Archive for January, 2014

Vikings, and Historical Accuracy

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Yes, sorry, this is two “rant about TV shows” blog posts in a row, but this is bugging me. My problems with Almost Human last week were mostly based on the writers not trying very hard to make up a new, imaginary world, but my problem with the History Channel show Vikings is in some ways opposite, and far more damning: the world they’re portraying is not new or imaginary, but they’re getting it wrong ON PURPOSE.

Historical fiction is hard—it’s far away the genre I read most often, but it’s not something I’ve ever written, or am likely to write, because the level of research you have to put into it is insane. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we think a viking is, but how many of you could describe, right off the top of your head, an authentic viking meal? Outfit? System of government? How much do you really know about their economics, their level of technology, or their day-to-day lives? The image we have of vikings is a very modern, romanticized one, and if you’re going to write a book or make a show about them you need to know these things. And yes, you can be forgiven for some inaccuracies, because a lot of what we know about the vikings is shaky at best—they kept no real written records, and most of what’s recorded about them was written a few hundred years after the fact, and usually by someone the vikings had attacked. These kinds of accounts are inherently, purposefully biased. If you get something wrong because of that, well, that’s okay. We understand.

What bugs me, though—and it really, really bugs me—is this quote from Michael Hirst, the creator of the show, in an interview with the NY Times: “We want people to watch it. A historical account of the vikings would reach hundreds, occasionally thousands, of people. Here we’ve got to reach millions.” Let me say that again just to let it sink in: the creator of the show has deliberately chosen to get his facts wrong, because he believes that getting them right would turn people away. You see, there are many, many facts about viking culture, and the cultures they raided, that are NOT lost in history, that are verified by well-known evidence, and this guy has apparently decided to screw that crap because historical accuracy would ruin his show. This, I assume, is why his vikings live in frame houses instead of viking longhouses—a type of house so synonymous with vikings that they’re in the houses’ name. No one would ever watch a show about people who live in longhouses! Don’t be stupid! He had to put them in frame houses because he wants to reach millions of people, and that takes some sacrifices.

What else has he sacrificed in the name of viewership? Everything we know about viking government, for one thing. Vikings lived in a very democratic society: one man was in charge, but only because the rest of the men trusted him to lead them successfully, and if he failed in his job, they stopped following him and followed someone else. The vikings in the tv show live in some kind of feudal autocracy, beholden to an Earl (played, I must admit, with deliciously slimy aplomb by Gabriel Byrne) who orders them around and screws everything up and contributes nothing valuable to their society. Real vikings would throw that guy out on his ear—if he doesn’t lead the raids, he doesn’t get to lead anywhere else—but the tv vikings kowtow just like, well, like the feudal English warriors that the writers are presumably more familiar with. This error, honestly, I don’t suspect is a fault of their research so much as their storytelling: we’re so culturally accustomed to stories about oppressive rulers, especially in the last few years, that it was simply easier/flashier/more topical to write a show about one man fighting back against a tyrannical government. They could have put in the time and effort to come up with an equally compelling story about egalitarian viking politics, but they didn’t want to, and as a fellow storyteller I can kind of see that—it’s lazy, but it’s a good story, and that counts for a lot. But it drives me up the wall to hear them excuse their laziness by saying it’s the only way to make people watch. The hell it is. Don’t blame us because you couldn’t be bothered to come up with an authentic viking story for your viking tv show—that’s all on you. Write a good story and we’ll be there for it.

The list of historical inaccuracies goes on and on. They depict what is considered to be the start of the “Viking Age,” kicked off by an attack on Lindisfarne (accurate!), using advanced navigational tools (accurate!), but they bury it in a story about how that’s the first time the vikings ever discovered the saxon islands existed (woefully inaccurate by several centuries!). When the vikings pillage the Lindisfarne monastery (accurate!), they meet a monk who speaks norse (plausible! But completely nonsensical in their proposed world where the norse and the saxons didn’t know about each other!); the monk tells them his land is called England (inaccurate by almost a hundred years!); they run afoul of the local king named Aelle (inaccurate by about seventy years!); they fight Aelle’s men in a shield wall (accurate!), but rely on archers instead of spears and axes for most of their attacks (inaccurate and ridiculous!). At this period of history (approximately 793 AD, given what we know about Lindisfarne), the kingdom that would eventually become England was still split into four mini-kingdoms, and the one the vikings hit first was called Northumbria, and it was not nearly as clean or as advanced or as unilaterally Christian as the show depicts it. The process that united these kingdoms began with Alfred the Great, who is allegedly slated to appear in season two of the show despite the fact that he wasn’t even born until 849, and wasn’t king until 871, and that the entire purpose of his rule was to create England which their version of the show has already done, and that he still didn’t manage to create it until his grandson Athelstan finally united the four kingdoms under a single ruler in 924. What are they going to have Alfred do in 793? Make up some kind of crisis to separate the kingdoms, so he can reforge them again? The more they try to conflate these different elements of history, the more inaccurate they’re going to get.

And you know what? It all comes back to Michael Hirst’s lame excuse. They could tell an accurate story if they wanted to: they could depict the Vikings, and the Northumbrians, and the clothes and the buildings and the rulers and everything else, completely correctly if they wanted. It would not be any harder or more expensive than the show they’re currently making. And they’ve chosen not to do that, and that’s their choice, but to blame it on the viewership just gets me so mad. What kind of audience is he imagining that would refuse to watch a show because they call it Northumbria instead of England? What’s so amazing about his laughable shield wall tactics that’s going to expand their audience from thousands to millions? Why should we trust a show from a man with so little faith in real history he thinks he has to screw it up on purpose or no one will watch?

I complained about this on twitter, and many of you agreed, and many of you said “I don’t care, that show’s awesome.” And you know what? The show is awesome, and I’m enjoying it, and even though I sit there and point out all the inaccuracies to my wife while we watch it (a habit I get from my Dad, who does the same with World War II movies), I will probably keep watching it. But my plea to the universe, or at least to the makers of TV shows, is the same now as it was with Almost Human: yes, your show is fun, and yes, it’s entertaining, but can’t it also be good? Can’t you get your science/history/laws/physics/whatever right? Do I really have to ignore hundreds of years of well-known history just to enjoy your show?

Can’t our entertainment be awesome AND great? Why should we settle for less?

Almost Human, and Writing the Future

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

I discovered this week that Almost Human was on Hulu–I don’t know why I didn’t just assume it would be, but I think I mostly forgot the show existed. I knew it was coming, because “Karl Urban stars in a TV show about android cops in the future” is the kind of thing that will inevitably show up on my radar long before it airs, but since I don’t live in the US I never saw any commercials for it, and it eventually just faded from my mind, and by the time it actually debuted on TV I’d forgotten about it. So score one for advertising, I guess, as I suffered for the lack of it. Anyway. Learning about this show is important to me, because I just sold a cyberpunk trilogy to HarperCollins, and it’s always good to know what other people are doing in your genre. Almost Human is not technically “cyberpunk,” but it’s near-future, and that ends up hitting a lot of the same notes. So I watched it.

It’s…kind of terrible.

It’s also kind of awesome. Karl Urban I have loved in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen him in. I think he’s fantastic. Michael Ealy, who plays his android partner, I’ve never seen in anything before, but he’s similarly fantastic, and the banter between the two of them is the best part of the show. They have a wonderful buddy cop vibe, with a surprising amount of humor, and the best scenes in the show are invariably the two of them in their car, driving to or from a case, just chatting and arguing and ribbing each other. This all works perfectly.

The problem is pretty much everything else on the show.

(Let me preface this entire discussion with a pre-emptive strike against the inevitable comments that the show is fun, and really not that terrible: please realize that “really not that terrible” is one of the worst recommendations you can possibly give to anything. We live in a world surrounded by thousands of years of collected knowledge and art, and I think it’s a painful waste of my time and yours to spend it on something that’s “really not that terrible.” Do we really want to make our entertainment decisions using a scale that only goes from “terrible” to “really not that terrible”? Isn’t there room for “good” on there? Or maybe even “awesome”? I have, at most, three or four hours in a day to spend consuming media, and that’s being generous and losing a lot of sleep; I could watch a TV show that’s fun but kind of lame, or I could watch one (or a movie, or read a book) that’s fun but also awesome. I know which one I’ll pick.)

Almost Human has some basic problems that all cop shows have (terrible cop procedure, blatant disregard for actual law, implausible detective work), and some characterization problems (the token women are underutilized cutouts, ironically far less developed and human than the android), but the things that really bug me are the science fiction aspects. By which I mean: there are virtually none. My attitude about this is weird, and I recognize that, but here’s the thing: in movies, I’m willing to give SF the benefit of the doubt, and in TV it goes the other way. If I’m looking up movie ratings on rottentomatoes, for example, and I see an SF movie hovering around 75%, I know that I can add at least 10%, maybe more, to my own personal enjoyment of it, solely because it’s SF. Being SF means I’ll like it more than an equivalent non-SF movie. With TV I’ve realized that I have an opposite standard–I expect TV SF to be good SF, and to give a good showing in the genre. An SF cop show has to be better than a non-SF cop show, or I’ll hate it. Maybe this is because of TV’s excellent history with SF (Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Battlestar Galactica, etc.), or maybe this is because movies are more acceptable as style-over-substance spectacle (Star Wars, et al.), or maybe it’s simply because TV has entered such a golden age of excellent writing (Breaking Bad, Justified, etc.) that I hold it to a higher standard. Maybe it’s just because adding SF to a TV show gives me extra nits to pick: Castle is a fun show with terrible cop behavior, but Almost Human is a fun show with terrible cop behavior AND terrible worldbuilding. I don’t know.

Regardless of my weird differences between movies and TV, though, I know straight out that my biggest complaint about Almost Human comes from the fact that it’s a genre I work in, and it’s doing it all wrong, and that bothers me as a professional futurist. The worldbuilding in Almost Human is awful, and for two main reasons: it doesn’t feel like a plausible projection of the future, and it doesn’t hold together as a consistent setting.

First: Almost Human doesn’t feel like a plausible projection of the future. Let’s start with phones as a great example. Some of the people in the show have these neat little video phones that project on their hands, and others have slim little cell phones, but that’s all they are: phones. No one ever checks the Internet on them, no one ever uses a hands-free headset or earpiece (except the scientist guy), and no human ever uses them to stay connected to the net in real time. My 12-year-old daughter has a prepaid smartphone without a data plan, and she’s more connected than anyone in this show. The main android will occasionally do things like issue speeding tickets wirelessly, or access a database with his head, but it’s a rare thing, and he has to stop and make a big deal of it. Consider the episode where a hacker kills people on FutureYouTube: there’s a scene where the cops find a woman with a bomb around her neck. While the android defuses the bomb (talked through it by the scientist over the phone, instead of just downloading bomb defusal information from the police database, which all by itself sets this movie 100 years further in the past than it wants to be), the other cop asks the woman to describe her attacker. They look the guy up later, but why wasn’t anyone looking him up right then and there? I’ll concede that the writers are not imagining a future with Google-Glass style wearables, which I think is wrong but whatever. Why weren’t the people listening back at the precinct jumping on normal Google to find this guy? Why didn’t the cop look him up himself on what I have to assume is an Internet-capable phone? Forget near-future predictions–we have the technology TODAY to have found that guy’s online profile and started tracking him down before the bomb was even defused. In a show that at least gives a head nod to police drones and tracing technology, they could have found this guy and had him under surveillance within minutes, or explained in one line of dialogue that he’d used his hacking skill to hide from them. Instead we wait, like cavemen, and then find him instantly an hour later when we bother to look him up.

While we’re talking about the hacker episode: what is going on with the Internet in Almost Human? Token Female Cops 1 and 2 have a clunky conversation about how the bomb videos are appearing on “the darknet” (a term the writers obviously don’t understand), and talk about bringing in a cybercrimes unit, but why is there not already a cybercrimes unit, or at least a cybercrimes guy, on the force? In 2050, is there seriously nobody in the whole police station capable of tracking down the IP address of a live video with thousands of viewers? Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a half-hour cop comedy, has one line in one episode about hiring a teen hacker to help with their online security, which all by itself gives that show a more believable prediction of the future than anything Almost Human has ever done.

I’ll continue griping about their use of technology in my second point about inconsistent setting, but let’s finish the first point by mentioning the sheer non-futuristic nature of the show in general. There’s an episode about drugs that has exactly three futuristic elements: a subcutaneous listening device, a magical drink that turns you into a GPS locator, and the androids themselves. That’s it. The drug isn’t real, but it isn’t science-fictional either, it’s just a green drink that makes you high and kills you, and honestly I’m being very generous counting the subcutaneous wire, too. Turn the magical drink into a radio beacon, give the cops a magnifying glass and a forensics bag, and that entire episode could take place in the 80s. The episode about artificial hearts has a little chip that could exist today; the YouTube episode combines 10-year-old Internet technology with a bomb-around-the-neck trope that’s older than I am. The magical sniper bullet episode, while kind of ridiculous, at least posits two science fictional technologies (the magical sniper bullet and the memory scrubber) and then crafts a story that couldn’t exist without them. That’s awesome, I admit, and the fact that the most well-developed SF is from the most recent episode gives me hope, but not much: it turns out that the sniper bullet episode was actually the second one written and filmed, right after the pilot, which means the SF writing has been getting worse over time, not better.

Someone on twitter, when I started complaining about this, described Almost Human as being a projection not of modern technology, but of 80s technology; it’s the same future imagined in movies like RoboCop. This is actually a fantastic description of how the show feels, right down to Karl Urban’s silly name and Road Warrior car. Someone else linked me to an io9 article positing that this 80s feel was intentional on the part of the writers, as kind of a retro-future period piece, but that I don’t buy for a minute. Too much of our current technology (web cams, bitcoins, surveillance drones) is creeping in; if they were actively trying to recreate the future as we saw it in the 80s, there’d be less of that and more of other things, like virtual reality and Asian influence. I find it far more likely that they decided to make an android show, gathered up all the near-future elements that were already in the public consciousness (ie, RoboCop and the rest of the stuff from the 80s), and called it a day.

Now: onto my second point about creating a consistent setting. They haven’t. The world the characters live in is almost identical to our own, for one thing, with the obvious addition of androids; there is no meaningful way in which daily life would be any different for them than for us, if you don’t count Karl Urban randomly murdering robots in the middle of the street with no repercussions. The Internet functions the same for them as it does for us (though they seem oddly less connected to it, as mentioned earlier), and in more or less the same ways. Where is the Internet of Things? In 2014 someone has already hacked a fridge, and connected devices are going to get more prevalent, and that’s going to change the way we live. Where are the self-driving cars? Where’s the wearable tech? Almost Human takes one or two science fictional ideas per episode, uses them in the service of some very run-of-the-mill cop stories, and then drops them. This is not what the future will be like, folks. We used to think the future was all flying cars and hoverboards, but even Back To The Future 2 was smart enough to recognize that the real impact of the future will be in the smaller things that change the way we live from day to day–things like Mr Fusion that turns garbage into energy, or a food rehydrator that sits on your counter like a microwave. Real world futurism is about things like smartphones, which aren’t just small computers, they’re disruptive technologies that have changed the way we work, play, and communicate. They have a meaningful and measurable impact on society. None of the technology in Almost Human, including the androids, has an impact on anyone.

Consider one tiny, throw-away FX shot in the magical sniper bullet episode: Karl Urban is in an anger management class, and we get a quick overhead shot to establish that they’re all sitting in a circle, and there’s a little drone hovering across from one side to the other. I can’t tell if it’s a drink tray or a garbage can, but wow–that’s a real technology, plausibly projected into the future, and I got really excited because I use drones a lot in my cyberpunk. How will drones be used in the future? We already have things like the Roomba, and that kind of servant-robot has a huge possibility of becoming a disruptive technology that changes the way we live. If drones are common enough that they can be used as drink trays or garbage cans, what else will they be used for? How about cleaning or laundry drones in people’s homes? Drones that walk dogs? Camera drones in populated areas? How about surveillance and security–if I could get a little hover drone to follow my daughter around and tase anyone that tried to attack her, I’d totally do it. Or how about a roving database, since the cops don’t seem to have Internet phones? Even if they don’t have them in the field, they could have them in the station: little computers that follow them around, looking things up, projecting things on screens or walls. That’s kind of what the androids do, but since energy usage is obviously a concern (at least in the one episode where it mattered to the plot), drones would be a more efficient way of conserving it. Drones have so much potential, both in the real world and in science fiction, that they should have a huge impact on the world, but just like the energy shortage the show uses them only when it wants to, without any regard for how that technology would actually change society.

Another example: the same magic bullet episode showed another one-shot technology when the android walked in front of an advertisement and it started talking to him. Yes, they stole this one wholesale from Minority Report, but I do think it’s plausible: once advertisers figure out how to identify you, whether by retinal scan or smartphone locator or an RFID on your credit card, they’re going to start approaching you directly. They already do it on your computer, and it’s only a matter of time before they do it in other arenas as well. Researching for a novel the other day I looked up a compression pump on Google, to see what the PSI was; Google remembered this, and added that data to the profile it keeps of me, and the next time I logged into facebook I had an ad in the sidebar for compression pumps. As part of my search I clicked on an Amazon link, curious about the price; I was logged into my Amazon account at the time, so it saw and remembered, and a few days later Amazon emailed me a list of amazing deals on compression pumps. Targeted advertising is everywhere online, and you can bet good money that as soon as they know how to extend that reach into the real world, they will. How long before I walk into a hardware store, get recognized by its software, and a little screen pops up offering me a 5% discount on compression pumps? They could even have a drone fly in to lead me to the right aisle, and answer basic questions about PSI and maybe try to upsell me on some nozzle attachments. This is not crazy, out-there futurism, this is right around the corner, and it’s going to change the way we interact with the world…except on Almost Human, where it’s only used in one scene to help the characters figure out a clue, and then it never happens again to anybody.

The problem, of course, is that Almost Human isn’t trying to build a science-fictional world, they’re trying to tell cop stories with a science fiction twist. The plot is king, and the setting (and most of the characters) are after-thoughts. It’s the difference between looking at a mystery plot and thinking “how can I add some crazy tech in here,” and looking at a piece of crazy tech and thinking “how will this change the change the way my characters live and think and act?” Start with the first one and you get a fun cop show that kind of looks like SF, from a certain angle; start with the second, and you get a great SF show in which you can tell all the cop stories you want. It’s a subtle difference, I’ll grant you, but as a fan of SF I think it’s a very important one. I can’t watch Almost Human without seeing all the holes where it could have done something great and didn’t bother. I will probably keep watching for a while, because the two lead characters are legitimately great, and I want the show to succeed. I want it to grow into itself and become the awesome near future show it could be, and that means we need to support it now so it doesn’t get canceled. But there’s a vast horde of good and potentially-great SF on TV right now (Sleepy Hollow, Person of Interest, etc.), and my genre loyalty only goes so far. If the show reaches a point where its good points (two characters) are outweighed by its bad ones (everything else), I’ll give up and watch something else.

By the way: in writing this, I realize I’m setting a pretty high bar for myself with my cyberpunk series. I can’t whine and moan about their SF and then turn around make the same mistakes. Going full circle to the beginning of my post, this is why it’s so important for writers to also be readers/watchers/listeners of everything in their genre. You need to keep your finger on the pulse, and know what other people are doing, and think about how you can do it differently or better. My take on the near future was already very different from Almost Human (I have no androids, for one thing), but analyzing how I react to the show, and what I like about it and what I don’t, and most importantly why, has already helped me to see my own work in a new light, and see where the weaknesses are that I need to shore up. My series doesn’t even come out until Fall 2015, so I’ve got some time to work on it. I’ll do my best to make it as awesome as I can.

Eldritch Horror

Monday, January 6th, 2014

My kids (with some strong hints from me) gave me a copy of Eldritch Horror for Christmas. It’s the newest in Fantasy Flight Games’ massive line of Cthulhu mythos games, and is presented as a kind of updated/streamlined version of Arkham Horror, which despite many recommendations I have never played. I’ve had the chance to play Eldritch Horror a few times over the past couple of weeks, though, and I absolutely love it. I love games that tell a story–I like winning, but I consider that secondary to the experience of playing a game, and nothing improves that experience for me like a really great story. This is one of the reasons that I love Last Night on Earth so much: it has so much flavor, and creates such a strong narrative as you play it, that you remember it long after, almost like a good movie or a book. Games that create this kind of situation, that put you in a place not just to play a game but to experience something cool and dramatic, are the reason I love gaming. Eldritch Horror has this in spades.

The board represents the entire world, in the classic Lovecraftian era of 1920/1930, and in that way kind of resembles Fortune and Glory, but with a strong horror focus and a game engine that’s much deeper and more polished. Each player takes the role of a specific character, and you work together against a scenario: one of the Greater Old Ones is starting to awaken, and you have to work together to find the right clues, solve the right riddles, and save the world. There are a ton of random encounter cards, and a great assortment of characters that each play surprisingly uniquely, making each game different even when replaying a familiar scenario.

I could go into specifics, but really there’s no better recommendation I can make than simply recounting one of the standout story moments from my last game. I was playing solo (it’s a fantastic solo game) with two characters: an investigator and a psychic. The investigator was great, thanks to an early ally that gave him a big boost exploring cities, and he’d managed to accrue a lot of great equipment–balanced by a few Condition cards (like ‘Debt,’ ‘Hallucinations,’ and so on) that represented the high price he’d paid for his power. The Conditions are fun, because there are several different versions of each, and you never know which one you get until a game effect tells you to flip it over and see what happens. Maybe you’re in debt to some mob thugs, who’ll come and break your legs, or maybe you’re in debt to a warlock who wants to steal some of your sanity. It’s a great system. The psychic, on the other hand, had stronger willpower than the investigator and stayed a little more pure, but as a consequence struggled for a lot of the game. We managed to solve two of the three mysteries required to stop Yog-Sothoth from waking up, but time was running out, and I needed more clues–I was desperate for clues. How desperate? I got the chance to find out when my investigator took a boat across the Atlantic, following a lead from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, and halfway there ran into some mysterious creatures with the information I needed. They offered to share it, but only for a price: two clues in exchange for a Dark Pact. A Dark Pact is a Condition that could potentially devastate me, up to and including just killing the character outright, but I didn’t need to worry about that, right? The odds that the next big event card would trigger the pact were extremely small, and even then I had to roll incredibly poorly for anything to happen–and even if my investigator died, who cared? With those two clues my psychic could cast the spell I needed and win the game on literally the very next turn. I had this game in the bag. What could a little deal with the devil hurt me?

End of turn event card: trigger the Dark Pact. Oops. Well, no matter, I probably won’t roll a…oh. Oops. Looks like the mysterious creatures are calling me in to fulfill my half of the bargain. Still, no worries, because even if I die I’m fine, so let’s flip the card over and see what I have to do….

My investigator has to sacrifice ANOTHER character. Not himself.

The investigator’s dangerous flirtation with the forces of darkness has led him too far! He’s made one too many shady deals, and now it’s time to pay the piper. He betrays the psychic, losing his very humanity in the bargain, and the dark gods laugh. I struggle desperately for another couple of turns, solving the final mystery just a fraction of a second too late, and Yog-Sothoth awakes. He repays my poor investigator with a dragon to the face (a Hound of Tindalos eats him), which is a fitting punishment for such a fallen wretch, and though I still get to keep going with new characters it’s simply too late. Yog-Sothoth devours the world, and all is lost in madness.

I know several gamers who would hate to lose the game on what is essentially a random effect like that, and if that’s you, I’m sorry. This game is not for you. I LOVED it. I’ll remember that fateful decision and it’s soul-crushing repercussions for years to come, far more than a good hand of 7 Wonders or a clever bit of action timing in Agricola–both games I love, but for different reasons. Random effects by themselves can be onerous and frustrating, but random effects coupled with rich storytelling and tense situations are the stuff of pure drama. It’s all about the experience, and if you love games that give you a thrilling experience, definitely give Eldritch Horror a try.