Thursday, March 5, 2020

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Machina [ep01.05 & 01.06]

I reach the midway point in my reading of the first season of Serial Box’s Machina and people, if you’re not reading this... Things have been building nicely, but here’s where shit hits the fan. Loyalty is tested and maybe shattered. The competition heats up in more ways than once. And the game changes in some fundamental ways, so that I don’t even know where the hell one of the teams goes from here. It’s beautiful, devastating work, and I’ll just get to the reviews because ahhhhhhh!


“Machines of Loving Grace” by Malka Older (ep01.05)

No Spoilers: With Trial #2 looming, the teams at Watchover and DevLok are experiencing another “calm before the storm.” Given how the last trial went, though, there are very different feels at the rival companies. Trey, at the head of DevLok, is showing his willingness (and perhaps his desperation in) pursuing victory by whatever means necessary. Which trickles down to tension for everyone, while at Watchover a visit from the investors brings some unwelcome scrutiny. All the wheels are moving, cogs fitting together, but with the intricacy of everything, it’s seeming increasingly possible (and perhaps likely) that someone’s going to drop a wrench (or perhaps throw it) into the works and fuck it all up. It’s a chapter that deals largely with quieter character moments, and with the dynamics still being explored at both of the companies. And while it might be easy to point at easy “good guys” and “bad guys,” I think the chapter does a nice job of stripping something of that away, showing that once the characters are outside the cutthroat environment of work, all of these people are just...people. Humans driven by their hopes and fears and desires. Often imperfect. Rarely outright evil. Complicated and mess.
Keywords: Corporations, Competition, Fraternization, Non-binary MC, Queer MC, Mars, AIs
Review: I really like the way the series flows, following these natural ups and downs around these trials. With the first all done, and the second looming, tensions are high and complicated by some unforeseen circumstances. At DevLok, it’s Trey’s growing obsession with victory and, more, with “proving” that Watchover are cheating somehow. Which, of course, leads him to try some cheating of his own. And I’m actually a big fan of what the series does with the staff at Watchover. It might be easy to cast them all as the villains, but most of them are just people wanting to be a part of this project. Denise especially is interesting to me, because she has to juggle her responsibilities and her position as subordinate to Trey with her own morality and her duties to a company that isn’t necessarily just the will of one man. She’s been warned already that he’s the biggest threat to himself, and that’s certainly playing out. Perhaps out of all the characters, I’m actually most interested in her decisions, because they are the most obviously perilous.

Not that there isn’t peril and drama to go around. Cameron and Noor continue to engage in their budding attraction, which here blooms into broken rules and some clandestine meetings. It’s something that could come back to bite both of them, but Noor is taking the greater risk. Still, their chemistry is great and it shows that in this super-high-pressure situation that people aren’t going to become the robots that they are dealing with. They are human, emotional, occasionally horny, and that’s not actually a bad thing. But it’s super interesting the way that control is being treated on the micro and macro levels in the series. The whole thing is about AI, and about these companies mastery of control over their creations. At the same time, the story is also about corporate structure and how bosses seek to control their employees. Is the culture one of trust where employees have more freedom? That seems to mirror in how Watchover operates to a point, and how they approach E, their AI (again, to a point). But they are also a business, and need to be concerned about making money, and in that they do some things with their employees (surveillance, violations of privacy, some good ol’ fashioned paranoia) and with E (wanting to ultimately be in control, to be obeyed, to set all the goals) that go counter to their general philosophy. And it reveals the hypocrisy of capitalism, the lie of freedom in a system that relies on making money, on profit. Because it does reduce people to cogs, and makes what should be a project to save humanity into yet another venture to profit of exploitation. And in that it’s a simmering pot nearly at a boil, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. A wonderful chapter!

“Loss of Signal” by Fran Wilde (ep01.06)

No Spoilers: Trial #2 kicks off! But seeing as how it’s one done with a complete lack of signal between the teams and their bots, there’s not a whole lot for the teams to do. So the two teams engage in something of an ice-breaker, a “friendly” competition in the form of an egg race. Only the real competition might be something else entirely, and as the two teams compete for a non-prize, the real stakes are much, much higher. And the fragile good faith of basically everyone is shattered, destroyed even as their accomplishments mount. It really is a devastating look at the cost of trying to build something ethically in a system that is corrupt to its core. It’s wrenching, and wow, I find myself just gutted. If this might be considered something of a mid-series finale, it succeeds at being captivating and powerful and I don’t know if my heart can take much more of this.
Keywords: AIs, Programming, Espionage, Queer MC, Non-binary MC, CW- Abuse
Review: Well fuck. This episode brings things to a rather dramatic head. As the second trial plays in the background, Trey orchestrates his own mission that, well, shows just how far he’s willing to go. It’s perhaps a brilliant move, really, but also shows how much of a FUCKING MANIPULATIVE ASSHOLE he is. Like, wow, just watching it is so fucked up, because he uses the fact that he’s an abusive shit, that Stephanie probably has some severe PTSD that she’s not really dealing with, in order to turn all her attempts to shield herself from exactly the kind of thing he’s likely to do something even worse. Seriously, the whole reason that Stephanie is so paranoid is because Trey is immoral and brutal and manipulative, and everyone around him allows and encourages him to be. She knows that she’s held to completely different standards, and so she tries to make sure that there is no way he can destroy what she’s trying to build. But because what she has to do is also violate people’s trust (at least on the surface), it’s just another way that he’s able to hurt her. To destroy what she’s trying to build. And wow, fuck, I am so upset by this chapter in ways that I wasn’t expecting. It’s good. Accurate. But shit.

And fuck, the reason that it hits so hard is that it continues to underscore how impossible it is to be ethical in an environment that is driven by capitalism. Capitalism, which protects inequality like misogyny and racism because it creates castes of people who are more exploitable, considered less human. Even in the trial, DevLok gets the technical win despite Watchover being doing much better work. Which seems perhaps strange, because one would think that you’d want the most innovative and flexible team to try and make for Mars. But again, we’re dealing with different kinds of control, and there’s something that terrifies a lot of people about an AI that can act independent. Regardless of how good that AI does, or how loyal it seems. For many, loyalty is adhering to a very strict set of rules. But that’s not really what loyalty is about. Which is another neat thing the series is doing, interrogating what loyalty means in corporate and personal spaces.

And that’s part of what makes this all so difficult. Because Stephanie has overstepped and violated trust. For good reasons, and for me it makes complete sense why she did it. But that doesn’t necessarily make it right. And it’s obvious that she will have to do something about this, because the whole point of Watchover is to be different and to embrace a different kind of mentality. One that’s supposed to be about trust. But balancing that against the reality that is Trey will act in constant bad faith? Well...shit. I want so badly to know how this gets made right because I am invested fully in wanting to see Watchover heal from this. But I will have to wait for the next episode for that. Fuck. It’s a tense, shattering read, and if you’re not reading/experiencing this series yet, you should be!


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