Love, Death & Robots: we need more of this, and less

I've been checking out the new anthology TV series Love, Death & Robots after several recommendations. As an anthology series the quality is bound to be variable but a number of the episodes are high-quality science fiction.

This isn't a surprise but it's framed as one. Almost all the episodes are based on hard SF short stories: there are three John Scalzi tales, two by Alistair Reynolds, you'll see Peter F. Hamilton and Ken Liu among the authors. This is a pretty high-powered list.

This kind of strength is something that's been missing from TV for a long time. One of the things that made The Outer Limits great was its focus on adapting prose stories rather than writing teleplays from scratch. You can sense the difference in an adapted story: something written as a teleplay will tend to follow a strict act format, key beats falling at certain time-points manoeuvred around commercial breaks. All the structure follows conventions set at the dawn of the Age of Radio.

One of the things I love about short fiction is the freedom to experiment with form. If what you're writing is only 2000-odd words, you can structure however you like and your reader should still remember the beginning of the story and can flip back two pages if they can't. If the reader loves it, it's easy to leave them wanting more. If they're bored or frustrated, it'll be over soon and you've still said what you've had to say.

So we need more anthology shows along the lines of LD&R both as a chance for the new streaming TV model to stretch its narrative wings--writing for streaming & binging is something TV writers are still figuring out--and also as a way to showcase some of the really great literature that's out there but simply hasn't had an expression in the shorter format.

In fact my first criticism of the show is how this really interesting and important fact, that it's drawing from SF short stories by major authors, isn't put front & centre either in the episode or in the show's marketing. The viewer has to stalk the credits to find out what they just saw was based on a short story. The viewer has to dive into Google to find out which story (the titles have often been changed) and where they can get it.

I don't know as much about animation and drawing but they might do they same for the animation studios and art direction. Each episode is in a different style, from hyperreal to bédé-esque.

We need more things along the lines of LD&R...but I'm not convinced LD&R is exactly what we need.

You watch Bojack Horseman? You remember Philbert? New TV's groundbreakers easily fall into old traps. Sexism, racism, all the old oppressive structures are, from the perspective of media producers, networks etc. comforting. They are the familiar spaces they think their viewers need to be in to accept new things.

There are good familiar spaces in LD&R to be sure. In many episodes there's a decided pro-cat bias. This, of course, is just common sense rooted in scientific fact.

But read down the author list and you find a nasty case of male-pale-and-stale. Of 18 episodes, only two are by women and few are by people of colour. Maybe this was the snapshot of what was getting published and anthologised 20 years ago but it's a horribly unfair picture of where the good writing is.  The Hugo Awards for the past three years--the fan favorites--have been absolutely dominated by women writers, and are more ethnically diverse than ever as well.

So on the one hand, I hope LD&R can be the launching point for a new era of short fiction from across the spectrum of great authors being given screen adaptations. And I hope.

And on the other, I watch one of LD&R's two original episodes, "The Witness," and I see how the plot is, in essence, "Sexy Hookerbot In Naked Peril." And I despair.


Edmund Schluessel

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