Almost Human, and Writing the Future

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.

18 Responses to “Almost Human, and Writing the Future”

  1. Excellent post. And that last part about how now you’ve got to be careful as a writer is why I write fantasy instead of sci-fi. A wizard did it. Boom. Done. :)

  2. Bryce Moore says:

    Wow, Dan. I think you spent more time on this critique than any of the writers spent on any of the episodes. :-)

  3. Kim Mainord says:

    Well said. I watched one episode (the one with the robot prostitutes) and gave up on the show. I guess I don’t have as much patience as you do. I’m glad that you pointed out that we (sci-fi writers) have to not only be aware of the science behind the technology our characters use, we have to be aware of the sociological affect as well.

  4. I liked it much more than Dan, but that’s because I don’t actually watch TV as much as I stream stuff in the background while I paint. On that lack of paying attention level, the buddy cop charisma of the two leads pulls it off.

  5. mtbikemom says:

    Yeah, what Bryce and Kim said. What a waste of two exemplary actors. The android not only is more human than the humans, he is written in the “noble savage” stereotype right from the start. Everything that comes from him is to be trusted, is full of wisdom, which none of his less-noble colleagues realize in the moment. Maybe for those who were not already tired of this brand of manipulation by about 1980, the android will be winsome enough to continue to suspend disbelief beyond all reason. (This essay shows me once again that almost everything Dan Wells writes is worth reading in full.)

  6. Bryce Moore says:

    Also, Dan–please please pretty please add a “subscribe to comments” feature to your site. You’re running WordPress. There’s no excuse for you on this one. I’d love to participate more in the comments, but when it means I have to continually go back to the post and hit refresh, it makes it so blasted difficult . . .

  7. Jason says:

    The recent episode with the smart bullets was what finally did the show in for me, not only was it weak, but the idea was ripped off entirely from an 80’s Tom Selleck movie – Runaway

  8. admin says:

    Actually, Larry, I do most of my TV watching while painting as well. Though you paint faster, so maybe I’m paying too much attention to the screen :)

    Bryce, I will see what I can do. It’s features like this that I would never use, so it doesn’t occur to me that other people want them until somebody points them out. Thanks.

  9. Timothy Cramer says:

    Maybe “really not that terrible” is one of the worst recommendations you can possibly give to anything, but “pulls it off … as I stream [it] in the background while I paint” is tough competition, IMHO.

    And not only is “so important for writers to also be readers/watchers/listeners of everything in their genre”, but also to look in other genres, especially if they are adjacent or relevant.

    Wanna write “Space Navy”: Read “The Ship” by C. S. Forester, and at least some Aubrey/Maturin.

    “Space Cops”: Watch NCIS / The Wire / … (BTW, Dan, you should really watch “Der letzte Bulle” while you are in Germany, if only to improve your German – not that it’s an example of “realistic” police procedures)

    “Space Secret Service / Cryptology”: Learn about Ultra vs. Enigma etc.

    And in any case, read “The Silence of the Lambs” as a fine example of presenting just enough and just the right kind of detail to explain everything that’s happening. (I only care about two serial killers – one insists on being called Dr. Lecter, the other one insists not to be one, even wears a t-shirt to support that claim … What does that say about me?)

    You can probably come up with many different, maybe much better, examples, but that’s the point.

  10. Bryce Moore says:

    How am I supposed to know if my comment was received as the glorious gem of insight and knowledge it is, unless I go back and see the responses to it? :-)

  11. PhDEngineer says:

    Excellent post! I work side by side with PhD’s in aeronautical and mechanical engineering at a university research institute partnered with NASA. You are absolutely correct about UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles, aka “drones”) and the technology being right around the corner. The specific work I know about regards the UAV-on-UAV piloting and anti-collision technology, because the future of UAV’s will come, but with all these devices floating around, they can’t be running into each other. In fact the FAA has already published a book on UAV airspace guidelines. So yes, it’s coming, and faster than we could ever realize.

  12. Adrianne says:

    Thank you for this. Now I know to never try this show out. We are just about to give up on “Agents of SHIELD” as well. I need me some genre TV though…what is out there right now that’s worth looking into?

  13. admin says:

    You’ve lasted longer in Angents of Shield than I did. Almost Human is a delightful breath of fresh and intelligent air compared to that.

  14. kristine N says:

    My husband loves Almost Human. There are episodes I’ve liked, but plenty I’ve found cringe-worthy. I rather liked the robot prostitute episode, especially the scene where Darius stays with the prostitute while she’s put down. I found it poignant that this woman is effectively killed because her creators made her with illegal technology and nobody cares. Somewhat like Darius, she’s been given heightened emotions to make her more effective at her job (supposedly, anyway. The portrayal of that was pretty terrible) but those emotions are meaningless to the humans around her. She’s effectively a disposable person, just like Darius. It seems like that ought to be a central theme in the show, especially given the title, but they only make occasional nods to the idea. It is disappointing they don’t explore what it means to be human, or the impact of disruptive technologies, or really do anything deeper than crime of the week.

    In their defense, I wonder if the creators fear losing the non-science fiction fans if they get too philosophical. My husband likes science fiction shows, but he’s never read much science fiction. Star Trek is about as deep as he gets. I wonder if Almost Human is simply supposed to be a fun buddy cop show with science fiction window dressing to make it feel novel. I agree it’s disappointing, but people chasing demographics may not be interested in catering to those of us who want something substantively science fictiony.

    I’m jealous of your three to four hours of media consumption. I love days when I get that, but they’re few and far between anymore.

  15. Anne says:

    I am going to preface this by saying that I enjoy Almost Human and will happily continue watching it. That said, the more I think about what you’ve said, the more I have a feeling this show will be like other shows J. J. Abrams has produced, like Alias, Fringe, and Person of Interest.

    Those three shows started off as procedurals with a twist, more or less, and as they progressed and managed to form a wide audience, they expanded upon those twists. Generally speaking, Alias became more about Rambaldi, Fringe became more about the war with the alternate dimension, and now Person of Interest has started to delve more into the A.I. aspects of The Machine.

    I suspect that the initial plan for Almost Human was to make it accessible to a larger audience before becoming more futuristic and science fictional. The general masses wouldn’t want to be hit with hard sci-fi right off the bat, but they could be eased into it over time. Do I know that this is the plan for a fact? Absolutely not. But I do know that in order to survive, Almost Human needs to pull off decent ratings (which it struggles to do), and sci-fi fans only constitute a small portion of the general nightly TV audience.

    I say all of this to say that I feel confident that, if given the time to do so, Almost Human will find its groove. Revolution, another J. J. Abrams-produced series, started off with lots of criticism at first, too, but it hit its stride midway through season one and is even better in season two, I think. I have no doubt that Almost Human will also improve as it continues.

  16. Deckard says:

    It’s basically Blade Runner: The TV Show. And I love Blade Runner, but that’s not our future anymore.

  17. Duke says:

    So what’s up with your “Do I Dare to Eat a Peach” podcasting? If you were going to stop them, then you should have left it at the one where Rob fell asleep and we could just assume that he still hasn’t woken up.

    I’m still waiting on an explanation of how you A) know what The Prisoner is and apparently like it, and B) did not include it in your “top shows canceled too soon” episode.

  18. Anjali says:

    I just read this post about almost human while searching for the release date of ruins.

    I did not like almost human at all and the reason was your books. I had read partials and fragments a back to back a week before watching the first episode of this series. I know it would s unfair to compare the show and your books because partials as depicted in your books are very different from the androids shown in AH. But the one impression I took a way from your books was how humans were essentially careless/downright cruel to their own creations and that led to their near extinction. The other vs. Us mentality that was the root of the problem as I saw it.

    And then to see in the first episode the hero’s and everyone else’s treatment of androids was disgusting. If I remember correctly the hero killed many androinda in the first episode, and the second episode with android proatitutes was appalling. The first thing we do as we get androids is make prostitutes. Awesome. Also why are the portraying women in the second citizen way even fifty years in the future??? What is up with that!???

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