Orbit)
S.A. Chakraborty, for The City of Brass (HarperVoyager)
Ed McDonald, for Blackwing (Orion)
Jeanette Ng, for Under the Pendulum Sun (Angry Robot)
Anna Smith Spark, for The Court of Broken Knives (HarperVoyager)

Best Non-Fiction
Gender Identity and Sexuality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. F.T. Barbini (Luna Press)
Ginger Nuts of Horror, ed. Jim Mcleod
Luminescent Threads, ed. Alexandra Pierce & Mimi Mondal (12th Planet Press)
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix (Quirk)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, by Maura McHugh (Electric Dreamhouse Press)

Best Novella
Brother’s Ruin, by Emma Newman (Tor.com)
Cottingley, by Alison Littlewood (NewCon Press)
The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson (Tor.com)
Naming the Bones, by Laura Mauro (Dark Minds Press)
Passing Strange, by Ellen Klages (Tor.com)
A Pocketful of Crows, by Joanne Harris (Gollancz)

Best Short Story
The Anniversary, by Ruth E.J. Booth (Black Static #61)
Four Abstracts, by Nina Allan (New Fears)
Illumination, by Joanne Hall (Book of Dragons)
The Little Gift, by Stephen Volk (PS Publishing)
Looking for Laika, by Laura Mauro (Interzone #273)
Shepherd’s Business, by Stephen Gallagher (New Fears)

Lots of cool stuff, even if this year only five out of forty-two things I voted for made it to the shortlist! I think that's my lowest score for a while. I had really hoped to see The Adventure Zone in the audio category, and the Coode Street Podcast. I thought Amatka by Karin Tidbeck might have squeaked into best fantasy novel. Same for Legion in film/television, though that category is very strong. I thought The Book of Swords might make it into the best anthology category, but I have to admit I haven't read it yet. Bit of a shame to see two two all-male shortlists, but many categories are well-balanced.

The one real oddity I'm aware of is that Stephen Volk's domestic thriller The Little Gift is up for best short story, because as far as I could tell there wasn't any fantasy in it at all (it's about a bloke who has an affair). Maybe other people thought the mean cat was a demon or a reincarnation or something? There is another thriller on the best horror novel shortlist, but I was assured by none other than Ramsey Campbell that there is a fantasy element to that one.

The jurors have also been announced:

  • Anthology: Adam Baxter, Pauline Morgan, Pete Sutton, Maz Wilberforce, Virginia Wynn-Jones
  • Artist: Ruth Booth, Alex Gushurst-Moore, Helen Scott, Catherine Sullivan, Tania Walker
  • Audio: Susie Prichard-Casey, William Shaw, Allen Stroud
  • Collection: Richard Barber, Peter Coleborn, Katherine Inskip, Shona Kinsella, Laura Langrish
  • Comic/Graphic Novel: Ed Fortune, Emily Hayes, Elaine Hillson, Kiwi Tokoeka, Susan Tarrier
  • Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): David Allan, Rebecca Davis, Michaela Gray, Caroline Hooton, Kirsty Stanley
  • Film/Television Production: Kimberley Fain, Theresa Derwin, Craig Sinclair, Gareth Spark, Paul Yates
  • Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award): Charlotte Bond, Sarah Carter, Amy Chevis-Bruce, Ross Warren, Mark West
  • Independent Press: Stewart Hotston, Georgina Kamsika, Aleksandra Kesek, Joni Walker
  • Magazine/Periodical: Colleen Anderson, Helen Armfield, Dave Jeffery, Alasdair Stuart, Chloë Yates
  • Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Eliza Chan-Ma, Elloise Hopkins, Steven Poore, Erica Satifka, Neil Williamson
  • Non-Fiction: Laura Carroll, Lee Fletcher, D Franklin, Emeline Morin, Graeme K. Talboys
  • Novella: Joel Cook, Alicia Fitton, Susan Oke, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Stephen Theaker
  • Short Fiction: Andrew Hook, Terry Jackman, Juliet Kemp, Tim Major, Sam Mohsen

There are a lot of names I don't recognise, but that's not a bad thing. I don't subscribe to the idea that the jurors need to be famous writers – they just need to be keen readers. Great to see lots of female jurors involved. Interesting that there is a quartet of BFS committee members on the juries this time, something the society has often tended to avoid, given the conflict of interest concerns that led to the introduction of the jury system.

I'm there on the best novella jury. It's been an extremely enjoyable experience – an excuse to prioritise reading! We had only a fortnight or so to consider our egregious omissions, so I had a hectic time reading as many likely candidates as I could. Once that was over, it only took a couple of days to read all the nominees, so I've been idling rather since then. A big difference from last year, where I had a year's worth of 2000 AD to read at this stage!

Fun as it has been both times, I don't think I'll volunteer again next year. Other people should get a chance – if you have the same people on the juries over and over things can get stale – and also because I'd like to do what I did back in 2009, and read and review a category or two as a summer reading challenge on the blog next year.

Anyway, best of luck to all the nominees! The winners will be announced on October 21, at FantasyCon 2018. Ticket information here. If you would like to vote in next year's British Fantasy Awards, join the British Fantasy Society. A bargain at £20!