Wordplay: Netflix's new anthology and the mythos of Apollo

Wordplay: Netflix's new anthology and the mythos of Apollo

Second letter in a week? What is this madness?

The last issue was late, and I figure I might as well stick with the biweekly schedule, so you get two this week. This newsletter has hit 300 subscribers, which is astonishing to me. Thank you to those of you who have stuck with it, and hello to newcomers! I hope you find this interesting, entertaining, or informative.

First, though, keep the Christchurch victims and their families in your thoughts today.

Love, Death & Robots

Netflix debuted a new animated anthology series yesterday, Love, Death & Robots, and one of the really cool things about it is that most of its 18 episodes are based off of short stories from a number of well-known SF/F authors: Ken Liu, John Scalzi, Marko Kloos, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, and a couple of others.

This series isn’t… for the faint of heart: there’s a lot of sex/nudity, blood, and violence in it, and there are definitely some *really* messed up episodes. I haven’t gotten through the entire thing yet, but it’s a glorious experiment: a mashup of art styles, along with some really excellent stories. It's also refreshing to see a series that's really unrestrained and essentially has a free hand to do whatever the hell it wants.

Thus far, my favorite is probably Good Hunting, based off of Ken Liu’s short story by the same title (You can read it online here) and Lucky 13, based on Marko Kloos’s Kindle short. I’m a big fan of Kloos’s Frontlines series, and while this story is set in that world, the references have been stripped away. But man. They got the design and action pitch-perfect here. It's a great military SF story. Other good ones include Beyond the Aquila Rift (based on Alastair Reynold’s 2005 short story by the same title) is well done, and John Scalzi’s Three Robots is a hoot.

Beyond the people involved, what’s really interesting about this project is that it highlights some of the really excellent work that’s being done in short form, and that Netflix is willing to spend a lot of money to develop and produce an anthology like this. Genre television has been trending towards long-form storytelling for a while now — look no further than shows like The Expanse and Game of Thrones. But there’s also anthologies like Black Mirror and a handful of others that tell much shorter stories. It’s a good demonstration that the only works out there that are worthy of adaptation are big, complicated epics. Not every story needs 200,000 words to be told. Sometimes, you only need a 5,000 words. Love, Death & Robots shows that off nicely, and it’s varied enough in style, tone, and genre that it really holds your attention for a brief 15-20 minutes before moving on to the next thing.

In some ways, I think this is what Neill Blomkamp was trying to do with Oats Studios, an experimental outfit that’s designed to tell a whole bunch of stories. Blomkamp’s studio is more like an idea incubator — with the stated goal of moving successful and popular projects off to a potential feature film. Love, Death & Robots doesn’t feel like that: it feels more like an effort to tell as many stories as possible, without trying to overstay their welcome.

Netflix lists this as a 1st season, and hopefully, there’ll be some more in the future — and other efforts — because there are a ton of stories out there that would work wonderfully for this. Short fiction doesn’t have nearly the same profile as novels, which is a shame, because there’s a lot of interesting experimentation and storytelling in that format. Hopefully, they'll include some stories from women and authors of color in whatever comes next.

Shooting for the Moon

Earlier this week, I caught a fantastic documentary called Apollo 11. If it’s playing near you, stop what you’re doing and go check it out. It’s an astonishing, beautiful film about the first lunar mission, shot contemporaneously and compiled from footage that the filmmakers discovered languishing in an archive. This isn’t a talking heads-style documentary, either — they sync up audio from the mission with the footage, and the result is essentially a film about the Apollo 11 mission, as though it were a movie. It's really something.

What struck me the most was just how beautiful it was. Some of the footage was shot on the same cameras that Stanley Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odyssey, so you have these wonderful shots of the Saturn V rocket, the crowds of people watching, and NASA’s personnel in Mission Control. The colors just pop out. It’s a good argument for keeping physical film, rather than shooting on digital stock, something that Christopher Nolan has been stumping for recently.

The film brings in comparisons to another Apollo 11 project from last year: First Man. The two projects couldn’t be any more different from one another, even though they’re covering much of the same ground. First Man is a technically beautiful (although they overdid it on the shaking camera), but emotionally cold film about Neil Armstrong’s life. I left the theater a bit let down by it, because it really lacked any form of joy. It’s a really different take on the heroic / bombastic films about the space race, like Apollo 13 or HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, or documentaries like In The Shadow of the Moon.

First Man is interesting, because it pushes back against the long-standing heroic stories that we associate with the space race, and presents the really brutal cost that Apollo had on its astronauts. It’s easy to look back in retrospect to imagine them as fearless pioneers, but another to show off just how utterly terrifying space is. Films like Hidden Figures also punctures parts of the mythos that NASA and the media created at the time, highlighting that the race to the moon wasn't quite as rosy as it was made out to be. For me, First Man really swung in the opposite direction, maybe a little too much.

Apollo 11 swings back towards the more mythological side of the space race, but it feels like it presents a bit more of the humanity that was present. One thing that really stood out was a contemporary report about Edward Kennedy’s car accident, and the ongoing war in Vietnam. But it also recognizes the achievement that the mission was. We’ll see a lot more of that this year, given that it’s the 50th anniversary of the mission.

Further Reading

I published the second book list for March on The Verge. There are a lot of good titles here: The Light Brigade (which I'm reading now), Luna: New Moon, Tiamat’s Wrath, and A Memory Called Empire are all at the top of my list to read soon.

Coming up

I’m hoping to make it out to a couple of conventions this year — Star Wars Celebration is on my list, if I can get all of my ducks in a row, soon. That's contingent on time off and logistics, but I haven’t been since 2003, and I want to enjoy it. I’m also hoping to hit up San Diego Comic Con (depending on work), DragonCon, and a couple of others over the course of the year. I’ll also be presenting at the upcoming Tolkien in Vermont Conference here in Vermont in April, and might be at the Vermont Sci-Fi & Fantasy Expo, but that’s contingent on time off.

Beyond that, I have two announcements that I can’t reveal just yet. They’re exciting, and… I can’t talk about either yet. Hopefully soon.

As always, let me know what you think, what you’re reading. If you’re so inclined, please share this letter with people you think might be interested!