Review of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, season 1 (2019, TV)

Review of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS, season 1

Michael Pitts

LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Blur Studio, distributed by Netflix, 2019.

Currently in production of its second season, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS is an anthology series produced by Netflix. Bringing together the talents of different casts and creative teams, the series consists of standalone episodes exploring diverse themes of the science fiction genre. These episodes, which do not exceed 20 minutes in length, reflect disparate genres such as cyberpunk, alternate history, and dystopia while covering themes from AI and transhumanism to colonization. They raise, for example, questions concerning the future of humankind, the destructive consequences of colonial expansion and capitalism, the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the privatization of space travel, and the dilemmas of robotic consciousness. Yet, while the series offers some interesting explorations within each of these fields of interest, it is problematic in its traditional framing of issues related to sex and, more specifically, its catering to the male gaze.

A re-imagining of Tim Miller and David Fincher’s initial plan to remake the animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal (1981), Love, Death & Robots continues its predecessor’s efforts of legitimizing adult-oriented animation and genre fiction. Like Heavy Metal, it utilizes advanced and diverse animation techniques, pushing the genre into new territory. Led by Miller’s Blue studio, which is known for its hyper-realistic, video-game style aesthetics, and produced using a variety of animation tools, the show is characterized by vivid, realistic details and cutting-edge animation. Uniting the disparate aesthetic styles of the episodes is their depiction of tropes common to the underground comics of the 1970s, which in turn influenced the production of Heavy Metal. Like the 1970s adult-oriented graphic fiction that skirted censorship rules, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS centers explicit content including sexuality and violence.

It is this intermingling of sex and violent content that makes the series, like its comics and Heavy Metal predecessors, problematic. Like Heavy Metal, the program caters to heteronormative male viewers through its presentation of sex and the female body. Though it occasionally presents non-normative sexuality, for example, these portrayals of queer characters frame female bodies within patriarchal conceptions of desirability. Each female character populating these episodes acts, as Laura Mulvey puts it in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “as an erotic object for the spectator within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (62). Women in LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS are therefore predominantly portrayed in accordance with the desires of a heteronormative male audience. Also, like Heavy Metal, the program frequently depicts violence towards women and emphasizes gratuitous sexual and violent details. Female characters, for example, are brutally hunted and murdered, such as in “The Witness,” or brutalized and mutilated, such as in “The Secret War.” Other episodes, such as “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” are suddenly interrupted by sex scenes clearly developed and included to appease heterosexual male viewers. While the program caters to the male gaze and includes toxic portrayals of women and violence, a few episodes do divert from this patriarchal framing of sex and gender. “Good Hunting,” for example, follows the plight of a female huli jing or fox spirit as she escapes sex slavery and mounts an attack upon the patriarchy in early 20th-century Hong Kong. Another episode, “Helping Hand,” similarly diverts from this catering to heteronormative male viewers in its centering of a female protagonist who demonstrates incredible courage and strength in the face of eminent danger. Overall, however, though it includes these limited, non-patriarchal presentations of female characters, Love, Death & Robots problematically frames women, sex, and violence.

To a limited extent, the show also comments on other issues such as colonialism and capitalism. “Good Hunting,” for example, emphasizes the legacy of colonization and its effect upon women through its portrayal of women sold as sex slaves as a result of colonialism. “Suits,” on the other hand, undermines traditional stories of American individualism and self-reliance by revealing that the farmers upon which the episode centers are actually colonizers attacking the indigenous alien species of the planet they desire to control. “Helping Hand” imagines the consequences of corporate space exploration upon astronauts whose labor is exploited at great cost. As these examples illustrate, the series builds upon pre-existing trends and themes of science fiction and occasionally offers interesting insights into topics pivotal to the future of humankind such as environmental concerns, space travel, labor practices, the expansion of human civilization, and transhumanism. Overall, then, while LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS offers occasional commentary on issues common to science fiction, the brevity of its episodes, its patriarchal framing of issues related to sex and violence, and its catering to the male gaze limit its potential as an innovative work of SF.


Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminism and Film Theory, edited by Constance Penley, Routledge, 1988, pp. 57-68. 

Review of Wade Roush’s Twelve Tomorrows

Review of Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush

Dominick Grace

Wade Roush, editor. Twelve Tomorrows. MIT Press, 2018. Paperback, 276 pp, $19.95. ISBN 9780262535427.

Twelve Tomorrows is volume five in a series begun in 2011 with TRSF, and the first to be published in book form rather than as an issue of Technology Review magazine. A more accurate if less streamlined title might be Eleven Tomorrows and One Yesterday, as the book includes only eleven new stories, and a new retrospective on the life and career of Samuel R. Delany. The remit of the series, as explained on the series website is to offer “original stories that explore the role and potential impact of developing technologies in the near, and not-so-near future.” A Delany retrospective might not seem to be the ideal fit for that remit, since Delany’s importance is arguably more for his innovations in style and in social extrapolation, rather than specifically in speculation about scientific innovation, but on the other hand, he is one of SF’s major figures, and more can always be said about him. The eleven stories come from diverse hands, including several well-known SF names (e.g. Elizabeth Bear, Liu Cixin, Paul McAuley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Alastair Reynolds) as well as from upcoming figures and writers not usually associated with SF. The overall quality of the anthology is consistent, but perhaps more narrow in focus than its stated goal would suggest. While it is unsurprising that implications of computer technology innovations should loom large, the anthology would be more diverse and more fully meet its aim of speculation about developing technologies if the stories tackled a more broad range of topics. Roush indicates in his introduction that he generally banned dystopian stories because he likes his “SF with a dose of hopefulness. […] Pessimists don’t invent vaccines or build moon rockets [ix]; however, several of the stories here are more cautionary than celebratory, and a few are outright dystopian. 

Several are about AI, or variations thereof, again unsurprising at this juncture. One of the few overtly dystopian tales here, McAuley’s “Chine Life,” offers a far future in which AI has mostly supplanted humanity and has split into factions, one of which wants humanity eradicated and the other of which ostensibly wants to help, but literally colonizes the bodies of human beings in order to do so. McAuley here offers a neat sort of twist on invasion/colonization. Somewhat differently, Clifford V. Johnson’s “Resolution” (told in comics format, a welcome innovation, though John’s style is functional) offers something of a variation, imagining a future in which an alien invasion goes unnoticed because the aliens (who are apparently incorporeal) have passed themselves off as the AI the protagonist thought she had developed. Bear’s story, “Okay, Glory,” is about a wealthy recluse whose AI is hacked into believing there has ben a catastrophe in the outside world, so confines him to his impregnable fortress of a house, until he pays the hacker/extortionists $150,000,000. The cautionary tale about the susceptibility of computer tech to hacking is competently enough handled, if not new, but the story suffers from a major plot hole: if one expects to be paid a huge pile of money, one must leave the person they are extorting a way actually to get to the money. Sarah Pinsker’s “Caring Seasons” also involves smart tech (whether actually AI or not is not spelled out) run amok, as it presents a retirement facility in which the medical protocols designed to protect residents instead become the tools that imprison them. J.M. Ledgard’s “Vespers” imagines the first interstellar spaceship, run by an AI that spends the story ruminating about its situation. Almost half the stories here, therefore, are essentially variations on a theme. As such, this group represents a suite of stories that might be considered in tandem in a classroom to discuss how SF deals with AI.

Most of the rest of the stories also play on the implications of computer tech, in one way or another. Ken Liu’s “Byzantine Empathy” presents an intriguing story about attempts to co-opt cryptocurrencies to serve charitable ends—or, conversely, to allow one charitable organization to become the most powerful charitable organization in the world—by melding social media and giving. Liu Cixin’s “Fields of Gold” (which might also be connected to the AI stories) posits that the accidental launch of a woman into space on a doomed voyage may become something that would unite the world in an attempt to reach the stars, but we ultimately learn that the real woman is long dead and replaced by a computer simulation, when the rest of Earth catches up and sends out a ship that can catch up to hers. Reynolds’s “Different Seas” carries remote control to an extreme by positing humanoid helpers that can be inhabited remotely to aid people in crisis. The story includes an ironic twist that is perhaps unnecessary. Malka Older’s “Disaster Tourism” might be seen as a complementary piece, as it involves the use of drones in rescue work, when an inexplicable infection breaks out.

Only the remaining two stories carry us any distance from computer tech, S.L. Huang’s “The Woman Who Destroyed Us,” and Okorafor’s punningly titled “The Heart of the Matter.” The former deals with a medical innovation that allows for the tweaking of brains, which can allow for the cure of mental conditions, or simply for self-improvement. Whether such tech makes one more truly oneself or whether it transforms people into something else—whether this is an advance created by a Frankenstein, or a genuine boon to humanity—is treated with some nuance. The story is neither a stereotypical warning about science daring to tread where it ought not, nor a paean to advancement, though it perhaps skews in the latter direction, as it is narrated from the point of view of a woman who initially views it as the former and hopes to destroy its creator but who comes ultimately to see value in the procedure. “The Heart of the Matter” explores age-old fear of scientific advancement by representing the replacement of a Nigerian President’s heart with an artificial one as something that inspires superstitious fear in some—a fear exploited by a would-be usurper, who takes advantage of credulous equations of new technology with witchcraft.

Overall, then, this is a strong volume that does indeed offer speculations about new and emerging technology. The stories are all solid, if thematically and stylistically for the most part fairly staid (I imagine many readers will have recognized familiar themes and plot points in the brief precis above). The book is possibly useful for a course on SF and tech, or on contemporary trends in SF.