Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Machina [ep01.09 & 01.10]

The end has come to the first season of Serial Box’s Machina! The serial novel/series has provided its share of ups and downs, surprises and twists, and in these last chapters it pulls out all the stops. The two teams have been at each other’s throats for a long time now, but recent events have turned a lot of the conflict inward, so that both teams need to work out how to move forward without falling apart. Just in time to head down to Antarctica for the final trial. The chilliest continent has often been the backdrop for some great sff horror, and this project might just be following in those footprints, featuring some developments that might be dire enough that both teams will have to put aside their difference just in order to survive. To the reviews!

Serial Chapters:

“The Bargain You Kept” by Curtis C. Chen (serial ep01.09)

No Spoilers: With Watchover a bit scrambled, there’s just enough time to see if everyone can put Humpty Dumpty back together again before the third trial sends both teams to Antarctica to put their AI to the ultimate test. If they’re still even talking to each other any more. This chapter really looks at what makes Watchover strong, though. Not just their skills, but their shared vision of getting to Mars “the right way.” It’s something that has divided them as their individual visions have drifted somewhat on the how, but the what and the why are still very much intact, and it took something of a shake to get the characters in a place where they can see that. This chapter is a nice ramp up the finale, with the stakes high already in terms of what’s on the line professionally. As the end of the chapter comes, though, things might be a wee bit beyond that. It’s a lot of fun, balancing damage control and building a new momentum for the moment the entire season has been aiming toward.
Keywords: AIs, Corporations, Coding, Non-binary MC, Queer MC, Robots, Mars
Review: Okay so the moment when, caught out by Stephanie about the mysterious code that he inserted into his AI, Trey breaks down into tears and accuses _her_ of cheating because _he was an asshole who drove all the talent, her included, away_ is just gold. A slow clap, please, for this moment of pure man-baby. So spot on for the character, and like you can’t even really feel good about how he’s a complete shit because immediately things go south. And yes, Trey is proven wrong. And this is all blowing up in his face. But also like the way that he is still a manipulative asshole even through all of that, and the fear that he’s going to weasel out of proper punishment for the terrible thing that he’s let happen, that he’s in fact authored with his greed and his being a terrible shit. But here at least the mask slips and the affluence is given full infuriating voice.

Really, though, this chapter shines in how it handles the Overwatch team recovering from Trey’s attempted sabotage. They are fractured in large part because they have these very different fears and anxieties, and instead of having come to each other with them, they’ve been suffering alone. And now, finally, the lines of communication, which had been the strengths of the company from the start, are open again. In many ways this is the pivot from Overwatch being a company, the seed of corruption that it puts on everything, having to answer to corporate interests. And the team makes the very deliberate choice to step away from that. To make decisions that they believe in, rather than what the investors want more. Cameron is able to recover some and remember that they are a superstar. Stephanie is able to realize that her own spying needs oversight and control. She get a nice jab in at Trey when he tries to push her buttons about it, saying that they’ve adopted an approach of radical transparency. And really it is the only way to push back against Trey’s brand of awful. Instead of making things more secret, more questionable, they’ve lowered their defenses and decided to trust each other, to remember why they started their company together. And it’s a wonderful moment that lends the piece a new energy. One that ramps up as the third trial kicks off.

And of course the twist that everyone might have seen coming, that the code that Trey slipped into the system, his own cheating, is a trap. From who, from what, we don’t know. But it’s something that apparently has the potential to destroy all of them, and maybe plunge a good chuck of Antarctica into the sea. Which, I mean, that the project is to save humanity and Trey might have just fucked the planet over even harder is, well, a nice touch. It’s a thrilling cliffhanger ending, and I cannot wait to see how this season closes out! So good!!!

“Who Lives Who Dies Who Codes Your Robots” by Fran Wilde (serial ep01.10)

No Spoilers: And here we are. The season finale. The robots and their teams are in Antarctica for the third trial and the race is on. Only, what should have been a race between the AI to build a habitate out of the ice has become a race between DevLok’s AI and everyone else to prevent it from doing something they’ll all regret. The piece brings together all the simmering elements and brings it to a boil, rivalries both enhanced and put aside as everyone has to react to something no one really anticipated. The climax is full of implications and some chilling elements, and the resolution gives a great sense of completeness. And it raises the stakes perilously high, especially in a work that has been mostly about office politics and corporate subterfuge. The sci fi roots of the project rears up big here, and really pays off.
Keywords: AIs, Coding, Mars, Terraforming, Non-binary MC, Queer MC
Review: It’s almost strange but definitely refreshing to come to the end of a season for a Serial Box project and find that most of the threads have been tied up. Yes, there are lingering mysteries and all sorts of potential for the story to continue, but the season doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, which is something that can be a little frustrating when there’s no certainty of a season two. I mean, I very much want to read more of this story, and where it takes these characters, but it’s also a very very satisfying ending, and I deeply appreciate that.

The action is ramped up here, what with DevLok’s AI going rogue and actively trying to kill them all. And I love how it shows the frailty of Trey’s whole approach, the way that it came down to him, really just him, and he screwed it up. He tries to push off responsibility onto others, but it’s obvious that everyone can see the lie of it, that his AI was not the “team effort” that he wants to claim only when he doesn’t want to shoulder the blame of it trying to destroy everything. And glob, the way that the story leaves Trey is just so aggravating, because somehow out of all of this he’ll probably still fail up, landing in some cushy job despite being a complete disgrace. But it also reflects the realities of the world, the system that has already wrecked Earth. It’s something the series has danced around and a direction I would love to see it go in the future, exploring the way that this all is still happening in this very capitalist model. I think that Watchover breaks from some of that, but still must bend to the nature of the game. They have more freedom to push back against it, to act at least as a community and collective, but it’s something constantly putting pressure on them, constantly trying to worm into their work and corrupt it.

And part of that is a big element of this chapter that doesn’t really get discussed too much, but really is a big moment for me. Because the piece features the DevLok AI “waking up” and showing that it has become sentient (presumably because of the mysterious code that Trey injected into the process). And not only sentient, but aggressive, with some destructive tendencies. They (rightly) assume that the humans want to destroy them, and seem to act preemptively to take them out. The humans react...but pitting Watchover’s AI, E, on them. And this is a really interesting moment, because for me E has shown some signs of maybe being sentient themself, and to this point they’ve only been used to create, to help. And now they are asked to destroy, and to destroy a being that might be like them. Which sets an interesting precedent, and for me sort of colors how that relationship, between humans and robot, might play out going forward.

And all told the series has been a delight. There’s drama and ethical questions aplenty, and humans finding their messy way forward, misstepping at times but doing something amazing. And pushing toward Mars with a hope that might be mixed with foolishness. Because they’ve created something terrifying in its applications, a tool that can be used to kill just as easily as it can be used to build. But it remains the only hope for a new day, and for all that could go wrong, the hope flourishes where people can trust each other, and watch over each other, and watch out for a future that is still very fragile. It’s been a lot of fun, and I hope to see more! A fantastic novel/series!


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