Why you shouldn’t read SF reviews


A couple of things have happened this month in the world of SF, and both of them happened over at Netflix.  Disney and Comcast mouthpieces have been busy trashing Netflix and its properties.  There is a level of this that I am prepared to ignore, and even tolerate but I draw the line at criticism for cynical aims and a general lack of competence.  People assume that because SF has become more mainstream, that anyone with a degree in journalism is competent to deconstruct or critique it.  They think it’s ok to ignore the more than 100 years of SF lexicon.  There are plenty of people writing SF today who truly know nothing about the genre.  This represents a threat unto itself, and one I don’t intend to address here.  Now we have people who are busy on the internet trying to tell legions of people what’s good and what’s bad in SF.  Some are doing it because they legitimately believe their opinion is valid.  Others do it because they have likely been instructed to do so by their editors and by extension the executives who own their particular outlet.

My most recent encounters with reviews have all been aimed at Netflix. And after the heavy-handed harshness, and general lack of substantive criticism of the content, it made me wonder if this was more about corporate competition than an honest review for audiences.  I recently posted a rather hasty review after watching i09 spit out two reviews of “The Cloverfield Paradox” which had more to do with an apparent “bamboozle” they pulled off than anything to do with the film itself.  Honestly, who cares if they bought the film from Paramount for 50 million then surprised everyone with its airing which they announced during the Superbowl?  Who cares if Paramount made back their money on the deal?  Netflix does what a business is supposed to; they provided content for their customers.  So what is the problem?  Before I get into that I want to dissect the dreadful reviews that two Netflix properties received.

Yesterday “Altered Carbon” was reviewed by Adi Roberts at The Verge.  And in reading her review I got the sense that she not only didn’t watch the entire season of the show, but that she also picked up a copy of “Blade Runner” and “Neuromancer” on her way to work.  The entire show was reviewed through the lens of being a Cyberpunk show, and her only frame of reference for her review were those two works.  We’ll ignore for the time being that “Blade Runner” by its nature is a derivative work since it is based on the book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” written by Phillip K. Dick and published in 1968.  More than 15 years before the era of Cyberpunk.  We only mention it because she, and those she quotes accuse “Altered Carbon” of being just that. Derivative.  If we want to get technical, Dick didn’t create Cyberpunk.  If anything, Ridley Scott happened upon an aesthetic through the course of making a visually stunning film that would later be branded as cyberpunk.

The authors’ use of these two works as her reference indicates a lack of knowledge of the broader cyberpunk genre and worse, SF in general.  William Gibson is definitely one of the giants of Cyberpunk but he isn’t the whole genre. Walter Jon Williams, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, Michael Swanwick, and Pat Cadigan are all Cyberpunk authors of note.  Not one of them has produced a work that would fit neatly inside of the Gibson/Blade Runner mold.  To further illustrate the author’s lack of knowledge Gibson was quoted in the 1990 book by Larry McCaffery “Across the Wounded Galaxies (p. 144) as saying: “It’s (cyberpunk) mainly a marketing category- and one that I’ve come to feel trivializes what I do.  Tying myself to any label is unfair because it gives people preconceptions about what I’m doing.”

The very author whose work Roberts uses to dismiss “Altered Carbon”  not only enlightens us about the arbitrary nature of the cyberpunk label, but even goes so far as to express dissatisfaction with it being applied to him.  For the same reason that using the term to malign this film is pointless because it’s reductive.  The whole reason why this review is amateurish is that the author only offers her critique through a very narrow frame of reference.  If her knowledge extended beyond these two works at all, she might have thought twice about it.

Here are a few of her more flawed criticisms of the show:

Roberts accused “Altered Carbon” of using technology as a cudgel.  People seem to be blindsided by technology.  No, only the main character who spent 250 years sleeping is.  It isn’t the technology people are blindsided by, it’s the ever-deepening capacity for ill that is exposed as the story unfolds.  Unlike Blade Runner, which despite the main characters’ hardboiled detective trappings, is an assassin.  Kovacs, despite his early career as a terrorist and assassin, is a detective.  If we are seeing the story through his lens, then it stands to reason that he would be “blindsided” by the technology.  New uses have arisen since he’d been asleep, as well as new dynamics, as the exposition by Ortega in ep 1 would imply.

The show’s ideas about gender seem to be dated.  Considering the book was published in 2002, I would say the show is ahead of its time.  On at least 3 occasions supporting characters occupy a sleeve of the opposite gender.  Their loved ones interact with them in often intimate ways without giving any thought or demonstrating any discomfort at the idea.  “Altered Carbon’s” relationship and portrayal of gender identity is far more progressive than almost anything on television today.  If we want to talk about dated notions of gender norms and sexuality, how about that super date-rapey scene between Deckard and Rachel, a scene that didn’t exist in the book.  Talk about dated notions of gender and sexuality.

Roberts asserts that technology is a cudgel and that the Meths are just a rehash of rich people representing hackneyed concepts of class.  She completely blows by the technological concept of transmitting one’s consciousness via “needlecasting”.  The show explains early on that this technology mitigates the need for lengthy interstellar travel.  It is relevant to mention that only the rich, and the government have consistent access to this technology. 

Time is the mode of oppression in this version of future humanity.  Needlecasting reduces the need for interstellar travel while simultaneously allowing the user to appear anywhere in human-occupied space instantaneously.  Their consciousness is projected then downloaded into a local “sleeve” of their choosing.  The Protectorate (the government) has the same ability, via their elite forces known as C-TAC.  Soldiers can be cast to other worlds and downloaded into combat conditioned bodies and be ready to fight in short order.  Oppression isn’t just about making money while depriving others of it.  There is no single mode for achieving agency while denying others.  Altered Carbon takes the standard mode and ramps it up by injecting time and space into it as an element.  If the rich can’t be killed, then they can’t be replaced. Not even by their children.  And they are free to exploit those weaker than they for as long as they can remain alive.  I found this aspect of class themes to be fairly original.  At least more original than Roberts gives it credit for. 

C-TAC has a virtually unlimited supply of hardened and trained soldiers that can appear in problem areas and neutralize threats in extremely short periods of time.  There are several scenes in the series in which the police and the Protectorate demonstrate a level of subservience and deference to the wealthy.  This leads one to believe that governments are simply an extension of the upper class and one that is used to further their aims, or at least look the other way.

She says: Early cyberpunk posits that technology will shape humanity, but that ordinary people will also shape technology, and that much of the future will simply be a remixed version of the present.”  Would love to see what “early cyberpunk work said this.  But assuming she’s right, she completely ignores the impact of immortality bestowed upon those with great wealth, has on society.  By lauding “The Hunger Games” for its originality and dismissing “Altered Carbon” for its lack of, pretty much destroys Robert’s credibility.

There is no greater irony than watching someone tell someone else they’ve missed the point, while themselves, missing the point.  Roberts refers to the lack of incisiveness in “Altered Carbon” while praising  “Hunger Games” for its class themes and “futuristic” weirdness.  But this is unsurprising considering how obvious and heavy-handed those themes are applied in that series.  Also unsurprising is the fact that Roberts completely misses the concentrically layered class themes present in “Altered Carbon”.

Finally, Roberts refers to “Altered Carbon” as a rehash, pretty much in her opening salvo.  Comparing the show to “Blade Runner” or “Neuromancer” is like comparing “Remains of the Day” with “Downton Abbey”.  If Roberts had a broader knowledge of Cyberpunk she would know there are certain themes and elements that make the genre what it is.  Instead, she bemoans any trace of similarity between the show and “Blade Runner”.  She made no attempt to delve into the story beyond what was visible from the surface, so it comes as no surprise that her understanding of the genre is rudimentary at best.  Because there were flying cars?  Gauss weapons? Holograms and virtual advertisements?  Not unlike Kovacs, it seems Miss Roberts became overwhelmed with that particular aspect and simply shut down, without offering anything in the way of real critique.

The only thing that is prefab kitted (her words) about “Altered Carbon” is Robert’s expectation of it.  She either spent years fetishizing a film and her only real connection to the genre is through that.  Or she simply lacks the knowledge of the genre to properly contextualize anything that happens within it.

The lack of knowledge of these reviewers is problematic.  iO9 completely trashed “The Cloverfield Paradox” while offering rave reviews for “The Last Jedi”, a film that had not a single ounce of coherent plot line and not a single line of dialogue that was competently written.  The Verge now has its hit pieces lined up and taking aim at Netflix.  Yes, the platform, not the properties.  Which, signifies to me that the media giants that own these outlets have an agenda above and beyond putting great content reviews online.  They are trying to tell you what is good. 

 “The Last Jedi” underperformed in international audiences, which leads one to believe that absent the appeal to adolescent sentimentality, the film was just awful.

It’s no surprise that Disney’s surrogates, like io9 are lashing out at platforms like Netflix.  The Verge and Polygon both took aim at Netflix as well.  Those two outlets have Comcast Ventures as a major funder via Vox Media.  What do these media outlets have to gain?  The easy explanation would be that they could seem edgy by crapping on content that is otherwise praised.  Or it could be that for a far more controversial work they are simply picking a side.

Given the lack of credibility of the authors of these hit pieces, I am inclined to believe a far more cynical objective is in play.  Polygon put fort a video game reviewer to trash “The Cloverfield Paradox” and it was clear he had an agenda since his only problem with it was that Netflix bought it.  Despite “The Last Jedi” being the highest-grossing movie of all time, the studios are worried because it still didn’t meet expectations.  They have the best actors, the best writers, the best vfx artist, and one of the most honored franchises in history.  And still, the film fell short of expectations.  This has to do with the increased value of streaming platforms.  The films we watch on Netflix don’t have to be great.  And they are now in the habit of funding their own projects and they are achieving fantastic results on a fraction of the budget.  That’s what the studios don’t want you to see.  The value for the cost, both to the consumer and to Netflix is better than traditional studio films.  They are spending less and offering more.  Not just in terms of volume of content but in quality as well.  I would watch “The Cloverfield Paradox” one hundred times before I would ever watch “The Last Jedi” again.  Other films like “The Infinity Chamber”, “The Ritual”, and “Spectral”, aren’t great but they are good. 

Corporations are not mysterious creatures and neither are their motives.  Likely they figured out it was cheaper to pay people to tell us how bad other movies were than it was spending money convincing you that their own movies are good.  The people who are content to push these films on you are not qualified to, or at least appear not to be.  Like any other news source, we have to think critically about what reviewers are telling us.  We have to look at their motivations and pay attention to who owns their publication.  If we don’t, they will eventually dismantle SF if we let them.  And if you aren’t sure who you should listen to, then just listen to yourself.  Watch what you like and seek out that which entertains you.  And certainly don’t rely on someone else to tell you what is good and what isn’t.  If the media companies are going to try and tell you what to think about SF they should send someone who clearly has a deeper understanding of the material.

Most reviewers from large media outlets seem to be taking their copy from their editors.  The editors, in turn, appear to be taking their copy from executives. None of that copy is rooted in any objective criteria with which to judge how good or bad a film or show is. And they are exploiting this in order to achieve a monetary objective.  Corporations are the last entities that should be held up as bastions of good taste or artistry. The motto of the day has always been: “If it’s good, sell it. If it’s bad sell it anyway.” So getting some author with a completely subjective pov to do a hatchet job on a show is just them trying to tell you what’s good without offering any real reason. The reviews are simply advertisements designed to appeal to the emotions of the consumer. It is not journalism.

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