Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Machina [ep01.01 & 01.02]

So it’s new series time at Serial Box, this time with a science fiction project involving possible Mars colonization and super advanced AIs and...well, mostly a lot of corporate politics, short tempers, and fragile egos. It’s Machina! The setting here is a little involved, with an Earth being rocked by ecological disasters that become background noise to the drive behind the science to reach Mars. In the foreground, though, are the egos and the tech and the warring companies trying to secure the lucrative contract to be the ones to actually run the terraforming and settlement. There's a lot of moving parts, but the series juggles them well from the start and I'll just get to my review already!


“There Is No Binary” by Fran Wilde (serial ep01.01)

No Spoilers: The first episode opens in the past, where three friends have fled an LA destroyed by natural disasters. Thanks to some over-preparedness and some luck, though, they’ve all made it out alive. And despite not quite getting their degrees in programming, they’ve got a dream to start a company and stick together to the end! I’m sure only good things will happen for Trey, Stephanie, and Smits! Oh, wait, that...oh. Well, five years later and it seems like it’s only Trey at the head of the company just as the biggest test is coming up, a competition with other tech companies to see whose AI and robots will be the ones to colonize Mars. It’s a momentous occasion, so of course it can’t go to plan. The series opens with a lot of names and moving parts, jumping around a bit from person to person. But the hook is good, the character work compelling, and the time gaps leaves enough mysteries and questions to keep things interesting and me invested.
Keywords: AIs, Mars, Colonization, Competition, Tech Companies
Review: This episode knows how to move. Part of what I like about it is that the cold opening is the slowest bit, and it takes place literally after an enormous city has been destroyed. It’s a moment of relief, though, of these characters looking at a future where they can do something good while making good on their potential. And once that moment is up and the action moves into the present, the jumps in perspective make for a much more urgent story, one of corporate wheeling and dealing, full of betrayals and, mostly, with personality conflicts. What seemed like it would be smooth sailings in the past shows fissures as deep as those opening around the world. Earth is not in a good way, but instead of bringing everyone together, it’s prompted some deep divisions where people are competing to be the ones to help colonize Mars. Why compete, when they could all be working together to maybe save humanity from an early death on a ruined world? Capitalism!

But it makes for good drama, and I do like the character work that the story does, each person given enough to make them interesting and distinct. There’s Trey, who is so insufferably full of himself and it’s telling that he’s alone at the top and deals with all his problems by firing people. There’s Stephanie, who has the same kind of ego but has a much bigger chip on her shoulder because of the ways she’s been pushed down because women still aren’t given the same treatment as men and she wasn’t allowed to be a boy genius. There’s Nico, who is all about making sure investors are being listened to. There’s Hiro, the tech reporter who is there for scoop. And there’s a punch of other personalities to boot. The ensemble cast gives the piece a complexity and a kind of danger. At least for me, with so many people, most of them are bound to have secrets. And the web of connections are likely only going to be revealed slowly and at crucial moments. Who’s a spy? Who’s got their own ambitions? Are any of the adorable robots going to suddenly go rogue and start killing people? Which is something else--with a large cast, no one feels safe. And that’s certainly the implication I get from this first episode--anything can happen. Which makes for a nice, exciting read, one with an interesting premise and (despite the fact that not much happens, really, in the plot) a strong pacing and sense of action. A great way to start!

“The Singularity Will Be Televised” by Fran Wilde (serial ep01.02)

No Spoilers: Given the two-part nature of these first two episodes, it’s no surprise that things flow fairly smoothly between them, exploring still more characters and answering some of the questions lingering from last time while opening up some intriguing mysteries and giving the plot it’s first large goal--the first challenge in this AI/robotics competition. Meanwhile the dynamics between the characters continue to be fleshed out and evolve and the divisions between the larger players becomes more complicated and painful. It’s a very good introduction, because we haven’t really gotten to the competition itself yet. But the mood and the players are being established, here revealed in neutral territory, I’m guessing so there’s some camaraderie before the first blood is spilled
Keywords: AIs, Bars, Competition, Rivalry, Dogs
Review: I kind of love how isolated this setting is, how unreal it comes across against the backdrop of a world seriously looking at large scale disasters and possible extinction. It’s something so serious, so huge, and yet the people here are so isolated from it, so removed from the seeming realities of what’s going on. In the first episode too there was this sense that things are rather post-disaster/dystopian, what with the climate refugees and governments trying to close borders. And yet it’s still this tech dream of companies in this sleepy desert town that’s basically two rival companies competing to see who can get humans to Mars. For everyone, though, the actual goal seems lost in the petty struggles of their lives, the weight of their egos, and the need to please corporate interests and investors. Which is bleak as fuck, but I really feel does a lot of interesting things. Like...like on one level, this shows exactly why humans are The Worst, because at a time when they could be trying to live they’re stuck in a corrupt system that they won’t shake free of. Capitalism is literally killing the planet here and everyone is dancing to its tune. Not that I blame them, individually. That’s the other part of it. That in such a bleak setting, it is these petty, small moments that still mean the most. The flirting, the doubting, the moments of affirmation and love. The reminder that humans are The Worst, but also kinda The Best.

Aside from that, I like how the story continues to expand the cast while delving a bit more into what’s happened between that first bit five years ago and the present. We get to find out what happened to Smits, and the full scope of what happened between Trey and Stephanie is hinted at, if not wholly confirmed. There are moments of inter-company fraternization, as well, which is juicy, and just a whole lot more on the corporate cultures of the two main players. We get a look at Trey’s authoritarianism against Stephanie’s more holistic approach. And through it all I’m still just bracing for when things start really hitting the fan. For now, everything is still on track. The two companies think they’re ready. But for a few small issues, it all looks ready to proceed. But I really doubt it’s going to stay that way. And really what these first episodes do is what first episodes need to do--introduce everything and make me want to stay tuned to read what happens next. And I really do. The situation is interesting and the competition promises to be exciting. I have no real idea of what to expect, but I’m already investing in certain characters, and wanting to see other ones fail. There are plenty of mysteries still out there, and a small little intrigue I can only assume is the start of something Big. And there’s enough going on thematically that I want to pick it apart and really examine what it’s doing. A wonderful way to kick off the project!


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