Action At A Distance

I watched some sci-fi series on Netflix about spaceships contacting aliens later in the 21st century.

Another Life (2019-21) starts with a well-off young woman seemingly bored in a well-maintained villa, which the subtitles locate in Westchester, New York. She is talking to a team of make-up artists and cameramen, ready to record her for some broadcast.

She wanders off, explaining to her entourage:

HARPER GLASS: Uncluttered is the dream, see? No smokestacks no three-tiered highways, teeming towers with 4 families to an apartment. It’s just… me, talking, to my 250 million followers.

And then, just as she starts recording her latest monologue against a backdrop of a beautiful uncluttered horizon, there is a power surge and a mysterious event unfolds. A strange shaped craft appears in the sky, and traverses the world, in the process showing that cities still look much like they did at the end of the 20th century. Eventually it settles in a grassy space and spontaneously transforms into a giant crystalline tower, referred to afterwards as “the Artefact”.

I don’t think we ever get an exact year when this is set, although it can’t be too close to 2100 since it is mentioned later on that one of the software engineers we encounter worked on solving the Y2038 problem, which could have wiped out “all our savings”. So we’re possibly not even later than 2050, which makes this an extraordinary vision of the future once we bring all the clues together.

As the opening dialogue indicated, this is our world that has become overcrowded as a result of climate change. Flooding, lost cities, and refugee camps are mentioned later in the recent history that our heroes and their families have lived through. Yet many things have remained stable. The USA is still Top Nation and it seems that the President is de facto leader of the Earth – we never get any inkling that he has to consult with equals and peers about the various existential crises humanity goes through in this saga. There is a still a Department of Homeland Security, and our top people work for USIC (United States Interstellar Command). One of the scientists mentions she was involved in a project to clean up petrochemical waste run by a “start-up”. At some point there was a war in the South China Sea, which is where the military-trained members of the spaceship crew got their experience, including the guy who emigrated to the US from southern Africa.

Everyday technology is much like it is circa 2020 – computers are manipulated through QWERTY keyboards and monitors, whilst smartphones give quick updates on news and messages. The biggest broadcaster in the world is Harper Glass, who seems to be an evolution of a present-day “influencer” into all-round current affairs commentator. Computers are described using the same technical lingo that exists today: “firewall”, “upload”, “network”, and even “file” and “drive” make appearances. However there have been some notable leaps forward in space travel. We have started making a colonization effort inside the solar system using vessels powered by “impulse drive”, which deals with velocities lower than lightspeed. We also have created a FTL (Faster Than Light) system that works much like the Alcubierre Drive, with some process for generating and manipulating Exotic Matter. This enables spaceships to move through our space at a finite velocity (journeys are not instantaneous or somehow circumventing the intervening distance), with the craft inside a bubble that protects it from interaction with other physical bodies – though it is not clear whether an FTL spaceship can avoid disrupting any other physical bodies it flies through. There is also the nonsensical business of craft moving or exploding in space apparently making a noise, but we just have to accept that.

On board these large ships we have a new system called “Soma” for putting crewmembers in a form of suspended animation for a long time and only waking them when needed to fix problems. It seems this is only a recent innovation and hasn’t been used much before being put in to use on a major mission.

There is no clue how a world struggling with environmental problems on the scale we have been told about could have had time to fund research projects required for this technology, which it appears to have no real use for. Locating and colonizing distant planets will also require huge amounts of investment with no tangible return for a long time, even more so than the nearer planetary colonies which we never see. Who went there, how did they afford to leave, and why are there still overcrowded cities for those they left behind?

This is all of course a cut-down, bargain price version of the universe of The Expanse, and much of the near-future technological trajectory didn’t make sense there either. We don’t see much in the way of robots in these shows, not even ones operating at the level of industrial production lines that already exist in our universe in the 20th century. Yet robots are the obviously more efficient way to extract materials from other planets and asteroids, if Earth really does need to go elsewhere for its essential resources. There is no need to build up a colonial class of “Belters” and Outer Planet workers, resentful and ungrateful towards the home world, without which they would not exist since they could only be an unnecessary extra cost whose work should never have not been done by machines.

The big technical advance in computing is in the creation of AI systems with their own holographic representation and personality, that directly interact with humans as if they are a special kind of ghost presence that can be walked through, and dismissed and summoned when required. “William” is the name of the one on the spaceship Salvare, which is the vessel chosen for the mission to search for the alien home planet.

There isn’t a great deal of consistency about how William interacts with his quasi-material being. He can meet representations of humans inside virtual worlds that he controls, and even seems to persist in them and have facial expressions when there is no human conscious presence to witness it. There are moments when he appears in the physical environment of the control room and seems to be acting as a human being. There is a crucial scene that makes no sense, when he connects with an alien device by touching it even though he isn’t supposed to have a physical surface. There is the usual rather boring puzzles about whether machines can exhibit or “really have” emotional states, which could be applied just as well to be the meat-faced crew around him.

More notable are the bizarre, almost superstitious ideas this world has about “code”. Code is the true essence of any computer intelligence, analogous to the human “spirit” about which we don’t hear too much. Code seems to be move in a material realm of its own which is only virtual to a human perspective, and we can track its presence by examining comparisons of what seem to be program listings from sections of memory, identifying insertions and deletions of source text, somehow. The blurriness between virtual and material worlds reaches a peak of confusion when the holographic projection of an AI being writhes in agony as she is “tortured” by having her code examined. Of course alien “code” can be brought in and out of our machines just as ours can invade theirs. This show doesn’t mention paranormal or parapsychological powers in the humans, because they’ve been assigned to the computers, and parsed out in pseudo-technical language about software as a magical thought-language.

Even though this is a world of wonder boxes, it falls to a very small number of humans to do the central tasks. They are all acclaimed as the greatest and most brilliant, even though they behave like petulant sweary teenagers nearly all the time. The heroic power-couple at the centre of the narrative are Niko Breckinridge (super space captain, despite some questionable decisions during a critical moment in the past) and Erik Wallace, super science guy in charge of the rather understaffed mission to understand and communicate with the Artefact that arrived on Earth.

Erik figures out that the Artefact is sending signals towards Pi Canis Majoris, and so Niko gets the job of flying our best available craft Salvare on a mission there to find and make contact with its presumed originators. Nobody stops to question if this is a good idea or use of resources, or if we should wait a little while to have more than 1 spaceship available for the expedition. There is no real urgency about investigating the Artefact, which doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone. The range of expertise available to Erik seems to be pretty thin, it’s only Physics and Software Engineering dudes whose degrees really count for anything.

Out in space, Niko has to deal with preposterous levels of unprofessionalism from a crew that contains a large number of nice-looking young people who do not seem to add any value to proceedings and definitely could have been replaced by androids. We hear an awful lot of detail culled from Scientific American and Wired magazine articles about Dark Matter and all that, which is awfully pointless in a universe that runs on magic anyway. Along the way our team stop off to investigate planets they encounter, but this series does not have unconnected subplots, it all builds up to a grand narrative in which humans are newcomers caught up in the expanding empire of the Achaians (possibly taken from one of the names Homer gives to the Greeks, though in-world the name is just relayed to Niko).

The Achaians succeed in infiltrating their own spy into the mission, by means of a mind-controlling robot spider creature implanted when the travellers discover another Artefact on another planet on the way.

Meanwhile Erik succeeds in making contact with the Artefact on Earth by playing music to it. Soon he is entering a strange void space where he can also connect with Niko when she is in touch with Achaia on one of their spaceships encountered out in space.

The story also expands to include movements for resistance and collaboration amongst the rest of humanity. Erik gets kidnapped by a cell of renegade ex-USIC people who don’t trust what is going on and have some rather archaic ways of hiding their identities.

There is also an establishment guy who is totally willing to work with the aliens, who promise amazing new tricks to fix the damaged Earth if we’ll only agree to never travel into interstellar space again.

Niko and Erik are kept together by their cute daughter, who is used as a weapon against them by the cruel manipulative baddies. But other kinds of relationships are possible in this world – several characters are gay and married to their partners, whilst the medical officer on the Salvare is non-binary and gets involved with one of the other male crew members. Sex is possible and permitted on board and a pregnancy occurs.

Although the spaceships and computer graphics look fine, there are many moments of cheapness in this show that take it closer to straight-to-DVD level production. All the smart people seem to use the same restaurant for off-the-record meetings and briefings, which doesn’t look particularly classy. Erik’s research team only seem to occupy a few tents even though they are pursuing possibly the biggest scientific mystery in the world. Everyone seems to be nearby each other on Earth, whilst the “particle accelerator” chambers on the Salvare are not much more than empty store rooms with plastic piping and flashing lights.

Several moments can be taken as homages to other sci-fi stories:

  • Erik’s mission to understand the strange giant alien objects is similar to Arrival.
  • Erik’s use of music to open communication with the Artefact is from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
  • The moment when a reptilian creature bursts out of the spinal column of a Salvare crew member is very obviously a reversal of the “chest-burster” from Alien.
  • The very idea of the computer controlling a space mission acting against the crew is the main plot of 2001:A Space Odyssey.
  • The journey through the ruins of planets previously visited by the Achaia was similar to many moments from Prometheus.
  • Head-exploding humans were first seen in Scanners.
  • Independence Day established that alien computer systems can be brought down by human computer viruses.
  • TRON is the ultimate source for the view of computers as having an inner virtual world in which digital constructs have a quasi-material presence.

This is not a deeply pessimistic show that is too concerned about some of the radical differences between humans and aliens. It has some moments of regret about where the world has got to, but is not too cautious about the prospects for finding a technological fix. It seems that even when we are shown that the universe is far more complex than our ideas of it, we can catch up and create new gadgets quite quickly. The only prolonged note of defeatism and doubt comes from Ursula, the computer scientist who coded William. She is inclined to take the offer from the Achaia to fix the Earth in exchange for staying put on it.

WILLIAM: Why are you helping him?

URSULA: I am helping the Achaia.

WILLIAM: They’re murderers.

URSULA: Humans are murderers. Everywhere we go – Romans, Vikings, European explorers that decimated entire continents.

WILLIAM: Are we to be conquered, then?

URSULA: Liberated. Elevated to the next phase of our evolution. I’ve seen the restored forests. I’ve heard all about the miracle cures.

WILLIAM: They’re deceptions. All of them.

URSULA: No. They’re not, William. I used to think that science could save the world. I thought that I could save the world.

But we do save the world in the end.

For something that promises to be darker and moodier, there is Nightflyers (2018) which advertises the involvement of George R.R.Martin as author of the original stories and Executive Producer on the adaptation.

We start in outer space, and what seems to be debris swirling around the structure of a spaceship.

Inside things are chaotic. A female astronaut tries to get things back under control as artificial gravity seems to have halted.

Things get back to some sort of normality, but she is very scared as a violent man with an axe is on the loose and she hides under a table whilst he stomps around. While he isn’t around she records a brief message warning anyone who hears it not to get on board or try to recover the Nightflyer.

She succeeds in putting her recording in a canister and launching it into space, but then axeman returns. She injures him and then kills herself because everything seems hopeless, we presume.

Jump back in time to Earth, where Karl and Joy d’Branin are listening to news about the special measures introduced to deal with a spreading pandemic. He has already been stopped at some sort of checkpoint and allowed through after a biometric identity test.

Karl has good and bad news: he gave some sort of presentation, which was rejected by the important people it was intended for. However afterwards he got a call from Roy Eris who says he sees potential in it. Joy is puzzled as it doesn’t have anything to do with “colonization”. Nevertheless it seems that Eris has asked Karl to “put a team together” and then come up to the spaceship Nightflyer in orbit and then set out on the quest to look for “the Volcryn”. “That’s incredible” says Joy, and indeed it is, even before we find out how mad the world has become in 2093.

But first of all let’s note that the Nightflyer has a similar basic structure to the Salvare, with a big rotating wheel for the crew to experience mock-gravity. However it also has a set of pods with plant and animal life growing on board, similar to the spaceships in the film Silent Running. We are told this is because it is a “colony ship”. In this world, Roy Eris is the operator of the colonization business, and he has at least put settlers on Europa, the moon of Jupiter. We never hear enough detail about the financial and political structures of Earth at this time to understand how much power this man has there and whether he is a billionaire oligarch or similar (they’ll probably be trillionaires or quadrillionaires at this point). We do learn that there was a weird religious cult on the Moon recently, but it didn’t last long and we don’t know how typical it was of social trends at this time.

There’s no nonsense about humans having FTL drive, but to make up for that we’re now in an era where telepathic powers have been identified in a minority, who have to be isolated because their influence can provoke violent mayhem. Telepaths are classified as L1, L2, and L3, with L1 the most extreme and unpopular specimens of their kind. Which is a major problem for Karl, as his big idea is that an L1 telepath is just the chap we need for establishing contact with the aliens called “the Volcryn” (we never find out how the name was picked), posited as responsible for an object moving with an erratic, non-natural course just outside the solar system. The Nightflyer is the craft needed to get out there, but its crew are all rough, tough Brit and Irish working class lads who won’t stand for having an L1 on their spaceship. And the L1 himself is a bleedin’ ‘ell teenage football hooligan who’s all up for makin’ a bit of trouble, knowwhatImean, like he’s just walked out of Scum or Made In Britain but he’s really misunderstood actually and he’s got his own bleeding heart liberal social worker psychiatrist making excuses all the time.

Other technological differences: there is a sort of memory-theatre chamber in which humans can have their past experiences projected out into a virtual world playback. This is especially important for Karl and Joy as their child died of cancer before the story began and is not around to be a bargaining counter in their struggles with anyone or anything.

Unlike the Salvare, the Nightflyer does not have any kind of weird physics creating its artificial gravity, it must be doing it the old school way by just relying on the rotation, which makes it hard to fathom just how big it must be to contain all the mysterious realms of pipes and ducts and utterly redundant engineering work that makes up the whole thing, providing employment for this gang of jobsworths who are in every other respect as plainly obsolete as the pretty boys and girls working for Niko Breckinridge. Absolutely no attempt is made to explain just how much food, water and oxygen has to be hauled along to support them all over this year-long voyage, since there is no Soma-type suspension system.

All the crew of the Nightflyer have British or Irish accents, just as William does on the Salvare, and this gives them an automatic hard man authenticity and means they don’t to use the F-word as frequently and as ineffectually as the Another Life cast do. Sex occurs on this ship as well, with a bisexual character who turns out to be under observation from a vicious Peeping Tom. There is also a pregnancy here.

A special team member D’Branin brings along is Lommie Thorne, a computer systems expert who can access the electronic systems directly through a socket in her arm, and this then brings her in to a virtualised interior world of the data and “code” and “firewalls”, with as much cybernetic realism as we saw on the Salvare.

Roy Eris appears in holographic form at the start, and we learn there is a secret in this ship: his mum Cynthia Eris, the founder of the space freight and colonization business, had her mind sustained on board the Nightflyer as a virtual presence inside the computer system. She makes trouble during the mission and Lommie has to confront her inside her own world in the wires. Her old quarters within the ship, now used by her son, look a bit like Norman Bates’s mum’s room in Psycho.

As we are not going very far into interstellar space we do not get to look at any previously unknown planets, though we do encounter a lost spaceship. It turns out to contain a team of female geneticists who seized control and created their own mad religious cult. It seems they were influenced by signals from the Volcryn.  Other than that, the aliens play little role in the story until we are near the end, and the ship is tearing itself apart due to raging energies of the telepaths aboard, and also the influence of Cynthia, who cannot be isolated or rendered powerless. This gets us back to the catastrophic state at the beginning, but the final act comes after that.

This reminds me of another scifi/horror film: Event Horizon, which I saw in the cinema and I’ve been quite surprised at the following it’s built up over the years. Although both stories pack in a lot of disturbing images, it never adds any suspense or anticipation. Haunted houses are scary to the extent that they are familiar as houses; when you put them in space or some other weird location they become mysteries in themselves and there’s no logic of expectations that they can deviate from in an alarming way. NIghtflyers tries to get back to the trad haunting by having it reappear as a nightmare vision within the machine. It works hard to be dark and downbeat, and has a drony soundtrack rather than the upbeat soft-rock of Another Life.

Both these stories of great adventures launching out after a great breakdown or set-back occurring in the near future are centred on traditional heroic leading characters. They propose that political structures will continue much as they are today, and that significant resources will be diverted to endeavours in space that don’t seem to be benefitting many people on Earth; at any rate there would be more effective ways to deal with the problems Harper Glass lists in her opening monologue than shipping a small fraction of the world’s population off to an expensive “colony” on Mars, which would be as limited and expensive as our current installations in Antarctica. How many families could live in her big house instead?

Both these worlds assume vast changes in scientific knowledge expanding from what are currently highly speculative possibilities. They also agree in thinking about machine-minds in a way that has more to do with old ideas of demonic possession or “split personality”, with the modern tech lingo applied over the top as a very thin layer of emulsion.

There is a difference in mood: we could say that Another Life has a spirit of bland liberal optimism, in which the dangers and self-doubts are quickly conquered and we figure out the super-weaponry to blast the enemy in the end, after a perfunctory worry about the ethics of imperialism. Nightflyers is the conservative pessimist, fearful of the beast within that could be unleashed when we travel too far in to the void, and cannot escape our histories and genealogies. However both attitudes are just pretentious impostures covering the same inarticulate enthusiasm for big systems, big projects, big men, and the same relief when the mysteries of the unknown retreat back again in the face of a show of strength. The future is going to be ok. It’s just like the past and the present.

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