Review of Another Life, season 1 (2019, TV)

Review of Another Life, season 1

Marta F. Suarez

Another Life, season 1. Halfire Entertainment, distributed by Netflix, 2019.

Another Life is a Netflix series currently awaiting the release of its second season. Its first season, released in 2019, consisted of ten 60-minutes episodes. The plot is quite straightforward and moves between a narrative on Earth and a narrative in space. In an unspecified year in the future, a mysterious alien device arrives on Earth and settles on an open field in the US. Six months later, the scientists are still looking for the purpose of the artifact, only establishing that it emits code to Pi Canis Majoris. Not wanting to wait any longer, the government sends an interstellar ship to the signal’s objective, hoping to make direct contact with the alien civilization. The expedition is led by Niko Breckinridge (Katee Sackhoff), newly appointed captain of the Salvare. Meanwhile, on Earth, her husband Erik Wallace (Justin Chatwin), continues to lead the research to decipher the code.

The series often nods to other sci-fi screen media, moving between echoing popular scenes, emulating genre styles, and replicating familiar narratives. Its serialised structure converges with an episodic approach that gives the series a pastiche feeling. Whereas the overall plot has striking similarities with the decoding plot of Contact (1997), Interstellar (2014), and Arrival (2016), the individual episodes approach a variety of styles, narratives, and sub-genres. For example, nods to sci-fi horror take inspiration from the aesthetics of Nightflyers (2018) and Prometheus (2012), including arachnids reminiscent of those in Starship Troopers (1997) or Lost in Space (1998). Alien (1979) is echoed several times throughout the series. Not only is the chestburster scene almost replicated, but the first scenes in the Salvare evoke those in the Nostromo, yet with a darker atmosphere. If in Alien the crew wakes up in a quiet and serene ship, emphasized by the soundtrack and long shots (as if not to disturb), in the Salvare, Niko wakes up alone and weakened, in close-ups that emphasise the discomfort and dutch angles that suggest that not all is well. As it turns out, the ship is not where it should be and the events will only take it further from Earth in a plot reminiscent of Event Horizon (1997), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), Stargate Universe (2009-2010), or Lost in Space (2018-). By the end of the season, Niko discovers that the alien race who sent the artifact, the Achaia, are decimating civilizations and implanting chips into hosts, connecting with core elements of The Mind Snatchers (1972) and the Goa’uld in the Stargate universes. The references are many and varied, making the series a kind of kaleidoscope where well-known tropes change shape but are still recognizable.

The originality of the series does not come from the plot. Indeed, some of it might result in clichés, and some of the characters are flat archetypes, with minimal internal conflict or character evolution except for Niko, Eric and the ship’s AI, William (Samuel Anderson). One of the key differences between this and other sci-fi crews assembled to go into space is their very young age, their diversity and the YA feel to the character-driven drama that they create. If in The 100 (2014-) the choice to depict younger characters is supported by the plot, in Another Life this decision brings a level of incoherence to the narrative, which suffers for it. The explanation, although given, contrasts with other aspects of the narrative. A member affirms that they have been chosen because their youth gives them the readiness to act, as opposed to a cautious disposition, which would characterize older crews. For the same reasons, space crews have abandoned uniforms, seen as outdated, and now are able to make their own fashion choices. Nevertheless, on Earth the military is still wearing uniforms, and all decision-makers are significantly older, which in a way contradicts the provided reasoning. It is also unclear why the crew only meet each other for the first time upon embarking on their voyage or why the former captain of the Salvare is part of the crew when he clearly is resentful of the change. The crew always questions the captain’s decisions, and actions are often rushed or merely illogical. The audience is left to wonder why the government has sent such an inexperienced group to make first direct contact with the alien life, whose intentions are unclear. The series’s focus on young and attractive characters and their interpersonal conflicts create narratives conventional in YA fiction, which contrasts with the space given to the internal conflicts of older characters.

The only other older member of the crew is First Officer Ian Yerxa (Tyler Hoechlin), the previous captain of the Salvare, who is killed almost immediately and replaced by his girlfriend, Cas Isakovic (Elizabeth Faith Ludlow). Michelle Vargas (Jessica Camacho) is the Communications Officer. Meanwhile, the engineering team is composed of lead engineer August Catawnee (Blu Hunt), Oliver Sokolov (Alex Ozerov) and computer engineer Javier Almanzar (Alexander Eling). The Salvare’s medic is Zayn Petrossian, a non-binary member of the crew portrayed by JayR Tinaco. Joining him in the medical bay is microbiologist Bernie Martinez (A.J. Rivera). Finally, accompanying the crew as a diplomat is the son of the US Secretary of Defence, Sasha Harrison (Jake Abel). On Earth, Eric looks after their daughter, Jana Breckinridge-Wallace (Lina Renna), and is often seen working alongside Dr Nani Singh (Parveen Dosanjh). The journalist Harper Glass (Selma Blair) provides conflict and creates tension. Overall, the characters among the young crew lack the depth of characterization that we see in Eric, Harper, Niko, or William. The dynamics between the latter two are probably the best element of the show at the narrative level. Designed not only to feel but also to combine the characteristics most appreciated by Niko, William becomes affectionate towards the captain in a relationship evocative of Her (2013). The dynamics in this relationship leads William to create another AI in search of love, complicating the matter further. For the rest of the crew, we are given little to no background story, being mostly differentiated by the way they dress and speak. There is a tendency to exposition and the dialogue often lacks subtext, breaking the script-writing rule of “show, don’t tell”. However, some of these characters have great potential. The show engages with issues of diversity, sexuality and gender in almost every episode. The guilt of the absent mother permeates Niko’s reflections about family, the engineers soon become a threesome, the non-binary medic has sexual relationships with the microbiologist, and questions of love and free will are part of a critical sub-plot with the ship’s AI. The ethnicity and cultural background of the characters is diverse, and although this does not materialize (yet) beyond the character design and into the plot, it is undoubtedly promising.

Audiences looking for a series with a robust scientific approach might be disappointed. The plot has some basic inaccuracies from the start. For example, they indicate that they miscalculated the distance to the objective because of dark matter, shown on screen as a dense thick grey cloud. Using high radiation in the ship kills alien life but is said to only impact the crew with infertility. Other elements that might feel incongruent relate to the dynamics in the ship, particularly concerning compliance to rules and following authority. The episodic structure puts the characters in situations that, for the most part, are a consequence of their own wrongdoings. We see members of the crew starting a mutiny, removing helmets in alien caves, smoking alien plants, or not using hazmat suits because the air is breathable. Because the transgressions towards leadership and regulations are so common and widespread, the audience might be left wondering how they have all been chosen for such a critical mission.

The series, therefore, is eclectic in its influences and genre, combining elements of sci-fi space travel, sci-fi horror, and teen drama, though it has issues regarding narrative coherence and scientific background. Nonetheless, the episodes could be used in a classroom environment for discussions surrounding race and gender representation, the portrayals of authority (and its failures), and moral “what would you do?” situations, of which there are plenty. For research purposes, the series might be of interest to those working on intertextuality, the portrayal of the female action hero, the ambiguity of the alien other, the fear of the unknown, reflections over the humanity of AI, the dangers of AI, and the intersections of gender and sexuality. Another Life is due to release its second season in Summer 2020. While receiving very low reviews for its narrative incoherence, these issues might yet be addressed in the new episodes. Maybe, after all, Another Life will get itself another life.

Review of Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

Review of The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction by Simone Caroti

Edward Carmien

Simone Caroti. The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. McFarland, 2015. Paperback. 252pp, $29.95. ISBN 978-0786494477. 

Simone Caroti memorializes Iain M. Banks in his dedication to The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. “To the Memory of Iain Menzies Banks (1954-2013). Thank you for everything, Sir.” As Banks fell ill and passed away unexpectedly, Caroti did not intend for his book to bear this inscription, but this text serves as an admirable cenotaph to Banks, taken from us with books unwritten and years unlived. In its eight chapters (and preface, introduction, conclusion, chapter notes, bibliography and index) Caroti presents what he promises: a critical introduction to this important writer’s Culture series. 

Like Caroti, I remember my first encounter with Iain M. Banks, if less clearly. Thirty years ago, as a graduate student in northwestern Ohio, I cracked open the first of the Culture novels, Consider Phlebas (1987). Caroti fell harder for Banks and his work than I did, for while I was immediately entranced by his take on space opera and aware something special was afoot in the field, Caroti decided upon his first reading of Banks to write a book. This is just that book. 

Caroti comprehensively surveys the dual nature of Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. Banks, who published novels without obvious SF content, added the ‘M’ when he published the first of the Culture series. By presenting Banks as an author who transgresses traditional categories, Caroti effectively introduces us to the narrow focus of his critical introduction. Here and elsewhere he demonstrates an excellent grasp of the existing work on Banks, especially that by John Clute, and on the directly related field of Utopian studies, the primary critical instrument he brings to bear on the Culture series. 

“1. Beginnings” surveys Banks’ early life and speculates about his drive to write. Caroti shows the Culture series, despite not the first of Banks’ work to appear in print, were written early in his writing career. Having found success with The Wasp Factory (1984), Banks rewrote and refined the early Culture novels. To the outside world, Banks’ science fiction seemed a new turn for the author. Caroti shows the centrality of the Culture as a created entity, Banks’ fictional expression of worldview that so distinguishes his work from American space opera. 

Caroti then addresses the individual works of the Culture series, starting with Consider Phlebas and how it helped redefine the space opera genre. He claims Banks “did reclaim the moral high ground for the left, and he did demystify the garish glamour of space opera…he also rejuvenated the entire subgenre…” (44). He later acknowledges that other authors had started this process before Consider Phlebas saw print. Caroti describes the critical context that shaped the novel as well as the novel’s impact on the sub-genre. 

In publication order the rest of the Culture series receives the same thorough treatment, from The Player of Games in Chapter 3 to the double-header of Chapter 4: The State of the Art and Use of Weapons, linked by the utopian agent Diziet Sma, an important figure in the Culture novels and in Banks’ expression of the utopian ideal. For while the people of the Culture are utopian, they have an activist branch called Contact, and a very activist group that handle Special Circumstances, or SC for short. 

SC interferes. The claim is, backed by the sentient super-minds of the Culture and their statistics, that interference helps and that more good comes from their dirty deeds than would result from doing nothing. Those raised in a utopia, Banks argues throughout his Culture novels, are singularly unsuited to espionage dirty-tricks. Illustrating Diziet Sma’s role as a recruiter of barbarian, non-utopian outsiders allows Caroti to observe Sma is “of the Culture, yes, but she’s also a citizen of the fringe, the place where utopia meets its twin, where the morally correct choice reshapes itself after every iteration…” (104). Banks presents interference as utopian, which as one might imagine requires a singular narrative rhetoric and as it happens one of the key features of the Culture series. 

Banks paused in his publication of the Culture series. The first set were rewrites of manuscripts he’d written before he broke in to the business with a “mimetic” text, The Wasp Factory. Prior to Excession (1996), addressed in Chapter 5, Banks took a six-year break in his Culture series production. It is here Caroti more fully addresses the issue of “The Culture as a Critical Utopia,” the chapter’s subtitle. It is here he most fully engages a critical discussion; calling some critics to task and valorizing others in how they have addressed (or failed to address) Banks and his Culture series. 

Chapters 6 and 7 return to more novel-centric discussion. Caroti paints Excession and Inversion (1998) as directional mirrors, one up and out, the other down and in, and he provides what a reader has come to expect in thoroughness and critical perspective as he does so. The following chapter focuses upon Look to Windward (2000), a title that references the same Eliot poem as Consider Phlebas. This novel’s publication date, subject matter, and the 9/11 attacks in the United States coincide closely enough to enable interesting commentary alongside Caroti’s continuing and highly effective analysis of the series in the context of critical utopia. Titled “The Encroachment of Reality,” this chapter ties to an additional layer of material, while remaining introductory in nature. 

The bookending of Eliot quotes might have served Banks as signposts where the Culture series begins and ends, but after a break of some years he produced three more novels: Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012). Discussion of these final Culture novels rounds out the book’s eighth chapter, with each receiving a thorough going-over that both contextualizes them and analyzes content. If a reader of the Culture series ever wondered why it never devolved into a “more of the same” exercise of mere formula, the answer is here: Banks always had literary purpose, and he did not repeat that purpose, or ask the same question twice. This made for readers always hankering for the next “M.” novel frustrating waits–once of six years, once of eight–but very rewarding reads. 

For the critic, new or otherwise, The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks serves as an excellent foundation, an introduction indeed. From it one finds numerous ways to travel further into not just utopian studies, but space opera. Very few readers of Banks’ Culture novels will leave without some new insight. 

Simone Caroti’s smoothly written, thoroughly researched and documented book serves as a monument to Banks and his Culture series. As a cenotaph it does not contain the mortal remains of Iain M. Banks, but expresses critical appreciation of his work, of the Culture, of artistic transgression that livens and renews a genre and subgenre. I recommend it both as a resource on Banks and as a model for others to follow, should they be taken, upon reading an author for the first time, with the urge to write a book.