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Monday, January 15, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Black Museum" ~ What If "Black Mirror" But Too Much?

SPOILER WARNING: This post covers "Black Museum" and several other elements of season 4 of Black Mirror. If you aren't caught up and don't want spoilers, please hang back from this post.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This episode hits upon a variety of issues that, though I consider them essential to the read of the story, I also consider myself unqualified to speak intelligently on. I recommend you read this piece and this piece to fill yourself in on the underlying social issues brought to light and critiqued. I am not ignoring them in my piece -- I just know that I am not the person to elucidate them properly.

As I mention in my note above, the overarching story presented by "Black Museum" is not one that I can necessarily give the proper weight to. In turning this piece over in my head, I realized that my choices were either to speak on it with the same level of authority as my previous pieces (uncalled for) or ignore it entirely (also uncalled for). My happy medium is the link above. And I deeply encourage any of you watching it to pursue further critiques on the racial issues presented in "Black Museum." There's a lot to take in, and much of it flies at us in the final minutes, but it's also inherent to the episode's structure.

While I don't consider myself an educated enough mouthpiece for that particular angle of it, I do note that there is a great deal going on in the story as relates to Brooker's work as a whole. Returning to the format of "White Christmas" -- three stand-alone stories inextricably linked and waiting until just the right moment to show us how -- we see a complicated web of issues emerge linking the rights of both humans and those that people aren't quite ready to call human without a few legal rulings in place first.

The Mirrorverse has evolved a bit since "White Christmas," though -- sentience is established based on the number of observable emotions a being is able to exhibit. And the fact that that's even a point reveals something that's been snuck up on us for four seasons now: there is a caste system in this world, and our understanding of it has grown at a fairly consistent pace despite the time period skipping around.

From Remakes to Ride-Alongs

Our first glimpse at any sort of artificial intelligent in Black Mirror was in "Be Right Back" -- the prescient story of a woman who recreates her late lover via his social media activity, only to discover that it's not him at all. As a stand-alone piece, it's a very straightforward observation on the concept of humans vs. their social media "characters" (for extra context, remember that Brooker has referred to Twitter as the world's largest MMO) and how what we share and craft for the outside world doesn't truly define us.

However, Ash Mk. II is also something more historic in terms of the series: he is Black Mirror's first AI. And despite the fact that he is an incomplete construction of someone else's life and lives to serve his lover, the show still humanizes him and begs empathy for him.

We first encountered truly complete copies of people in the form of the cookies of "White Christmas" -- both of them fully believing they are their source human and fully able to express joy, sadness, fear, pain, anger, and a whole slew of emotions. Too, both are subjugated by the same Ellisonian time dilation, driving them into madness for largely inhumane reasons.

Not until Season 3's "San Junipero" do we see any respect for a digitized life; and then, it is because said digitized life is the "source," the soul made data. Even so, in this case we are asked to empathize because they are The Actual Person continuing forward. As far as we know. We get a brief flash in "Hated in the Nation" that tells us that cookies are ruled (at least in Europe) to have human rights.

Then came Season 4, with more AI characters than we've seen yet. And here, where "White Christmas" left us to decide how we felt about the AIs' treatment (with a gentle prodding toward shocked disapproval), "USS Callister" handed us the show's truth: these digital copies of humans can think and feel and express, enough to be the audience-association characters, enough that the source humans become stooges in a side story.

"Hang the DJ" shoots out 2,000 thinking, feeling copies of humans to see if they'll get together all right. And finally, in "Black Museum," we confront whole new levels of digital beings' rights: forced into eternal pain, shaved off into smaller sentient copies who live in one-second pain loops, abandoned and unable to express anything but "happy" or "sad."

It's Nish who steps in and begins to make that change. For her father, yes, but she doesn't leave other innocents behind.

Even with the time-jumping nature of the show throughout an indefinite timeline, we see linear progress:

-- Digital beings are are scary vaguely humanish freaks, to
-- Digital beings seem to have feelings but whatever, to
-- Digital beings deserve respect but only if they used to be human (I guess), to
-- Digital beings have rights overall (I guess), to
-- Someone's gonna come kick your ass if you don't respect the digital beings.

Setting Them up to Knock Them Down

In "Black Museum," the world of the show finally has one villain-esque entity: Rolo Haynes, the owner of the Museum, neurological researcher, and all-round garbage fire of a human. As with Jon Hamm in "White Christmas," we get a sense quickly of just how many Black Mirror pies Haynes has indirectly had his fingers in. And, red-stringing it all together on the bulletin boards of our minds, he and others like him can be considered heavily responsible for the state of artificial intelligence in the show's world.

Fans were not slow to notice Haynes's familiar look. Despite the dissimilar features and the lack of that fabulous quiff, Haynes's look and wardrobe and role as tour guide through digital atrocities link him back strongly to showrunner and writer Charlie Brooker. In fact, it led some to believe that "Black Museum" was, rather than a takedown of modern racism, a takedown of Black Mirror audiences for eating up the dark material. One publication even called the episode Brooker's "cry for help" and wondered if he was still happy in his show.

Obviously, it's hard to make a choice like this accidentally; we can assume Haynes is a Brooker analogue completely on purpose, and made so by Brooker himself. But as a cry for help? As a judgment of his fan base? That seems unlikely.

The "why" is up in the air. Perhaps he needed a white male media mogul to place as bad guy, and realized the only one that wouldn't take him to court or hell for it was himself. Perhaps, as the creator of the shared universe, he is acknowledging his role as the arbiter of his characters' suffering. Perhaps he was having a laugh. All are equally possible with him.

But four seasons later, it all comes back to Haynes and his company. Something is unfolding here -- the life cycle of a digital (and digitized) society -- and we've watched it rise from feared to abused to pitied to fought for.

The metaphor is strong here. Of course. But the slow burn of this feels like a story slowly drifting to the surface. And while Black Mirror is absolutely a long-form morality play, Brooker is also a writer, and a lover of video games and science fiction. It wouldn't be shocking for him to play a long game.

It's not a certainty. It may just be an idea he's been toying with. Hell, he may not even be entirely aware that he's doing it; it, like many great ideas from great writers, may be finding its way to the page on its own. But just as Black Mirror is and has always been an episodic critique of the human condition, it's also shaping up to be a slow-burn story of the rise of the Digital Human.

Will it continue when (if) we see a Season 5? Were "Metalhead" and "Black Museum" our closing-out of the strange, doomed world of the series where people bend hard tech to their will and eventually pay the price? Or are we still on our way to seeing the full hybridization of humanity and technology in Brooker's world?

If we're going to find out, I hope we get word soon.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Thank You, YouTube, for Putting a Price Tag on Stupidity

I was going to talk today about "Black Museum," the amazingly written and extremely heavy final (so far) episode of Black Mirror, but I have one more thing I want to bring up instead while my anger circuits are still popping on it.

Yeah, yeah. Logan Paul and his bullshit.

I'm assuming the majority of you know by now what he's done. For those who are fortunate enough to have missed it, here's the short version: dude who makes bank uploading daily 15-minute videos went to Aokigahara (Japan's "suicide forest") to film a spoopy video, discovered a recently-deceased person still hanging from a tree, and then did exactly what we all would have done: is turn off the camera and call the authorities and leave to film somewhere else.

Nah, I'm just kidding. He took tons of video of the corpse and uploaded it with the dead body as a thumbnail.

But he demonetized the video and put in a thing about how suicide is bad with Royalty Free YouTube Music from the "Sad" playlist so that makes it a public service or something?

For those unfamiliar with Aokigahara and how Logan Paul's behavior conflicts with the traditions of Japan... well, I'm not the one to verbalize that. I direct you instead to this video by Reina Scully, who made a wonderful video about her feelings and the implications of Logan Paul's behavior.

So there's that... but the thing is, as horrifying and disgusting as this is, it wasn't the only thing he did. This supercut created by We the Unicorns pulls together the rest of his delightfully madcap adventure: throwing plush Pokéballs at citizens, breaking merch in stalls and asking for discounts, screaming out his shop URL in a busy street, and generally behaving in ways that would get me grounded, arrested, or groundarrested. (Warning: This will be the longest 2 minutes and 14 seconds of your life.)

Now that we're all on the same page.

So, as for YouTube's part in it? After only an hour online, the video was immediately pulled, Logan Paul's account banned, and Paul sued for a substantial fee that was then donated to mental health centers around the world.

Ah, nah, I'm just fucking with you again. YouTube didn't do a damn thing, and it even got up to trending until Paul himself pulled it five days later, uploading a tearful apology about how famous he is and stuff.

In the wake of that, YouTube has posted a Twitter thread letting everyone know that they're doing all they can and they expect the best of their creators, using much the same language I've been forced to use as a news writer in the past when standing between an angry readership and an unchecked tire-fire. The action taken? Taking him off their Preferred ads program and cutting his next YouTube Red original. That'll show him.

So far, the most action has been taken by clothing line Maverick, who have issued a $4 million lawsuit based on Paul also using the name "Maverick" extremely heavily in his branding and his own clothing line. No word on how that's going.

So the millionaire jackass effectively gets a slap on the wrist, and YouTube continues to knock the income of smaller creators for far lesser sins (and neglects oversight on bullshit like white noise getting hit with copyright claims). And I had to ask myself... what does he make?

I was answered quickly: Logan Paul has the capacity to rake in more than $1 million per month with his videos, and his daily channel subscriptions are in the five digits. This, of course, makes plenty of money and traffic for YouTube, though what their cut is, I can't say with any certainty. They're not making small change off him, though.

There are a lot of things I wonder about celebrity -- where's the line between "you're a fellow creator worthy of respect" and "you're a public figure so you have to take whatever I say." (I found that line last year, incidentally.) How much of an asset do you have to be to get to a point where your behavior doesn't affect your job security. Things like that.

Well, I've got a nice solid answer for one of those. If you pull in $1 million per month on YouTube, you are officially famous enough to desecrate foreign holy sites and not actually lose your career.

Thanks, YouTube. I now know exactly how much money I'd have to earn to get away with being an actual unfeeling sociopath on your platform.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Metalhead" and the Mood Piece

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains heavy spoilers for Black Mirror season for, especially the episode "Metalhead." If you have not seen it and are concerned about spoilers, please do not read on.

Many fans of Black Mirror -- myself included -- felt that "Metalhead" was an odd sore thumb in the midst of a season building upon concepts of memory, individuality, sentience, and free will. We'd just come off the bait-and-switch romance of "Hang the DJ," and now we had... Terminator but with doggos?

In such a message-heavy show, where nothing is ever as it seems and technology is always a metaphor for something else, we were having the tables turned on us once again. The tech of "Metalhead" isn't a stand-in for human hubris, or the abuse of victims, or our need for approval. The tech is simply tech. The humans are on the run from it. And it's, for perhaps the first time in Black Mirror's history, truly just an episode where robots hunt people.

Sometimes a Robot Is Just a Robot

As someone who spends a lot of time pulling apart science fiction and genre entertainment for deeper messages, I've loved Black Mirror because it's happy to provide. So "Metalhead" left me baffled after viewing. The message seemed simple: humans fought to survive in a tech-ravaged wasteland, and they were willing to give their lives for something as simple and human as the happiness of a child.

Was there really no more to it than that? Was Charlie Brooker truly not giving us a quiet subdermal about Brexit or helicopter parenting? The more I looked over it, the more convinced I became: this was finally an episode of Black Mirror that was, in fact, what so many people believe the series actually is. That is, it really was an episode about a very specific piece of technology and how it could, under certain circumstances, destroy us all.

Not believably, of course. Brooker's tech is unbelievable enough to put us at ease, but believable enough to get us to suspend our disbelief. Sure, Robert Daly can scan a sentient digital copy of you off your Starbucks cup, but it's gonna take 19 hours to render. Sure, you can implant a Big Brother chip in your daughter's brain, but most countries are gonna outlaw that shit because seriously what are you doing.

The robot dogs of "Metalhead" are awkward looking, but also fearsome. As doofy as they look at first, it doesn't take long to realize that they really are effective killing machines who probably could destroy the human race.

And once I read an interview with Brooker on the inspiration for the episode, I remembered why they seemed so familiar.

These Absolute Bastards

If you live on the Internet enough to know who I am, you have seen Boston Dynamics and their foray into building and kicking over robot dogs. For the most part, they're pretty funny. And you do feel at least a little sad for them when they get kicked over.

Then they hop up again, and that ain't cool.

Now, I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, the same way I predict our doom when I see a squirrel outsmart a bird feeder. Boston Dynamics is doing some truly rad stuff with their experiments that could make great strides in engineering, hospice care, and whatever the hell else you might be able to dream up.

But I'm not gonna pretend that it isn't a little freaky to see a headless robot that's more agile than I am.

So is "Metalhead" really a case of "What if Boston Dynamics but too much"? Well... yeah. I think it really is. I don't think it's lacking as an episode for that. But, just as the Netflix move has allowed the show to take risks -- with happy romantic episodes like "San Junipero" and "Hang the DJ" -- it's also allowing space to strip the show down to basics.

With a three-episode BBC run, "Metalhead" would potentially have been a waste of space when there's a lot to say. The flexibility of Netflix and the roominess of six whole episodes (!!!) means that it's okay to play more. You won't be losing valuable air time to something that doesn't fly.

So Does It Fly?

It was interesting to me that the extremely on-the-nose "Metalhead" got a great deal of side-eye from the very demographic that expects Black Mirror to be a Luddite's Almanac in the first place. We're awash in interpretations of the show saying it's cursing everything from Instagram to Star Trek, which couldn't be further from the truth.

Then an episode comes along where it's exactly what many expect of the show -- a new yet familiar piece of tech taken to a dangerous extreme -- and there's a disconnect.

Was Brooker going for that when he made "Metalhead"? I don't think so. I'm not sure anyone is that passive-aggressive towards their audience save for Hideaki Anno. I genuinely do feel that "Metalhead" was a shoulder-stretch, a mood piece, a bit of playtime and experimentation.

There's no lesson to be taken away from it, except that humans are sentimental and that sentimentality both sets us apart from the tech we use and gets our dumb asses killed quite a bit. But even that's not a "lesson." More a quiet takeaway that we probably all already knew.

And the placement of it was, all things considered, extremely wise -- because the season finishes out with an episode that is nothing but lessons, call-outs, and morals for the State of Things in the modern age.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Monday, January 8, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Hang the DJ" and the 99.8% Match

SPOILER WARNING: As with all my other Black Mirror pieces, this blog post talks in depth about the episode in question. Please do not read on if you haven't seen the episode and are concerned about spoilers.

The reality of match apps is that they don't actually improve the results -- they just widen the net. And if you found the love of your life on a dating app, trust me, that's not a knock against you. Again... it's widening the net. You found them because you looked somewhere you might not, not because the app actually plumbed your psyches any deeper than a few dates would have.

And yet every single innovator of every single new dating system swears they've found The Way to make sure you find The One. Checking the "important things" and such. That said, none of them really does. Whereas The System -- the real System -- of "Hang the DJ" tests to exhaustion the one most important thing in any relationship: how willing the couple is to make it work.

Romeo vs. Juliet

Arguing over whether the romance of Romeo & Juliet is two immature children making a horrible decision or a much deeper story or a potential jumping-off point for an adorable gay sitcom is for the Shakespeare scholars to answer. What it does show, regardless of value, is how two people in love cope in a situation in which their love is at risk.

This, unfortunately for anyone who pursues romance on a dating app (or even via a more traditional service), is the one thing that even the strongest expert/salesman/commercial face can't claim to scan for. Because they can't. Or because they don't think to.

Similar interests, similar career trajectories, and (bare minimum) a place of equilibrium on the subjects of politics and religion are important, yes. But relationships are tested when thrown into flux: when one is dishonest, when both are bored, when an outside influence rocks the boat. None of those things can be planned for via a questionnaire, partly because many of us will subconsciously put what we wish we'd do in dire straits, and partly because the intersection of those reactions is what counts.

The System of "Hang the DJ" is weird, unpleasant, but ultimately quite helpful. "What would you do if you fell in love and suddenly the world conspired to make it impossible to do anything about it?" "Would broadly accepted statutes or systems keep you apart, or would you rebel against them?" "How well do you handle uncertainty?"

And, most important of all: "What happens between the two of you during a falling-out?"

There's nothing that answers those questions better and more accurately than experience. And with one life to live and a million feelings to shred, a rapid-fire check of how likely you and a potential partner are to not absolutely destroy each other in a dating scenario is a bit of a nice dream.

The Built-In Safety

There is, if a bit of Fridge Brilliance is applied, even more to the System than just predicting to within a fraction of a percent if you'll fare well together with someone. Simply based upon the nature of its simulation, it also confirms that both parties are willing not to trust it.

99.8% sounds like an extremely favorable rate. They're odds I'd take on just about anything. But it's not 100%. Does this mean The System shouldn't be trusted at all? Nah. It's done its homework. We watched it do its homework.

But look at what the simulation was: an entire society relying on The System to choose their matches, with the Good End being them deciding not to listen to it and to go their own way. This presents us with two very important pieces of information about the relationship between Amy and Frank. One, as established before, they are almost entirely likely to work through any problems, between them or in the outside world, that may threaten their relationship.

But two -- and potentially most importantly -- they are willing to abandon a near-foolproof system if it doesn't work for them.

That is, sadly, one of the most important parts of relationships. If it's not working, it doesn't matter how "perfect" or "meant to be" it was. And something as intricate and deeply researched as The System is likely to be trusted implicitly by its users. Which is bad. There are very few things in this life that deserve our implicit trust.

We have a very, very good match in Amy and Frank. They're both flawed, but work through their flaws. They're willing to take huge risks to maintain their relationship. And, should that 0.2% disparity prevail in their real-world relationship, they will both have the strength to say "screw the infallible system" and err on the side of happiness rather than destroy themselves and each other to cling to what they're told is "right."

But I Have One More Question...

What about our digital duplicates?

Now, this is a question outside of my main read. Because in order for that read to serve its purpose, we have to take it for what it is, and accept that these tiny slices of people's lives are collated into a dating app. And it's made fairly clear from the outset that these are not full copies of our subjects. They have no previous memories of life outside the app. They live unquestioningly (at first) in a world where you don't work, go to school, or pursue self-improvement. They have only two tasks in their little lives: date, or wait to date. (Hell, we don't even have any indication of whether they're living through the offscreen time spans or if they're just being conveniently time skipped -- what we see may be all there is.)

Even in a dystopian world where an infallible System picks our mates, that's oddly laser-focused. There is A Restaurant. A Mall. A Park. Despite the detail of their situation, the whole thing is very bare-bones for a real-world living situation of any type.

So are we dealing with an entire copy of Frank and an entire copy of Amy? No. They have no previous memories. But they're copy enough that they can stand in for Amy and Frank in unfamiliar scenarios. And Black Mirror has, several times since "Be Right Back" (and already this season in "USS Callister"), begged our empathy for AI.

In this Mirrorverse or Brookerverse or whatever, sentient duplicates have already been established as deserving of our care and empathy, as much as their source. And according to Brooker himself, when each couple's simulation is over, their "world ends." We do see the Franks and Amys of the app ascending up into the circle of data, which is a far kinder visual than we might get otherwise. So it seems that there was an awareness of our previous encounters with AIs in Black Mirror and how to potentially make their "end" seem a little less cold.

But I am left with a pair of questions...

One. What is the mindset of the company who created the app? Are they aware of the sentience of the AI and consider it a small price for each of the 2,000 little lives to pay? Or are they not as clued in to the lives of the characters as the audience is.

And two -- how much of the app's functionality is known to the users? And would Frank, Amy, and other clients still use the app if they knew that each scan required 2,000 digital people to spend the equivalent of several years going through emotional trauma?

Would you?

What Are the Lessons?

1. True love can be influenced by many things, but a functional relationship relies heavily on both parties' ability to work through their problems.

2. A healthy relationship entails not only love and trust, but also the ability to end it if it is not serving its purpose.

3. It's well past time for all of us to remember how good "Panic" by The Smiths is.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Friday, January 5, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Crocodile" and the Persistence of Memory

As an anthology show, Black Mirror is generally not expected to have a seasonal arc or theme. Not beyond its overall thematic arc, at any rate. But I couldn't help noticing that the Netflix era of the show takes up, even if subconsciously, a bit of a seasonal go-to aspect.

Season 3, in retrospect, seems to focus largely on use of technology as an executor of justice. "Playtest" may be our only exception, but the rest seem to carry this to a degree. "Nosedive" weaponizes Rating Systems; both "Shut Up and Dance" and "Hated in the Nation" return to the theme of Internet-guided vigilante justice; "Men Against Fire" sees the military literally using tech to make killing happen; and even "San Junipero" fits into this theme -- where the "justice" is offering an otherwise unlikely happy ending to two hard-done-by women.

With Season 4, there seems to be a heavy focus on our minds and our memories: primarily, their value and their influence on our identity. So far, we've seen copies of human beings in "USS Callister" whose realness based on their memory and identity could make or break the morality of one man's actions. In "Arkangel," the editing of a child's experiences and memories alters both her identity and her relationship with her mother. And we'll see more such thematic elements in "Hang the DJ" and "Black Museum," with "Metalhead" being the season's possible outlier.

The Half-Life of Guilt

Now of all times is a hell of a time to talk about growth after a transgression -- and what that actually consists of.

Mia's situation is not a morally simple one -- as with the protagonist of "White Bear," she wasn't exactly leading the rush or jumping for joy at being complicit. However, during the main setting of "Crocodile," we see two very different reactions: her friend, unsuccessful and wanting to repent; and Mia herself, now lauded and terrified of what bringing her former crime to the surface would do to said laurels.

And, you know, her new family. And a lot of things. Like I said, Mia's situation is not as cut-and-dried as "killer killed and doesn't want anyone to know they killed." But there is the fact that having the arrest and conviction on her record would likely have prevented her from achieving the status she did -- so she's benefited from the silence.

It's thorny.

What is far more cut-and-dried is her reaction to potentially being found out -- and what that says concerning her growth as a person in the years since.

Regret vs. Regret

There are very different ways to regret things... and that's where Mia's character can be better evaluated.

Take, on a far less dire level, a person who's been tasked with house-sitting but been told not to go into a certain room that's full of priceless personal belongings. A few days out, the person sneaks in because their curiosity was far too piqued -- and in doing so, the door knocked against something and it fell to the ground and broke.

The person regrets it -- but why?

Perhaps the person regrets that they didn't take their friend at their word, betrayed their trust, and have now broken something irreplaceable, which will make their friend sad and strain their friendship.

Or perhaps the person regrets that the friend will now find out what they did and that's going to be a hassle.

Both are regret for action, but very differently motivated.

Mia may have been reluctantly complicit, and hiding the body of the ill-fated biker was never her idea. But she deeply regrets it. However, while we could early on believe that she regrets it because it was a loss of life, her reaction when Rob mentions coming clean essentially shatters that.

That said, it would be unfair to say that there's no actual guilt. We see proof of it.

Intrusive Thoughts

Mia's meeting with Shazia shows us a seemingly conflicting set of motives: Mia doesn't want to kill. She has to. Or, at least, that's how she sees it. And she takes no joy in it. She takes only relief in remaining "safe."

That said, it would be unfair (even with the previous section in place) to say she feels no guilt for what she did. Someone killing easily and mechanically wouldn't have spilled out the montage of horror Mia did while fighting desperately not to betray one specific thing. Even with her repeated actions, even with her ability to continue to kill and her belief that another person's death is a fair trade for her stability, she's not cold-hearted.

But -- and here's the big thing -- that cocktail of guilt and fear spilling out all over the Recaller is not absolution. It's a thing that happened, and it's an involuntary reaction showing that she does comprehend that she did some really bad stuff. But comprehension on its own is not enough.

As an Aside

Good on you and your flawless memory, little guinea pig buddy. A+.

What Are the Lessons?

1. Guilt and regret are nothing without action.

2. Regret can be selfish and self-serving; it isn't a sign of learning experience.

3. Guinea pigs are awesome.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

BLACK MIRROR: "Arkangel" and the Fine Line of Caring

SPOILER WARNING: This entry contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "Arkangel." Please do not read on if you have not seen the episode and are worried about spoilers.

Y'all, I could never be a parent. Not because I don't like kids (I do; these days they're often better conversationalists than adults). I'm just really not convinced I could train up another human being to be safe, smart, and self-sufficient in less than two decades while being that emotionally attached to them.

That's the catch-22 of parenting: having someone you love and value more than anyone or anything else in the world, and knowing that there will be times when the right thing to do is let them make and learn from their own mistakes. That there's only so much you can say or do before they decide they don't want to listen. And that when your back is turned, they'll do some dumb shit anyway.

Finding that mix of guidance, protection, and allowing for personal experience is a difficult one -- especially since things can get bad at either extreme of the spectrum. Letting your kid drop out of a tree without checking to see if they're hurt is bad, but so is never letting your child go anywhere not completely cushioned. Making sure they're safe is important, but letting them have enough life experience to process pain and danger will ensure that, when you're not looking, they know what not to seek out.

Always Watching

Wanting to account for the impossibly dangerous in a modern world is understandable, and Marie's reaction is... almost understandable.

I had a saying throughout this season: "If someone offers you mad science, say no. If someone offers you free mad science, run." The Arkangel system in this episode will almost certainly never come into existence, partly because of the intricacy of its system, but mostly because of the deep invasion of privacy. It is, however, the sort of over-the-top project someone might try to sell to a terrified parent, and parental controls that let you alter what your child sees from your own iPad? Well, we'd never actually. Until we saw our baby terrified and nothing we could do about it, and then the finger flies to the tablet.

That is what Arkangel really is: the protective instinct made truly omnipotent. There is nothing wrong with having one. Not that "right" or "wrong" is an issue, because it's not a choice -- it's instinct. That's how come we didn't die out when our early ancestors decided to just ignore their babies screaming whenever they were hungry.

Despite not being a parent, I do have them. And I have friends who are parents. So while I may not experience the feeling viscerally, I do know of that desire to not have one's child suffer at all. Why can't we just lift the pain out of them, take the mean dog out of their route to school, hit a button so they don't have to watch kids beat each other up on the playground. That wish is noble and good and caring.


As much as a parent wants to be able to teach their child everything and have them completely ready for the world, some lessons only come with experience. Your kid may listen to you most of the time when you tell them not to pull the cat's tail, but that swat across the face from the cat will take the understanding from 85% to 100% in one go. It sucks, but experience is a better teacher even than our parents.

And that's really where the awful dichotomy of parenting is: when your instinct to protect is directly at odds with your child's need for a learning experience.

But It's Not All Bad

The hardcore luddites of social media will have you believe that life was infinitely superior when cell phones did not exist, when they rode in the back seat without seat belts, when they rode bicycles without helmets and ate paint chips and had to actually show up at people's houses to communicate with them.

And yes, there's a nice nostalgia to those days. But "Arkangel" took a surprising turn in showing that Sara's implant was not entirely a monstrous piece of equipment. It had moments of value: in particular, showing Marie that her father was having a heart attack in enough time for something to be done.

This moment, albeit brief, is something that's been creeping more and more into later-series Black Mirror, potentially because of the view people seem to believe it's projecting. Technology is neither good nor bad; it is. Humanity gives it an alignment (or, rather, humanity expresses their alignment onto it). "Arkangel," along with every episode this season with the exception of "Metalhead," expresses at least some positive outcome for its central tech -- be it intentional or (as in "USS Callister") as an unexpected saving grace.

We can read this a couple of ways, with the first being very straightforward: that "intrusive" tech can absolutely serve a purpose. GPS on our kids' phones, parental controls on the TV, etc. aren't necessarily evil simply because they aren't natural. With proper use and -- most importantly -- with regular interaction from the parent -- they can be good solutions for existing problems.

Similarly, we can read down through the metaphor into the overarching theme of protectiveness. That is, that there is a level at which a child can both have freedom and privacy and a parent can remain enough on top of things to act in a serious situation. Being a cautious parent in and of itself is not a crime, and is in fact kind of what keeps the whole famn damily alive.

And then there comes a point when you need to ease off.

Growing Pains

The timing of Sara's growing curiosity and confusion about the reality of the world, combined with her "graduation" from the Arkangel device, was probably not lost on anyone watching. There came a day when it was time for Mom to back off, for Sara to face her fears (the non-lethal ones, anyway) on her own, and to start learning what was out there in the world.

But here's where it gets complicated.

When you just block out what your kid oughtn't to see, you miss the bit where you have to explain what it is, why it's there, and why it could potentially hurt them. Did Sara ever have the "drug talk" with Marie? Did she ever have anything approaching sex ed that wasn't Trick's PornHub account or whatever travesty passed for it in her school?

One hopes and assumes that, with the tablet tucked away, Marie decided to double down on explaining the threats of the world to Sara. And given that their mother/daughter relationship seemed fairly healthy before the tablet came back out, there was probably some down-to-earth parenting going on.

It's hard to say whether Sara's one delve into drug use, or her makeup (and makeout) sessions with Trick, would have happened so soon if she hadn't been shielded from anything that upset her for the early part of her life. It clearly affected her enough to send her into bouts of self-harm just so she could try and see what was being hidden from her -- not an uncommon pattern for kids who are heavily sheltered without any education on what they're being sheltered from.

I'm absolutely anticipating parents calling Charlie Brooker out for saying kids should be allowed to have unprotected sex and do lines without their parents interfering, which is (at least I'm pretty sure) not what's going on here. The whole scenario devolved into a double-sided deception: a child needing to explore and a rebel, and a mother forbidding it while pretending she wasn't.

Would it have gone better if Marie had simply rolled over in bed that night and said "I saw what you were doing"? It's hard to tell. Just as it's hard for parents to understand that a child can deceive a parent, then come back and say "I love you" and actually mean it. Because after a certain age, we forget that children are less concerned with honesty in a loving parent/child relationship and more concerned with their parents not thinking ill of them.

Regardless, "I couldn't find you and I buckled and accidentally saw something you probably didn't want me to see" would have been a much easier talk to get through.

What If Moms But Too Much?

"Arkangel" returns to the typical Black Mirror style ending: a human shooting themselves in the foot with technology. And while Marie and Sara both survive -- at least for now -- their relationship does not.

Sara's actions seem insanely violent in the end, literally bashing Marie in the face with her tablet. But there's something important to note, and it's a fairly subtle tell: she didn't like doing it.

Once again, for only a few moments, we see the filter switching itself on and off. Remember that Trick spent a great deal of time catching Sara up on the "important" elements of sex and violence once the filter was switched off. And while real world gore and violence is still more traumatic than anything on a TV screen, Sara would have been largely desensitized to anything she did not find objectionable.

The filter blurred out her mother's injured face. Marie may have twisted Sara's life inside-out and betrayed her trust and felt she had a right to do so. But even then -- whether because of guilt or just general caring -- Sara didn't want to see her mother hurt.

And here, in a few moments, we see that Sara and Marie had the same motivation, carried out very differently: unconditional love twisted by anger. It's just that Sara's took only a few moments, and then she removed herself from the situation so she couldn't be hurt anymore.

S-Sort of.

The threatening sting as she hitches a ride in the truck of an unseen stranger hints that, maybe, Marie's actions have thrown Sara into far deeper danger than awkward teenage sex and one go at some cheap coke. Either way, she'll never know.

What are the lessons?

1. Modern parenting isn't inherently better or worse than "back in the day" -- new conveniences can be life-saving or stifling depending on how they're used.

2. Love and honesty are not as easily conflated in parent/child relationships -- on either side -- as we like to think.

3. They probably should be.

4. Loving your child involves the strength to let them make their own mistakes. Without the small mistakes early on, they run the risk of far bigger ones.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!

Monday, January 1, 2018


So, I decided I miss singing on the regular. And a lot of really cool indie/fan creators are putting out new songs and the instrumentals for them. So this year -- at least once in a while -- I want to start putting out covers of songs.

Sometimes fan-created, sometimes better-known, always with the awareness that everything I do will be slowly improving over time (I hope).

To wit, entry 1: "Doki Doki Forever," originally by the amazing OR3O★, who's shared her instrumental for this song. The original version features four amazingly talented women on vocals (the composer included), so please go check it out!

Mike Dent has been coaching me in the art of better mixing. So this is way better than when he first heard it, and I'm hoping to improve going forward. As for the visual -- it's mostly a placeholder, and the pics are by me... uh, IDK why the image itself is so ding-dang small, but I'm writing this a few minutes from 2018 so let's just roll with it.

I am eyeing a Bendy and the Ink Machine tune next. If you guys enjoyed, please consider subscribing to my channel, as I'm gonna try to make better use of it going forward.

And let's all start today on the right foot, and pray God 2018 doesn't suck. Yeah? Yeah.


Do you enjoy posts like these? Want to see more genre fiction analysis, along with new fiction and writing advice? Drop me a donation on Ko-fi! Each month, I'll have new fiction, essays, and other goodies for my supporters. Even small donations help me do more of what I do and expand my reach, so I can help people like us do more of what we love. Thanks in advance!